Thursday, November 30, 2017

Our Darkest Demons and the Better Angels of Our Nature

When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, the very foundations of country, both its hypocrisies and ideals, were being measured in blood, in the face of the continuance of the morally inexcusable subjugation of people treated as chattel, in a test that was not only for the immediate political future but for the generations to come.

By his Second Inaugural the flawed President was finally able to say that the war had always been about slavery. And in its aftermath, with that institution finally ended, the real work would begin. President Obama represented _some_ kind of evidence of that work. In fact, his Presidency, I would contend, was more than enough to reveal the true character of America. In Trump and Roy Moore, in a wholly complicit Republican Party we see right before our eyes the abject failure of the nation 152 years after our _first_ civil war.

Over the past few days, if it hadn't been clear before, with his race-baiting and religious bigotry on full display, Trump has made the shameless values of the Confederacy and the deep, tawdry underbelly of America's failure plain for all to see. Do we need recount what he said to Navajo code talkers beneath a portrait of Andrew "trail of tears" Jackson? Do we need repeat his tweets of a far right party in Britain espousing religious bigotry? Columns down in The Times and Washington Post because the news about our next horror floats to the top we also read of the quiet and calm now descending in Senate chambers as Republicans prepare to pass a tax cut that will at last pay back their oligarch masters and insure a future in which the poor and the middle class will pay their bills. Complicity accompanies Trump's intellectual incompetence, moral depravity, and sociopathic mental illness. Some 80% of Republican voters are _still_ prepared to support them all, no matter what the poll numbers may be on specific issues.

So let's put this plainly, and again in Mr Lincoln's own words. Because this truth could not be more self-evident. And we must be clear: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Our second civil war is upon us. The outrage has yet to take to the streets as we saw in the 60s but the crimes being committed by Republicans are as blatant, as barefaced, as utterly brazen as any committed against the thin moral fabric of this nation. We must be more than appalled and ashamed of what is before us. We must turn the political process around: those calling for "tolerance" of these white supremacist bigots--- because they are our neighbors and our families--- must ask themselves when tolerance is appeasement and tacit complicity.

Trump has the perfect ally in soon to be Senator Roy Moore. Will the voters of Alabama send a different message? Don't count on it. On Wednesday Moore told churchgoers in Alabama that the LGBT community is source of the sexual misconduct allegations against him. That's right, "good Christians" in church. In a speech described as "sermon-like" delivered from the pulpit of the Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, Moore told supporters that the “conspiracy” against him was concocted by “liberals, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and socialists.” “They’re the Washington establishment... who don’t want to lose their power,” he said.

Moore's shameless bigotry mirrors Trump and, of course, warrants no comment from Republicans busy at the pig trough of their oligarch donors to pass their tax bill. Word has it that a few Democrats may vote "yes." But what you are hearing from Trump is not only the mental illness of a man incapable of understanding the job before him, what we are seeing is the decimation of the institutions that will hold our fragile American democracy together. This is the new regular order: Trump, Moore, and an entirely complicit Republican leadership that means to impose their bigotry and oligarchy without the slightest compunction. Their lasting damage, their dismantling of decency and the institutions of the republic tells us everything we need to know about Republican voters. Who could vote for this vile, bigoted nihilism? Sixty-two million Americans.

Polls this morning also reveal there is a partisan divide, a _partisan political divide_ over the revelations of sexual abuse and assault that infects every corner of our society. Need we say more about this here to understand how riven we are by our _fundamental_ differences in morals and character? We need a reckoning on every front that divides us. That we should be divided by party on these matters too strikes me as all of a piece.

As we head into the holidays I wonder what it will take for Americans to have _any_ reckoning, any acknowledgement that our sexism, bigotry, and racism are at the base of cultural and moral divide. Go to the streets? What will it take for that to happen? We know that the majority of voters oppose these unfit rulers and reject their values.

