Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Practicing Progressive


Recent days have brought a surprising increase in invitations of friendship from people who, I had always assumed, already were my friends. In addition, I have of late received similar requests from folk I barely know or, in a few instances, do not wish to know. By now any of you still bearing breath understand that I am writing of the cultural phenomenon that has captured the hearts and minds of 98% of the known world which, judging from the influx in offers of cyberspacial friendship, probably includes every person you have ever encountered in the course of this lifetime and the next

Previously, I had assumed that a “Facebook” was a compilation of villainous mug shots like those Dragnet’s Jack Webb displayed to innocent victims of a 10-32 or an 8-17 while telling them in his famously mundane monotone to “Just take your time, Ma’m, and see if any of these look social deviants look like the punk who stole your purse.”

Now, of course, I know that “Facebook” and its evil twin, “My Space”, are simply the latest means of communicating among those of us who wish to continue in some kind of relationship with the rest of humanity.

Those of us of wending our way through our 60s and, hopefully, beyond are constantly confronting similar existential dilemmas. In our quest to remain current with developments of the modern age, we are frequently faced with decisions of relevance. Our choices reveal our willingness to continue the quest. Many of us aging boomers can remember some of our more common communal whines: “What do I need an e-mail address for?” and “I’ll be damned if I’m going to get a cell phone!”, being two of the most frequently proclaimed. One can understand, I hope, the need for sympathy as we elders discover that we can no longer play our 8-tracks in the car or find a phone booth anywhere but displayed in dioramas in the Museum of Science and Industry.

I remember the first time I encountered someone using an earpiece for their cell phone. Along with 200 or so fellow weary travelers, I was waiting to board a flight bound, I believe, for Chicago when suddenly one gentleman in line turned to the wall and began loudly excoriating an invisible companion. Waving his arms and raising his voice even louder, the man in question was clearly evidencing the classic symptoms of schizophrenia. Why the others in line didn’t appear to be concerned over his bizarre behavior was confusing to me but I chalked it up to their psychotherapeutic innocence. I, on the other hand, was very reluctant to board the flight with this maniac. But just as quickly as it began, the madman stopped his antics and stepped back in line. When I recounted this frightening episode to my family upon my return home, they stared back at me in stunned wonderment over my utter ignorance.

The most frightening development of late for me is the introduction of e-book dispensers, those pocket-sized pieces of plastic and silicone that can take a beautifully bound 1200 page volume offering tactile, visual and even olfactory sensory pleasures and reduce it all to the size of a cell phone screen. I suspect such an evolution is inevitable, although it is hard for me to imagine inviting someone into my library where the walls are lined not with shelves stuffed to overflowing with lovely literary tomes but a solitary little gizmo that contains every book ever published. I just don’t think I want to be alive when that happens. Of course, I could change my mind if it becomes popular very soon.

And that, as I say, is the problem. It really is exhausting trying to keep up in a world that seems to reinvent itself every other Tuesday. I mean some of us are still grieving over the loss of WordPerfect for goodness sake!

Still, few of us are willing to align ourselves with Ned Ludd and his band of anti-progressive reactionaries. We’re just asking for a little consideration is all. A gentle warning before the next seismic cultural shift would be greatly appreciated. Maybe you could tweet us. Although I can’t for the life of me understand what good a bird call is going to do.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Rich Mayfield
For: 4-25-09

"Was it worth it?" asked John Yoo, formerly of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and author of memos justifying torture of terrorist suspects, "We haven't had an attack in more than seven years." (Speech at Chapman University, April 21, 2009)

I am sure you would want to join me in taking this opportunity to thank Mr. Yoo and his fellow former Justice Department attorneys for keeping America safe these past seven plus years. Their complete disregard for international treaties prohibiting the use of torture combined with a truly stunning contempt for the moral principles this nation was founded upon have obviously protected us from complete and total annihilation from terrorists abroad, aliens above and maybe one or two American citizens whose political views just seemed a little too peculiar. That they also turned our system of justice into a model for dictators around the world should also be noted. I am certain President Mugabe, President (for life) Kim Il-sung as well as a few hundred Somali pirates are deeply grateful.

The rationale at work here is tantamount to the one used by my teacher in parochial school who used to begin our school day by having us all bow our heads and beg God not to allow the godless and immoral Communists to drop a nuclear bomb on innocent children like us. You never heard such pious pleading as that which came from 27 frightened third-graders of room 3-A! And just in case our devotion failed to convince our deity, we frequently practiced scrambling underneath our desks and turning our eyes away from the window where the blinding light from the atomic blast would render us all blind on top of being dead as doorposts. Now I probably shouldn’t claim complete responsibility for preventing a nuclear holocaust during the 1958-59 school year but…

I suppose this might also be the time to offer our thanksgiving to Fox News for rallying dozens of outraged fellow citizens who gathered recently to sip tea and share their shock over the state of governmental spending. Concern for the dire future financial state of their children’s children appeared to be the general theme as their communal wail over billions to be spent building up our neglected national infrastructure served to inform us all of their noble and patriotic intentions. It would probably be impolite to ask where their grave concern for wasted tax dollars was when President Bush took a $240 billion surplus at the beginning of his administration and quickly turned it into a $400 billion deficit that just kept getting bigger. The fact that government spending increased by 55% during G.W.’s tenure tends to get ignored by those so genuinely concerned about the “socialist” tendencies of our new administration. By the way, we should all take note that it was five years ago this week that our former president swaggered across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to boast that our mission to Iraq had been accomplished. What it accomplished was and still is open to debate but the deficit it helped create can’t be ignored by the critics of our current administration.

