Let Love Live

I’m sure you, too, are amazed at scenes like this: You’re watching your child at play, or a puppy running around the yard. Or you’re walking in the woods and see a kit (baby fox) or a butterfly.

 

Or—I am sitting in bed, a magazine on my lap. My wife is next to me, doing a puzzle. In between us, near our feet, are two cats, sleeping. I look at them, at all of us, and feel awe. Ok, the cats are simply sleeping, my wife, puzzling. But there is such trust on that bed. These beings want to be here, with me, with each other. They care. Or we care.

 

One of the cats, Milo, starts twitching, as if dreaming. He wraps his front paws around and over his head, as if to hide. I lean over and touch his back, and the shaking stops. He relaxes, releases his head and turns over, showing me his belly. There is such vulnerability there, delicacy. I give myself to you, and you give it back, enhanced.

 

I am reading an article in the September issue of Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom For Our Time. It is a wonderful conversation between two Buddhist meditators and educators, Sharon Salzberg and Bell Hooks, about “The Power of Real Love.” Sharon talks of growing up thinking that love is something given by others, but she now realizes it is an ability, a capacity, maybe even a responsibility we have in ourselves. Bell Hooks talks of love as residing in our actions, not just in our feelings. But in this day, in this political climate, where fear and hate are so frequently in the news—How do we love? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and care when the forces of domination seem to surround us?

 

Actions taken out of love can be the most difficult and painful in our lives—and the most liberating. There is more power in the touch of love than can be conceived and dreamed in fear and hate. Fear can be a message to wake up and observe more closely or to turn away. But it is built on opposition, and is unstable. It lasts only as long as we maintain a threat or an enemy, and a wall. Those outside the wall are rejected; those inside the wall are suspect. Such fear needs our compliance with it in order to succeed.

 

And this is our choice each day. You, me, all of us still have this choice. Will we touch and be touched by what is happening to those who share the earth with us? Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn what is going on, to care and to act? Will we allow love to live in us, or will we cover our heads and hearts with fear?

 

**And thank you to Bell Hooks and Sharon Salzberg (and Lion’s Roar) for the conversation and teachings.

The Impoverishment of Main Street Tax Plan

The destructive Republican denial of health care bills have temporarily been defeated, so now the administration and many Republican congressional leaders are calling for tax cuts and a revised tax code. Once again, they are dangling in front of Americans something many of us desire, in this case more money and a simpler tax code, but the reality is something far different.

 

Remember, these are the same people who proposed health care legislation supported, at one point, by only 12% of Americans. It would have denied health insurance to up to 32 million people now covered by the ACA and undermined it for millions more. In this tax bill, they are taking aim once again at the economic life and health care of most Americans in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy. If it’s a new day, and these Republicans are in power, it’s a new assault on what so many of us hold dear.

 

First of all, the legislation was conceived behind closed doors by only a small group of Republicans, who are also planning how to prevent a Democratic filibuster. Secondly, the bill would flatten the number of tax brackets from seven to three and give tax cuts mainly to the rich and corporations. The poorest of us would actually face a 2% rate hike (somewhat mitigated by an increase in the standard deduction and a larger child tax credit), while the rich get a 4% cut. It would cut the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax. Mr. T says he would not benefit from this tax cut, but depending on what his actual income is, he could be saving millions.

 

Possibly to get the support of Senator Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans, the bill includes a provision opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

 

The tax plan would cost possibly $2.4 trillion over ten years. How would it be paid for? Supporters say the decrease in taxes would lead to an increase in the economy and thus in government income. But this is highly questionable. The trickle down theory, which states that giving more money to the rich would lead to more jobs and income for the poor and middle class, did not work in the Reagan or Bush years or any other time. President Bush greatly increased the deficit (by 2019, his cuts would be responsible for 40% of the national debt) and his economic policies led to the great recession of 2007, a great increase in unemployment and income inequality. President Reagan did cut taxes in his first year in office. But tax revenues dropped precipitously, the debt increased to almost $3 trillion, unemployment and income inequality soared⏤but he had enough sense to actually eliminate many of his tax cuts when he realized his tax plan was causing dire consequences.

 

This new tax proposal would lead to an increase in the disparity between rich and poor and would raise the deficit considerably just when the government is calling for increases in defense spending, and infrastructure in the US badly needs an overhaul.

 

Democrats say Republicans plan to pay for the tax cuts by cutting the programs the poor and middle class depend on: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. ⏤just as, back in May, they planned to do with the budget. As Bernie Sanders put it, the plan would be Robin Hood in reverse: taking from the poor and middle class to give to the rich. The tax cut would be the vehicle for the few to undermine the rights, power, and freedom of the many. It must be opposed.

Especially Today, We Need to Study History

I used to teach a high school class on the history of human ideas. I noticed that the students in the class often had trouble accepting that people were ever substantially different than who they are now—that society could be very different, beliefs very different, life very different. Or if they could accept the differences, they couldn’t feel the difference. We were always what we are now. We move through the world as if what is in front of us now was always there in the past.