It is worth citing at some length what Charles Blow wrote today, "The Trump Doctrine is White Supremacy. Yes, he is also diplomatically inept, overwhelmed by avarice, thoroughly corrupt and a pathological liar, but it is to white supremacy and to hostility for everyone not white that he always returns...Anyone who doesn’t see this is choosing not to. They are clueless as an act of convenience, willfully blind and intentionally ignorant. Or conversely, they not only see it, but cheer it....Either way, the people who elected Trump and those who continue to support him are to blame for what they have inflicted on this country...Republicans had a choice of 17 nominees; they chose Donald Trump. The party threw its weight behind him. Many of the candidates who had vigorously opposed Trump, including on moral grounds, endorsed him. Millions of voters who had voted for other candidates also voted for Trump...So never let these people feed you the lie that they voted for Trump only because they didn’t have a choice and they wanted to vote against Hillary Clinton. They had a choice, and they chose the magnification of their darkest demons."

If America has better angels and if the better angels of our nature stand a chance then we must first acknowledge with candor those who choose the magnification of their darkest demons. If democracy in America is to survive, to even have a chance, we must put to the test our collective moral character.

We must not "listen to" with sympathy those who willfully, ignorantly, passively accept Trump, Moore, and the Republican Congress. Whatever compassion we feel for their plight gives Republican voters no quarter to be so wholly complicit in their failure of character. Their religion has apparently failed them or encouraged their failure, but what has failed is their hearts, their minds, their _character_. They are accountable to this, no matter how they suffer otherwise.
However we accept their frustrations with the failures of a changing economy, their economic woes and social failures pale in comparison to the moral call to arms. With whom do they stand? What really lies in their hearts? We must ask. We need to know.

My own tolerance for their religion, their "culture," their claims to disenfranchisement has run its course. We must rally to the streets to object to this moral failure of leadership and as soon as possible we must vote them into the margins. The alternative is unthinkable, or is it? Lincoln was elected to draw a line he so reluctantly writ in water until he was forced to say it plainly. Can America endure in this racist, bigoted, sexist divide? What will we do now that our darkest demons are in full view?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

About Wednesdays

It is a truth culled from India's genius that memory outlives those who possess memories, that time is the divine itself, _whatever_ we might mean by that, and so impossible things can be worth their failure because there is more to life than just success. Rajanaka is, at least in part, about these truths, if we can call them that. And like all things worth thinking about, these things can take some time. For it's part, time is unforgiving not only because mortality is fragile and indeterminate, but also because there is just so much left to learn. So much so that we could not ever finish. I revel in that, at least for now.

I have six students this semester taking my Classical Sanskrit Poetry Class, including an Eastman School violist and a few others quite exceptional. I actually regard them all as exceptional because there is no reason, _not one_ to take such a college class. I've written about this before because it is, with near certainty, the height of folly, second only to reading all four epics of India and Greece in a single semester. I plan on many such folly-driven academic charges of the light brigade and if no one shows up, I will rage at the walls and do it anyway. With luck, some good soul will walk into the room. Half a league, half a league onward.

Yesterday, I had failed to put the lamps on (those hideous florescent overheads are prohibited in my office world) when office hours started at 3pm. By the time one student tepidly knocked at the door, it was near 6pm I was sitting in the dark with lots on my mind, but I got up and immediately turned on the lights and, as I have for 30+ years, was sure to leave the door ajar. It's important to feel safe in an unsafe place, and learning difficult things is unsafe, which is why the rest must be easy. Anyways, she says to me, "Bob-not-his-real-name and I are curious about what you do on Wednesdays since you make a point of not being here."

I rarely answer questions about any self that is not "Professor Brooks," since I mean to draw a boundary that does not confuse one bit of our academic relationship. They must not make this about me and they must not feel compelled in any way to "please" me. Our conversations are about ideas and arguments and these include all sorts of feelings, emotions, and complex matters of being human. The conversation is hardly clear but the boundaries must be; they are there to learn, not to be indoctrinated. But because she asked the way she did I made a minor exception, or rather just let out a bit more. Such undergraduate rules don't apply here, and my Rajanaka life has few secrets. I aware of my luck, good fortune, my privilege here. I have the time that others don't--- so I try to use it in a way that maybe does some good.

