Jan 052012
 

I wanted to elaborate on a post I made on my blog yesterday about the results of the Iowa Caucus. I’ve been writing a lot about the Republican Party and it’s pro-fundamentalist Christian agenda. As a disclaimer, I used to consider myself something of an independent. I felt I could vote Republican or Democrat, based on the platform and credentials of the candidate in question. It wasn’t until the GOP sold out to the Religious Right that I felt compelled to register as a Democrat. The GOP had removed any possibility of me voting Republican because as a Pagan I will not vote for a party whose platform marginalizes me as a person, or my beliefs and my right to exercise those beliefs.

I am not and have never been what some people refer to as a bleeding heart liberal. I get a chuckle when I find myself accused of that on various social networking platforms. I despise the politics of the far-left as much as I do those of the far right. I no more want my rights taken away by do-gooders motivated by personal health and environmental health than I do by those motivated by “spiritual” or “moral” health. One wants my freedom to choose what I eat and another wants my freedom to belief what I want. If I don’t want a Big Mac, I will make that choice, thank you very much. And if I don’t want the Bible, I won’t read one. It’s called the First Amendment.

But right now, as I see it, the bigger threat comes from what used to be the far right of the Republican Party. As Iowa brings into focus, these people have over the past decade or so, become mainstreamed. It has been a long process, one I’ve chronicled elsewhere, but the Religious Right’s plans for America have ripened. They have become kingmakers, as witnessed by their machinations on behalf of Bush, under whom America came very close to theocracy. And now they’re back for round 2 and more focused, better funded, and more powerful than ever before, and they have the apparatus of the Republican Party to work for them. Wealthy corporations + major political party + religion = an unholy trinity if I ever saw one.

For me it comes down to this: As I asked on my blog, if these people can render the world’s second largest religion, Islam, a cult without First Amendment protections, where does that leave small alternative religions like Paganism? The message is the same to all of us: the U.S. Constitution was based on the Bible (it obviously was not), America was founded by God (contrary to the facts of the historical record). and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, written to bar the federal government from the establishment of any religion, actually established Christianity as the state religion of the United States (remember Pat Robertson’s “There is no such thing as … separation of state and church … in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left”?). That’s the narrative. And they’re sticking to it no matter how often we point out those pesky facts.

The base laps it up because the base loves it. The base wants to believe it. And there are enough people out there ignorant of their own Bible, ignorant of history, to actually believe this stuff.

The fact that it’s wrong-headed nonsense won’t protect any of us from the consequences. The Nazis and Communists and other ideology-driven groups throughout history, including the Catholic Church and the Puritans, have been wrong too, but that didn’t help their victims. Remember, conservative Catholics among this bunch actually think the Crusades weren’t so bad after all (so does, significantly, Rick Santorum, who came in second in Iowa) and that the Inquisition actually helped people (it was those Protestants that were the bad guys). They even want to change our school textbooks to reflect this new “history” of theirs.

It is difficult to see a positive outcome for minorities of any type in the event of a Republican win in 2012. We have already seen the direction of their agenda in the Tea Party-driven legislation from 2010 onward, much of it heavily influenced by fundamentalist Christian focus on what is often termed “the culture war,” including especially women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality. Adding layers of bureaucracy to police our bedrooms and our private lives is hardly a move toward smaller, less intrusive government. It never really was about the size of government for the Religious Right, though, but about the focus of that government. It’s permissible to have a big government that does what they want it to do. A big government that focuses on regulation of Wall Street or corporations, on the other hand, is anathema.

We’ve seen Pagans blamed for 9/11; we’ve seen fundamentalists preach against the “pagan culture” of America (the Catholic Church is issuing the same warnings in Argentina). We’ve seen things like this: “The government schools are anti-Christian, atheistic and pagan, and they are against God, family, and country” and that these Pagan-influenced government schools promote a culture of “immorality and death” We’ve seen the planet attacked and our own devotion to it mocked. We’re back to early Christian rhetoric: we are rock and tree worshipers, people who follow false idols. The Republican candidates endorse this thinking. If they get away with attacking Islam with impunity (and the mainstream media certainly enables these attacks), Pagans can’t hold out much hope. They hate Paganism already: the Bible teaches them too. When their attention focuses on us, we will find ourselves marginalized and disenfranchised as well.

We all have our beliefs; According to the Constitution, all beliefs are equal. According to the Republican base on the other hand, the First Amendment does not mean all religions are equal. We can differentiate here between religious “truths” and the law because to the base, they are one and the same. Because Christianity is true and all other religions are false, and, as Pope Benedict XVI puts it, truth trumps tolerance, U.S. law must recognize the privileged position of the “one true religion.” When fundamentalist Christians (including the entire crop of 2012 presidential hopefuls) talk about “religious freedom” they are talking about their (Christian) religious freedom; the rest of us have none. The consequences for the rest of us – look at Newt Gingrich’s plan – are not difficult to imagine under such a scheme.

We barely dodged theocracy under the Bush administration. We may not be so lucky again, and it is a risk we cannot afford to take.

Jul 122011
 

The Rosa Parks of Sustainable Gardening?

Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to accommodate a white passenger. That act of civil disobedience resulted in her arrest, and quickly became one of the defining and most memorable acts of resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

It might be a stretch to describe Julie Bass as “the Rosa Parks of sustainable gardening”… but not by much. Bass is no activist. She’s just a homeowner living in Oak Park, Michigan, who planted a vegetable garden in her front yard — like the one Michelle Obama planted on the front lawn of the White House, she notes — and who now faces arrest and jail time if she refuses to tear it down.

Why? Because of a city ordinance which reads, “All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material.” And a complaint from a neighbor to a city councilman that the front-yard garden looked like a “New Orleans cemetery.”

