A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Monday, January 31, 2005

The Bright, White Wall of 2007

I occasionally extrapolate the future in my mind in the form of pictures, and sometimes the pictures that arise take me totally by surprise. I learned to do this as a child. The seeds of the future are latent in the present, and the present is a discarding process, leaving you with a Euchre deck, rather than a Poker deck, for the future. So some true extrapolation is always possible, though no one can see everything.

The key, I have found, to extrapolating the future is a hyperawareness of the present. This I have had since a very young age, a capacity, and even an overwhelming desire, to watch and watch and watch. Combine this with the capacity to form pictures in the mind, vivid as the snow scenes in old fashioned novelty paperweights, and you have the mechanism for prevision of the future. It is not ESP or anything like it. It is logical extrapolation in a visual form.

Of course, the visions are not always true. But then, again, they are seldom wholly false, having about the reliability, I have found, of a five-day weather forecast rather than a twenty-four hour one, and, like weather forecasts, can only be articulated in terms of probability rather than certainty.

Immediately following the 2004 election, my visions showed me something I had never encountered before. As I attempted to extrapolate current trends to examine the possibilities for 2008-2012, I ran into a bright white wall somewhere around 2007. I didn't wholly know what to make of it then, and I still don't. For that impenetrable wall to vision still arises in my mind whenever I try to extrapolate to the future.

After reflecting on the first encounter, the thought flashed through my mind that maybe my sight was blocked because I simply wasn't going to be around to be involved in 2008-2012. I have lost about 15-20% of healthy functioning over the past 2-3 years, the most serious decline in personal health (from a physically active and demanding job of cabinet making) I have ever experienced. It has been the first serious evidence I have ever had of the possibility of my natural death.

Up to now, accidental or violent death has always been the strongest possibility for me. I have had quite a few near misses over the last half century: choking as a child, a number of traffic accidents and near accidents, a couple of incidents of vaporous poisoning, and one harrowing time on the wrong end of some guns. But, up to now, no serious threat from disease has ever appeared to me.

Now I have no idea whether the question that arose unbidden in my mind is something to be taken literally. But one can take it, perhaps with profit, hypothetically: if my death really is that close, do I have much commitment to staying around?

I really don't think I do. My rather small and emotionally distant family has left me for good--so much so that I am largely bereft of defining social relations--no one's son, no one's brother, no one's father, no one's uncle. My few friends, made in the course of a couple of different careers over the years, have been carried by the flow of life, time, and career to other places and to mental spaces where a Christmas letter is all I can expect from them, and often not even that. The careers themselves have all come apart from under me, quenching any worldly ambition in the process.

All that is truly left is Buddhism, and the love of my companion. I have still the ability to gather the accumulation of merit and dedicate it to the enlightenment of all. But past a certain point, sickness and old age render the basis for this, in a given human birth, ever more tenuous until, at the end, one is only running on the karma that brought one to this life. Why cling to that karma since it is merely sand running rapidly to the bottom of the glass? And no love whatever can overcome death once the karma driving life has run out.

One can also profitably look at this line of reflection in the opposite direction. Perhaps what is running short is the world rather than myself. Not that the world will stop in 2007, but that the lines of extrapolation from the past, from the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and World War II are finally playing out and we are heading toward a future that is truly more fluid and less fixed than that of the century which preceded it, more open to the winds of chance and more pregnant with possibilities, both good and bad, than any time since about 1500.

Maybe. Maybe not. All I really know is that bright, white wall is still there every time I look and no vision penetrates it. No new American presidential candidates emerge, no war specifically looms on the horizon, no spasm of economic volatility at home or abroad seems nailed down to a precise date, and no place in particular for me appears to exist there.

Strange, isn't it?

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Letting Go Of Fear

In order to start the discussion I would have you consider the following ideas and charts:

  • About the poverty rate and the number of people in poverty.

  • About the growing oil demand and the probability that world total energy production per capita has started to steadily fall forcing prices ever higher.

A reasonable deduction from those facts is that the vast majority of us in America have very little hope of living any better in the immediate future, and maybe the long-term future, than we now do.

A large plurality of us have no hope of doing so whatever, short of winning the lottery.

A smaller plurality of us (but still quite large) will, reasonably, live much worse in the future than they do now.

A possible worst case scenario is this:

The Olduvai theory postulates that electricity is the quintessence of Industrial Civilization. World energy production per capita increased strongly from 1945 to its all-time peak in 1979. Then -- for the first time in history -- it decreased from 1979 to 1999 at a rate of 0.33 %/year. Next from 2000 to 2011, according to the Olduvai schema, world energy production per capita will decrease by about 0.70 %/year (the 'slide'). Then around year 2012 there will be a rash of permanent electrical blackouts, worldwide. These blackouts, along with other factors, will cause energy production per capita by 2030 to fall to 3.32 b/year, the same value it had in 1930. The rate of decline from 2012 to 2030 is 5.44 %/year (the Olduvai 'cliff'). Thus, by definition, the duration of Industrial Civilization is less than or equal to 100 years.

What do you do when you have no hope?

My teachers might just say that you should rejoice.

They describe the state of true spiritual insight as the state "beyond hope" and "beyond fear". So maybe we have a golden opportunity to achieve half of it.

The material things of our lives have no more permanence than the dew on the grass and even our very life itself is like a library book which you must return when it is due. The secret to material happiness is having few desires and being content.

We want so much. And we are always watching our back. Someone might be gaining on us. Someone might be out to get us. Someone might fire us. We might lose our credit. We might lose our good name. We might lose....well, just lose, that's all!

So let's go get some steak and fries to cheer us up. No, wait, there's a lobster special on! Or maybe a good Ruben sandwich, hot aromatic corned beef smothered in sauerkraut on thick crusted bread! With white wine; no, Belgian Ale; no sweet, dark stout! And top it all off with ice cream--Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia, Hagen Das Butter Pecan, Rocky Road, Death by Chocolate....

The state beyond hope and fear. Right here, right now. Watching the breath as it goes through the nostrils, watching the mind as it flips from possibility to possibility like a mouse in a maze, taking any turn possible in order to not watch the breath going through the nostrils. If we just watch the breath--give up our hope, give up our fear--there might not be anything there at all.

That's scary. And even if there is something there, it might just be an awful bore. No self-righteous anger, no excuses, and no fun. Right here, right now. Turning the mind back to the breath anyway. Settling in on the meditation cushion. Counting the outbreaths: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, a siren in the distance, a fire maybe?, no, a murder maybe?, will I see it on the news? Oh, damn! I lost count! I'm supposed to count to twenty-one. Sigh. One, two, three, four, five....

What was that? Nothing. Not even boredom. Just nothing. No space. No time. Nowhere. An absence of hope and fear. A gap which closes before you even realize it. A gap where you could give in, relax, open up--that is, if you can find it again! Back to the count ...twenty, twenty-one. Settle. Let the count go. Just watch the breath. Just watch the mind. Funny, isn't it? Hopping around like a little wallaby down under!

Just watch the breath.

Just watch.



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Congratulations to the Iraqis

Their first election had a high turnout, despite the dangers. They are a people with hope, and I hope they like their first taste of democratic institutions, and that their election eventually brings them peace and prosperity.

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Boxing The Political Compass

My genial editor Andrew Quinn over at Verite has discovered a fine new site called The Political Compass. It appears to be a British site, and they have developed a marvelous antidote to the cardboard cartoon character labels of "left", "right", and "center"--which are all we normally use in our superficial world of political punditry.

This antidote consists of an x-y coordinate grid for locating anyone, a world leader or ordinary people like ourselves, against two measures. For us just plain folks, Compass has evolved a battery of questions-- with a four answer, Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree, set of responses--to place us on the grid. For political leaders, current or historic, they take practical policy decisions and known opinions, to similarly place them. I won't say more about the method until you have had the chance to take the test for yourself.

But I want to say a little more about my results on the test, because I found it extremely illuminating about why I often feel so rabidly angry about the policies of the current Administration.

Now, unlike many of my Conservative friends, I don't really pat myself on the back for being angry with individuals whom I disagree with politically. I hold no brief to do to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Tom DeLay what my friends often do to Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Barbara Boxer, or other prominent politicians with whom they disagree:

The man is simply a disgrace to the memories of his better brothers. "There is an old Irish Chestnut," my Granny would always say, (she knew a lot of Chestnuts, from every culture) "you come in with the face God gives you, and you go out with the face you've earned!" I think of it every time I see Ted Kennedy's ruddier-than-a-cherry face and blue-veined nose...

The Anchoress

Who are they trying to stop from Cabinet appointments? Only people of color. Coincidence? Nah, I think that Robert(KKK)Byrd, who has been dubbed the "conscious [sic!] of the Senate", is having a profound effect on the hardcore lefties.

Rosemary the Queen of All Evil

I know there are 12 others who joined her, but Boxer gets my direct criticism because she has used this confirmation process as a blatant fundraising/media extravaganza for herself. She cast a fictitious vote for fictitious reasons, as someone on Boxer's side might say.

