Monday, April 28, 2008

Is He Serious?

One can have rhetorical skills, like Obama, which conceal an intellect that is mediocre, or poor rhetorical skills, like President Bush, and have a superior IQ.
--Gagdad Bob

God is With the Poor?

WHATEVER thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives.

I agree with Bono that if there is a God, He, She, or It DOES have a "special place" for the poor. But that place is, more often than not, HELL. Hell not in some posthumous domain, but hell on Earth. A daily hell of hopeless poverty, disease, hunger, filth, exposure, and misery.

Yet, what seems altogether more likely is that if there is a God, It is not a God of goodness divorced from badness or evil, but a God that encompasses (or transcends) good and evil. A God beyond characterization except, perhaps, "Thus," as one opens one's arms to indicate the totality of existence, including the sufferings of the poorest of the poor as well as the efforts of those who labor heroically to alleviate their suffering.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Robert Reich Endorses Obama

Robert Reich was President Clinton's Secretary of Labor and has been a longtime friend of the Clintons. He now teaches public policy at U.C. Berkeley and has a blog. In that blog, he recently announced his support for Barack Obama for president. Below is a clear and concise statement of his reasons for doing so.

I believe that Barack Obama should be elected President of the United States.

Although Hillary Clinton has offered solid and sensible policy proposals, Obama's strike me as even more so. His plans for reforming Social Security and health care have a better chance of succeeding. His approaches to the housing crisis and the failures of our financial markets are sounder than hers. His ideas for improving our public schools and confronting the problems of poverty and inequality are more coherent and compelling. He has put forward the more enlightened foreign policy and the more thoughtful plan for controlling global warming.

He also presents the best chance of creating a new politics in which citizens become active participants rather than cynical spectators. He has energized many who had given up on politics. He has engaged young people to an extent not seen in decades. He has spoken about the most difficult problems our society faces, such as race, without spinning or simplifying. He has rightly identified the armies of lawyers and lobbyists that have commandeered our democracy, and pointed the way toward taking it back.

Finally, he offers the best hope of transcending the boundaries of class, race, and nationality that have divided us. His life history exemplifies this, as do his writings and his record of public service. For these same reasons, he offers the best possibility of restoring America's moral authority in the world.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Gospel of Father Joe

I am not Catholic. Frankly, I believe that the institution and teachings of Roman Catholicism are mostly nonsense, and I was only half joking when I used to say, "Popes are for dopes." But there's no denying that some Catholics, because or in spite of their religion, have done and are doing wonderful work. Here is an article about a Catholic priest named Joe Maier who has spent three decades serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Bangkok. I look forward to reading the book about this man and his great work.

Great Richard Feynman Interview

Richard Feynman was a great physicist and teacher of physics and a fascinating human being. Here he is in one of the most wonderful interviews I've ever seen. Thank you Bill Harryman for making me aware of it through a entry in your blog.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Surprise Reunion

I spent my first two years in college living in a dorm. I could have easily commuted the twenty-five miles from my house in Redwood City, but I decided that it would be better for me to venture out of my self-imposed isolation at home and live with other people and become more sociable. I'm glad I did, because I had some great experiences living in the dorm that I would never have had otherwise, and I became friends with people I would never have met any other way.

I also met some very interesting people who didn't become friends, but they made quite an impression on me nonetheless. One of them was a guy named John. I won't disclose his last name. John was only seventeen when I met him, and, unlike most of the rest of us who shared double rooms with roommates, John had a single room all to himself. I suspect that this was more a matter of necessity than one of choice.

You see, John was a very strange young man. He was reputed to be brilliant, a veritable boy genius, but he was a social misfit in the extreme. He was well over six feet tall and boyishly chubby. He walked with a peculiar gait with his palms facing backwards, apelike, and his abnormally long arms swinging in tandem with his lead feet. That is, unlike most of us, who do just the opposite, when his left foot stepped forward, his left arm swung forward with it , and when his right foot stepped forward, his right arm followed suit. He also sat, stood, and walked hunched over like an old lady with osteoporosis, and when he walked this way, he looked as though he might topple over any second from his unbalanced position.