Since when is a vegetable garden not considered “live plant material”? The debate turns around the meaning of the word “suitable,” with city officials arguing that, “If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard.” Of course, the word “suitable” does not mean “common” (no, not even according to the dictionary), and Bass’ attorney Solomon Radner argues that the term is intentionally vague, allowing the city to enforce arbitrary policies, and therefore unconstitutional. Even if city officials were correct about the meaning of the word “suitable,” however, Radner points out that the ordinance itself also lists several exceptions, including vegetable gardens: “Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”

This confrontation over property aesthetics might have remained a local matter if it hadn’t been for Facebook, where multiple fan pages in support of Julie Bass’ cause have sprung up, spurring broad international criticism of the Michigan suburb’s position. City officials complain they’re being misunderstood. “We’re not against people having gardens,” said City Manager Rick Fox. “Just not in their front yards.” Sure, and it’s fine for African-Americans to ride the bus… as long as they sit in the back, right Rick?

Of course, that comparison’s a bit of hyperbole — but again, not by much.

This summer, the U.S. continues to face devastating floods, droughts and fires that threaten large swathes of midwest farmland and bring the consequences of human-caused climate change into inescapable focus. Political and cultural leaders all over the world acknowledge that environmental destruction has become so dire and so wide-spread, it is perhaps the single most difficult, most vital challenge we will face in our lifetimes, on which the continued existence of the human species itself might depend. If the rights of our fellow human beings to live freely and equally continues to be an issue of immense importance, how much more so the rights of the earth and its ecosystems on which we depend to live free from pollution, exploitation and destruction?

Yet cases like Julie Bass’ illustrate how unsustainable, un-”green” practices and lifestyles are not only culturally ubiquitous, but sometimes even dictated by law. It has long been known that expansive lawns of perfectly-manicured grass are not only exceedingly expensive to maintain in many areas of the country, but that monocultures of non-native plants are unhealthy for the local environment, depleting nutrients in the soil and disrupting the careful balance of local insect and wildlife populations leading to problems with disease and pest control. Environmentally-minded individuals might wonder, in such cases, if maybe we should take a long, hard look at what else the word “suitable” might mean (which the dictionary actually defines as “right, appropriate or fitting for a particular person, purpose, situation or place”).

Loving the Earth is a Political Act

All across the U.S., as well as internationally, people are beginning to do just that, and discovering that seemingly common-sense steps to make their homes and properties more eco-friendly often run up against antiquated property laws meant to enforce aesthetic values often based on underlying, unacknowledged classism, racism and industry profits. The result? A growing movement of eco-activists taking matters into their own hands through sensible, everyday acts of civil disobedience. Far from the “eco-terrorists” who blow up buildings or destroy property in protest of exploitation and pollution, many eco-activists today are ordinary citizens working on a local level to overturn outdated laws that keep them from living gently and respectfully with the earth.

Though Julie Bass and her family might not consider themselves such activists, they’re part of that movement, too, in defending their right to grow their own vegetables on their property. The trend of growing sustainable, eco-friendly “Victory Gardens” has picked up steam among green-minded (and green-thumbed) Americans in recent years. Modeled after the wartime vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown during the World Wars of the last century by private citizens trying reduce pressure on public food supplies, modern-day Victory Gardens combat climate change on several fronts. Using sustainable gardening techniques to grow local food means relying less on factory-farmed produce fertilized with petrochemicals and sprayed down with damaging pesticides that then must be shipped across country. Hands-on gardening helps to reconnect us with the local landscape, the local community and our own physical bodies. Michelle Obama sees her White House Victory Garden as a step in her campaign against childhood obesity, by encouraging healthier eating habits and a renewed enjoyment of fresh fruits and vegetables. As the interest in Victory Gardens increases, cities like Oak Park will face the task of re-evaluating ordinances which seek to protect property values by enforcing a specific value judgement about the aesthetic and practical concerns of landscaping and gardening.

Another way individuals are quietly embracing acts of civil disobedience is by line-drying their clothes. In many cities and towns all over the country, it is actually illegal to line-dry laundry, despite the obvious ecological and personal benefits of this age-old practice. Why? “Many homeowner associations seem to believe that the act of air drying clothing present their developments as being low-income,” saying that for some “clotheslines connote a landscape of poverty rather than flowering fields.” The advocacy group Project Laundry List works to overturn this classcist attitude by supporting a “Right to Dry” bill and helping to educate individuals about the benefits of line-drying.

Perhaps one of the neatest and most committed ways people are engaging in eco-civil disobedience is through the Small Living or Tiny House Movement. In the wake of the housing bubble and bust, people are turning their backs on the dream of a McMansion with private drive and in-ground pool, and are looking for homes with smaller ecological footprints — both figuratively, and literally! Tiny houses are small cottages or cabins built from sustainable, natural materials on trailer beds or permanent foundations ranging between 65 and 140 square feet. Not only does it take less energy to heat, cool, light and clean such a small residence, but folks who choose the tiny house lifestyle choose to live with fewer material possessions and a greater reliance on community spaces and public amenities. Some build tiny houses in gorgeous natural landscapes, trading spacious indoor rooms for amber fields, majestic mountains and spacious skies.

The problem is that the small size of tiny houses breaks many conventional building and zoning codes concerning the appropriate size of a single family permanent residence. Some cities have even gone so far as to make it illegal to camp in your own backyard, to prevent homeowners from setting up tiny houses as permanent “camps” for themselves or others. Such laws are in place for a variety of reasons — including concerns for safety, aesthetics, over-crowding and property value — though many of them were determined by the housing industry itself as a way of ensuring what Jay Shafer calls “mandatory consumption” of larger-than-necessary residences. Shafer, founder of the popular Tumbleweed Tiny House Company which designs and builds tiny houses, lists civil disobedience as one of his primary motivations for his and his company’s work, and is committed to proving that house size is not a requirement for safety, prosperity, or happiness.