Karol at Alarming News

I don't like Barbara Boxer, and not because she's a liberal. That can be excused. I don't like her because she's a misinformed, envious partisan hack who hates the country that allows her the freedom to run for political office despite being a misinformed, envious partisan hack.

La Shawn Barber

This follows Hillarytalk earlier this week about (what else) faith, her deep faith, how faithful she is, and her faith...and she's not saying it herself, she's getting others to say it. I can't judge her faith. God will have to do that. Maybe she is incredibly holy, but so gifted in humility that she hides it. I dunno - anything is possible, and I'm not God.... Transparent and ballsy. She doesn't care that she's as see-through as plastic wrap....Her new, and non-stop, yakking is part and parcel of her usual maneuvers of disingenuity and cynicism. In case you haven't noticed, or forgotten, the woman says anything she wants, and gets away with it, courtesy of a press that is utterly owned.

The Anchoress

Now I am equally angry with those in public office whom I disagree with, and perhaps you could find an occasional lapse in my blogging, or my commentary on other blogs, which is equally ad hominium argument and just plain personal abuse. But I'm very conservative about that sort of thing and do not liberally let it festoon my political writings, unlike my friends.

For example, when I suggested to the Anchoress that she was too fixated on Hillary as a potential presidential candidate and should pay more attention to Eliot Spitzer, the New York State Attorney General, my good friend replied, without missing a beat, Elliot Spitzer is a man who needs watching, though. He's quite the little totalitarian toady!

Oh. I see.

Why do I feel this way? Because it seems to me that the words of Frank Herbert in Dune that, even a sworn enemy whom you are fighting to the death, "has human shape and deserves human doubt", are profoundly true. And, since no one I know in America is my sworn enemy, whom I must fight to the death, I generally go further and assume that my political adversaries are simply good people in the grip of bad principles.

So I want to know why I am so angry with the people who have captured the American government, rather than assuming that they are one form or another of irredeemable blackguard and just indulging in the anger with them. And I think that the little test illuminated a great deal of why I am so angry. My score on that two-dimensional x-y grid matched that of one particular world leader the closest: the Dalai Lama.

This is not very surprising. We share, after all, the same religious commitments, the same religious values, and even very nearly the same teaching traditions (the technical term is "lineages") within our religion itself. The two of us also configure in the same general area on the Compass Test as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

But the Political Compass test also reveals one very illuminating fact, when you look at a two-dimentional political universe, instead of a mere Left-Right continuum. Leaders such as George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and even, to a lesser degree, Tony Blair are polar opposites to the Dalai Lama and myself.

Now the Dalai Lama, if you've ever seen him in person or on television, is self-evidently a whole lot less exercised about it than I am. But he is a tulku, the embodiment of the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Loving Kindness, and, in his own words, "a simple Buddhist monk". I am considerably less than this, and am torn by the winds of what we call "conflicting emotions". I try to remember however, what His Holiness knows from many lifetimes experience, that when you have made the Bodhisattva Vow, you have plenty of time and can afford to be patient.

Seeing the graphic display of the absolute political polarity of myself and George W. Bush/Margaret Thatcher, however, suggested to me that I scan the remarks of Ms. Thatcher a little more closely to see if I could define just what it is about these leaders that I politically oppose.

Why Ms. Thatcher? Because of her extraordinary capacity to articulate the Conservative and Capitalist point of view in clear, short, pointed, and elegant aphorisms. In other words, she is eminently quotable. I don't want to be accused of "misunderestimating" George W., but I think that even his most ardent partisans would agree that clear, short, pointed, and elegant aphorisms are not his long suit.

There are three Thatcher aphorisms that define clearly (and very depressingly) what in Conservatism I oppose. The first is:

There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

No. Absolutely not. And self-evidently so. Individual men and women or families (even extended ones or clans) got no further on this planet than the Clovis Point, the Paintings in the Lascaux Caves, and the statue of Venus of Willendorf, and maybe not even that far. Everything else which is not those things, or the extention of them (such as easel paintings by individual 'geniuses'), was made collectively, through Society, and through individuals recognizing and assenting to Society's demands. No individual makes a Mutual Fund and no family builds a Stonehenge, a Pyramid, or a Brooklyn Bridge. To say otherwise is to plain willfully ignore a planet full of objective evidence.

Nor is it the case that we all survive, physically or emotionally, like Daniel Boone and his kin. First of all, we are social beings, and Donne's remark "No man is an island entire unto himself..." has more applicability than just to our common travels toward death. The Boones of this world are, emotionally, exceptions to the general rule of humankind, not exemplars of it. Conditions for such things as Boone's constant moving West to avoid being 'crowded' by Society are not common either, and, like it or not, Boone himself was as tied to Society as anyone else for things like trade axes (commonly known as "tomahawks" and neither made, nor just carried by, Native Americans) and Pennsylvania Long Rifles.

In short, Ms. Thatcher is in the grip of a totally ludicrous ahistorical view of the human condition which is a smokescreen for the abrogation of individual responsibility by the politically powerful of the effects of policy on Society. I think many, if not most, of my Conservative friends are equally in its grip.

She also has this to say:

Capitalism is the only alternative.

No. Absolutely not. It may be the best alternative abstractly, it may be a better alternative than State Socialism, it may be the most workable alternative at the moment, it may be "the alternative of the hour", but it is not the only alternative. The alternative has only been available on this earth since the invention of deposit banking and the joint-stock corporation after the Renaissance. That is where the Capital in Capitalism comes from. And there are still a handful of places even yet where the alternative of Capitalism has not that effectively penetrated.

This is again the general Conservative evasion of the study of history, and the study of Capitalism as a historical human phenomenon. If we can pretend that Capitalism is as durable as the neighboring mountain has appeared to be for generations, we don't have to consider the possibility that it is an active volcano--until it erupts. And of course we are always forbidden, under pain of displeasing Mammon, from asking, "Where is Capitalism taking us to?"

Finally, Ms. Thatcher has remarked:

As God once said, and I think rightly...

This little gem summarizes what strikes me as the general Conservative attitude when referring to the Diety and His pronouncements on "moral values". It is a trivialization of the Infinite and Eternal from the seeds of spiritual pride. Now, of course, The Anchoress, like many Conservatives, practices in a Catholic tradition where things like spiritual pride are given due weight and subject to repeated warnings of due caution.

But I would assert that one of the implications of Christ's remark of "render unto Caesar, the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" is that too close an application of the things of the Church to the concerns of the Polity is not desirable. And I would further assert from careful observation both of Christian history and contemporary politics is that the attempt to do so opens many cracks in one for spiritual pride to enter.

Moreover, I would say to those like La Shawn, Conservatives of the Protestant Evangelical tradition, that the possession of the Bible is, by definition, not an absolute and complete blueprint of every concern or opinion of the Infinite and the Eternal. For the Bible is finite and He is not. The Bible should be for the Christian, rather, like the owner's manual that comes with a car, which is written by Honda but is not the final word for every possible thing Honda may be doing. A wise person of any faith, or lack of it, keeps well in mind how much they do not know about the counsels of God.

I often ask my Christian Conservative friends what they would do and say if they met the targets of their political rants in Heaven. I ask myself equally every day whether I am prepared to assume the Obligations of my Bodhisattva Vow to the people whom I politically oppose, both immediately (in terms of what we call "aspiration bodhicitta") and in future lives when I can actually interact with them directly, and from direct spiritual insight (what we call "fulfillment bodhicitta")?

I know my answer. And I hope from reading my blog you know it, too.

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Of Time Past and Tennessee Ernie Ford

I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.
I loaded
sixteen tons of number nine coal.
The straw boss said, “Well, bless my soul!”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me, I can’t go!
I owe my soul to the
Company Store.

I come by my Democratic roots honestly. My people came from the coalfields, the mills, the street brick kilns, and the iron foundries on either side of the Ohio River. I know what a Company Store is, why it kept you down and made the mine owner even more money, and why it still exists today—even though we call it Wal-Mart.

I doubt many of my readers know this. It’s like living in Chauncey, Ohio. Chauncey is just down the road from Millfield, where the Millfield Mining Disaster, entombing a set of very fine coal miners, happened in 1930. The air around there, and on one side or the other of Mount Nebo hasn’t been quite right ever since, shimmery and shivery and just wrong. A very challenging place, actually, to be out in at night.

Chauncey was the rail station. The mine owners tried to break the Union by Lock Out and Scabs, and some very good boys, with a lot of muscle from working the mines, would do shifts in the railway station. If a stranger got off the train, one of the boys would engage him in conversation about the name of the town. If the stranger didn’t know that it’s actually pronounced “Chancy”, several of the boys together would earnestly urge him to get back on the train and not return. He usually did.

Most of them, when they got too old to work the mines, died of Black Lung, the air slowly squeezed out of them day by day until the heart gives out. It’s a long slow slide and an unpleasant death. Back then there was no oxygen to help you along, just Mason Jars of White Lightning made in your neighbor’s basement still, (the Revenue Agents couldn’t pronounce Chauncey, either) and maybe a little opium paragoric, to ease the pain until the druggist insisted you’d signed the book too many times.