 

I myself wonder about this. How different would I feel about life if I had lived in Sumeria in 3500 BCE or India in 450 BCE? Even though I traveled a lot when I was younger and even lived in places very different from where I live now, I still have only a limited idea of how different the differences between cultures and times in history could be.

 

But I know that without my experiences in other cultures, and without some knowledge of history, my understanding of the world today would be severely limited. And even more, my understanding of what is possible would be limited. History is not simply a timeline of events and people. It is a panorama of possibilities and lessons about what it means to be human.

 

Yet, for several years, schools have been forced to decrease the study of history, and the humanities, in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). This is not simply an attempt to counter a decrease in interest in the sciences. The concern for developing student understanding of themselves as whole people is being replaced with a concern for meeting the expectations of employers. The New York Times reported that several Republican politicians have portrayed liberal arts education as expendable, a frivolous luxury taxpayers should not be expected to pay for.

 

In a time when many politicians and news outlets try to wrap our minds in false news, and shock us into inaction and compliance, we desperately need an understanding that these events we live through—this is all history. Situations change. There are truths. Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (and others) famously said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” or allow it to be repeated. Without studying history, my understanding not only of what once was but what might be, or of how political and social structures have changed and will continue to change, would be constricted. And, thus, my belief in and ability to engage in political action would be constricted. Without a sense of history and truth, we cannot understand what is real. We cannot influence history in a conscious, deliberate, and liberating way if we do not feel that we are part of making it.

 

So one element of the study of history in schools must include listening for the souls of those who came to this earth before us, as well as those we share the planet with now. It must include lessons in empathy and compassion, so students can psychologically place themselves, as much as is possible and appropriate, into the historical situation studied. After immersing students in studying facts about a time in history, a teacher could lead them in imaginatively picturing themselves in a specific situation in that time period, like attending the Ekklesia, or Assembly of male citizens (the Congress) in the Athens of 450 BCE, or of participating in the demonstration in 1917 in Washington, D. C. led by the National Woman’s Party, to win women the right to vote. Ninety-seven suffragists were arrested during the protest for “obstructing traffic.”

 

Teachers can ask students to pick a spot in the town or city they live in, and then research, create a timeline of how the spot looked in the past. They can decide on the dates and number of intervals to portray, maybe starting 600 years ago. This is one way to actually feel how and that change occurs.

 

Even more, ask students, on the first day of classes: What are the biggest problems you see in the world today? After sharing these, ask: which of these problems is central? In my history class, the final assessment entailed choosing one problem and following it through history, and in the different cultures we studied. They would have to describe and analyze the nature and extent of the problem, and give an overview of the beliefs and conditions (social, technological, religious, philosophical, etc.) that gave rise to it. In this way, their own questions became the heart of the class.

 

Another element of the study of history is confronting the ethical questions that abound in our lives. Factual questions in schools cannot always be disconnected from ethical ones without paying a price a society can ill afford. Questions about the science of atoms, for example, can be followed with the questions of how or if such knowledge should be used. In LACS (the school where I taught for 27 years), one teacher, Chris Sperry, taught a wonderful course called “Facing History and Ourselves,” an in-depth inquiry into the holocaust, not just through a textbook linking of dates and events, but through letters, news accounts, photos and eyewitness testimony, novels and stories, psychological studies and poetry. Students put themselves into the issues of the time period in order to understand how they would have felt and acted, and thus have a better idea how they might feel and act in today’s world.

 

Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, aims to help us do just that, to take part deliberately in shaping history, so we, together, will write a history of saving democracy from the tyranny which now imperils it. One lesson is “Do not obey in advance.” Do not believe, do not follow, do not let fear overwhelm us just because it comes from an authority.

 

And ”Defend Institutions.” Do not deceive yourself into thinking that any institution, political, social, or educational will continue to exist just because it “always” has existed. Do not imagine that what protects, feeds, listens to us now will do so in the future. There are no institutions without people supporting them.

 

Republican politicians have been working to suppress the vote and undermine the institutions of our democracy. They have been working to eliminate citizens of color from State voting roles, demanding means of identification some voters do not have, in order to make it more difficult for them to vote. They are attacking public schools, the EPA, the free press. Right now Sinclair Media, through the collusion of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, is attempting to circumvent rules protecting competition and diversity in the media. They are aiming to expand its reach into 72% of American households, mostly through getting control of local media, in order to broadcast Trump propaganda. (Congress this week will be discussing whether to keep Pai as FCC Chairman. Consider calling your Congressperson to express opposition to Pai & the expansion of Sinclair Media.) In times like these, we must defend our institutions.

 

Snyder warns us to “Beware the one party state.” “Take responsibility for the face of the world.” And “Beware paramilitaries.” Beware militarization. Beware the use of generals in the political sphere of the government. Read the book. It is short. It is one small way to take a big step.

 

It is too easy to forget that history is the story of all of us. It is a tale about relationships, not just dates, and not mysterious “historical forces.” It is a tale of human suffering caused not just by weather and environment, but by humans. And it is a tale of love, caring, insight as well as greed and delusion. It is about the whole reality of human life and how to be humane, how to recognize the humanity of all of us. And only when the teaching of history speaks to the whole reality of human life will it help students contribute to improving that life. In this time in history, our continued history depends upon how well we learn and teach these lessons.