The nonviolent, community-oriented principles of civil disobedience have been used effectively in some of the most profound cultural movements in the world, including the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements in the United States. And the idea of civil disobedience is not new. In 1849, the famed naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his essay “Civil Disobedience” encouraging individual citizens to act in good conscience as “a counter friction” or resistance against the institutional “machine” of any government that produced injustice. As the writer of Walden, a book of reflections on simple living in harmony with nature and a deeply influential text for the modern environmentalist movement, I like to think Thoreau would be particularly pleased at the role of civil disobedience has played in recent years in expressing our love of the natural world and our willingness to work to protect and care for it.


This post was originally published at No Unsacred Place.

May 312011
 

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana

Popularly misattributed to Plato, it was Spanish-American George Santayana who first wrote that ringing phrase in his “Soliloquies in England” in 1924, just after the greatest, most horrifying war the world had ever seen. No wise and ancient philosopher tucked away among refined Ionic columns, but a man who, like many of his time, witnessed the devastating power and tragedy of violence on a scale previously unimaginable, and for the pettiest of reasons. The phrase was not so much a philosophical observation, as a mockery of those who would celebrate too soon the tenuous peace they had accomplished through violent means, who foolishly dreamed that the war was over. A phrase written by a man who would live to see another World War spring from the festering wounds of humiliated, impoverished Germany, and the stirrings of the Cold War to follow — a man who most famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Plato did have some things to say about war, as well. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.” Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I can’t help but think that there is some cosmic irony in the fact that it was General Douglas MacArthur, dismissed from command by Truman for insubordination and publicly promoting aggressive war tactics against the President’s orders, who first attributed Santayana’s quote to Plato in a farewell speech to the cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962, only months before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. In his farewell speech, MacArthur praised American soldiers as the greatest lovers of peace, while insisting that war and victory must be their sole obsession. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

I know little about death and what our ancestors, the beloved dead, would say or do if they were alive today. I find it hard to believe that Plato would be anything less than horrified by the mechanisms of global warfare and violence that we have invented in the last century; I imagine that he, like Santayana and so many other philosophers of our time, would struggle to reconcile such sweeping violence with a belief that there is reason and structure within the chaos, that he would be forced to temper his Idealism with the realities of impersonal genocide, chemical and biological weapons of mass suffering, remote-control drones and sophisticated technologies of destruction. But if he were living today, Plato would not be the Plato of history that we remember and honor, the philosopher contemplating the shadows in his cave with what we like to imagine as a kind of prescient wisdom. He would be somebody else entirely. So I can’t say what our dead might think, feel or desire.

But I do believe that the dead live on in us. Decay is only another kind of creation, and as the poet Gary Snyder writes, “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.” The cycles of nature make this much clear: death is not an ending, but only another turn in the spiraling trajectory of life’s will to unfold itself into the universe. The dead live on in us. Whether in the form of literal reincarnation, souls taking up the mud and blood of the world to mold new bodies in which to make their homes — or as a metaphor that speaks of life feasting on life, each atom of air, each molecule of water cycling and recycling through countless beings, connecting us all in an eternal weft of flesh woven through the strung up warp of the horizon — is a matter for theological debate. Either way, we come to face the horrifying fact that life continues.

Horrifying, because it forces us to look at the past with different eyes. It reveals that notion — that “the dead have seen the end of war” — as a last vain hope, so long as those of us still living pursue war and violence as a means to a someday future peace. If the dead live on in us, then what kind of life do we owe to our ancestors, who fought and died — as we do still today — for the hope that it would not be the dead, but the living who would benefit? Maybe they fought for noble reasons, believing they did what was right, believing that their participation in violence could some day bring about a better world. Do we prove them wrong? The breath of that officer who once shouted his commands now fills the gasping lungs of the refugee driven from her home by bombs. The blood of the soldier spilled defending his country now runs as tears down the cheeks of the children of our enemies who, too, have lost fathers and brothers to war. We are all connected. Life continues.

On Memorial Day, I find it difficult to celebrate the militarism of our culture with barbecues and fireworks. I am brought up short by the irony of history and the ambivalence of memory. I remember not only those who have died before me, but that those of us living today are the future they were dying for, and the weight of that obligation keeps me sober and sad. That we have failed our ancestors in some way by failing to live more peaceful lives… that we have failed them by perpetuating “the Old Lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”*… that we have failed them by continuing to put off and postpone the real and difficult work of peace for another day, another generation…. those are the thoughts that linger in my mind when so many of the people around me seem eager to forget everything but the glory and the triumph and the self-congratulations of the victorious.

But on the day after Memorial Day, I square my shoulders and get back to work. There is much to be grateful for, and many of our beloved dead who left us legacies of peace who deserve to be remembered as well. If Memorial Day is a day to grieve the deaths of those who sought, whether nobly or foolishly, to secure a better peace through acts of war, the day after Memorial Day — and every other day besides — is a day to honor their memory by living that peace they hoped for, and ensuring that our own descendants have less reason to grieve.

~

* From the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen, British poet and WWI soldier, who voluntarily returned to the front lines in order to continue to document the horrors of war, and who died in battle exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice.