My father, William Marshall, remembered the newsreels of the big UAW organizing drive at Ford Motors in River Rouge, Michigan—how the union president, Walter Reuther, was beaten to a pulp by a quartet of company goons (“special deputies of the county sheriff” if anyone asked) in the middle of the River Rouge Bridge while the cameras were rolling.

My grandfather, Joe McNelly, rode his bike every day to the foundry in Ironton, prayed to God in thanks at every meal because he had spontaneously remitted from TB, chewed Red Man tobacco all his life, and kept a .32 gun in the dresser drawer. Once he had a neighbor, who let what we would call today a Pit Bull run the streets, where it snapped at Joe on his bike. He asked the neighbor nicely, twice, to keep the dog in. Then, when the neighbor didn’t get the message, Old Joe dropped the .32 into his coat pocket, and blew the beast’s brains out in the street.

He had a grip like the bite of a horse far into his late age, and it took four heart attacks and a bout of pneumonia to kill him at 89. In Joe's last days in the hospital he had the habit of patting the rear ends of the more nubile nurses. It wasn’t a politically correct time when he died, by any means.

My uncle by marriage, Lloyd Vanderlier, was a raw-boned, square headed Dutchman who worked the steel mill in Muskegon, Michigan. Van smoked unfiltered Ralieghs (a tobacco aroma rougher than a corn cob in an outhouse, as I remember it), and could punch a man harder than a mule could kick. He didn’t settle many disputes behind the mill, as guys were wont to do in those days, because the ones he did settle, he settled quickly. Nobody gave Van guff even after his hair turned completely white in his final days at the mill. He was born late enough to have oxygen for his emphensema when he died. He was carrying his portable bottle of it when they found him by his lawn mower, the motor running, and the lawn half finished.

And I myself, in college, knew Allen Zak, the neighbor of my best friend, who had been down South in the Freedom Riding days, and had not only been on the Birmingham March, but had actually photographed it extensively. It remained on his proof sheets in his darkroom for fifteen years until another friend of mine, who had enough sense to realize that Allen was sitting on an important piece of history, got the Art Museum to sponsor reprinting of those extraordinary pictures, done by a man whose life was at risk every minute he was south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Then there were the very quiet men who, in their youth about 1933, had come to the conclusion that Marx was right. They didn’t say much about it unless they knew you really well. They had lost jobs in their middle age for what they had believed in when young. This had taught them to be quiet. I'll be quiet still and not tell you their names.

Finally, I, myself, spent a few days in early May of 1970 facing down billy clubs and fixed bayonets with nothing but pieces of street brick and my fingernails. To this day I still can't smell flowering sorb without the association of tear gas.

All of these men, even the blacklisted ones, had a better life in the years when I was growing up than any but the very rich before the Great Liberal Compromise brought to us by Franklin Roosevelt. They knew why we had such things like Social Security and Bank Deposit Insurance. None who didn’t live back then really know why now. Some wish to destroy this part of it or that part of it or the other part of it. And they have already succeeded, since 1980, in destroying much of it.

This November, I had hoped to win one last time for the fast fading memory of these men, and of men like them. I didn’t. I lost. We all lost, though some of us still don’t know it.

So when I hear pundits whining today about how “uncivil” our politics are, how “polarized” we are, and how we lack “bipartisan unity”, I think about all those men of my youth and I laugh up my sleeve. If they were still around, they would laugh openly and loudly.

I was born one morning in the drizzling rain.
Fighting-and-Trouble is my middle name.
I was raised in a canebrake by an old mama lion.
Ain’t no high-toned woman make me walk no line.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Islamofacist! Islamofacist! Islamofacist!

I wanted to start this post off right by chanting the obligatory mantra of primate threat display that patriotism now demands (at least in certain media and blogging quarters) whenever we speak of our sworn enemies abroad.

The demonizing of an enemy is quite primal, and must have been functional on savannas long ago, or it would not grip us so tightly now. It might still be functional. For we do have sworn enemies and, in the end, we may just have to kill them all. The more we can convince ourselves that they are evil demons, the easier that will be to do.

But, having gotten the deadly war cry and team cheer off my chest, and, not being in position to immediately commence battle, it seems to me that, both for curiosity's sake and my own moral good health, I can take the time to consider the human beings to whom we have attached this derisive label.

For from my own moral standpoint, killing is killing whether in cold blood or hot, ultimately leading to the same very unpleasant karmic consequences. So if you must kill, do so in cold blood and at least preserve your self-respect by not hiding behind the "irredeemable and demonic evil" of your enemies. Such practices merely pile pointless lies on top of manslaughter.

So be Cardinal Richelieu, and not Torquemada, and kill men with a clear mind in preference to a clear conscience, if you must kill men at all. Because if you do, that clear mind has at least some chance to lead you to genuine moral remorse and a clear conscience certainly doesn't. And moral remorse, followed by remedial action, is the only hope of forestalling any of the consequences of any killing.

Cold blood is useful, also, when considering an enemy's humanity. For your chances of besting him increase if you understand his weaknesses. If he is an evil demon, he has none, and you will best him only by luck.

Over on One Hand Clapping I had a cut-and-thrust with Reverend Sensing recently about a remark of his that the insurgents in Iraq had "no ideas"--which is why Democracy would win out in the end. I pointed out to him that his earlier fine post on the Bush Inauguration specifically quoted the ideas behind the insurgents' critique of Democracy and that those ideas derived from the premise of absolute submission to God's will. I don't believe in the premise in the first place, Reverend Sensing would accept it, I think, only with reservations, and would not agree that it leads to a valid critique of Democracy, but the premise is an idea, as are the conclusions drawn from it, even if both the Reverend and I agree (and we do) that it is a bad idea leading to false conclusions. I think the Reverend's hot blood and the demonizing impulse got the better of him here.

Our enemies have cold blood enough to actually drive explosive-laden cars which kill them when they detonate for our destruction. Would you do that for Democracy? I don't think I would.

Gambling with death in battle merely takes courage, and the longer the odds, the greater the courage, which is why we have things for soldiers like the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross, for the greatest courage of all. But even with the longest odds there is always a chance of survival, not all medals for highest valor are given posthumously, and any surviving winner of them, I think, would say their valor was aided considerably by the immediacy and speed of the crisis in which it was displayed.

Suicide car bombing is betting against a rigged wheel in order to lose. There is no crisis compelling you to act swiftly and bravely to grasp the slender chance of survival, if it be there. You have to think about impending death and choose it in as calm and unhurried a condition as any driver might chose a freeway exit. Only ideas give anyone the nerve to do such things, ideas and, maybe, utter despair. The despair is there in occupied Palestine, though we refuse to see it because we are largely partisan in that quarrel--our media seldom cover the reasons for the Palestinian despair, and we are not inclined to read or watch them when they do.

But Iraq? There is no reason for despair there, and there is every reason for hope, unless you happened to be so high in the councils of Saddam Hussein that his fall is yours. A handful of people only meet such a criterion, not thousands of insurgents. No, it is Suicide for an Idea.

We'd better look cold-bloodedly at the idea of absolute submission to the Will of God and not deceive ourselves by demonizing our enemies. The last time we faced something like this it was called kamikaze. To forestall the very real likelihood that an entire country would be willing to commit suicide piecemeal, in the ideal of kamikaze, we had to cold-bloodedly drop the first atomic bombs.

No one should have a clear conscience over this, and everyone should have a clear mind about it, and about what it might imply for our future. For even if we might be generally unwilling to kill ourselves for our ideas, we may have to kill a great many other human beings, and not evil demons, for our ideas.

If we do, who among us will feel moral remorse after it is done?

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Red Ink Forever From Sea To Shining Sea!

The utter, star-gazing, insane enormity of this is incredible. Read this carefully, particularly the comments I have italicized. As Henry James once put it in another context: the straight-faced sober-sidedness of this Administration about these things is too colossal to be anything but innocent, but the innocence is too colossal to the anything but inane.

Bush Aides Say Budget Deficit Will Rise Again


Published: January 26, 2005

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 - The White House announced on Tuesday that the federal budget deficit was expected to rise this year to $427 billion, a figure that includes a new request from President Bush to help pay for the war in Iraq.

The White House's announcement makes it the fourth straight year in which the budget deficit was expected to grow; as recently as last July the administration had predicted that the deficit, which was $412 billion last year, would fall this year to $331 billion.

The deficit figure announced by the White House, which includes part of an additional $80 billion that Mr. Bush requested mostly for Iraq, was higher than the $368 billion estimate announced earlier in the day by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, though that figure did not include supplemental costs for the war. The deficit estimates are roughly consistent with each other with the inclusion of those costs, which cover bombs, bullets, armor for vehicles used in Iraq, and the replacement of tanks and Humvees blown up by insurgent forces.