"Well, in the last few years of her life, every Wednesday was devoted to spending time with my Mom. I would pick her up, take her to her faithful hairdresser, out to lunch, and home. Then I would sit with her the rest of the day and read, in her living room. She would sit with me, usually crocheting or reading herself, and pretty much not say another word, or she'd make me another cup of tea, silently. We'd had plenty of time to talk and now was a time to sit together. She just wanted company and I wanted hers. I'd wait till suppertime and announce it was time for me to go home. She'd protest but thank me for coming and I would tell her I was the luckiest kid who ever lived. Those were my Wednesdays. Nowadays, I try to have a day that honors her. So I write to friends, I try to read at least two books about things that have nothing to do with one another, always some poetry or an essay, and then I do my own work, I write, study, translate."

"We just wanted to know, so thanks for telling me."
I hope you have a great Wednesday or whatever day is Wednesday for you.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Check Your Background, Guns and Yoga

I'm sure you saw that the FBI ran more background gun checks on Black Friday than ever before. How many of those were assault weapons or just _weapons_ that have nothing to do shooting Bambi or turkeys or ducks or some other creature than humans? I grieve as much as I feel the fury, but I would not say more than ever. I would say that it is something I notice, something that I am forced to confront every time I read another story or face the _facts_. We can choose to bring the facts of our collective lives more fully into the conversation, or we can run inside and pretend it's all going to work out for the best.

I long ago understood that I can't spend a moment more looking for peace that is just another bypass, or attach myself to some soporific tripe about how I can go inside, how I need to meditate, how I can be light. If that's what you need to do, I only hope you come out too to read the article about gun sales on Black Friday. For my part, I am meditating with my fury and each day, with news like this, with more grief. I grieve for what could be, for a failing experiment in law and decency, because there are going to be no do overs, no taking back these weapons and what will surely follow. I am not numb to the next time they will be used to kill innocent people. I will not extricate myself from that grief or the fury I feel when the folly, the callow stupidity of it all is _right before our eyes._ We have different values, different opinions, and we are going to have to live with threats of violence that we cannot control and that will not subside.

I plan on feeling +every bit+ of what is human in me, and if that requires an alchemy to endure it, then that must be part of the plan too. For me that alchemy begins in world that still matters to me, in a political experiment that claims humanity and rights are possible. I want to learn every day about folding all of these feelings into a story that lets me live with _all_ of what I feel. Living with myself, that isn't _all_ the yoga I need. I need a yoga that lets me live in a world that confounds and defies credulity, that we cannot fathom but with which we must contend.

And I am not the least bit worried or afraid to feel _more_ of those feelings, especially the grief and anger. I prefer to be drenched in the acidic truth than tell myself that hope is somehow more true, superior, better. Yoga doesn't need to "heal" or make us feel "better." That's something it _can_ do but we forget what more it could do. It can remind us to _engage_ everything we experience, not to give up, and to try every single day to create a way to live with what life presents to us.

I am not particularly hopeful because the evidence tells me otherwise. But I turn to the auspicious, the power to think with feelings in radical affirmation. That affirmation can create the inner conversation that tells me that I _must_ address everything I feel, the _whole_ of it, no matter what comes next. What we become together will depend on how willing, how far we are willing to go to make the world less terrifying than it already is. Let's acknowledge the simple fact that it is _our neighbors_ who are armed, locked, and loaded, and how that makes us all complicit in the danger and fear, just like the villains want us to be. And yes, there are villains. Who do we want to be?

I am not resisting that fear, nor am I willing to deny the danger. I don't have a plan to stop the madness because in America I think it's plain that this train has left the station, and there is only going to be a way to live with this proliferation of the instruments of death. I commend the better angels of our nature, I believe we must believe in them because otherwise there is nothing left to love about this strange, terrifying world that is so full of beauty and wonder too. I take refuge in those who skipped the weekend's background check, folks who too know they must contend with the all of it, armed with open hearts and eyes wide open.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Crime, Punishment, and Choice: Franken, Moore, and the Jury

About Al Franken and the Rest
Opinion is Reasoned Argument, Judgment is Justice

A friend I admire asked me to weigh in on Al Franken, an issue I would prefer to avoid but won't. We live in troubled times because the more we _need_ certainty, the more that need will turn on us. The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty. We need to know right from wrong but we also need to explain as clearly as we can how we have arrived at our judgments. And judge we will.