I Can’t Believe It

I look at the new Graham-Cassidy health care bill that was proposed in the Senate and have trouble believing any politician would propose such legislation at all, let alone four times this year. It is a slightly changed version of previous examples of Republican denial of health care legislation that were unsuccessful, except this time, it gives more power to individual states to determine the final shape health care will take.

 

15 million people could lose their health care immediately under this bill, 32 million by 2027. This does not include all the people whose insurance rates would go up so much that the quality of their lives would be undermined. The bill would destroy the protections against insurance companies denying coverage for people with preexisting conditions, or raising lifetime caps on payments or raising premiums exponentially. It would cut Medicaid. Almost one-half of births in the US and one-half of the people covered by Medicaid are children, 14% are people with disabilities. It would cut funding for Planned Parenthood and change where federal health care funding goes, taking it from blue states to give to red ones. [I don’t even want to get into how Medicare and other social programs are under the gun in this bill and Republican budget plans.]

 

Why propose legislation that is so blatantly wrong, so blatantly opposed to the best interests of most Americans, and do it again and again? Do they actually think it would be good for the country? Or is it, as many have suggested, a cynical political move, an attempt to deliver a promise to their constituents to repeal anything with President Obama’s name on it? Are they doing it to serve the interests of the super rich who pay for their campaigns and whose interests they primarily serve? Do they think if Medicaid is cut, there will be money to enable tax cuts to the wealthy in the budget?

 

If they are doing it because they think it will serve the interests of their constituents, then I’m really confused. I understand that red state politicians and voters might be happy to take money away from blue states. But other than that, people will be hurt by this bill whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

 

I think they are either hiding the intent of the bill or they believe the government has no role to play in delivering or protecting health care—or the health—of people. They believe that the best way to serve others is to do nothing to help them. They believe only if a person can pay for it do they deserve it. They believe the only responsibility each person has regarding others is to protect one’s own self-interest. The only value of others is what they can get for you or how they can serve you. The people who have power and money deserve that power and money. Thus, politicians only have one role—to protect the interests of the rich.

 

This leaves each of us isolated behind a wall of our own imagining, and the only protection we have is the power of the guns we own or control. This is not the sort of nation I support or think most Americans believe in. We’re better than this. We’re not just creatures isolated from others by the way we think of them. When I look within, I find others at the depths of who I am, not as objects to use but as fellow beings I care about and who care about me.

 

Many Republicans have been lying about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) for years. They have been saying Obamacare takes away choice, isn’t working and is causing unaffordable rate increases, when in fact it is working (although it needs fixing). There have been rate hikes, but those hikes are below the levels that existed before the ACA. For example, according to a Forbes magazine report on statistics by the US Department of Health and Human Services, premium rate hikes from 2010 to 2015 were below those common in earlier years, especially 2004 to 2010. And the increases that have been observed are partly due to efforts by Republican politicians to cause those rate hikes.

 

How have many Republican politicians tried to undermine the ACA? Let’s go back to 2014-15, to Marco Rubio and other Republicans, who attacked what are called “risk corridor” federal payments. The ACA is meant to cover everyone. One fear of proponents of the ACA was that there would be too many sick people on the roles of insurance companies and too little money from premiums, so the ACA was structured to use federal funds to cover the risks (or “risk corridors”) undertaken by insurance companies. Republicans, however, fought against these payments and in 2014 inserted a provision into a spending bill to reduce the risk payments. Because of these attacks by Rubio and company, only 13% of what insurance companies were expecting was paid in 2015. Insurance companies then had to raise rates to make up for this deficit.

 

President Trump further worked to destabilize the ACA by threatening to withhold subsidies to help poorer Americans pay their premiums. Because of this threat, insurance companies talked about possibly raising premiums.

 

The ACA has been met with distortions and/or lies ever since it was first proposed. We could go back to 2009 and Sarah Palin’s false claims that Democrats were trying to create “death panels” in the new health care law (the ACA) to determine if seniors and the disabled were worthy of care. In recent weeks, there have been claims that Democrats rushed through the ACA without hearings and were just as secretive as Republicans have been in the house and Senate. Wrong. Do your own fact checking (with reliable information data bases).

 

The Republicans, from day one, excluded Democrats from playing a role in crafting any of their 2017 health care bills. They debated behind closed doors and held no hearings. They tried to rush through their bills before the CBO could analyze the legislation or voters organize (although they didn’t succeed in this effort), or sometimes even allow Senators to fully read the bill. They initiated a “reconciliation” process in the Senate that limits debate to 20 hours, limits Democrats from adding any substantive amendments. And instead of the normal procedure, where such major legislation would require 60 votes to pass, they would only need a simple majority to pass their bill.

