Monday, March 23, 2020

What Will We the People Do? Understanding the Spring Break Pandemic Party

It's always problematic to take on a sweeping generalization and emerge with anything like facts or the truth. The scenes of Florida and California beaches, Mardi Gras, and other Spring Break revelry are pretty darn disturbing.

The pressure on politicians to keep business going has apparently outweighed public health concerns in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Profit before people is capitalism without conscience or care. We have had advisories or abdication, not government directives. And where too is individual responsibility?

We like to think that we all make personal and individual choices but this explanation also allows us to dismiss or abdicate. People are moved by leadership and by social directives, implicit or otherwise. We move not only as individuals but in groups and tribes and communities. We have survived and flourished because we are socialized and it's simply too reductive (and oh so American) to suggest that individual liberty and choice directs our actions.

To put this in the modern meme, "influencers" influence. And the most powerful influence is one's peers, that inchoate but real force that forms our proximate social identity. We feel that ethos, we share worldviews or, at the very least, we contend within that kind of group as we formulate our individuality. I think there are plenty of reasons why in the "OK Boomer" world wonder why college age students, those under 30 are acting so...let's put it plainly: recklessly. May I remind my fellow Boomers that we came to distrust our elders too, coming as we did on the heels or even from within the era of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. We pushed back too. We distrusted and estranged ourselves. Our parents thought us reckless too.

We did, however, have our generational leaders: JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm and McCarthy. All flawed but standing for something else and against the worst of it. In contrast, and let's be frank, Senator Sanders could not muster that youth, could not get them to the polls. That is plain for everyone to see. That Democrats are terrified that young people will not vote in November is a well-founded fear. Any equivalence with Trumpism I will simply reject outright. This emergency could not be more of an emergency. We are told that leaders are not providing what they want or offer a world in which they aspire to participate. Then we see them on the beaches and in the bars during a pandemic. The mistrust is mutual.

As loathe as I am to say this, nothing is going to change the behavior of the beach going Spring Break generation but rules enforced by grown ups. The problem is that leadership at the top, at the Federal level, has proven so desperately incompetent. We all knew Donald Trump was unfit and that the worst was yet to come. And what's really scary is that the worst has NOT yet come. Governors have stepped in, like Cuomo and Newsom but not all. Wait until Florida really starts getting sick. Does anyone think that isn't going to happen?

I write this morning because I need some perspective. We knew about war and political corruption but then let the planet burn for profit. We protested for peace and a Great Society and then let jobs and poverty and opportunity fail the majority. These kids (<---yeah, I just said that...) may not consider our failures because they, in truth, don't remember and were never taught those lessons. The things they don't know are legion. Trust me on that, I teach college. But what they have that is all their own is a toxic blend: their own certainties and a frightening kind of nihilism.

Some push back, like the Parkland kids. But they all see a burning planet, a gig economy that promises the majority less than their parents prosperities, debt, and, for most, politics as nothing but failure. They have reasons to take nihilism seriously. Their certainty may be a very different vaguery of youth but mix it into a cocktail of "well, I'm just going to do what I want because there's really no future anyway...", that is the danger we must consider.

We who protested war and poverty in the 60s and 70s may have sold out to profit and bourgeois prosperities but that may be because we imagined that there would be a future. I fear that what we are seeing in the Spring Break Pandemic Party is a generation that believes there is no future but to party, and party together. Who do they trust but each other? Not us. And that portends a very dangerous immediate future.

This virus won't care how old you are once enough people are sick. The misinformation train, especially from the right wing media, will only further divide as McConnell and his lot see another chance to line the pockets of their corporate donors. We're going to need leadership and sanity. They are in short supply but not completely absent. Let us hope more people, especially young people who are the future, are willing to listen to more than each other.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Semiotics of Identity & Working at Home

Most of you know I have a thing about pink scarves from India, heavy duty blue jeans from Japan, and rock'n'roll boots. I can get away with that now that I'm an old professor and they just laugh at me. I was joking with my University colleagues that now we are going to be teaching at home, we'll never have to get out of our pajamas. But lemme say, this is a terrible idea.