May 052011
 

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of SEAL Team Six on Sunday has sent shockwaves around the world. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks who stayed out of reach of American forces for nearly a decade, given up as missing before President Bush was out of office, was found and slain in his plush Pakistani compound by America’s finest. In life bin Laden was a constant reminder of the limitations of American power, his survival daily proof that the Great Satan could be humbled and best. His death, and when it came, may be the last stand of the violent movement he personified. His defeat is not only vindication for an American public hungry for some kind of justice for the World Trade Center but one of the final nails in the coffin of the ideology of violent struggle he championed throughout his life.

The most obvious impact of bin Laden’s death is on the future of Al Qaeda. While global in nature the beating heart of the organization was bin Laden himself.  He was the big money behind the group with a multi-million dollar fortune and fundraising operations the world over Known for being highly charismatic bin Laden was crucial for keeping the factions in Al Qaeda working together. It is very telling that new recruits to the organization did not swear their allegiance to the cause but to the man himself. Following the success of the September 11th attacks his star power, and by extension his organization’s, skyrocketed. Bin Laden was able to cultivate the mystique of a holy warrior striking righteous blows against the mighty Americans and living to tell the tale. His continued survival built up the myth of bin Laden with each day he remained alive and free a constant reminder of his victories over the Americans. His star power certainly didn’t hurt his ability to draw recruits to the organization. Killing bin Laden didn’t just destroy the man, it destroyed the myth he had built up. Just as Robert E. Lee’s image of invincibility in the North was wrecked following his defeat at Gettysburg bin Laden’s death destroys the idea that any terrorist can remain beyond the reach of the United States.

His death could also spell doom for Al Qaeda. Over the past decade American forces under Presidents Bush and Obama have tracked down Al Qaeda leaders and key commanders capturing the ones they could take alive and killing those they couldn’t. The constant attrition on the mid and upper levels of the organization, while having no obvious impact, could not have been healthy for the terrorists. Any organization, regardless of purpose, needs more than just its brilliant founders to lead the way. They need to build a deep bench of talent who can step up when the first generation falls or steps aside. The constant whittling away at this second string has left bin Laden’s followers with a much smaller reserve of talent.  Following his death the most likely candidate to take control is his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri who is certainly no bin Laden.  With no clear successor Al Qaeda will be scrambling to piece together some kind of working leadership at a time when it can least afford it. The seizure of hard drives and other vital pieces of intelligence during the raid on his compound puts the security of information for Al Qaeda up in the air. As likely as it is that Al Qaeda operatives are preparing for retaliatory strikes against the US it would not be far-fetched to assume at least a few are sleeping with one eye open wondering if and when the US will come for them.

On a grander scale bin Laden’s death couldn’t have come at a better time. Jihadi terrorism gained much of its allure from the repressive nature of the governments of the Arab World. The long-term survival of stability of these governments, along with the naked brutality used against peaceful resistance, sent a message to would-be reformers that change can only come through violent action. Leaders took advantage of this impression channeling the rage of their restive people against Israel and the West further encouraging angry radicals to join the jihad abroad instead of causing problems at home. Tahrir Square loudly and soundly refuted this status quo. With the fall of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt non-violent political opposition had gained its first real successes in Arab history. As long as violence was perceived as the only option for bringing about real political reforms peaceful resistance would always be seen as a pipe dream. Victory in Cairo legitimized the methods of the Egyptian activists inspiring similar revolts in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain with even autocratic Saudi Arabia and theocratic Iran feeling the rumblings of discontent. When compared to the relatively dismal track record of jihadi groups which to date have yet to overthrow a single government, drive the US out of any Middle Eastern country, destroy Israel, or bring about any meaningful change the runaway successes in Tunisia and Egypt are likely much more appealing thanks to having worked as advertised. Every government brought down by the mostly peaceful Arab Spring is another nail in the coffin of jihadi terrorism.

Bin Laden’s death is, like the man himself, much bigger than the elimination of one notorious terrorist. Without him Al Qaeda has lost a valuable source of funding, recruitment, and the invincible reputation that came with his continued survival. His death coming during the height of the Arab Spring is a powerful contrast to the wave of peaceful democratic revolution sweeping across the Middle East showing the people of the Middle East there is another, better option than taking up the cause of holy war.  This is not to say a bright future is certain.  The revolts are still being fought out in the streets of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya.  Al Qaeda may be on its way out but they could always find new leadership and recover.  The Taliban, in spite of losing a useful ally in bin Laden, continues to fight on in Afghanistan.

Events shaping the world offer the United States a golden opportunity to bring about an effective and lasting end to the threat of jihadi terrorism.  The operation to take out bin Laden showed us the United States has highly effective, precise tools for fighting terrorism.  Osama bin Laden was not brought down by an armored column but by a team of elite Navy SEALs.  Unlike bloody insurgency operations in Iraq or drone strikes in Pakistan the SEAL team was able to accomplish their mission without inflicting any civilian casualties.  Occupation of territory has similarly proven less than effective.  Attempting to suppress terrorist havens in Afghanistan mostly succeeded in pushing bin Laden into Pakistan and tying down large numbers of American soldiers.  The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, far from successfully winning hearts and minds, have led to substantial civilian and military casualties, massive debt, and mostly succeeded in upsetting the Arab world more.

Change abroad should go hand in hand with change at home.  In the past ten years we have seen steady encroachments on our civil liberties all in the name of security and the War on Terror.  Yet for all that effort what consistently brought down terrorist plots and high value targets was not earned through the groping hands of the TSA or warrantless wiretapping but through conventional intelligence methods.  Bin Laden’s demise is an excellent moment to show the world that we can do the right thing and our current flirtation with authoritarian mechanisms is a temporary aberration.  Most of all we must do this for the sake of our rights.  It is our duty to future generations that they do not inherit diminished rights because of a moment’s panic.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

May 052011
 
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I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation about the death of Osama bin Laden — most of my thoughts are summed up well by others — but I do want to point out something that struck me about Barack Obama’s remarks Sunday night:

Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Has it? He seems quite certain, and I wonder why.