 

In contrast, the ACA was debated in three House committees and two in the Senate. It was subject to hours of bipartisan debate that allowed for amendments. The contents of the bill were provided to members of both parties throughout the debate process. It took nine months to pass and, don’t forget, it was based on a model developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and pushed by Romney to become policy in Massachusetts. (And if you want another example of Republican distortions of the latest bill, listen to Jimmy Kimmel’s piece on You Tube about his interactions with Senator Cassidy.)

 

The ACA is not perfect and not the best imaginable legislation. It is complex and cumbersome. But millions of people are insured now that wouldn’t have been otherwise. There are now federal protections for individuals with preexisting conditions, for comprehensive coverage, etc, that weren’t there before. And it is clear that Republican politicians have been working to demonize Obamacare or drive up the premiums so more people will lose or dislike their insurance and thus support Republican efforts to repeal it.

 

If you are concerned about health care, about economic freedom or equity, concerned about the wellbeing of family members, neighbors, your business and the future of this country, please speak up. Call your Senators, and especially call Republican Senators and tell them what you think of their bill, write letters, protest in any way you can. Try to wake up their better nature. The health and wellbeing of a majority of Americans is on the line.

 

*Update: Senator John McCain announced today (Friday, 9/22), that he will oppose the bill. One more Republican is needed to stop the legislation (for now).

Some phone numbers to call:

Capito, West Virginia: 202 224 6472

Collins, Maine: 202 224 2523

McCain, Arizona: 202 224 2235. Thank him for coming out against the bill.

Murkowsky, Alaska: 202 224 6665

Natural and Human Disasters

I had planned to post a more relaxing, reflective blog, but the latest reports from Florida stopped me. The suffering I see on the news is so powerful that I can almost know what it is like for my own home and life to be threatened. I feel my heart beating more quickly, thoughts race, and the world seems darker, like the storm clouds are racing towards me, not Florida.

 

This is made worse by hearing about the fires on the West coast and memories of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. It is made worse by the political and social disasters, of the hate riot in Charlottesville, and the human disaster, the prejudices, shortsightedness, lack of empathy and caring expressed by the President’s response to Charlottesville, his actions to end DACA, and his first trip to Texas after Harvey. It can feel like the earth itself has lost its center, weeping one minute, angry the next. And yet here, right now, in central New York, it is cool and beautiful.

 

These physical hurricanes make the greed and shortsightedness crystal clear. Before Harvey, the Washington Post and other reputable news organizations reported that the President proposed cutting funding for FEMA, for long term preparedness for disasters; for HUD, which helps rebuild homes, parks, and hospitals; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which does crucial research and applies that research to help coastal residents prepare for disasters. In the middle of August, he signed an executive order which, along with other things, rolled back standards set by President Obama requiring that federal infrastructure projects take climate change into account. During the election, he claimed, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that global warming was a myth perpetuated by China. Despite denying later on that he said this, he still nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

 

And all along, the number and severity of weather disasters have been increasing. According to NOAA, the number of weather-related disasters which caused a billion dollars or more in damage have increased from 5.5 per year, starting in 1980; then for the last 5 years of this study, 2012-2016, the average was 10.6. This year might exceed that. Yet, despite his denials and his proposed cuts to government services, he says to the people of Houston that he cares about their well-being. His supporters, like Rush Limbaugh, even say that the press is hyping, exaggerating the dangers of Irma “to advance [a] climate agenda” and create panic in order to sell products. And then he leaves Florida.

 

Other Republicans say “don’t bring up Global Warming” during a hurricane, don’t politicize the suffering from these natural events. I agree that our first priority should be safety. But after that, understanding why the number of natural disasters are increasing is crucial to preparing for and creating policies to slow down our deteriorating climate. We must take into account how the increased temperature and water vapor over the Caribbean and Gulf, due to Global Warming, are adding fuel to the storms. To ignore global warming is like saying don’t take facts into consideration when you think. It is like the President and his cohorts are saying: Don’t think rationally. Don’t care about others. Don’t consider the implications of our policies.

 

The timing of these hurricanes, after so many other human hurricanes and disasters, makes crystal clear just how lacking in foresight, empathy, and understanding, just how delusional these politicians are. They themselves are a hurricane wind trying to devastate the economic stability and the remnants of political power that remain in the hands of the poor and middle class. As investigative journalist Naomi Klein pointed out, they are using natural, corporate and politician-created forms of disaster to get us to feel fear and accept or ignore policies that we would never accept otherwise. But hurricanes devastate the world for everyone.

 

So, please. We all have to help the people of Florida, Louisiana and Texas in any way we can. But the best way to help them long term, and help us all, is to learn all we can of the science of global warming. Practice compassion and mindfulness to keep our thinking as clear as possible. Call out politicians to stop the policies based on hate, short-term greed, and denial of science. Give the EPA back to scientists who know what they’re doing. Give to environmental organizations and those working to end this disaster of an administration. Vote, Demonstrate. Join with others who are caring people. To recover long term from these physical disasters we will have to put aside differences and work together to end this political disaster.

Charlottesville, Hate and Delusion

I have never posted two blogs in one day, but after yesterday’s violence in Charlottesville, I feel a need to do so. My first was on how to begin the school year.