Neither estimate includes the cost of privatizing part of the Social Security program, the leading element of Mr. Bush's domestic agenda. Estimates of the cost of creating those accounts range from $1 trillion to $2 trillion over the next two decades.

The Congressional Budget Office noted that if Mr. Bush wins Congressional approval to make his tax cuts permanent, a top priority for the administration, the deficit would grow by $2 trillion over the next 10 years. If war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan taper off gradually, the agency estimated that price tag over the next 10 years could total nearly $600 billion.

In a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, senior administration officials insisted they were still on track to fulfill Mr. Bush's campaign promise of reducing the federal budget deficit by half by 2009. But Mr. Bush is already well behind in reaching his goal. The deficit this year will amount to about 3.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy, a figure that is still below where the United States was in the late 1980's.

Beyond the war costs, administration officials did not spell out the precise reasons for the deficit increase. Tax receipts are expected to climb by about $200 billion in 2005, but mandatory spending for entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid is expected to rise significantly faster than the rate of inflation.

Mr. Bush defended his $80 billion request for Iraq in a written statement on Tuesday - he had no public events where he could be questioned about it by reporters - saying "our troops will have whatever they need to protect themselves and complete their mission."

But on Capitol Hill, Democrats made clear that while the $80 billion was likely to be approved, they would use the debate on it to question Mr. Bush's war strategy, just as they have done with the confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice, the nominee for secretary of state.....

Democrats quickly seized on the administration's announcement and the new Congressional deficit report, accusing Mr. Bush of making a bad fiscal situation worse by pushing for permanent tax cuts at a time of war.

"The administration remains in denial about these fiscal results," said Representative John M. Spratt Jr., Democrat of South Carolina and the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.....

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

We Democrats Need a New Foreign Policy Playbook--Now!

Let's start with a categorical statement. The Democratic Party was beaten in the 2004 election by the issue of terrorism, and by our inadequate response to that issue.

Before you contradict me, hear me out, and ask yourself the question: On what issue BUT terrorism does a full 51% of the electorate agree strongly enough with George W. Bush to have voted for him, no matter what?

None that I can see, can you?

Now by "terrorism" I mean something broader. I mean foreign policy. Terrorism is merely the part of foreign policy that most voters are really interested in at the moment, and are likely to continue to be interested in for the foreseeable future. But it is clear that what America finally does about terrorism is equivalent to what foreign policy it makes. Two things have happened in recent weeks which have defined the official views of the Bush Administration on foreign policy: the nomination hearings of Condi Rice and Bush's Inaugural Address.

Never mind that the practical foreign policy actually made by them so far bears only a mild family resemblance, at best, to the high rhetoric of that address. Never mind that Condi Rice was one of the major architects of some very spectacular failures in practical foreign policy, like the unchecked development of the Iraqi insurgency. For the purposes of winning elections those things really don't matter. We just had an election tell us so.

The Bush Administration has a clear philosophical view of foreign policy focused on fighting terrorism. All the other rhetoric, "supporting democracy", "fighting tyranny", and so on is tied to this basic concept of how the world is ordered: Us against the Terrorists. It may not be a view of the entire world that we like, it may not be a view that we agree with, but they do have a view. We don't.

It's time we faced that fact. A majority of Americans want terrorism fixed, they want it badly, and they insist on having the best chance of it whatever happens on any other issues. George Bush had a view, we didn't, so, therefore, we lost.

So who is our first team now on the issue of terrorism? Well, there is the team general management, the DNC, with the new General Manager shaping up to be Howard Dean at the moment. Then there are the coaches, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Finally there are the key players--the six members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Senators Biden, Sarbanes, Dodd, Kerry, Feingold, Nelson, Boxer, and Obama. These are the people from whom our foreign policy ideas will come for the next four years.

I wanted the best look I could get at the team, and its playbook on foreign policy. So I went to the Congressional Websites, and the DNC website--and this is what I found.

First of all, the DNC doesn't seem to have any new ideas about foreign policy or terrorism at the moment. On its Special Reports page is only all the ammunition it shot at George Bush back before the election, there is the Platform on which John Kerry ran unsuccessfully, and there is one press release about a 30 second television ad that aired on Inauguration day, where Terry McAullife had this to say, "And we'll demand an honest foreign policy."

That's it at the DNC. No foreign policy or terrorism playbook whatever. It's as if the issue didn't exist. Unfortunately, it does.

So how about Coach Pelosi? Well, she doesn't have a category for foreign policy on her issues list, but under Homeland Security she at least has the following statements about the Bush policy in Iraq:

"Bush Administration: Failed to Plan for the War and Aftermath.....Sent Inadequate Numbers of Troops.....Did Not Adequately Protect or Train our Troops.....Severely Misjudged How a U.S. Occupation Would be Received.....Severely Misjudged the Cost.....Doesn't Know Who the Enemy Is, Misjudged Its 'Friends'"

Maybe this is all true as gospel and certainly it is good stirring stuff. But its also merely the ammunition we shot in October and missed the target with.

So how about Coach Reid? Well, he has just published a new playbook, The American Promise: A Future of Security, Opportunity and Responsibility. This is what it has to say about terrorism:

"Democrats will work to increase our Special Operations forces by 2,000 to attack the terrorists where they are and to protect our freedoms here at home. We will further enhance our efforts against enemies by targeting the institutions that spawn new terrorists. Democrats are also united to ensure that the world's most dangerous weapons stay out of the hands of terrorists."

Not very much about foreign policy there, nothing else at all in the playbook about it, and no issue category for foreign policy, or any significant comments about it, on his personal Senate website, either.

How about the team? The Ranking Member is Senator Joseph Biden. He did make the most serious and comprehensive statement on Democratic foreign policy that I have found, on September 9, 2004 in the Wall Street Journal. An extracted quotation does not do it justice, read it in full at the link. But it is still the statement of what John Kerry would do if elected. He wasn't.

Moreover, the most serious foreign policy decision of Biden's committee for the next four years, the hearings on Condi Rice, has absolutely no presence on his website. None. Nor, surprisingly, is there really a lot about foreign policy there, either.

Senator Dodd also mentions absolutely nothing about the Rice hearings on his website. On the other hand, he has a list of his accomplishments in foreign affairs. All of them are laudable, nice nuts and bolts stuff, actually, but neither individually nor collectively do they suggest a coherent vision to oppose to that of George W. Bush. Senator Sarbanes has an equivalent amount of practical work, and an equivalent silence about Condi Rice. Not much help is available, so far, from these two, I think. Senator Russ Feingold scores a little better, not on the practical side so much, but a more coherent overall vision, and he does, to his great credit, step up to the plate about the Rice nomination.

Turning to John Kerry, first and foremost, he stood up and voted against Condi Rice and tells us so on his website, which is good. But this is all he has to say about it and foreign policy in general:

"Dr. Rice is a principal architect, implementer, and defender of a series of administration policies that have not made our country as secure as we should be and have alienated much-needed allies in our common cause of winning the war against terrorism. Regrettably, I did not see in Dr. Rice's testimony any acknowledgment of the need to change course or of a new vision for America's role in the world."

Senator Kerry, I'm afraid, needs to acknowledge, at least to himself, that he didn't have that new vision either, and that we need it, far more than they do, since their old vision just won them an election.

I gather from the press reports that Kerry still considers himself a potential contender for 2008. If he gets that vision, maybe we can look at him again--but I can't see any other reason to at the moment.

Unfortunately, matters go further downhill from Senator Kerry. As far as I can see, Senator Bill Nelson has nothing to say whatever about the Rice hearings on his website, and, as near as I can find, the last major statement the Senator made on foreign policy is an undated statement, which is at least over a year and half old: "Why Force Is Necessary To Disarm Saddam Hussein." Not very helpful for our Democratic future, really.

Now if all this is beginning to depress you, you are not alone. It was beginning to depress me, too. So I saved the best news for last.

First there is the website of Senator Barbara Boxer. Boxer was returned to Congress with more total votes than anyone but George Bush & John Kerry. She has her constituents more strongly behind her than anyone else in the Senate. Period. This has already emboldened her to step forward into a greater role of Democratic advocacy.

Right on top of the website is her proactive engagement with the confirmation hearing of Condi Rice. A good start. But the problem remains that there is nothing else whatsoever on her website about foreign policy--not in the "issues" section and not in the press releases. The overall sense one gets is that her legislative interests have been exclusively domestic up until the Rice hearings.

This must change. As our Senator with the strongest constituent support, Boxer has become the Blue States Senator-At-Large. She needs to step up and take head-on the issue which beat us in 2004. She needs to contribute to a coherent new Democratic vision of foreign policy and combating terrorism. She has the capacity and the electoral space to do it, and she deserves every Democrat's encouragement and support, both written and financial, to do so.

Finally, and most hopeful for the future, there is the new website of Senator Barack Obama. There is very little in the way of policy statements there yet, as one would expect since he has just taken office. But the mere fact that the man who was, hands down, the brightest Democratic star of 2004 is on the Foreign Relations Committee can only be called a superb coaching decision on the part of the leadership.