I'm not even sure that if Moore becomes the duly elected Senator from Alabama, _elected_ by _the people_ of Alabama, that the Senate has the right or the responsibility to expel him. Who decides moral fitness? How? The Senate or the electorate? Moore is a pedophile and serial abuser, and what if he is elected? Is Franken really in that same league? Are these moral equivalents?

First, I will let my partisanship show. We all have a bias. Al Franken has been a beacon of hope in a government that is driven by sycophants, traitors, and criminals--- and that is no excuse for his behavior. But not even his accuser is asking for his head or more from him. I think we’re headed into a place where very stupid antics, inappropriate behavior, and zero tolerance are all being equated. Of course, anyone who recalls SNL Franken remembers that it was not all funny, not by a long shot, and that he would do nearly anything for a joke. And that is a problem too, right?

So instead I ask myself this: does banishment fit the crime? That would be the question I would be assessing if I were judge and jury. So let's keep going.

I am compelled to look at "comparable" cases. It would be easier just to use the same standard for every case and call that "principle." That's a kind of justice I want nothing to do with, not in this case or any. Justice is always judgment and judgment is measured, not blind. So let's look at, say, the president, who not only confessed to sexual assault and was accused by dozens of women after he'd said as much but was elected after his constituents knew precisely that. We can question Trump's moral fitness--- who does not?--- but in comparison to Franken, would it seem fair to you to compare them? To me it would seem disproportionate. So what's fair?

Unfairness, as we learn from the strange story of the Sage Mandavya and a thousand others, is an unavoidable feature of an unfair world. So maybe Franken just gets the whole book, fair or not, thrown right at him. You are either pure or you are not. And that's a good idea? Are we required to destroy everyone who fails? Do we equate every case as the same? Does one size really fit all? Three strikes and you're out? Remember that one in California? You get life for stealing a candy bar because you did two other stupid things? I don't want to live in that world of "justice."

Others too might enter our judgment of Franken, not just Moore, Weinstein, or Trump, all of whom I would regard as serial monsters. And then there is the Catholic Church, which continues to claim authority over moral affairs. So perhaps lesser comparable offenders ---the sort that make confession and contrition---might be treated differently? There's a difference between being truly criminal and offensively stupid. What I resist is seeing everything the same. That reduces everything to the letter of a law that no one can meet. In the fascist state laws are written such that everyone is always in violation, this means the state can destroy you whenever it wants. Do we reduce our social mores to the same kinds of permanent culpability? Both the left and the right have been guilty of that. I hope we are not.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Alabama's "Christian" Cultural War and the Sexual Predator Roy Moore

Roy Moore's behavior today is an extension of the culture wars. His behavior then was yet another example of sanctioned cultural and religious behavior that invited his abuses.

How much have things changed in terms of cultural _values_ in rural Alabama since the '60s, particularly among undereducated Evangelical Christians? No matter how much has changed in _fact_, identity is not constructed merely of facts; it is constructed of feelings, ideas, traditions, and beliefs. Belief writes over fact as a simple matter of confirmation bias that is not only personal but also cultural.

There is such a thing too as cultural confirmation bias, which means that when a group or tribe feels threatened, confronted, challenged, they will as a group act much the way they do as individuals similarly faced with belief versus evidence. They will double down every time their beliefs are disproved or their culture is "threatened."  What white Evangelical Alabamans have seen is their dominance and way of life overwritten by values, ideas, and facts that threaten their choices--- nearly all such criticism being from "outside." Do not underestimate the role of insularity and familiarity to justify any belief or action and never, ever underestimate the disdain, fear, and obloquy that must be attached to others from the outside.