 

But this blog⏤this blog is from feeling this violence and this administration is too much. Almost every day this Republican administration, this President, commits an outrage that would have brought down other administrations—lies, tweets, Presidential actions, possibly colluding with a foreign government to interfere in the election, taking vacations to his own golf course and paying himself for staying there with taxpayer money, our money, firing the head of the FBI and possibly interfering and trying to stop the FBI and other government investigations, limiting the EPA’s efforts to protect us from pollution and global warming, attempting to sell off (privatize) public schools and the war in Afghanistan, attacking voting rights, attacking the free press and free speech, attacking Muslims, people of color, attacking women and people with disabilities, attacking most every American by trying to force down our throats health care legislation that would undermine or deny health care to millions. The list goes on and on.

 

But Charlottesville—this makes the threat to this nation abundantly clear. At least three people were killed, 35 injured.  White supremacists and people who admire Nazis, march, the biggest such march in decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center called it the “largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades.” Finally, T gets a march of his supporters that is, actually, bigger than any other march, and, hopefully, this will bring him and his administration down.

 

Charlottesville represents the administration’s collusion with hate and delusion. At an address to reporters at his golf resort in N. J., he speaks of “hatred, bigotry and violence” on “many sides.” And he fails to call the actions terrorism. He fails to distinguish between the group that killed people and consciously precipitated violence and the people who demonstrated against such incitements.

 

He called out and condemned car bombs and cars and trucks running down people in France and England. But here in the US he suddenly can’t speak the word ‘terrorism’. It sticks in his throat. Even Speaker of the House, Republican Paul Ryan, condemned the marchers who precipitated the violence, but not Mr. T. And former KKK leader David Duke reminds the President of who put him in office.

 

Mr. T’s more non-violent supporters try to claim the violence in Charlottesville is a fluke. They ask: Why don’t “you” criticize Muslim violence? According to a Politifact report on 2/6/17, Mr. T commented that the US news media reports on terrorist attacks was “dishonest.” It supposedly had “gotten to the point where it’s [terrorist attacks are] not even being reported.” He told us then that there was so much more extremist violence happening and we were not safe. But, of course, the violence committed by Muslims from other nations is and was being constantly reported, maybe even too much so. And as Democracy Now, CNN, and other respected media have reported, if there wasn’t any such violence, Mr. T and his associates would manufacture “fake news” to make us think there was. For example, remember Kellyanne Conway talking about a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never took place. This violence is not a fluke. It has been inflamed by this administration after building for years.

 

According to a New York Times piece, since 9/11 right-wing extremists have averaged 337 attacks per year. The SPLC has documented 1064 incidents of swastikas in schools, racist taunts, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny in the first month after the election alone. Slate is keeping an updated list of such incidents. Yet, the Department of Homeland Security withdrew $400,000 in funding for the group Life After Hate which tackles radical white nationalist violence. The President fails to recognize what law enforcement agencies throughout the nation recognize: “right-wing, anti-government extremism is the leading source of ideological violence in America.” “Americans are almost seven times as likely to be killed by a white extremist than by an Islamic one.

 

The FBI is now investigating the act of terrorism-by-car in Charlottesville. They should also be investigating Mr. T and his cabinet’s possible collusion with hate groups.

 

Democracy and freedom can’t survive in this country when hate sits in the oval office. Democracy is a continual conversation, even debate, often strident, requiring inquiry and engagement of its citizens. Hate is an attempt to end all conversation and inquiry. It allows only one viewpoint. It is a conversation of speakers who speak only one word and who refuse to listen to more than one sound. Well, it’s time for the rest of us, for most of us, to speak with a diversity of voices willing to listen to all sounds, but with one central aim: to unseat this administration and the hate it fosters.

 

*Tonight, Sunday, in DeWitt Park, Ithaca, at 7:00 pm there will be Stand United With Charlottesville rally. Maybe there is a similar rally or demonstration in your town or city you can attend.

Last Night, A Battle of Good Against Evil?

I thought I’d have a little fun. For the last two nights, my wife and I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by J. K. Rowling, between portions of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and checking in on the Senate’s fight over the Republican denial of health care bill.

 

It was a very surreal experience, like living in a fantasy world. McConnell became, in my mind, the powerful Auror, enforcer, Director of Magical Security for the magical world, a character named Graves (played by Colin Farrell). Graves was trying to appear like he was acting for the welfare of others. In reality, he was always pushing his own agenda, built from megalomania and a delusion of superiority, to undermine others, and make all of us Nomajs or Muggles subservient to him and his cohorts. We learn at the end that Graves was only a mask worn by the evil Grindelwald, a Dark Wizard, second only to Lord Voldemort, who hid away after nasty crimes in Europe. (Did he ever go to Russia?)

 

And then there was the Obscurus, a dark force that ran rampant destroying buildings and killing. The Obscurus was built from the energy created by the abuse, and oppression of the magical ability of Credence, an adopted son of Samantha Morton, the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society. These “Second Salemers” were like the first, religious bigots calling for a war against all those with magic and who are “different.” Graves-Grindelwald tried to use the power of the Obscurus, of oppression, for his own ends, but it turned against him. I took the Obscurus as a warning. When a government tries to assault the magic, well-being, and humanity of so many of us, it will only lead to destruction.