As a Christian, Obama’s personal sense of justice must presumably be founded on Christian principles — on words such as “those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” and “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “turn the other cheek,” and so on. Overall, Jesus seems to take a firm stance against all violence, even in self defense. But in his speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama praised the principle of the ‘just war’:

…war is justified… when certain conditions [are] met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

The idea of ‘just war’ is most fully developed in Catholic doctrine, and has changed over time. Christians during the time of the Crusades believed that violence, even aggression, was fine, as long as it was done for a noble cause. The more limited modern theory of ‘just war’ takes an intermediate view between Jesus and the Crusaders.

But in that same speech, Obama went on to criticize the just war theory as being too impractical:

…while it’s hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished…

As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [the non-violent philosophies of King and Gandhi] alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms…

The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

So if the nonviolence of Jesus, King, and Gandhi is too impractical, and the ‘just war’ theory is too idealistic, then by what is Obama guided? Does he agree with the Crusaders — that violence is justified in a good cause? Isn’t this consequentialism — that the ends, in other words, justify the means? Surely Obama would not agree to that. But that’s what “practical” means in this context, when you get right down to it. You do what you have to do to get the job done, even if you have to break a few ethical eggs.

As a druid with Zen Buddhist leanings, I don’t have a Bible writ with doctrines of peace. I know that, while the ancient druids aspired towards peace, the human world, the natural world, is not a place of cut and dried right and wrong. And so I know that in any ethical dilemma, a healthy dollop of humility and doubt is called for. We are mortal creatures of limited knowledge; we cannot see all ends, and our judgements are bound to be faulty. In fact, I think Obama struck nearer the mark when he said — in that same speech:

To say that force may sometimes be necessary… is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…. Our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly…

For we are fallible… Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

I think these words are wise. And so — as hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan — as ultimatums were issued instead of exploring every diplomatic option — as nations were invaded with overwhelming force, far disproportionate to the threat of the terrorist network — as our nation bent and broke so many of the Geneva Conventions — as the laws protecting the privacy and rights of our own citizens have been legislated away with barely any debate — but Bin Laden was, at last, caught by a single SEAL team, working from intelligence gained without torture, with no loss of civilian life — how can he say with such certainty that justice has been done?

I cannot. It makes me wonder where he thinks justice lies.

May 032011
 

What does justice look like? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past few days, in the wake of the startling news of Osama bin Laden’s death. Responses have been flooding the internet as various people weigh in, many of them admitting a certain amount of relief and gladness, still others refusing to rejoice in the death of another human being, even an enemy. There’s been gloating and congratulations, praise for the Troops and grudging admiration offered to Obama even by his staunchest opponents and detractors. (And there’s been snark, too, as faux-news outlets announce that the 2012 presidential election has been canceled in light of overwhelming bipartisan support, while some ask if the moral of bin Laden’s death is that “we only like a black guy when he kills a brown guy”.)

Has justice been done? I’m not sure. When I turn a reflective eye on my own reactions, I have to admit that I feel very little more than mild surprise. I don’t feel relieved or happy about the news, but nor do I feel particularly sorrowful. I might even describe my reaction as curiosity, albeit a wincing, hesitant kind, that leaves me wondering, “What next?” After a decade of using bin Laden and the threat he represented as the raison d’être for so much of U.S. war-mongering and justifications for our violent, heavy-handed foreign policy — after three on-going wars, thousands dead, millions of civilians turned overnight into refugees — I wonder if the death of a single man can do much of anything to restore balance and see justice done. It seems to me strange to believe that the death of one person could somehow satisfy the demands of justice, if the thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan could not. And if those deaths were not for the sake of justice, then what is it we’ve been doing? What have we done?

The news leaves me only with more questions. What will the ramifications be for our involvement in the Middle East? Will we finally end these idiotic wars, or will they continue to drag on indefinitely? Would it have been better to capture bin Laden alive and bring him to trial, or would such a trial have been merely a mockery of justice, a foregone conclusion? Is it really a blow to bin Laden’s “street cred” and claim to martyrdom that he was found living in a mansion in Pakistan, or was it only ever Americans who needed to believe he was living desperate and isolated in a desert cave somewhere? Will this become just one more excuse to continue the U.S. policy of torture and human rights violations in the name of national security? And who will be the next boogie man, the next evil-doer public enemy?

Because there will be one. The United States has a history of forming ill-advised and unethical alliances that come back to haunt us — Russia against Hitler, Saddam Hussein against Iran, bin Laden (CIA trained, let’s not forget) against Russia… Even now, we’re sending military aid and support to rebels in Libya we know next to nothing about, while continuing to prop up dictators in strategic locations all over the world. Celebrating bin Laden’s death seems like little more than rejoicing that we’ve managed to sever one of our own gangrene limbs before the infection could spread.

But even that rejoicing may be too hasty. Sitting in a coffee shop this morning, I listen to local red-blooded Americans talking amiably about how they shouldn’t have let the women and children out alive — they should have just bombed the whole place, taking out everyone in the compound along with bin Laden. After all, these patriots reason, they were there, they were involved, they were witnesses and accomplices. Surely, guilt by association should apply, and they deserve to die. They joke about it like it were a football game. But it’s that same logic that al-Qaida and others use to justify killing American civilians — no one is innocent when they benefit from a corrupt, tyrannical system, no one can escape righteous justice when it comes, there is no such thing as an “innocent” bystander, you’re either with us or against us.