When we are in India we go as pilgrims and we dress the part. To the nines. This makes all the difference and the local people are deeply appreciative. Even as a college professor I come looking like, well, something of the same. It makes a difference because we don't dress merely because of the weather.

I'm not merely suggesting a fashion update. I am saying that locked up at home as we are all going to be, it will become important to nurture your identity. How you are on the outside really does affect how you feel on the inside.  (Be as elegantly yourself as the dog in this picture---and as comfortable.)

When we put on our "work uniform" we step into an essential asepct of professional identity. We have multiple selves---personal, professional, creative---and all of them play a part in holding together the world. 

When Krsna in the Gita is asked why he does what he does, he says loka-samgraha, which means "holding the world together." But literally this phrase means something like "grasping light." What Krsna is pointing towards is the fact that our identities are formed both inside and out; how we present ourselves informs our inner state. We are the light we offer, we are the shadow we create. To become whole we must care for the whole of our human self and that means our social self even when we are being asocial.

India taught me to care about these things because everything about learning depended on finding a way to hold myself together and immerse in a different world. The same thing happened when at only 28 years old I was a college professor not much older than my students but closer to their age than I was to my colleagues. The way we look really does root in how we relate to others, how we situate ourselves in social complexities. Tribe is recognized, a narrative is being put forward, and if we put those stories on mute---if we never get out of our pajamas---we will be dismissing, even losing important features of identity.

When I thought about what I'd said to my colleagues the other day about not getting out of our pj's, I almost immediately realized how wrong I was. So everyday since events turned me into the college-professor-now-teaching-from-home I've gotten myself together every morning.

Now all this may just be me but I doubt that. I think that we're in a time when it will be too easy to become unmoored, afloat in a world in which few things are familiar. When that happens we must re-root and find ways to tell our inner story. It's important to remember that our story entails all aspects of self, inside out and outside in. Putting yourself together, just a little bit, everyday can make an important difference.

You might at first feel liberated by days that require nothing more than jammies. But think Ganesha here: these routines and changes, these habits of personal and professional identity create meaningful boundaries. With boundaries we know who we are and what we need to remember, who we are and who want to be. So enjoy your personal revolution for awhile, 'cause why not? But then even if you are home all day, put yourself through your changes, step into your conditionality and stay a player in creating your boundaries.

I think in the long run you will find yourself more emotionally grounded, with a clearer sense of self. You are communicating with yourself when you step into those forms that help you tell your story. You will feel more connected to yourself and when the time comes again, you will re-connect because you never forgot who you are.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Immune to Our Shared Humanity, The Self-Quarantined President

There is a phrase in Japanese---isn't there always? Kuuki ga yomenai means "cannot read the air." Nowadays it is often reduced in text messaging simply to KY.

The implication is plain enough: it is when someone is seemingly impervious to the current need, the social and cultural feeling that is expected. It's when someone "doesn't get it" where "it" means the invisible, unspoken sensibility that brings solidarity and implicit understanding. It's when someone is more than a little awkward about the _we_ when "we" creates an "us. Few cultures value the implicit more than the Japanese but there is much the same in Tamil---and I suppose we all have this. Every culture values emotional intelligence finding its way into practice and situational need.

The phrase aun no kokyu, which means something like “in perfect unison" or anmokuchi, “tacit knowledge, are much more positive in comparison to "cannot read the air." That is reserved for a greater incapacity, almost as if it is something someone cannot do rather than a momentary awkwardness.

What's important about the idea, I think, is not the criticism it levels but rather the sense that we share the air and the air has _its own_ qualities that are neither individual nor merely invented. The "air" has a "just there" quality and it takes a redolent sensibility to share an experience that's implied. When someone can't read the air then the emotional illiteracy has consequences for all.

The downside of such a collective imperative should be likewise obvious: we can feel pressured, stagnant, repressed because there is an expectation to "get it" or get along with what is expected. We also need to allow others less familiar with situations or culture to feel included, welcomed, and respected.