 

And on Wednesday, when Mr. T. had Secretary Zinke threaten Senator Lisa Murkowski for her opposition to the Republican bill, this fit in so well with the movie and the plot, of a battle by evil against the good. It was almost too much, too blatant, but the inappropriate behavior of this President is blatant.

 

I won’t try to make too close a comparison between the movie and the real life drama in the Senate. Rowlings work has often been seen as a metaphor for different battles between “good and evil.” But I think there were heroes Wednesday and Thursday. There was Senator Lisa Murkowski, certainly, and Susan Collins. And Senator McCain, who created a great and multi-dimensional drama of his own. And the Democrats, who stayed together as a unified force. Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat from Hawaii, interrupted her cancer treatments to fly to D. C.. And all of us, who have been making calls, demonstrating on the streets or in the halls of Congress, or writing letters. I’m afraid that there will be many more battles, and we need to learn all we can from this one. In the end, it seems to me that we Nomajs are the ones with the real magic.

Coming of Age

As many people have realized, this moment is a test. Right now. Or better yet, an opportunity. Not in the sense of a test in school, or for a job, not one with a number or letter score, not one with a scorekeeper. It is a test in the sense of a coming of age ceremony, which tests and strengthens our character. We human beings have a chance to come of age. Of course, this is true every moment. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up and demonstrate who we are. But some moments, both in our lives and in history, are heightened by the knowledge of what is at stake. This is such a moment.

 

In this moment in history, it is clear the Emperor has no clothes. His greed, and the greed of those other Republicans around him, his destructiveness, and total lust for power even at the expense of everyone else, even at the expense of the nation, even at the expense of the world’s environment, is there for everyone to see. Will the rest of us find ways to step up, come of age by working to save our age—and possibly the age of everyone who might come after us?

 

An example of just how little these Republicans in the center of this administration care about the well-being of others is the proposed health care legislation. The Senate bill would, according to the CBO, lead to 22 million Americans without health insurance, and thus lead to the deaths of 27,000 people annually due lack of adequate health care. It would have created economic and health insecurity for millions of Americans. The proposed repeal of Obamacare without a replacement would do even more damage to individuals and the economy as a whole. Yet they supported this and similar legislation over and over again. Why? To get a tax cut to a few thousand super rich? To say to their supporters, “look how we defeated the previous [Democratic/African-American?] President?” Certainly, none of the bills proposed by Republicans over the last four months would improve health care for a great majority of Americans.

 

Some argue that it has always been this way. By it they either mean all of human history, or all of US history. It is just more blatant now. Now, information is just more readily available. I disagree, not with the fact that the greed is more blatant now, but with the underlying assumption, that politicians or anyone in power, or every one of us, is essentially selfish, greedy, and lusts for power. That this selfish lust is just “human nature.” To believe this is to essentially give up. Look into your own heart. You will find enough selfish thoughts and feelings and motivations. But do those thoughts or feelings define you? Is that all or most of who you are? And when you feel that selfishness, what happens to your mind and emotions? Do you notice the isolation, sense of distrust, unease and fear that follow?

 

The struggle being waged this moment is not just to defeat the kleptocratic Republicans, preserve some remnants of democracy, and save our rights and environment. It is to save humankind— to save not only in the sense of physical survival, but in the sense of understanding whom we are. How we act is born in the womb of mind and heart.

 

Yes, throughout US history and possibly throughout human history (especially since the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of farming and private ownership), there have been people trying to seize power, not just for a moment, but for always. No denying that. But one of the allures of democracy is that it puts power in front of all of us (at least in theory) and says, “Go for it.” Political power is always in question because it resides “in the people,” dynamic and changing. Part of the dynamism arises from those who can’t handle that shared power and so try to end it by controlling it. However, the only way to have a relatively secure democracy is to teach people how to live with being insecure, and in living with and taking an active part, along with others, in exercising power.

 

Too many of us have been deceived into underestimating our own personal power and capacity to persist, endure, and to feel. We think the challenge is too large, the fight too long, the pain too strong. This is partly a result of the manipulation of media and events to create a sense of crisis or shock, like the “shock and awe” tactic in the invasion of Iraq. But this invasion is primarily against the American people.

 

According to Naomi Klein, in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, this “shock tactic” is an attempt by the corporate right to take advantage of collective crises and natural disasters in order to disorient us, get us to feel so vulnerable that we will accept policies we would never have accepted otherwise. It is a sinister attempt to make us feel so vulnerable and powerless that our natural impulse to come together and help others is buried. But, as Klein says, we can and must refuse this manipulation. We can decide to use this common threat to build a movement of resistance, hope, justice and love.