This is not justice. It’s barely even revenge, so much as it is reveling in the easy violence of the victorious and powerful. How could there possibly be justice for such death? How can we imagine we can weigh deaths against one another and come out even?

What does justice look like? Perhaps to some justice is the opposite of mercy, but that seems to me to be too entrenched in black-and-white dualism. Justice is not defined solely by retribution and punishment, but by restored relationship and mutual healing. If it is to have a purpose beyond emotional indulgence of the powerful taking revenge on the weak who have wronged them, the purpose of retribution must be restorative at its core. Justice is done when those who have suffered have the chance to heal, and those who have done violence or harm have the chance to atone — to be “at one” with their victims in experiencing the full nature of their violation and the devastation it has caused.

There is no justice in death. Justice rests not in our ability to make others suffer as we have, but in our capacity to grieve and to heal from the violence of the past. Justice rests not in the destruction of those who have wronged or threatened us, but in the reconciliation that will prevent them from doing it again, not through force of arms but through understanding and mutual respect.

Has justice been done, now that bin Laden is dead? The threat of extremism still looms large, with plenty of others poised and ready to take his place. Do we really expect that we can make ourselves safe and build our peace on the graves of our enemies? Do we really think we can keep up these wars forever, stamping out terrorists one by one, without ever redressing the underlying imbalances and abuses that define our relationship with the rest of the world? The death of a single man pales in comparison to the on-going work that real and lasting justice demands.

Apr 222011
 

Yesterday Congressman Cliff Stearns’ (R-Fl) amendment to the 9/11 first responders aid bill went into effect.  What is this amendment you ask?  One that has the gall to question the patriotism of the heroes of that terrible day:

“(5) DISQUALIFICATION OF INDIVIDUALS ON TERRORIST WATCH LIST.-No individual who is on the terrorist watch list maintained by the Department of Homeland Security shall qualify as an eligible WTC responder. Before enrolling any individual as a WTC responder in the WTC Program under paragraph (3), the Administrator, in  consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine whether the  individual is on such a list.”

It is exactly what it says it is. To add insult to injury the amendment was added to the bill without dissent with this odious provision going into effect yesterday. There are no words that can truly describe the depth of the disrespect shown by both parties in Congress.

With fears of Muslim takeover fanned by the Cordoba House controversy and Peter King’s radicalization circus Congress has, in the name of “pragmatic politics” acquiesced to the worst in us.  Saying any group of people, including the greatest heroes of the past decade, can be investigated as terrorists by Congressional fiat attacks the foundations of our criminal justice system.  Ever since the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1789 one of the bedrock principals of our legal system is probable cause.  Searches, arrests, and indictments cannot be obtained for any charge without first proving there is a very solid, justifiable reason to be poking around in the private lives of American citizens.  With a simple voice vote Congress has swept aside any need for probable cause declaring everyone who worked at Ground Zero in the days and weeks following 9/11 is now a suspect for terrorism.  As far as our elected representatives are concerned “pragmatic” politics trumps the rights of American heroes.

What is worse are the chilling implications of this act.  When the best among us, the heroes who rose to the call, can be declared terror suspects then any one can be put under the same microscope for no better reason than “national security” or “practical politics.”  If the Ground Zero workers can be thrown on the pyre of a new witch hunt on Congressional whim then what is stopping legislators from tossing others into the flames in a fit of political hysteria?

CORRECTION: The provision was included in the bill passed last year.  The amendment’s effects as per the Huffington Post went into effect yesterday which they learned through an unnamed source.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Apr 062011
 

In the fall of 2010 the Tea Party was swept into power on a wave of voter discontent promising to turn the country around by reigning in out of control government spending.  They were riding high on populist anger pushing a hard ideological line as the solution to our nation’s problems.  Five months later the Tea Party’s approval ratings have plummeted, Republican governors riding the wave have seen their support evaporate, and the oncoming government shutdown has put the ascendant Republicans in a serious bind.  Regardless of the cause of the Tea Party and GOP’s woes can be summed up in one word.

Overreach.

No one can deny the Tea Party-fueled gains of the Congressional Republicans in the 2010 elections.  They trumpeted their victory as a mandate by the voters to pursue a ultraconservative antigovernment agenda.  Yet for all the claims of strong support what the mandate they received was less clear.  A large part of their victory in 2010 was thanks to highly depressed voter turnout especially among groups that Obama depended on for his 2008 victory.  With only 41% of voters bothering to come to the polls as opposed to the low 70s that we saw in 2008 probably the clearest thing the voters did say was they had enough with government as usual.  With the certainty of victory the hard-right Tea Party candidates in Congress and state government moved forward to make the perceived mandate a reality.  Ironically enough it was putting their agenda into action that has led to a serious case of buyer’s remorse across the board.

In Congress the Tea Party, ignoring polls showing Americans’ first priority was job creation as opposed to cutting the deficit, went all ahead full with their agenda starting with the infamous forcible rape bill.  They followed up with attacks on NPR and Planned Parenthood threatening to cut off the flow of government assistance for both.  While the Culture Warriors fought personal battles at the expense of the American public the House leadership continued to thunder on high of the dangers of the growing deficit.  They demanded immediate cuts across the board regardless of their economic impact.  When questioned on the economic impact of mass federal layoffs Speaker John Boehner responded to these concerns with a blunt “So be it”.  When the Democratic-held Senate refused to play ball and roll over to the House Boehner and the House GOP doubled down on their stance of cuts, cuts, and more cuts leading to a string of stopgap continuing resolutions to keep the lights on.  In spite of following their agenda to the letter the Tea Party, far from seeing their political stock rise, has recently taken hard blows to their support.  From previous highs of 50% support the Tea Party has fallen to a new low of 32% and Americans now seeing the Tea Party as being as much a part of the problem as the Democrats and Republicans.  The hard-line calls by the Tea Party for government shutdown, a course Boehner himself fears will benefit the Democrats, coupled with the refusal by ultraconservative Republicans to compromise with the Senate have largely run afoul of American popular opinion.  With strong majorities holding out for a compromise and tiny slivers supporting the white-knuckle showdown that now seems all but inevitable the Tea Party has charted a truly dangerous course for the GOP.