We need him up to speed on the issue which beat us ASAP. And the promising rookie of the team already has made the most important immediate contribution he can make--an e-mail newsletter sign-up. He's come ready to play.

Now I can't pretend to have answers to the problems that the issue of foreign policy and terrorism present to us Democrats. But I do have some real questions that might lead there, and a properly asked question is at least half the answer:

Terrorism spreads as an idea before it becomes a lethal reality. How should we address the spread of terrorist ideas, so we won't always have to chase down hundreds of trans-national, amorphous, insurgents?

America's economic future is largely in the hands of four foreign countries: China, India, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. What do we want to do about this?

America's geopolitical future is largely in the hands of four foreign countries: Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Taiwan. What do we want to do about this?

Do we really want to renew the vision of, and America's commitment to, the ideal of the United Nations as a body contributing to world cooperation and world peace? How do we do it, if we do?

I'll be doing some thinking about these questions, and, when I've finished, I'll get back to you.

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The Ghosts of the City

I sometimes wonder if there might be such a thing as time travel. While going to lunch in the center of my city yesterday I passed a clean-shaven man, of late middle age, wearing a grey homburg hat, a thick-woven, expensive, black, 3/4 length topcoat, and smoking a large blunt cigar.

Odds are that anyone reading this might not even know what a homburg hat is, they've become so scarce. It is certainly not the racy wide-brim, Aussie inspired, fedora that guys who fancy themselves bush pilots wear these days. Nor was the man's cigar the cigar of the usual hot young lawyer on the make, underneath that bush-pilot fedora, thumbing through a brief of major importance while smoking under the eaves outside the street door.

It wasn't a slim, dark, rich, and almost chocolate scented corona maduro, insanely expensive because it was grown in Nicaragua from hand-picked Cuban seed tobacco by venerable Cuban exiles. It was just a really big, blunt cigar, not cheap, not outlandishly expensive, the sort of cigar you could imagine Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, rolling in a cigar factory back in his skilled trade days in New York City.

He founded the AFL, by the way, just a few short blocks from where I was walking.

A homburg hat is a square, staid, hat with a single deep dent the length of the crown and a level or slightly upcurving brim, neither wide nor narrow and entirely bound with a discreet fabric ribbon, with an outer edge that curls up sharply around the entire circumference. It's exactly the hat that, before 1960, Presidents used to wear to their Inauguration. Even John Kennedy wore one, though I think it was the last hat he wore while in office, and most younger men stopped wearing them as well.

The gentleman I passed on the sidewalk could have easily dropped in from 1956, while on his way to a long lunch at Sam Paoletti's--dead across from the Ohio Statehouse and next door to the home of the Columbus Dispatch. The newspaper is still there, but the restaurant is now a wind-swept parking lot, and if any ghosts of genial legislators or buttonholing lobbyists remain, they must find it rather breezy on these, the coldest days of winter so far.

Perhaps the Johnny Walker Red and Sam's wonderful Prime Rib Au Jus keep them warm still, and perhaps the gentleman I passed was one of them. Perhaps not. But it is good to reflect on time, to think of myself and another precocious junior high school boy lunching on that Prime Rib ten years later, in 1966, under the same red neon sign towering over the Dispatch building that towers over it today.

The plaque marking the founding of the AFL still abides, though the shabby homes surrounding the great Central Market were all bulldozed down by urban "renewal" just about the time I was lunching at Paoletti's, as was the Market itself. And the shiny new Holiday Inn that was built on the site then is now as shabby and down at heel as the homes which it replaced.

I sometimes wonder, as we dig ever deeper into this new virtual world of ours, whether these layers of time present interpenetrating time past will survive in any fundamental way. I am writing this, to be input later, with a flat nibbed calligraphy pen in a personal hand somewhere between Irish half-uncial and Renaissance italic--but, without my telling you this, the input will strip all that away. And even then, will those layers mean much to you in any fundamental way? I don't know. Did anyone younger than me, that hot young lawyer, say, notice my ghost, if ghost he was? I gravely doubt it. Will any one yet unborn notice me if I return for a latte at Starbuck's? I don't think so. They'll all be too busy with whatever passes for being online then, where I, of course, will have left no trace.

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Monday, January 24, 2005

The Face You Deserve

Looking in the mirror is a primate sort of thing, like playing with things with your opposable thumbs. Despite moral strictures against vanity, however, unless you're both as young, and as good looking, as Paris Hilton, the mirror is usually a good check-up on the state of your soul as well as your body, if you know how to read what you are looking at.

Abraham Lincoln said that by forty you have the face you deserve. But his was a harder age and I would up it to fifty. I had my photgraph taken at forty, for my mother--who doated on that sort of thing, and I was probably, like my mother was at the same age, as handsome as I'll ever be. Time had softened the over-angular cheekbones and jaw of a Highland and Belfast Irish ancestry, and experience had lifted the tendency in my twenties toward over-serious frowning, and had put a skeptical and mischevious glint in my eyes.

I don't think I deserved so good a face. I didn't bother to have a picture taken at fifty. My mother had been dead two years by then, and I had already grown the bushy grey beard which partially hides both my record of moral turpitude and my expanding double chin. Why, I said to myself, mess with a good thing?

But I do keep track in the mirror, just for the record. The hairline has receeded enough to reveal the dent in my skull from the doctor's forceps at birth. When that showed up in the mirror, I finally had an explanation of why it took me two years to learn how to balance a bike, to my everlasting mortification at five years old.

The lazy left eye still flutters inward when I'm over tired. A new furrow is graven in my forehead, a redder gash from the pressurized air mask I wear for sleep apnea. The gash wouldn't be as deep if I were wearing a new mask, but this is America, where my moral failure of having a limited income from honest work deprives me of health insurance. So my old, old mask is held together with heavy gage wire and duck tape, for the duration.

The eyes still glitter mischeviously in the mirror, but there is a harder and tarter edge to them, as there is in my writing, a little more of the pugnatious Irishman and a little less of the bouncy Leprechaun, than at forty. I have seen too many of the values I cherish pushed aside in this country and been too often on the losing side in politics to have retained much in the way of innocent merriment.

Knowing, ironic, and guilty merriment I still have aplenty, however. It shows in the mirror as well as in the postage stamp picture on my ID badge. Yes, I have an ID badge. Dosen't everybody? How else can we tell ourselves from the terrorists? Of course, everyone in town has virtually the same ID badge, so we can't tell ourselves, or our employers, from each other without inspecting the thing with a magnifying glass, but it makes us feel more secure.

In any event, the sardonic chuckles are still there behind the heavy-framed, old-fashioned, large-lensed, glasses and the bushy beard; under the mop of salt-and-pepper hair; and above the boldly patterned blue sport shirt.

So there I sit in my ID, looking for all the world like an outtake from Joe Claus goes Hawaiian. I'm much the same in my mirror; a walking advertisment for one of my deepest nuggets of wisdom--Life is too short not to wear loud shirts.

Such other wisdom as I have graces these virtual pages as well as my mirror. Such other foolishness, too. I'll leave you to decide what proportion of each.

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Liberal Life Stories?

This is a post by Timothy Burke, linked to by Matthew Ygelsais. It speaks to the difficulty, as I have below, of educated and intellectual Liberals coming to terms with how to speak honestly about our views:

Rather than telling the story of their political values as a kind of moral fantasy of their own compassion and boundless emotional commitment to selflessly aiding the less fortunate, perhaps they could say more, and say it more authentically, about the roots of their social vision. At the very least, this might prove a more potent and honest—if not particularly democratic—reply to the kind of anti-intellectual populism that is embodied in something like the resurgence of creationism in many parts of the United States. It might also reconnect educated liberal Americans with a hopeful, progressive story of American life as opposed to a bitter story of alienation from America.

Okay, I'll give it a try. Boundless emotional commitment to selflessly aiding the less fortunate was never my narrative anyway. It has always struck me, frankly, as a fatuous projective fantasy on us by our rather anti-intellectual Conservative friends, a straw man to oppose their attitude of realpolitic, good common sense, and moral superiority (the keywords here are "taking responsibility" and "knowing the difference between right and wrong") to the less fortunate.

I stand for the Public Interest. Let's give an example: in my state, Ohio, there has been no real "economic recovery" from the downturn of 2000, particularly no recovery in the form of an increase in new jobs to replace those lost. It is also a largely Republican-run state where the demands of "workfare" that people find work where it does not exist, and the continuous slow squeezing of the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the disabled out of the benefit system has been refined to a fine art practiced with gusto and relish from the Ohio Statehouse.

It is in the Public Interest for Americans not to be unemployed or underemployed. It is not in the Public Interest for those who are, and have no way to create employment for themselves, to crowd the entrance ramps of the freeway in the driving rain or snow (as they do now and as they did through much of the Reagan/Bush One years, too) with cardboard signs reading: "Homeless, Starving, Will Work, Please Help".