The shadow, however, is here at the forefront: the "not reading the air" is what we all feel and the hidden light of that shadow is that we can want people to feel more accepted and more fluent in the social circumstance. We can be rooting for the implicit without being coercive or reproving. That level of nuance too requires an emotional empathy that we hope for and can learn to evolve in ourselves.

We here all know that Trump is a malignant narcissist. You don't need to have a clinical professional degree to see that his is no ordinary selfishness. It isn't merely that he is immune to others' needs or feelings or that he calculates them solely for his own benefit; it is that his sociopathy demands that others are to blame, that others must be punished for whatever does not suit his self-aggrandizement. Those around Trump read his air and become the toadies and swamp creatures that cause us to wretch.

But never has the air seemed so toxic as it does around this man even as his media machine and sycophants breathe it all in.

And this time the air cares not who is reading it. It's what's in the air that we must read as our shared need to take care of each other when our leadership is so grievously impaired.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Mis-Using Myth But Getting the Point

First, a quotation:

"Successful presidential candidates are mythmakers. They don’t just tell a story. They tell a story that helps people make meaning out of the current moment; that divides people into heroes and villains; that names a central challenge and explains why they are the perfect person to meet it."

Myths are of course true, just not the way that David Brooks uses the word. Here we go again but it's kind of important. At least to me. He means to tell "the truth." I mean to get to the truth by using myths to go deeper. Onward.

As usual David Brooks of The Times gets a crucial feature of the analysis or the language dead wrong. But he also has the point in the midst of the malaise. Here he is using the word "myth" in the ordinary parlance. This saddens, infuriates, discourages me as much as the superficial use of "yoga" or other words that _could_ mean more but don't because words mean 'how people use them' (and NOT what they 'could' mean. This is why, for example, you may have noticed that I don't often refer to Rajanaka as either "yoga" or "tantra" anymore---because we have lost the meaning-war and there is no getting it back (for now).) Anyways, David writes about the election:

"My takeaway from Wednesday’s hellaciously entertaining Democratic debate is that Sanders is the only candidate telling a successful myth. Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar all make good arguments, but they haven’t organized their worldview into a simple compelling myth. You may look at them, but you don’t see the world through their eyes."

First, there was nothing "hellaciously entertaining" in my view. Rather it was insipid, frustrating, demeaning, and unhelpful. If that's what it takes to win the presidency, I would rather live with penguins full time. I hated every moment and lost respect for EVERY candidate. Name calling, misrepresentations, angry bullshit from everyone about the other. Nothing was gained, much was lost. Trump won bigly.

Right now I am betting that the nightmare continues, only worse.  Far worse. Catastrophically worse after he is re-elected.  There really is such a thing as the Trump Voter and they are in States that will decide the election.  It's that simple, California.  So vote "your heart" and lose.  Because voting your myth depends on what kind of myth you like.  That's my point, not that of David Brooks.

David uses the word "myth" pejoratively and that, of course, is what sends me _personally_ over the edge. Meh. I have no hope, ZERO for reclaiming "myth" because yoga _means_ stretching and "Tantra" not only means bullshit it mostly (99%) IS bullshit. Notwithstanding, he is also on to something.

That something is that people who inhabit a story don't need believe it (he has it backwards, of course, as usual, he makes this mistake frequently), they need to want it to be true. People don't vote for arguments, they vote for their wishes, their dreams---even bad, ugly dreams, like Trumpists. But it's not about arguments, it's about who they want to believe they are. This is why I prefer pragmatists, as candidates and in most things.

Not that you should care, but I see the world as Mahabharata: you fight when you think it's the best thing you can do, winning is often losing and deeply compromising, you make a better deal on the basis of the battle, and you try to live with yourself and your enemies as best you can. Not everyone shares that view or that vision but for me, _that's the real world_ that I mythologize. I need stories that use myth to ground you in the hard world that is and in the dreams you want, without losing either.