The recent disasters for the Tea Party are hardly confined to the Beltway.  A recent string of anti-union measures and rhetoric pushed in MichiganOhioWisconsin, and Maine have far from rallying public opinion have sparked ferocious backlash.  In Florida Governor Rick Scott’s unilateral actions and disregard for the state legislature have turned his own party against him.  In Wisconsin where the labor fight has most strongly come to a head the expected easy re-election of incumbent Republican David Prosser to the state Supreme Court has come down to a narrow margin with the challenger, virtual unknown Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg, just barely ahead flipping 19 counties that went for Scott Walker in 2010.  With a storm of recalls gathering the troubles for the Wisconsin GOP, riding high on the Tea Party’s wave, have only just begun with labor increasingly agitated and energized into action across the Rust Belt.
Each of these skirmishes have helped build up what will be a game-changing showdown in Washington.  Both sides in Washington are spoiling for a political fight with each citing dearly-held principles.  Yet in spite diffuse opinion forming on impending shutdown the Tea Party is taking very serious risks.  In every one of their previous attempts to advance their cause they have been met with popular backlash and buyer’s remorse.  Their insistence during the 2010 campaign that government shutdown should not only be an option but actively sought by lawmakers has left the recentprotests to the contrary hollow and has enraged Tea Party activists calling for a firm stand in a fight where the stakes couldn’t be higher.  Far from being an effective cure for our woes some economists fear a prolonged shutdown spiraling back into a deep recession.  Beyond the economic impact is the direct effects of shutting down our federal government.  In the event of a shutdown over 800,000 federal workers would be furlough and stop receiving a paycheck, 30% of all tax refunds will remain unsent, states would face serious cuts in funding for programs like unemployment pay, and soldiers fighting overseas would continue their dangerous work without pay just to name a few.  If a last-minute budget deal cannot be reached then the Tea Party, thanks to their sound and fury, run the risk of being stuck with the blame.  They may soon discover that ideological purity doesn’t matter when the public doesn’t like what your ideology does to them.
Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.  The United States cannot afford courting economic disaster because the most radical faction of one political party cannot put aside ideology for the sake of the public good.

Also posted at Ryan’s Desk

Mar 302011
 

Recently Obama spoke about his decision to commit US troops to assist the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi. His choice, he said, was difficult, but clear: to prevent a slaughter of Libyan protestors, military action against Gaddafi’s forces was essential. The US cannot intervene everywhere, but when we can act to support freedom, we must. To do otherwise would be a violation of the core principles and beliefs of America.

Maybe Obama was right. But to me, the decision was not so clear. After all, these weren’t peaceful protestors, as in Egypt: these were rebels, soldiers, who were defending themselves. Obama said we were preventing a slaughter, but really we are taking sides in a civil war. And we don’t really know who these rebels are: recent reports indicate at least some ties to al-Quaeda (is anyone really surprised?) and other Islamist groups. Not to mention, if the rebels fail to defeat Gaddafi outright, how much further will we be drawn into the fighting? Are we going to be stuck trying to build a third Muslim nation? Obama emphasizes that we’re not going it alone here, we have lots of allies, America is not in charge — which is all fine, except of course it limits our control of the situation. And will all of this improve the “Arab street’s” opinion of America, or make it worse? There’s no way to know. To me, it is not clear at all that military intervention was the best course.

But I think there’s a bigger question here, one Obama didn’t even mention. Why are we in this situation? Why are we having to make this choice? How did we get backed into a corner of having to choose between a possible slaughter and a possible quagmire? And even more importantly: how can we avoid it in the future?

Here’s what I think. Obama’s right in one thing: we cannot violate our core principles — as Americans, and as human beings. But we got into this because we did violate those principles. And what are those principles?

Principles of Humane Action

We have to ask ourselves: what manner of world do we want to see? I use the word ‘manner’ specifically because the manner in which we do things is essential.

“We are so anxious to achieve some particular end that we never pay attention to the psycho-physical means whereby that end is to be gained. So far as we are concerned, any old means is good enough. But the nature of the universe is such that ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.” — Huxley

In order to give the means the proper weight in our considerations, we must take a step back from our goals. Instead of thinking about ends — exit strategies, “democracy in the Middle East,” etc. — we must hold processes and means in mind. What means do we want to see at work in the world? How do we want the world to work? Those are the means we must use towards our ends.

And I do not think there is much disagreement in principle on what kinds of means we would like to see. We wish people to use cooperation, or friendly competition. We wish to see peace rather than war. We wish to see distributed power rather than concentrated power: in society, as in nature, power concentrated in one place is unstable, and tends to disperse in disruptive ways. We wish to see people participating in determining the shape of their own lives, rather than having their fates decided for them. We wish to see initiatives from the grassroots, rather than having goals and means handed down from on high. These principles underlie not only American democracy, but most pagan traditions, and our deepest human nature.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

So in Libya today, why do we face a choice between evils? Mostly, of course, this is Gaddafi’s fault. But we can’t fix him by waving a magic wand; we can only change ourselves. And we are here, facing this choice, because we violated our core principles again and again as we rose to a world power.