He wore thick glasses in large, dark rims, and brought his face, which looked as though it might be slightly distorted by a case of acromegaly, within two or three inches of whatever he read. He spoke with a very nasally voice and snorted when he laughed, often at his own obscure jokes. He also had such poor personal hygiene that we tried to keep our distance from him.

Everything about this young man was strange. He was like some Saturday Night Live caricature of comical eccentricity. Once, someone jokingly told him that he could earn a lot of money as a gigolo, and he started walking around the dorm introducing himself in his distinctively nasally voice as "John___, male prostitute." As I recall, he even had some business cards printed up to this effect. He also walked around mumbling, "Ohhhh death," in the deepest voice he could muster as he darted his eyes and tongue from side to side in a manner than can only be characterized as obscene.

It should come as no surprise that John took some ribbing over his peculiar ways, and I'm sorry to say that I and my roommate participated in this. Neither we nor anyone else were really malicious about it, so far as I know, but I'm sure John, despite the fact that he sometimes seemed to prefer unpleasant attention to being completely ignored, could have done very nicely without it.

For instance, my roommate, who liked to make people think he was as perverse as his sense of humor, would sometimes stare at John in the shower with a lascivious twinkle in his eye, and then both of us, when we saw him coming near our room, would grab hold of our bunk beds to make them squeak in a suggestive way while we moaned histrionically, and when he'd say, "You guys are sick...sick...sick!" we'd reply, "You don't know what you're missing, John!" We abandoned this line of teasing when he finally conceded that perhaps he didn't. We thought he might be serious.

I also taped things to his door such as a Playgirl centerfold and a ridiculously juvenile "poem" I made up that began with the verse,

One...two...three four,
Doris, open up your door.,
Let me in to copulate.

John had a crush on Doris, who was almost as weird as he was. It was a match made in heaven. He didn't like the centerfold one bit, but he loved the poem. "Oh yeah," he said in a rumbling voice and with a big, lewd grin.

One night, Kevin, a guy from our floor who had a quietly off-the-wall sense of humor, somehow managed to climb from our floor one story below to the TV lounge wearing only boxer shorts and a pair of 3-D glasses and with a boombox strapped to his body, and he then proceeded to set the boombox on the floor, turn it on, and dance spastically directly in front of John to the cacophonous wailing of an Albert Ayler saxophone solo while John just sat there in stone silence staring into space and my roommate and I laughed till tears streamed from our eyes. After about a minute, Kevin unceremoniously turned off the boombox, strapped it back to his body, and climbed over the railing and back down to the floor below. It was one of the strangest and funniest things I've ever seen. John's only comment was, "That guy ought to be committed."

John was the subject of endless speculation among us dormmates. What was his problem? Why was he so weird? Nobody seemed to know, not even my roommate, who happened to be a grad student in his first year of the school psychology program.

Yet, one thing we did know is that John didn't particularly care for my and my roommate's antics. We found that out one day when the resident adviser for our floor came to our room holding a hand printed letter that John had given him. The letter accused us, "two notorious homosexuals," of harassing him, and it demanded that we stop. Our RA was actually quite amused by the whole thing and gave us the letter. I believe that I still have it somewhere amongst a disorganized pile of old memories stored in a box in the garage. Nevertheless, my roommate and I decided to cool it, not out of fear but out of a desire not to cause poor John any further distress. In fact, I made an effort to spend time talking amiably with him and once even took him to the Pussycat theater downtown to see his first porno movie. The first time he saw Johnny Holmes in all his magnified glory, he said, "Ohhhh, death!"

Rumor had it that John, despite his reputed brilliance, especially in math and science, was failing his classes because he wasn't attending them or doing his homework, and, sure enough, he apparently dropped out of school at the end of the semester.