For Sanders, like for Trump, there's much more dreamy bullshit about what is and what will be or could be. Their version of the hard world, well, Bernie's isn't wrong or false. It's that their solutions will never happen because the demons are just as real and cannot be destroyed. No demon is destroyed, not ever. I say David is right, most people want that sort of myth where they just get what they want, and they believe they will get it. They want their dream, they want their fulfillment. I see the end of the story as just the next bit of living with yourself because you don't get what you want, you get compromised and compromise. You get to die another day, as the saying goes, and that's not so bad because the alternative is far worse.

I think he's right too that Sanders is the likely nominee. Trump's reelection is, imo, far more likely because America will far more easily buy Trump's myth in WI, MI, and PA. I'm not prepared yet for the Mondale McGovern blowout that will likely happen. Unless it doesn't. Carry on, ragingly.

Here's the link to David Brooks' piece:

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Getting Personal and Finding a "More Human" Empathy In our Religion and Politics

Scholarship doesn't reward the personal. We're told it's not our job. But Rajanaka---and that means you, people you likely know, friends, folks who've come to the conversation with open minds and willing hearts---has taught me that I don't know any other way of doing scholarship and live with myself.

I've never been very good at just reporting the facts without thinking aloud about what I'm thinking. I like to try to imagine lives I have not lived and not likely to lead but within every conversation I ask myself, to the core of being, "Well, what do you think, Ji? Do you know what you think?" Studying religion will do that to you, if you let it. Not just religion.

As far as I can tell nothing is more personal than politics. If you decide not to participate, think about it or deal with the maelstrom and malaise, it's still all gonna matter. It's going to change your life and it's likely going to change others at least as much, maybe a lot more.

Politics can be as selfish as you want it to be. It shares that with religion or spirituality, which we think of as a "me-problem." Truth is, that too isn't just a me-problem. How we evolve our learning in every way will cut to the core and that means it will reach out into other lives.

But there's a chance in politics that's rarely as clear in your religion or spirituality: what you think or believe or do can change others' lives and change yours _right now_. There's an urgency we are all feeling now because what we know is that truth, decency and dignity itself are on the line. This is an _emergency_, folks. Our imperfections, our long and storied histories of light and shadow are nothing in comparison to the menace we face.

Can we feel compassion for those who berate us, lie about us, demand fealty threatening our safety should we disagree? How we are feeling for others isn't supposed to be this hard but these are troubled times.

Empathy is no small matter. We like to believe it is natural. As Mencius said some four hundreds years before the Common Era, "Who does not feel for the child who falls into the well?" He believed pity and compassion, empathy itself came as a matter of course, as the well-spring of our shared human nature.

But in the privacy of the voting booth we face no maker but ourselves and therein lies the real test. No supernatural judgment awaits and what is karma but what we yet understand about the consequences of our actions? We can "look out for ourselves" or we can imagine a bigger world, one that implicates each and every person not because we know them but because we don't. So what will we do depends on who we choose to be. That might be worth a thought.

I teach now in University concealing only as much as seems right to insure that students feel no pressure, so that they might reach their own conclusions and assess their own values. Whatever comes through that is personal I hope makes clear that we must take learning personally. We have to decide how what we know matters and if it might change the world we share.

In a room of adults---rather than University students--- I'm just as committed to be personal _and_ to do my level best to educate, to avoid even the slightest tincture of indoctrination or evangelism. But in this environment I feel a different responsibility because I _expect_ adults to already have their own hard-won opinions. We won't persuade each other of much, I think.

Instead we will ask each other how what is personal to you might matter to you should we disagree. We learn that empathy, however natural it is, is something we can feel more deeply when we learn from one another. That is a lesson I think Mencius would also agree is part of the task of becoming, as he puts it, "more human."

Confessions of a Dreamer Pragmatist, Or is that the Pragmatist Dreamer?

I am at heart both pragmatism and dreamer. If that's a paradox, add it to the list.

My jam is prudence and risk, it's hit your target and aim high and then higher. It's try not to fall for the fleece and the folly and never let anything stop you from what you really want to do. It's humility with a tincture of recklessness. It's modesty but shameless audacity.