So it's the '60s/'70s (does it even really matter that it's not today?), and very, very few young women go to college. Likely far fewer than today. (Alas some change, some marginal improvement?) Education is closely connected to culture, religion, and change, and now think about Christian bible culture in the American South. Recently, Alabama's percentage of college graduates relative to the population is lower than California's but ten times fewer in numbers. Very few are exposed to much of anything but the local culture, church, family, and, in truth, there are few opportunities to learn the skills of critical thinking that would cause one to question or change. It is a world of belief and custom that views everything that is not itself as "others" who _must not_ be trusted or believed. This is at the heart of how cultural confirmation bias functions. (A few numbers: in 2010 in Alabama, 31.5% graduated college, some 189,000; Califorma the percentage was 37.6% with 1.993 million graduates, and now think of relative populations. Put more glibly, Alabama is no Massacheusetts, Senator.)

This is "Christian bible" culture: when girls "leave" the sanctity and safety of their parents home--- they are still "at home" during college, if they are permitted to go--- it is to marry and to marry as "virgins."

---Okay, just stay with me here...because _culture_ is not merely what people actually do, it is as much or more the _normative_, the _ought_ that defines values ---facts are not beliefs or values, which reign supreme.--- 

Girls are encouraged to abide by these traditional roles. Men are supposed to establish themselves as providers---this makes them older by definition--- and marry so that their wives will be stay-at-home moms.

Of course, more women in the workplace, more social liberality in every realm, continued economic failure and hardship brought about by the very culture that insists on these changeless roles and now add the function of these coercions and compulsions coupled to religion and its insidious cultural authority. Moore is the sort of predator that is likely not the least bit unusual.  This is because his predation is, at least in part, sanctioned by the culture itself.

One can imagine it common that older men go "courting" younger women and that might not seem all that unseemly---especially if that man has power, position, and respect in the community, he would receive all sorts of license. The rank abuse that is likely pervasive cannot be underestimated. Sexism and patriarchy's power is a cultural fact that is being defended here by Moore's supporters, not questioned. WE might say, how can the parent of a teenager think about allowing a thirty-something man date his daughter, and the answer _culturally_ is not necessarily the same in Alabama as it is where you live. And again, remind yourself of this: how much about Evangelical _belief_ or values have really changed even as culture, politics, and economics change?

They have refused change as far as possible, that being the very definition of their conservatism. They mean _not_ to change and to assert their prerogatives _over_ any culture _but their own_. This is a crucial point: they are aggrieved, fearful, and angry about how their culture is viewed by others. Now just how innocent, unknowing, and captive are young women with few choices and an upbringing based on obedience, deference to religion, and patriarchy? We can think of them as backward and deeply oppressed, lacking in virtually every skill required for a modern world, but that is part of their resentment too.

This is an historical and cultural situation that both conceals and encourages abuse, and what "the Judge," then "Roy Moore, D.A." did was stake his claims from within this form of Southern "Christian" culture. The whole Moore act is about that portrayal and the outsiders here are to blame. It's pretty gross, but it's easy to understand why criticism of him is taken to be criticism of the whole lot of them, especially his Evangelical supporters ---which is the majority culture of white Alabama.

Moore's supporters, who I would claim are still by far the majority of white Evangelicals (and that the vast majority of voters), take these accusations made on him as an affront to their culture, their religion, and themselves. They aren't going to flee him because some liberal Yankees find their behaviors reprehensible. They aren't going to give in one bit, no matter their doubts because cultural confirmation bias will invite them to double down. We can only watch, aghast that such toxic ignorance runs peoples' lives, just as they would expect us to feel about their cause.

The women in this story are victims we must deeply respect for the true courage it has taken to speak. How they will live the rest of their lives in these communities will require even more courage. But the culture that condones and encourages this confirmation bias syndrome is nearly as old as America itself. Expect Moore not to quit, even if Trump equivocates over his fitness for office.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Partisans in Name and Form

We're 10% Rational, the Rest is
Names, Forms, and Ideas

We'd like to think that we arrive at our political convictions, which include ideas about social justice, economics, liberty, and self-determination by having given different viewpoints their due. I'm not discounting that notion entirely: that we humans sometimes try to be rational persons. I suffer from this as a projection, both on myself and, more erroneously, on others.