This is NOT a matter of charity and sympathy in a country of citizens with "liberty and justice for all", however much it would be so in a country of subjects, serfs, slaves, "separate but equal" races, or biological robots whose only purpose in life is to make someone else money, and then decently die (knowing the difference between right and wrong, and doing so responsibly, of course) when they are surplus labor and thus no longer needed.

It is a matter of the Public Interest to "promote the general welfare" and "secure the blessings of liberty" not to have this happen. Those are the roots of MY social vision as an intellectual Liberal: they call it the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

Philosophically at least, I think my Conservative friends stand for the denial of the existence of a Public Interest, however much they have a sentimental and lacrymorse fondness for things like a strong military of fine, upstanding, and brave citizen/soldiers, called upon to give "the last full measure of devotion"-- which is also part of the Public Interest called "providing for the common defense".

Show them a flag-draped coffin, and, even if they are not willing to pay more taxes for it, they are certainly willing to borrow more money on the behalf of all of us for it--as well as borrow the money for any special little projects for their own State or Congressional district.

Why is it so difficult, for example, to convince them to believe that breathing dirty air, drinking dioxin flavored water, eating mercury-laden fish, and eventually losing our great agriculture to global warming, is bad for everybody? And this despite that fact that it makes a few of us richer, and gives a large number of us the comforting illusion that, somehow, our "freedom" has increased, or at least our income has not diminished, because of it.

It does not form a more perfect Union to have these things happen. It does not promote the general welfare to have these things happen. It does not provide for the common defense to have these things happen. And it does not secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity to have these things happen.

Isn't there really a Public Interest? And isn't it in that Public Interest for this not to happen?

How's that for a Liberal Life Story, an honest narrative of the authentic roots of my intellectual Liberalism, Mr. Burke?

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Welcome Back Andrew!

Andrew Quinn, who used to blog as Teenaged Pundit has now renamed his blog Verite. He was kind enough to invite me to guest blog, and I was about to add his blog to my roll, without realizing it was already there! I gather he wanted his opinions to be read on their own merits and not as the product of prodigy. He's still as sharp a blogger as ever, and it will be a pleasure to guest blog with him now and then.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Would That They Ran Wars As Well As They Write Speeches

President Bush gave an outstanding Inaugural speech. The rhetoric of it was superb. As with any really good political gesture, this speech has generated some truly radish crisp and intelligent blogger commentary. My two favorites, so far, are Mathew Yglesias and Donald Sensing.

With Reverend Sensing, I also think that the core of the speech was this phrase:

"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

There is absolutely nothing in the phrase that I would not agree with. It expresses my values as much as it expresses the President's values. But the President is correct that success in this is a matter for generations and not just four short years. He has had four short years, he will have four more short years.

In the last four years the sum total of our successes has been the deposition of two authoritarian regimes, at an enormous cost in money and military force, and without much indication, as yet, that this particular approach has created lasting democratic institutions in their place. And no indication, as well, that it has persuaded any country we have not invaded to become more democratic.

As a matter of practical policy, the only successful "support" from us for democratic institutions has consisted of removing tyrants by force and engaging in wars of attrition with everyone else there who does not want democratic institutions to form. So I presume, after finishing, if we ever do, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will immediately start doing this somewhere else. Besides the money spent, which is insanely enormous, this has cost us, on average since we invaded Iraq, 500 soldiers killed, and 4000 soldiers horribly maimed, a year.

A generation is 20 years. That adds up to 10,000 soldiers killed and 80,000 without arms, legs, and even faces, for, maybe, five countries "democratized". Two generations is forty years and adds up to 20,000 dead, 160,000 pitiful cripples and 10 countries relieved of tyranny. Three generations is sixty years and 30,000 dead, 240,000 maimed, and 15 democracies flourishing.

If this is to be our "victory" over tyranny, I think our hands are too small to hold it.

George, maybe you should concentrate for the next four years on cleaning up the mess you've already made. Future generations can decide for themselves whether "forced democratization" is truly intelligent and effective foreign policy.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Vividness of the Ache of Youth

Lust is a many splendored thing. Particularly when combined with love. The shivers from the fever of my most torrid affair revisit me sometimes, with a longing for the sweetness of falling in love and for the bitterness of the resulting heartbreak, as well.

For I always had the Jones for jillflirts and cruel fair maidens, and--whatever kink it represents in the Y-chromosome--an almost overwhelming capacity to fall for freshly minted lesbians or lesbians-to-be. Moreover, I had the "good buddy" links to several out, long-term, lesbians who had good, healthy, and strong relations with their fathers. I don't think I sought all this out consciously. Indeed, I was blindsided a couple of times by it. But it just kind of fell out that way.

It made for interesting, and soap opera strength, love triangles, love pentagons, and even love dodecahedrons a decade and more ago. All gone now, of course, and only the memories remain.

These memories flash suddenly and with hallucinatory vividness for me occasionally, for that is part of my biochemical brain disorder. Not the actual time making love, usually, though one particular night in a New Orleans hotel, after dinner at Antoine's with the famous Oysters Rockefeller, Pimm's Cups later, and a stroll in the moonlight through the Vieux Cairee, still lingers. As well it should, since the specific night which followed popped just about every circuit breaker that I had.

But, more often, the collateral memories when love, lust, and spectacular beauty in the surroundings combined to an exquisite anticipation of desire, rather than the consummation of desire itself, are likely to flash for me.

I can still see every detail of dining on tiny sanddab fish, breaded in cornmeal, on Cannery Row, in Monterey. The sun was setting in fire orange, gold, and regal robin's egg blue, and the small, black cranes of Monterey Bay were skimming the surface, hunting for the same fresh sanddabs as I was eating. The vividness of my lady's pert round face, under its young esquire haircut, in that evening ocean sun, made the return to the motel room in Pacific Palisades almost anti-climatic.

Why not on the beach? I can hear you ask. We walked there in the Full Moon, but the tide, a fast freight train of a Northern California tide, was coming in far too rapidly to make even a half-hour of it, let alone a night.

The anticipation of desire, in my experience at least, is far more of a gourmet treat than its fulfillment. So an afternoon alone in San Francisco's shopping district, buying stone beads of different colors and giving directions to two young Asian ladies (one plain and one very fancy) about how to string a surprise magic necklace for my moon-faced beauty, is more vivid to me now than the presentation of the necklace itself, or the exceptionally warm and steamy interlude which followed. The store clerks were fascinated, I knew, by how head over heels in love I was, and startled at a man choosing to express it in the way that I was doing, and the interchange between the four of us, which was mine alone to have, is still amazingly electric in retrospect.

So the permanently exotic scenes now flash by me on the screen of a bare grey world of penury, air pollution, and unrelievedly cloudy winter prospects, in the middle of Midwestern Everywhere Else. There is, for example, the Albuquerque of thirty years ago, long before the California love above, when there was more ozone in the air than now, the sky was far bluer, and you could even jaywalk across the main street in the city.

They always say in Albuquerque, "You should have been here when..." Well, I was there when, at a spectacular Fourth of July barbecue in a warm old adobe house with a snug fireplace and exposed wood beams. It lasted ten hours from the mid-morning digging, fueled by Coors beer, of the barbecue pit. It resulted in two divorces, a drive-by flag stealing, and a wild, but unsuccessful (thank heavens!), chase of the thieves while wielding kitchen knives and baseball bats in the air.

It was quite a good party, with the usual mass erotic aftermath. But what sticks with me most vividly, three decades later, are little details like the high polish on my bullhide Tony Lama boots, sitting by the side of the bed, or the smell of roasting ribs mingling with perfume as I ran a gentle finger first down one side and then down the other of a certain delicately arched spine.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

My life has been bitter, but, then, so is the best chocolate. I have loved and lost and watched all my family die. I have read, studied, and written; failed and succeeded; looked and photographed; thought and cried.

Now I am old. Not really old, but the old that is no longer young. The old that still has many pleasures, but where the greatest pleasure comes from the relief of some chronic discomfort: digging a piece of crud out of the ear, scratching the spot exactly between the shoulder blades, shifting in a chair, or even shifting chairs, to relieve a twinge in hip or knee. Relief is now more intense than any positive pleasure.

Old age is a creak in the joints and a stain in the eyes. This last especially, a jaundice of faded hopes and abandoned ambitions. But, if you're lucky, the fear of failure and of authority fades, too, leaving the eyes with a calmness and a becoming mildness. It is a tamer version of the soft, liquid, and vulnerable eyes of someone who has beaten heroin.

I have beaten both love and lust.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Now Is The Time For All Good Men [and Women] To Come To The Aid Of Our Country

Just above my blogroll you will see my first blogad. It is for this site, dedicated to the refuting the delusion that there is a Social Security crisis. Why is there no Social Security crisis? There would be no particular reason why Social Security could not be funded, even through general government revenues, if necessary. "Billions for Iraq, but Not One Cent for Americans (except for those in the highest tax brackets)," simply does not wash.

Prominent progressive linkers to this good cause are here, here, here, and here. Join up. Refute the Republican Noise Machine, and tighten down the wingnuts on this issue once and for all!