Mr. Yoo’s bold claim calls to mind other rationales that deserve the light of day. Those of us who still remember the faulty reasoning for the foolishness known as the Vietnam War can’t help but recall the words of the American major who claimed, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

And then there is the late Jerry Falwell’s paean to the Prince of Peace following the attacks of 9/11, "You've got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops. And I'm for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord."

Who can forget Marion Barry, the former mayor of our nation’s capital, boasting, "Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”

I’ll close with one final tribute to Mr. Yoo’s odd way of thinking. It comes from the master himself and may help explain the strange doings from inside the Justice Department. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." (President George W. Bush, Aug. 5, 2004.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Rich Mayfield
For: April 18, 2009

I mean, really, what’s the use?

I suppose I should begin this column by announcing that it will be my annual plea for a reasonable gun control policy in these United States. This way all those who find such appeals infuriating and downright un-American can immediately fire up their e-mails and begin their all too familiar screeds on my indefatigable ignorance as regards the Constitution, the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights and the absolutely, undeniable, irrefutable, intentions of the founding fathers.

Each year, in a combination that bears traits of both Sisyphus and Don Quixote, I wonder aloud why we as a nation cling so tenaciously to the triggers of AK-47s and Saturday-night specials if all we really want to do is tromp out into the forest for a few days of male-bonding and Bambi-blasting. Why is it, I ask again, that even the merest hint of establishing some kind of reasonable control over the proliferation of weapons that have absolutely nothing to do with sport and precious little with self-protection will result in a barrage of letters questioning my sanity, proclaiming my senility and denying my patriotism. And although some of these epistles are written in the electronic version of crayon, others are very carefully crafted. Indeed, it appears there must certainly be a systematic effort on the part of a very well-financed and very influential lobbying organization whose initials I won’t mention except to say they begin with N and end with A and the rifle in the middle gave up hunting long ago, to root out any columnist in America for excoriation be they big-name and extremely popular writers from the New York Times or small-town opinionators like you know who.

So again I ask…What’s the use? We seem to be so entrenched in our positions that any kind of compromise creating a policy on gun ownership that mimics other modern nations is simply out of the question. When NRA members like Democratic Representative Dan Boren of Oklahoma say “I can tell you, that assault-weapons ban is just an excuse to take away a sportsman’s shotguns,” you know any change in our national policy is light years away.

What’s the use? On this past Good Friday in Pittsburgh, a white supremacist, armed with legally acquired assault weaponry, gunned down three policemen, a slaughter that merited a night or two of news coverage and nothing more. That may be because only the day before another mad man murdered 13 people in upstate New York while on the day of the Pittsburgh massacre, a fellow arms man shot his five children to death. This was followed only days later by the handgun murder of four other innocents in Alabama. The city of Oakland, California is still reeling from last month’s gun battle that left four police officers lying dead in the street. Tens of thousands of Americans, innocent and not, have been cut down by illegal weaponry in the last decade and still the resistance to the merest of reasonable restrictions remains resolute.

What’s the use? When you read that 90% of the guns confiscated from the warring Mexican drug cartels can be traced back to gun shops in America, what else can you say? Or when you discover that dealers selling multiple AK-47s to a purchaser, guns solely devised for the killing of as many people as possible, are not required to report such sales to any branch of government, who can’t help but despair over what clearly seems to be a system gone mad?

Nearly all of this craziness can be attributed to the unremitting work of the NRA, an organization that was initially designed as a support for the hunting community but has now fallen under the control of zealots who are immune to any plea for dialogue. Even as our nation stumbles toward the chaos of Old West street justice, the fanatics in the NRA wield their considerable electoral power demanding and receiving acquiescence from too many of our national leaders fearful of losing the perks of power.

During his campaign, President Obama promised to get tough on the absurd proliferation of assault weapons. So far he has not and the tide of gun terror continues to rise. Given the enormous problems facing our nation, it is understandable that only so much can be done at once but some of us are asking whether fixing the economy, solving the Palestinian problem or gaining peace in Iraq will ultimately matter if America continues to be held hostage by Second Amendment extremists whose fanaticism is causing many of us to wonder…What’s the use?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

Easter weekend seems an appropriate time to remind believers and non-believers alike that Jesus was never a Christian. Indeed, if the earliest of Christian writings are to be believed, Jesus wasn’t much interested in establishing a new religion. He was just a good Jewish boy who took his faith seriously enough to think others might too.