I was professionally inculcated, not just trained to be rational. I believe in reason, at least partly because I believe that unless we Americans understand what it means to be "dedicated to a proposition," we stand no chance. Such a proposition may be also impossible and contradictory, fraught with historical fiction and failure, but shouldn't stop us. We all aspire to impossible things, and that's not always a bad thing. Still, I always less regard the 90% of human identity that comes with how we feel about ourselves and each other, and how this drives us to identify with names, groups, tribe. We are principally _partisans_ to the names we prefer, the ones we think are "us" or will keep us with our group. Ideology, conviction, and belief are a distant second to this partisanship.

The power of names and ideas needs a closer look. Are people really "Republican" because they favor tax cuts for the rich, the dismantling of the current healthcare for all program, or "the wall"? Are they "conservative" because they are, or for other reasons? Are "Democrats" really believers in social justice or women's rights? Are they more "liberal" because they harbor different ideas and values? Are their beliefs driving them? Certainly some portion of the issue is wholly present. But what's in a name?

The information age, the power of media is driven by names. We are "yogis," "football fans," "humanists." But methinks we count too much reason and _idea_ in the mix as we go forward identifying with _our_ name. We choose the ones that appear to represent ourselves with respect to _our_ people. Being "Republican" doesn't need an issue, it needs to be the name we think we "like" (think: FB). We are referencing an idea of identity, "a group defined by measures of class, region, religion, race or even just partisanship itself." This creates complexity because we may not actually identity _as_ LGBTQ when we identify _with_. We _feel_ with such persons as our persons. Now we may have indeed _very good reasons_ for finding our "name group" but the name drops we choose make us comfortable, they make us say inside, "I think I'm with them."

Trump has no moral core, no political principles or ideology. His hollowness is filled with nothing but immediate, self-adulation, rage, and unreflective needs that must be fulfilled. But his appeal to some 39% or so seems unmovable and, more importantly, "Republicans" offer upwards of 79% support in most polls. We need not dispute the numbers, they aren't the point. So why? It can't be the ideas, they aren't there. Is it the ideas that are there? Ryanism? Judge Moore? No, it's about the names and words and only last about the issues that make an "us." Trump uses "them" in ways that reinforce that process of choosing one's name. Put an "R" after a candidate it might not matter at all what she or he thinks, says, or does. It's an inoculation, not an idea. It's a way of saying that name is me because I am with my people, not those people.

Democrats have a much harder time creating "Democrat" as an identity word--- or even showing up to vote "for the Democrat". This is because Dems are a far more diverse collection of measures: we cross class, race, region, religion, and lifestyle in ways that Republicans are whiter, more religious _in name_ and _group action_, and less willing to use names that too far from their immediate experiences. But as superficial as it may seem, it's often in the words, in the names, in the identity that comes from saying "I'm 41% of Italian ancestry" even if you learned that from rational evidence of a DNA test.

Names are mythological, not rational. They point to destinations that are associative and interpretive. But like most myths that are meaningful, people don't interpret them as such, they follow them. I mean, they identify with the story as meaningful and the characters as themselves, well, the ones they like. Political identity in America is no less a mythical identity, driven as it is by measures of association with words and symbols (think: flag, kneeling, etc), that tell you "these are my peeps, the peeps I sign on with..."

When we gather soon for Thanksgiving, we may be sitting with family who are ours by some measures but not others ---you are blood, but not politically friendly. What you'll experience is a dissonance not only of ideas and of values but of naming. "My brother the Republican." Yeah, that hurts because there's more in a name than just ideas or beliefs, there's the need to have one. That draws us together or leverages us apart. It's hard to have a middle ground that that isn't just confused, and lordyknows, we don't love complexity either. What's in a name is us, and it's a lot less rational than it is a measure of feeling.