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The Sense of Fact and the Theory of Unintelligent Design

One of the most compelling intellectual encounters of my college days was with the essays of T.S. Eliot. When I first read Eliot's characterization of Paul Valery, "so intelligent that he had no ambition," it went through me like a 9mil slug.

I was young, only moderately intelligent (and knew it), and I had great ambitions still. Of these only the moderate intelligence remains--youth and ambition have fled. I frequently stand abashed (yes, abashed!) at the number of bloggers I read who share with us all, confidentially, that they either belong to MENSA, or could belong if they really wanted to, sometimes with a rather tragic edge to such things, unfortunately. I'm not really intelligent enough to belong, myself, but I sometimes think that, even with all the bright and sterling intelligence among us, there is little genuine sense of fact. The virtual space we write in doesn't encourage it.

What it does encourage are exceptionally bright people, whose razor intellect is not only honed far finer than mine ever was, but also who retain the suppleness of mind of youth--which allows a tight fit around genuine intellectual and philosophical issues. I no longer have this suppleness, I'm afraid, but I still enjoy watching Matthew Yglesias and Majikthise exercise it well. They still have perfectly sized sets of university-trained sockets to turn these bolts, where I must get by with my Gator-Grip, bought for $19.95 (with special offer included!) on late night cable TV.

The "sense of fact" is another intellectually numinous concept that I found in Eliot's essays. It described perfectly what I, who had ambitions to be a famous photographer, was trying to achieve: mastery of fact. I no longer photograph, haven't now for 20 years, and I no longer have ambitions about it, but I am still trying to achieve a fully developed sense of fact, which may, as Eliot suggests, be the best indicator of a completely cultivated and civilized mind.

However, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, "The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind, if one may say so." The word "fact" in English is one of those fine short monosyllables that deceive you into thinking that you know what they represent far better than you actually do.

Photography helps here. Photographs show you directly that "fact" is everything that answers, truly, the questions Who? What? Where? When? How large? or How many? There are facts which cannot be photographed, but those that can are the type for the rest: the questions remain the same. No photograph can actually answer these questions specifically without context, but all photographs can answer them potentially about the facts they picture. That which can be counted, measured, ordered, located or photographed is part of the universal inventory. And the extent of the inventory is equivalent to the sum of the facts.

What photographs do not tell you are the answers to the questions Why? and How? and a sense of fact is the clear perception that these last two questions are qualitatively different than the other six. They are about the essentially intangible relations between facts rather than the facts themselves. No matter how many facts we identify, the relations between them always require inference to discern. So, therefore, those relations remain always subject to differences of opinion.

I think most people, and many very intelligent people, including some potential members of MENSA, really find facts to be a bore. And this is the reason for the debate about a "scientific" theory of Intelligent Design. The number of potential opinions as to why and how things are they way they are is infinite: facts are limited, by necessity, through access by our perception. The inventory is the way it is, no matter why or how, and it is how much it is, because of the limits to our perception, so the inventory really does not stimulate the limitless flights of thought a bored intelligence demands.

Science starts with observation of fact and it ends with the clarification and, eventually, the expansion of fact. I say eventually because not all scientific hypothesis lends itself to immediate test. Often it takes further hypothetical thinking to even discern an approach to experiment. This is why "intelligent design" is a piece of dogmatic theology and not a scientific hypothesis--it tells us nothing new about the facts: you start with, "Well, the facts look to me like they were intelligently designed," and you end with, "Well, the facts look to me like they were intelligently designed." The existence of an Intelligent Designer, if it be so, doesn't alter the markings on the Galapagos finches one jot, or tell you what to do next about what you find out about them by looking at them. And the whole red herring of Intelligent Design is both a piece of circular reasoning and a case of special pleading for an ideological agenda, the propagation of literal truth of the Biblical creation narrative, which is exceptionally distant from the sense of fact.

Perhaps a way to clarify this is to oppose the dogmatic theology of Intelligent Design to its real converse, which is actually not Evolution through Natural Selection, but the Theory of Unintelligent Design, a theory proposed by a United States Air Force captain by the name of Murphy. If we take Murphy's Law, "If anything can go wrong, it will," and pose it next to Robert Browning's formulation of the Theory of Intelligent Design, "God is in His heaven and all is right with the world," something of the dogmatic character of both are illuminated. And if we take O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law, "Murphy was an optimist," and rephrase it as a Theory of Unintelligent Total Lack of Design, "Everything does go wrong all of the time without exception," we now have a new set of sociological facts to add to the inventory which suggest the sheer arbitrariness of all these popular dogmatisms.

I have been unable to find out just who O'Toole was, by the way, so I have no link to offer for him.

What my sense of fact tells me, as well, is that the "scientific theory" of Intelligent Design is as much a cheapening of the value of religious faith as it is an abuse of scientific thought. No one of us can say with certainty that they can number the angels in the way we can number the finches of the Galapagos, and, if one believes in Eternity, it is by no means certain that even number itself will have the same meaning in Eternity that it has in Time. In this matter science and fact are Caesar's, not God's, and should, as Christ pointed out, be rendered to Caesar.

On the other hand, a genuine sense of fact makes it clear that fact itself is incomplete without the relations which explain it, and it is problematic whether those relations exist anywhere but in our self-conscious minds themselves, or, as my Buddhist teachers would put it, in the mind that has no limits or boundaries in any direction, including that of "my" mind and "your" mind.

This is why the Positivist philosophy which denies metaphysics (and it is a philosophy, a "scientism", and not "science" itself) is the mirror image of the special pleading for the literality of Genesis which is behind Intelligent Design. The point of metaphysics is that our physics is incomplete because it offers no coherent, non-circular, explanation of our minds in Time, of why the same intelligent self-awareness, that makes both science and religion possible, even exists at all.

Intelligent Design is the dogmatic, and rather ridiculous, attempt to collapse the world of fact into the space of Eternity. Positivist "scientism" is the dogmatic--and problematic--circular explanation of the problem of self-conscious minds. Either is a philosophy which can be embraced or a dogma which can be promulgated. Neither are science.

MENSA anyone?

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Monday, January 17, 2005

Thank you Mr.Yglesias, for Making It Perfectly Clear

Oh and, by the way, the President has made it plain to the Washington Post that we no longer 'need' a Gay Marriage Amendment to the Constitution.

Hence, Matthew Yglesais:

"This is what social conservatives deserve to get sneered at for. They're the great suckers of American politics, whipped into a frenzy every two or four years and ordered to vote Republican in order to hold back the tide of libertinism, and then the Republicans don't lift a finger to do so. For one thing, their financers don't support the social conservative agenda. For another thing, if social conservatives ever had anything done for them, they might not be so mad all the time. But last and by no means least, social conservatives get screwed every time because their willingness to get screwed and then come crawling back begging for more next time there's an election on is well-established."

Pea and Thimble, anyone?

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

What More Do We Need To Hear?

President Bush has been interviewed by the Washington Post. According to him, since he was reelected to the Presidency, there's no need to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes made in planning for the war in Iraq, or its aftermath.

A leader who refuses to accept responsibility for his own decisions or those of his subordinates is contemptable, and a mortal danger to the people he leads.

The people who elect him in spite of that fact are beneath contempt.

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Living On The Fat of the Land

I am obese. There are doctors who might speculate on whether or not I am "morbidly obese", but they just don't know Joe Claus. I appear to be in good company in America. Supposedly somewhere around sixty percent of us, I believe, are also obese. But I do wish the people who sell us our clothing would take more notice of this fact, besides starting to charge extra money, which many do, for larger sizes. A couple of years ago, I began to routinely look to Big & Tall retailing to serve some of my clothing needs, with the corresponding contraction of sizes, colors, and styles.

The regular clothes purveyors are starting to take notice. Men's pant waist sizes that used to stop at 46 everywhere have been inching, in the cheaper lines such as suit separates, up to 52. The shirt makers still haven't broken through the neck size of 18 as the largest off the rack, but the high end off the rack retailers have given in to demand and are now regularly offering custom shirting.

But, unfortunately, the people who manufacture clothes are largely in third world countries where prosperity has not yet translated into massively higher calorie intakes in an exerciseless life (though their time is coming, and it warms the cockles of Joe Claus' heart to think so! With the clothes they do make for me, they deserve it!). And the people who dictate fashion, even for men, make a point of pride to remain perfect mediums all their lives whatever the frantic and anorexic costs.

So while I do not have to go naked, my life is a constant struggle of trying to look a little less like an unmade bed in my clothes than is normal for a fat man. The makers of men's clothes may make them bigger, but they have yet to figure out how to change the proportions of the parts (such as shirt collar lengths) to keep a decently dressed fat man from looking like a teapot in a tea cozy!

And the fascist fashionistas have declared for decades now that obesity is the Sin Against the Holy Ghost, which is said to be beyond forgiveness, and have condemned us all to styles (such as two-piece suits and long, four-in-hand knotted ties) in which I either look wrinkled and sloppy, or like a well-dressed fifty gallon oil drum whose bespoke clothing comes from Omar the Tentmaker.