I've thought about John a great deal over the following decades. I've often wondered what became of him. I had the idea that he was probably so miserable being so hopelessly strange and alienated that he might very well have killed himself and that if he hadn't, he was probably desperately unhappy. I found myself, especially in light of my increasing awareness of my own difficulties and social awkwardness, empathizing with him more and more and wishing him the best. But I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I'd see him again.

Then one day last week my wife and I went to the local tax preparation franchise to have our taxes done, and, I had no sooner said hello to the receptionist when I heard an unmistakable voice from behind a partition. I couldn't see the man speaking, but I instantly knew who it was. I looked around the partition and saw a tall man with thick glasses and beard standing slouched over, papers in hand. It had to be John! I couldn't believe it!

After we filled out some preliminary paperwork in the waiting area, we were summoned to meet with our tax preparer. I prayed that it would be the female preparer in the office and not John, or that, if it was John, he wouldn't recognize me. One part of my prayer was answered. It was John, but he didn't appear to remember me, not even when he saw my name on the paperwork we provided him. He talked to us (and to himself) in his distinctively nasally voice, sometimes snorting as he made little, mumbled jokes. He combed through our paperwork with his face just inches from it, and my wife glanced at me quizzically as if to say, "What the hell is this?" I couldn't wait to get out of there and tell her all about John.

After business was concluded, I asked the man his name. His first name, sure enough, was John, but his last name was different from what it had been in the dorm. I wanted to ask him if his last name used to be ___, but I refrained for two reasons. First, I didn't want him to know who I was before he prepared my tax return, since I thought he might harbor some grudge against me and be deranged enough to use it against me. Secondly, I thought he might not want his colleagues in the office to overhear anything about his name change.

Yet, when I returned the next day to pick up a copy of my completed return, I wanted to say something to him, and I think I would have if he'd been free to talk with me. But he was with another client. It was probably just as well. No sense dredging up a past that he might prefer to keep in the past. But our most unexpected meeting has brought many memories to the fore. I also feel relieved to know that John did not commit suicide and that, even though he seems to be almost as strange as he was more than three decades ago, he's found a way to get on with his life.

I wish him the very best.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Integral Christianity

The ancient Christian tradition stresses that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He was not simply a really great guy; nor was he simply God walking around on earth for a time. Father Thomas speaks of Jesus on the Cross, stretched out between Heaven and Earth, as a profound symbol of the wedding together, in one Person, of all of evolution—matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit—leading the way for us all to do the same. This process of divinization, as Eastern Christian traditions put it, is beautifully worded in the liturgical prayer: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” Integral spirituality likewise exhorts us to be fully human (developing our abilities to take the widest and highest possible perspectives) and fully divine (moving into states of an ever-deepening oneness with Spirit). Perhaps we too will die to the egoic self-contraction we somehow believe ourselves to be. And perhaps we too will awaken and leave behind “the empty tomb….”
--ISC Editor's Blog

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Camille Paglia on Hillary Clinton

The compulsive war-room mentality of both Clintons is neurosis writ large. The White House should not be a banging, rocking washer perpetually stuck on spin cycle. Many Democrats, including myself, have come to doubt whether Hillary has any core values or even a stable sense of identity. With her outlandish fibbing and naive self-puffery, her erratic day-to-day changes of tone and message, her glassy, fixed smiles, and her leaden and embarrassingly unpresidential jokes about pop culture, she has started to seem like one of those manic, seductively vampiric patients in trashy old Hollywood hospital flicks like "The Snake Pit." How anyone could confuse Hillary's sourly cynical, male-bashing megalomania with authentic feminism is beyond me.
--Camille Paglia

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Kind of Debate We Need

No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical. In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, where Europe is stuck in halfway status, where the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and where the nations of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives? What should be the role of Russia, which is affirming a notion of sovereignty comparable to America's and a strategic concept of the balance of power similar to Asia's? Are existing international organizations adequate for this purpose? What goals can America realistically set for itself and the world community? Is the internal transformation of major countries an attainable goal? What objectives must be sought in concert, and what are the extreme circumstances that would justify unilateral action?