 

To crudely juxtapose two disparate philosophies, that of the French existentialist philosopher J. P. Sartre, and the Buddha, humans are beings who, due to our ability to be conscious and self-reflect, define ourselves through our actions. Sartre said our “existence precedes essence.” We exist first as subjective experience, as personal conscious awareness, and then become who we are (within social and biological limits, of course) through our thoughts and actions. We are responsible for the person we come to be. And from a Buddhist perspective, one could say our essence is this very moment, this awareness. When our minds are clear, we feel how vibrant the world is, how interdependent we all are, and thus how vital and powerful our actions can be.

 

So, what will we do? What will you do? Will you speak up or take political action in a way you feel is right, maybe make phone calls to Congresspeople, sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate and educate? Feel the power of this moment and come of age? Even simple acts can be profound. Or let others shock us into surrender?

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

The Power That Liberates vs The Power That Corrupts

Two articles in the recent Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2017), when read together, provide an extremely relevant, even fascinating insight into the situation in the world today. One is on the psychological effects of power on the powerful. The other is on self-compassion.

 

The first article was called Power Moves: Success Changes How People Think and Act—Often, But Not Always, For the Worse, by Theodor Schaarschmidt. The British politician and historian, Lord John Acton, has often been quoted as saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.” He was mostly speaking of Popes, Roman Emperors, and absolute monarchs.

 

But are the corrupting influences of power real? And if so, are they attributable to the mere fact of having power? Or is it that ruthless people are the ones most likely to search for power to begin with? The article discusses psychologist Susan Fiske’s research—as people gain influence, they change. They act more freely, with less empathy, and a reduced concern for details.

 

The research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, quoted by Schaarschmidt, adds depth to this picture. When we feel powerless, our actions are more inhibited; we are more sensitive to punishment and also the needs of others. As our influence and power increase, we become more sensitive to rewards and less inhibited. The skills needed to obtain power and to lead effectively are the ones most likely to deteriorate once we have power. The powerful tend to overestimate their skills, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes, and ignore outside viewpoints.

 

Further studies show the more power people get, the fewer social norms they tend to follow. They can become “Machiavellian;” they disregard moral or even legal limits and feel free to use others in their pursuit of status and advantage. According to psychologist Kibeom Lee, when Machiavellian traits combine with narcissism and psychopathy, people show less honesty and humility.

 

At first glance, it might seem from this research that empathy is somehow opposed to agency or the ability to act and assume power. Not so. In his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner says it is social intelligence, the power to understand, value and advance the goals of others, that yields true power and it is involved in every relationship and interaction. Without this social intelligence we “tend to act like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes” (parts of the brain critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior). The paradox is that we tend to “rise in power in the world due to what is best about human nature but we fall from power due to what’s worst.”

 

According to Schaarschmidt, the corrupting influence of power is slightly less likely with women, for example, whose path to power is often different than with men. As you might expect from the ubiquitous sexism in our society, women are more likely to be attacked for anything that might appear as dominating a group or asserting power, and rewarded with influence by looking out for others.

 

Self-compassion, according to the article The Self-Compassion Solution: Building On A Buddhist Principle, Psychologists Are Learning How Being Kind to Yourself Can Bolster Resilience, Buffer Against Stress and Improve Relationships, by Marina Krakovsky, means “treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend.” In his research, psychologist Kristen Neff discerned three elements of self-compassion: kindness toward yourself, “paying attention to your suffering in a mindful, nonobsessive way,” and a cognitive component, where you understand that suffering is a normal part of life. Neff found that people who score high in self-compassion are less prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Krakovsky mentions the work by psychologist Juliana Breines, who found that self-compassion also helped people not get caught up in feeling their self-worth is dependent on approval by others. But Breines wondered if this diminished worry about the opinion of others would lead to a loss in motivation, as in schools. She found the opposite to be true. Students with self-compassion tended, for example, to study even more for a quiz than others.

 

And in a study with seniors, researchers led by psychologist Batts Allen found that people with self-compassion had a stronger sense of well-being. They were more mindful of what they were doing and feeling, and thus more capable of acknowledging and accepting what was true. Self-compassion apparently led to a better sense of, and valuing of, who they were.

 

Compassion in general is a readiness to act to reduce suffering. Compassion practices strengthen the insula, which is an area in the cerebral cortex of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, involved in emotional regulation, stimulating energy and focus. Compassion for self and others not only energizes us to act to relieve suffering; it energizes us to act with more awareness. It increases our ability to learn and discern what is going on. Especially when combined with mindfulness, it can help people think more clearly and critically.

 

We have this maladaptive, basically Machiavellian, idea in the U. S. that only by being selfish and ruthless can we achieve any political change; that ruthless behavior can somehow result in a “better” or more equitable world. The research on power shows the opposite to be true. And one of many reasons this idea is maladaptive is because it can undermine the motivation by ethical and empathic people to want to take political action. We have an example now of a leader whose craving for power, rewards, and status has clouded his empathy and understanding and caused political chaos, an increase in racist incidents, an undermining of democratic values, etc., etc.