At the heart of his religious practice was an old proverb that has come to be known as The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This maxim is not unique to Judaism although it is certainly central to it. The Talmud says: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.

Not so surprisingly, you can find similar admonitions in other religious traditions. Thanks to several great sites on the internet, I found some 21 different religious ways of saying the same thing. My favorites include Confucius’ clever counsel: "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." And here is one from the sacred writings of Islam: "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Although I couldn’t really tell you what shapes the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, I can tell you that in the 29th verse of the 13th chapter of their Shayast-na-Shayast you can find this: "Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others."

Plato, Socrates, Seneca and others found their own way of saying much the same thing. Even L. Ron Hubbard marks the 20th moral precept of his recent religion, Scientology, with these words: "20: Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you."

So it does seem more than a little strange that most of the adherents of these and the other 16 religions with their own versions of The Golden Rule have spent most of their religious histories doing precisely the opposite. I suppose you could try and justify some of the outrageous acts of Christendom, for instance, by suggesting that burnings at the stake and the quartering of heretics by four horses headed in four different directions isn’t as bad as it sounds but I can’t imagine anyone wanting either practice practiced on themselves.

Anyone who has traveled to Palestine in recent years can report first hand on the apparent absence of Golden Rule practitioners in that too often unholy land. And hardly a day goes by when the Taliban isn’t reported for treating innocent women in a manner that belies the teachings of Islam. The Hindu practice known as sati which involves tossing a living widow on the crematory fires of her dead husband is patently contradictory to these words from the sacred Mahabharata: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”

And on and on and on. One can understand why the current crop of proponents of atheism like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchins are so popular. The history of religion makes for sobering and decidedly depressing reading. Nevertheless, the failures of the disciples don’t negate the value of the principle.

One of my all-time favorite writers is the Christian, Anne Lamott, who, while trying to explain her own religious failings, wrote: “My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian. They think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine, where he said, "I'm not really a Jew -- I'm Jew-ish." They think I am Christian-ish. But I'm not. I'm just a bad Christian. A bad born-again Christian. And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation-theology enthusiast and maybe sort of a vaguely Jesusy bon vivant… I am a believer, a convert. I'm probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car, although I first want to see if the application or stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement.”

Maybe that’s the best way of coming to grips with the failure of most of us, religious or not, to follow The Golden Rule. We really, really, really, want to abide by this universal code of justice but first we want to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the rest of our life.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Practicing Progressive

It was a minor milestone to be sure but the announcement from my car’s odometer that it was beginning its 100,000th mile was enough for me to pull over and ponder over the many miles I’ve traveled in recent years. Just a few minutes spent on the side of the road but enough to take me away from my current concerns and worries and into that repository of memory that makes for gratitude.

Little reminders like this can bring forth a healthier perspective perhaps than the one we’re currently holding. With a constant barrage of bad news, these aides memoire serve as important guideposts for our journeys; gently or not, steering us past the depressing precipices that threaten to send us crashing into this current media-hyped chasm of despair.

A profound milestone occurs for my family this week as our second child celebrates her 30th birthday. Such an occasion spurs more than celebration. Those of us who have doubled that date and more will certainly muse over the speed by which we have all arrived at this landmark. Although younger folk certainly grow tired of we AARPers constantly wondering aloud where the time has gone, we still do wonder. It is as if our lives were movies meant to be screened over 60, 70, 80 or more years but have now been edited down to an hour and a half. We didn’t even get a chance to finish our popcorn.

Christianity proceeds this coming week into it most sacred time of the year. With the celebration of Holy Week, Christians around the world will encounter the milestones that mark the last days of Jesus’ life and in some mysterious way, revealed only to believers, they will receive divine guidance for their spiritual travels.

This week the world’s Jews will experience the milestone known as Passover, creating sacred time in their homes and synagogues by reenacting another, ancient, sacred time.

One of the benefits of religion is the ritual reminders that make up religious practice. Being prompted by priest, imam or rabbi to reflect on the deeper things of life seems a goal worth pursuing. Most practitioners find such an activity brings a richness to what often seems mundane.

In my own religious tradition, we have the milestones of Saints’ Days and Commemorations to affect an often all too brief interruption into our busy lives. This coming week several notables are brought to our attention including Michelangelo on April 6, whose monumental work continues to inspire spiritual sojourners 500 years after his death. The commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on April 9 is a stark reminder of the cost of standing by one’s convictions. Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, was executed by the Nazis for treason only days before Germany was defeated.

One needn’t be religious to see the value of milestones, of course. Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” broadcast each weekday on NPR uses its airtime to call to consciousness certain writers, artists and others who have impacted, sometimes in very small ways, the course of human history. A poem read, an archaic fact shared, an obituary intoned, can all be milestones for not just remembering other lives but rearranging our own.

Each morning we awake can be a milestone. Welcoming the day in gratitude for the past and hope for the future is a particularly effective means of commemoration. Finding a few minutes at the beginning of each day to sit in silent reflection, celebrating the sheer beauty of being alive…savoring our breathing, thanking our heart, wiggling our toes…can make us mindful of what is and grateful for what has been.