Now I know that the odds are that a certain percentage of even my miniscule readership have the same problem I do. So I'm going to offer a few hints of what to do if you are a fat man who wishes to look reasonably well-dressed despite a world-wide clothing conspiracy to keep you looking as ridiculous and absurd as possible.

First of all, shop regularly and systematically in thrift stores and don't let yourself be discouraged that so few Big and Tall clothes show up there. When they do, they will be gems, and you are not looking (as are the "normal" sized shoppers) for a whole wardrobe of better label clothing which you could never afford to buy new. Be content to find one or two pieces that look good and are in good shape on the good days, and take the bad days as they come. You don't have to spend nearly the time on any one shopping trip that your smaller brethren do, since you can, with practice, whip through racks of too small like a hot knife through butter. Be persistent and shop the same stores regularly, for you are looking to catch things before anyone else rotund has seen them.

Second, buy your dress shirt collars a little large. Snug fitting here means a very bad set to the collar which gives you a sea-turtle look. It takes a larger collar to lie properly, with the proper knot style in the tie, you can set it to best effect--and, as a bonus, it will be more comfortable, and your constant discomfort will not ruin your good looks.

In addition, wear three-piece dress ensembles, preferably with two button coat styles and longer lapels, though these last are optional. Don't be buffaloed by the fact that you see them on no one else--you will look better in them, for you should wear an open suitcoat for its freedom of movement and its better drape over your heft. And you should never, never, never expose the chest and stomach of a button front dress shirt tucked into your pants. If you can't find three-piece suits, buy deep v-neck sweater vests (try the thrift stores here) or button cardigan sweater vests (button all the buttons if you do). Do not buy sleeved sweaters, buy cotton exclusively, and buy them about a size smaller than normal (XL if your shirts are 2X, ect.). Cotton stretches and will look sloppy in your usual size, and wool and acrylic will be too warm indoors, even with the coat off (which you should be willing to do, if you have a properly sized vest, for uncovered shirt sleeves lengthen your figure--but don't forget to always put the coat on a hanger). Remember that you already have an extra layer of insulation and choose your fabrics accordingly.

Wear suspenders underneath the vest and avoid belts. Make the effort to have your cleaners add brace buttons to the trousers, or, if you can always conceal them with a vest, go to hardware stores (Sears is excellent!) and buy the heavy-duty clip suspenders made for skilled tradesmen. Trousers always drape better with suspenders than they do with belts, and will, again, be more comfortable in the bargain. A further tip: if possible, attach suspender clips exactly over belt loops for a more secure hold.

Your vest gives you the freedom to tie Windsor and Half-Windsor knots in your ties and to wear the tip of them a little short. Take advantage of this, because it will give you better control of the set of your shirt collar than a four-in-hand knot. Wear a concealed tie clip, hooking the rear dangle of the tie to your shirt button placket just above the tie keeping label. This will help prevent natural movement from badly disarranging the set of your tie as it rubs against the resistant textured cotton of your sweater vest.

Choose your colors and patterns of suiting carefully and eschew exaggerated contrasts of tone, pattern, or hue; avoid chalk stripes, or plain solids, in suits and jackets; and seek out very subtle thread color patternings in all your dress outerwear. Look for contrasting textural interest between your sweater vests, your shirts, and your suiting. What the Brits call a very slightly "country" look to the suiting will usually flatter you best. Wear French cuffs with discreet but rich links, if you like, they go well with a jacketless silhouette indoors, but avoid white cuffs and collars on colored shirts.

Heavier men have a harder time achieving the proper "break" of the trouser cuff over the top of the shoe and the exact one-half inch of shirt cuff showing below the jacket cuff. Wear pleated trousers always, don't be afraid to buy shirt sleeves a little long, and have jacket sleeves and trouser lengths carefully altered, if need be, to achieve this. Also, consider "half-boot" slip-on shoe styles and cuffless trousers for a more forgiving treatment at the ankles, and care for your dress shoes (with mink oil and horsehair brushing if they are not suede) religiously.

For casual tops that give three season wear choose the following: long sleeved Rugby shirts, short sleeved polo shirts, and cotton fatigue sweaters. All of these are usually cut better than average in the bigger sizes, and Rugby shirts particularly are designed for big men to both look good and move freely in them. They are also among the easiest styles to find in thrift stores.

Once again, wear suspenders under them and over your t-shirts (preferably deep v-neck once again), buy pleated twill pants for maximum comfort, and choose discreet patterns and colors which flatter your complexion (a girlfriend or wife's eye, if she dresses smartly, is helpful with this). In the summer, break training and switch to all cotton button fronted shirts with straight hems, bought a little large, and worn untucked, over elastic-waisted trousers. Take this season to indulge a little in brighter patterns or colors in the shirting.

Finally, always remember that if you do not feel good in your clothes, you will not look good in them, so never wear anything uncomfortable merely to be fashionable, or to fit in. And remember, further, that being well dressed is a much an attitude as a set of clothing, so always wear your clothes as if you meant it!

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Saturday, January 15, 2005

My Good Friend's Grief and Suffering

The Anchoress' brother has finally passed on. His illness was long and wearing on her and her family. Go over and offer your prayers and good wishes.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, swa ha! (3x)
Om Mani Padme Hung! (108x)
Karmapa khyen no! (1080x)

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There are Cyber-Retreats and then there are Cyber-Retreats

The Anchoress suggested in a comment below that I check out her post on a "cyber-retreat," an article about guest opportunities in a Catholic monastery and how the authors responded to their retreat experiences. I would have commented directly on her post, but I found the contrast so striking to the customary experience one has visiting my Buddhist monastery, that a full-dress post of my own would not be out of place.

The article advises checking ahead at the retreat center you choose because, "you may not get the experience you envision." My experience with Buddhist retreat centers, both Zen and Tibetan, is that not getting what you expect is the whole point of going. The Trappist experience described in the article is that of a retreat to a calm place of natural beauty with unstructured time to improve one's receptivity to spiritual things, or, to simply decompress from an overstimulated life. The whole tone is one of time slowed down.

My monastery has an equally isolated and idyllic setting. But going there is usually an exposure to time speeded up! Physically, it is as quiet as the ever-present mountain wind. Psychologically, it can be like rush hour in midtown Manhattan.

The people in a Buddhist retreat center are doing things, and usually doing them very intensely. Come to any Buddhist group meditation where everyone is sitting quietly, concentrating on the breath going through the nostrils or the hara below the bellybutton, and it is as if you walked into a power station with a smartly humming dynamo. Attend a dharma teaching by a well-qualified lama and you will find the students at a pitch of attention which, anywhere else, would only be elicited by the solemn words, "This will be on the final exam." In one of the major initiations or regular rituals you may notice that the whole atmosphere is quite crowded, as if half the company consisted of invisible people sitting a little above your head.

Confidentially, when you happen to feel this way, you are probably right. There are usually more guests at the Monastery than appear on the desk register.

In addition, my teachers tell me that intense meditation, powerful ritual, or deep Dharma teachings tend to throw everybody's karmic processes into Fast Forward. So many varieties of neurotic feelings and behaviors can emerge from both you and your fellow students. The point of what is called "meditation in action" is getting your hands dirty, and relating properly to such exaggerated feelings and actions, which are well beyond your comfort zone.

All sorts of strange people show up at a Buddhist retreat center and all sorts of perfectly ordinary people occasionally behave in strange and unexpected ways.

It isn't just the people who can be crazy. A typical, and very spiritually fruitful, visit of mine to my Monastery occurred the day after a major coastal hurricane had passed through. I was trying to keep an appointment for an important private interview with my lama, who is the Monastery Abbot, and his translator. I made several abortive automobile forays up the mountain, only to find the roads blocked by fallen trees, and I made many frantic attempts to call the Monastery office on a cell phone while constantly losing the signal before getting through.

I finally had to drive completely around to the opposite side of the mountain, about 20 miles out of my way, and come up the back road. My lama was kind enough to grant me a late interview, but the whole process provoked every imaginable permutation of anxiety and frustration. And dealing with this properly was, as always, the spiritual point:

"Whether what happens is an obstacle or a stepping stone for further realization depends on the meditator....They are just another play of illusion. If a person understands and relates in this way, whatever drama appears in meditation could be tremendously uplifting....The demon of your confusion does not cling to you; you cling to it. From that point of view, such an event becomes a kind of special treat and a technique that brings more enrichment than the ordinary process. What is really important is how a person is able to work with what happens, so strictly speaking, these neither are obstacles or are not obstacles."--Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

So, overall, a visit to a Buddhist retreat center is not precisely like the Anchoress' cyber-retreat. What it is like cannot be wholly put into words. But if you imagine a beautiful and isolated mountain top, with stunning vistas, where you re-stage the movie Animal Crackers, with half the characters completely invisible to the other half, and throw in some fickle mountain weather, you are very close to the flavor of it all. The spiritual part is learning to relate to such an outrageous scenario mindfully and effectively.

And you really can learn to do that there.

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