I love the worldly world, yes, I love a lot of things made in the material world: things made with human hands and experience, things made with careful attention to every detail, things that will age, can be fixed or are just beautiful and serve not practical purpose at all, and above all tell a good story. I also love the contemplative, the poetic, just thinking and thinking and taking the the long way home. I love the glitter and the dirt. I love the facts and the myths with every bone in my body.

I ran off to India and would have happily wandered the temples with never, ever have another given a thought to coming home. I came home and have had the same job for more than 30 years, picked up my kids from school pretty much every single day. I don't mind a good conflict of interests.

I think the way to get that spot you long for over the rainbow is little by little, again and again. YMMV. I'm not suggesting you do it my way. We each need to figure out how to get to our own personal Valhalla.

Not always as important to be right as it is to know what rings true in your heart, what works for you, what will get you through today and tomorrow and maybe ahead. It's good to give in and lose sometimes. Have an idea but know that the best laid plans fail, yeah, fail. Without a plan you're thinking that the seat of your pants will be enough, when maybe it won't. Then what? You have to adjust and adapt in every circumstance, pick the best of bad choices, never, ever relent to go for it---whatever it is for you. You have to imagine, conjure, and envision what asks more from you than you've ever thought possible. You have to live within your means and over your pay grade. I will accept what can be done and still not give up on what could be.

So let's go to the phalanx of candidates for the presidency. So here's my personal take as I work on my inner paradoxes.

*Sanders, Yang, Steyer, and Warren offer too much reverie for me. What they propose will not happen even when I like the dream. Too much the dreamers for me because the asphalt or the barefoot path through the jungle has taught me what hard falls and broken bones (dreams) feel like.

*So what of the pragmatists? Biden is too old. Pragmatically, and this is a hard one: Buttigieg is too young and can't answer the one set of questions he must, about race. I have a very soft spot for a person of such depth, intelligence, and sensibilities. My admiration is dreamy but my pragmatism tells me he's not quite the thing. I want to be with the enthusiasm that POC will bring and, truthfully, pragmatically I trust their intuitions. When in doubt listen to the folks who know that trust is hard won. Bloomberg is a safety value in case it's the dreamer crowd and he doesn't care if he's president and he let a lot mean stuff happen that shouldn't have happened.. I feel confident he will put his money into goodness because like all sane people he hates Trump and can really do something about it.

I have not been thrilled with Senator Klobuchar until the end of the NH Debate. She has been too wonky, too legislative and procedural. Presidents need to say big things and mean it. They need to know how symbols and stories work, not just how bills pass the Senate. I needed to see someone MORE dreamy, less pragmatic. She's got pragmatic in spades but she needs some hearts too. Well, she just scored big in hearts. See the video in the first comment below. The thing about FDR really ripped me 'cause she meant it.

I love people who really mean it even when I think they are too dreamy or too pragmatic. Bernie _really means it_. I just don't fancy that much grievance and that much dream when it won't get done, and the same for Warren---though I hope both deeply influence the nominee. If I lived in NH I would vote for Senator Klobuchar. She's shown me heart I didn't know she really had. So there's that. You choose best when you know how you feel and think.

**Watch Senator Klobuchar seal the deal here for hearts, not just pragmatic in spades:

Saturday, January 25, 2020

What About Those Gates of Hell?

As the Republicans take their place to defend this craven fraud, this criminal beyond all defense, I am reminded that JFK loved Dante as much as Dr. King. Both cite the poet to remind us that courage takes its stand and that there is no neutrality in the face of evil. This is lesson lost on these debased "leaders."

There is particularly a section in the Inferno that speaks of those who will languish in the hell of their own making. We can only hope that fate befalls these incorrigible toadies as they cast off any last shard of decency and integrity for this small, callow man to whom they bow.

As they enter the gates of their own self-made hell, we must endure their slander and sycophancy because the Republic might only endure if their feckless calumny is plain for all to see. May they burn in their own falsehoods and self-deceptions. And as hard as it is to understand how far they are willing to go into a bottomless hell of imbecility and servility, I think we can let Dante do the rest,

"And I: "What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?"
He answered: "I shall tell you in few words.
Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.""
---Dante, Canto 3