During WWII, we felt we had no option but to build a tremendous military force to defeat the fascists. After WWII, we felt we had no option but to keep building that military force as a deterrent against the Soviet Union. After all, military intervention worked against Hitler, so we assumed it would always work everywhere. And anyway, it was profitable for our military industrial complex.

But in fact, a huge military by its very nature violates our core American and human principles. It is not an organization for cooperation or friendly competition; it is not peaceful; it concentrates power, instead of distributing it; it’s hierarchical, not grassroots. Perhaps we did need a huge military, for a while. But throughout the Cold War, our greatest efforts should have been towards drawing that military down, and exploring other options for promoting world peace and cooperation.

Because such options exist. What if we had worked toward establishing the UN as a true global organization for peace, instead of a factory for the cloaks of legitimacy we need for our military interventions? What if we had devoted as many resources to the Peace Corps as we had to the Marine Corps? What if we had put 50% of our discretionary spending towards encouraging charities, non-profits, and other non-governmental organizations around the world, instead of building enough ICBM’s to destroy the Soviets hundreds of times over?

We don’t really know, because we didn’t even consider those options. Instead, we built one big hammer, and the whole world looks like a nail; and it seemed that our only options in Libya were to use the hammer, or not.

We need to find ways of downsizing that hammer, and dispersing its power. We need to start creating other options. There are dozens of organizations working towards peace and understanding in the Middle East. We need to support them, and we need to create an environment that fosters more of them. Otherwise, no matter how dearly we hold our principles, the world will always be a bed of nails.

Mar 172011
 

The US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, recently spoke with the Washington Post about how unfair it is that the mainstream media in this country continues to slam rural America. He was taking issue specifically with Ezra Klein, who, reviewing Ed Glaeser’s new book, “The Triumph of the City,” talked about the many virtues of gathering people together en masse. Cities, he said, provided opportunities for the free exchange of goods and ideas, and increases in productivity and innovation, in ways that are impossible in a spread-out, rural setting. This is why our cities continue to grow and grow, despite the internet, iPhone, and other flashy shiny telecommunications capabilities that reduce the need for people to interact face to face.

Then Klein slammed the countryside: “But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living.”

Obviously, no Secretary of Agriculture worth the name could let such vile slander pass unremarked. Vilsack called up Klein and gave him an earful of reasons why rural subsidies are essential. Since Vilsack is a politician, the reasons were couched in lofty platitudes and misleading statistics, but here are his reasons, boiled down to the essentials:

* A disproportionate percentage of our military personnel come from there
* It’s where we get our food and water
* It’s the foundation of 1/12th of our economy (according to one way of accounting)
* There are a lot of poor people there
* Farmers are good people and deserve our support

Klein countered that, in a capitalist economy, the way we show our appreciation for people is usually by giving them a bigger paycheck. Instead of agricultural subsidies, why not pay our soldiers more? And urban people are patriotic, too; joining the military is not the only way to show one’s patriotism. Plus, there are a lot more poor people in cities than in the countryside. Urban and suburban people are also good and deserve our support. Why disproportionately support this 1/12th of the economy, and not other 1/12ths? Vilsack had no answers; he just repeated his bromides.

It’s true: we Americans love to talk about rural home family values, about patriotism and service and the simple American farmer and all that. My father grew up on a farm, and he and his family always waxed nostalgic for those pure halcyon days. But while I was growing up, the old farmstead stood empty and unused, except for the neighbors’ cattle. When I asked why grandma and grandpa didn’t live at the farm anymore, the answer was simple: they preferred their big house on the lake, with friendly neighbors and a short ride into town. And all the kids who’d grown up on the halcyon farm had gone off to the cities to work in non-halcyon manufacturing. Odd, that.

It’s not just Americans who like to talk about how great the country is; pagans do, too. There is something undeniably compelling about the forest, the rolling open hills, the looming mountains… They speak to the soul in a way that grassy city parks and mall parking lots rarely do. When you’re looking for a spiritual leading, suburban lawns are a poor substitute for the open prairie. When you’re out on the untamed earth, you can hear its voice whispering so much more loudly, if you let it. It takes you away from your humanity, for a while, and connects you to wilder, deeper parts of life.

Does that mean that rural areas are somehow better, and that the rural life is superior? Do rural communities need our subsidies? Is Vilsack right?

Cities do something essential for us, too. If you let them, they will re-introduce you to humanity, and show you new ways of being human. Modern American cities are far more multicultural than they have ever been before; within them you can find speakers of every language, from any social or economic class, rubbing elbows at the grocery store, walking in the parks, sitting in the coffeeshops. You will find whole new ways of thinking and being. And American cities are patriotic, as well — not in a way that celebrates red-blooded American Protestant supremacism, but American values of egalitarianism and multiculturalism. American cities have the poorest neighborhoods and the richest, the most religious and most atheist, the most conservative and most liberal, the most egalitarian and most authoritarian… If you want to learn about humanity, cities are where you go.

And opening yourself to your own humanity is just as essential a spiritual practice as opening yourself to the Earth. Perhaps the contrast between grounding and centering is instructive here.

When you center yourself, you find the right relationship between the different parts of your human body, making sure that all pieces are in alignment and that the energy is flowing well everywhere within yourself. And when you go to a city, you feel the alignment between different parts of human society, and the energy and resources flowing throughout.

When you ground yourself, you find the right relationship between yourself and the Earth, feeling the connection between your body and the planet around you. Similarly, when you leave human society and head into the country, you touch again the connection between your humanity and the wilderness.

Many religious traditions celebrate those who walk away from humanity — the pilgrims, the hermits and monks, the desert fathers, the dream questers. And there are definitely answers to be found out there in the desert. But the cities have their own answers, and open your mind to different kinds of questions, as well.