 

If we want leaders who can think clearly and act with understanding, we need to learn more about the power of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. We need leaders trained in compassion so they can resist the distorting influence of power and more clearly empathize with and prioritize the needs of the great majority they represent, not just the rich few. The power that corrupts is power over others. The power that liberates is power over oneself. A wonderful, short novel based on the life of the Buddha, by Satish Kumar, called The Buddha and the Terrorist, makes clear the differences between these two types of power. The first is power based on opposition and so creates perpetual conflict and distrust. The second is based on understanding self and others, the power to learn and change, and thus creates trust and cooperation. And one way we can begin to advance the power that liberates is by teaching compassionate critical thinking in schools.

 

There is a Religious War Going On Most of Us Don’t Want

Our nation is involved in a religious war, one that most of us don’t want or are even aware of. However, we feel the pressure of it as an anxiety that arises when we hear, read or see news reports. It is not a war of Christians against Muslims or Jews. It is a war by fundamentalists against other fundamentalists, and fundamentalists against secularists and those who have different views on religion. The religious scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, warned us about this war years ago and we are now paying the price for not understanding her message.

 

Why call this a fundamentalist religious war? To answer this, think about what is meant by religion? This is a huge question and can be answered in many ways, but one way is to examine the roots of the word. Re means ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Ligion comes from ligare which is the root of ligament, to ‘bind’ or ‘tie.’ Yoga has a similar root, which means ‘to yoke.’ So religion is to tie back. But to what? To a set of beliefs and practices? To a shared vision of what is most important or sacred, or how to face what is most difficult? To how to live a sincere and meaningful life?

 

What is fundamentalism? It can be defined as an attempt to reach back to what is fundamental or original to a religion at its purest time. To get back to the beginning often means to tie back to a literal and “original” interpretation of scripture or to a mythical time⏤one that never existed except as a metaphor of longing. For many fundamentalists, it is the story, the interpretation, the words that make a religion unique, not the experience of transformation that might have been the root of the scripture, as illustrated by Buddha’s enlightenment or Moses and the burning bush. Since the word is sacred, anyone who speaks or acts against the literal interpretation, or even offers a different perspective, is committing a sin.

 

The leading fundamentalist religion in the US is often called Christian, and its adherents identify as Christians, but in reality I think the religion is economic. George Soros called it “free market fundamentalism.” I am probably taking his quote further than he intended. Soros was talking about those who adhere to the belief that only an unregulated market and uninhibited pursuit of self-interest can serve the common good and preserve civil liberties. The only way to be rational, according to this belief, is to be selfish and allow the “invisible hand of the market” to rule. For humans to regulate the “invisible” is to interfere with forces beyond our control.

 

This economic fundamentalism might be thought of as akin to a belief in other invisible or even supernatural forces, and might be a matter of faith, but is certainly not a rationally examined truth. It defies the preponderance of evidence. It is a religion whose priests are the wealthy and whose symbols are coins, stock, and property.

 

These fundamentalists hold up Adam Smith and Charles Darwin as two of their saintly authorities. Yet, Adam Smith said, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: …The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions [e.g. avarice], is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.” And: “…to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.” And Darwin, the scientist most known for natural selection in evolution, wrote about the importance of moral sensitivity, love, mutuality in his second book, The Descent of Man, where he talks about the application of evolution theory to humans. In fact, the systems scientist and evolutionary theorist, David Loye did a data analysis of Descent. He found “survival of the fittest” mentioned 2 times, ‘competition’ 9 times, but ‘love’ mentioned once in the index but 95 times in the book, ‘mutual aid’ 24 times, ‘sympathy’ 61 times, ‘moral’ 90 times.

 

Deregulation has not led to a utopia where everyone’s selfishness leads to everyone’s freedom and increased wealth, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, to increasing inequity, poverty, immorality, and political chaos; to control of the political process by the financial sector, and an increasing monetization of everything— from people to the environment. As Mathieu Ricard points out in his extensively researched book, Altruism, research by scientists and several international organizations, including the UN, shows that the consequences of inequity are far reaching: “for each health care or social indicator (physical health, mental health, school success rates, …obesity, drug addiction…infant mortality, and the well-being of children in general) the results are significantly worse in countries where inequality is highest.” The US is now one of the most unequal of nations.

 

The religious fundamentalist nature of this economic belief system helps explain the difficulty many people describe trying to talk to someone who believes in this religion, when they don’t. It helps explain why believers in Mr. T hold on to their belief despite extensive evidence to the contrary, and why his supporters feel liberals and radicals talk down to them.

 

To undermine a religious belief is to undermine what is central to one’s grasp of reality. And when one thinks and feels one is in a state of war, anyone who is not a supporter is an enemy. Understanding this mentality, of a religious war, and understanding the thinking and fear behind it, is one step toward transcending and ending it. Understanding our selves more completely and how to respond with more clarity and compassion is a beginning. But ignoring it is not a good option.

 

*There are two marches coming up you might want to participate in and support, in Washington, and in local cities. There’s a March for Science, on Earth Day, 4/22, and The People’s Climate March for Climate, Jobs and Justice, 4/29.

 

**Photo of the Lion’s Gate to Mycenae, Greece.