This is the kind of debate we need, not focus-group-driven slogans designed to grab headlines.
--Henry Kissinger

Effective but Fair Taxation

We want a tax system that rewards risk taking. But not any risks - and not one where it's heads they win and tails I lose.
--Robert Reich

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Why Not Winner Take All in the Democratic Primaries?

If the Democrats ran their nominating process the way we run our general elections, Sen. Hillary Clinton would have a commanding lead in the delegate count, one that will only grow more commanding after the next round of primaries, and all questions about which of the two Democratic contenders is more electable would be moot.
--Sean Wilentz

I've often wondered who would be ahead in the Democratic delegate count and by how much if Democratic delegates were awarded on a winner-take-all basis in the primaries. Wilentz poses an answer that I suspect is true, and if I weren't too busy (or lazy) to do it, I could confirm or refute my suspicion for myself. If Wilentz is right, I wouldn't expect Barack Obama's supporters to admit it, but I would expect Hillary Clinton and her supporters to shout it from the figurative rooftops and for the media to make a issue of it themselves. I wonder why they don't.

But even more importantly, why do the Democrats award delegate votes the way they do instead of doing it the way the Republicans do? It seems to me that the Democratic party should award delegates to its candidates the same way that electoral votes are awarded to the candidates in the general election. The winner should take all. To do it any other way seems like a recipe for failure, especially if the following assertion by Wilentz is correct:
The latest state-by-state figures (as of late March) updated from SurveyUSA, indicate that if the election were held today, Clinton would defeat McCain in the Electoral College because of her lead in big, electoral-vote-rich states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- and McCain would beat Obama.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Another Great Depression Looming?

Andrew Leonard writes in Salon that we are far from being in anything like the Great Depression that ravaged this nation in the last century. But he also warns that it could happen again if we continue along our current economic course. Here is his prescription for a "sequel" to the Great Depression:

1. Continue to ignore growing income inequality and govern the United States for the benefit of the rich at the expense of the many.
2. Continue to whittle away at the safety nets that exist to cushion Americans from economic ill winds.
3. Continue to weaken government oversight of Wall Street.

It seems to me that if we elect John McCain--that economically ignorant, by his own admission, bastion of "conservative values"--as our next president, this prescription will be followed right to the letter. If so, will another Great Depression be far behind? Stay tuned.

Stop Prison Rape

Andrew Sullivan links to an op-ed piece in the LA Times about the deleterious effects to male inmates and to society at large of society's tacit acceptance of male prison rape. We all know it goes on, but we joke about it instead of viewing and rejecting it as the inexcusable physical and mental torture that it is. According to the article, a 2007 survey by the Department of Justice showed 20% of inmates admitting to being coerced into unwanted sex, and 10% admitting to being violently raped during the previous twelve months. This is unconscionable! No one deserves to be raped!

Here is a telling passage from the article:

Morally, our tacit acceptance of violence within prisons is grotesque. But it's also counterproductive. Research by economists Jesse Shapiro and Keith Chen suggests that violent prisons make prisoners more violent after they leave. When your choice is between the trauma of hardening yourself so no one will touch you or the trauma of prostituting yourself so you're protected from attack, either path leads away from rehabilitation and psychological adjustment.

And we, as a society, endure the consequences -- both because it leads ex-cons to commit more crime on the streets and because more of them end up back to jail. A recent report released by the Pew Center on the States revealed that more than one in 100 Americans is now behind bars. California alone spends $8.8 billion a year on its imprisoned population -- a 216% increase over what it paid 20 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation.

That's money, of course, that can't be spent on schools, on job training, on wage supports and drug treatment. Money, in other words, that can't be spent on all the priorities that keep people out of prison. Money that's spent instead on housing prisoners in a violent, brutal and counterproductive atmosphere. And there's nothing funny about that.

And here is a link to a website and organization dedicated to ending this horrible abuse.