Keep it simple, silly

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Playing chicken

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." I never understood why this quote from Rev. Jeremiah Wright was so controversial. With somewhere around 120,000 civilian deaths in Iraq; 16,000 in Afghanistan; hundreds more in drone strikes over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and a total of over 10 million foreign deaths as a direct result of U.S. military and economic interventions since those nuclear blasts in Japan, it’s totally understandable that there could be people out there who want to kill us.

Certainly, many of these interventions may have been justifiable, and could well have prevented further loss of life; but when it’s your son, your daughter, your father, your husband, your brother, your sister, your wife or your mother that you bury, it’s mighty hard not to sense some desire for revenge. And 10 million deaths add up to a lot of repressed vengeance; sooner or later, some of it is bound to be released—or, as the Rev. Wright put it—some of our chickens are going to come home to roost.

It doesn’t make it right. But neither does our rationale make the death of other innocents right.

So how do we make it right? We can play a childish game of tit-for-tat all we like, but this is never going to stop until someone is big enough to admit they’ve done some wrong. If we’re big enough to take on the role of global police, then it could be that we’re big enough to take on the role of global peacemaker. If we don’t do it, who will?

But how? And how can we expect others to follow our lead? And won’t this make us look weak?

While answers to questions like these may be hard to find, one thing is certain: it won’t be easy. Others won’t follow our lead: the seeds of vengeance have already been planted and will continue to spread—for a while. Some may well see us as weak, while others will respect us for our resilience.

But how?

Here are just a few suggestions that could send the message we’re making an effort:

1.       Take the lead from 12-step programs. Acknowledge that we have an addiction to military muscle (we’re responsible for 39% of the world’s military spending—as much as the next 11 biggest spenders combined—which looks like an addiction from where I sit). Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Note the word ‘fearless’. Even if others don’t recognize the courage it takes to do this, we can. We don’t need to be apologists; we just need to be fearless. Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all. Ten million deaths, many more injuries, and everyone else affected by them, adds up to a lot of people, but we could at least identify groups of people. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (including ourselves, of course). This is where the hardest, richest and most rewarding work really begins. It worked with the Marshall Plan and the Japanese post-war economic miracle, so it can work again. Continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, promptly admit it. Notice how counter these steps are to current diplomatic methods, or even to our instincts? Notice how much success A.A. and its sister programs have had? There could just be something to this.

2.       Close Guantánamo. This would be a huge statement. If reading Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s description of his experience in the hunger strike at Guantánamo doesn’t stir some sympathy in you, it’s probably time you asked yourself when you lost your humanity, and how that is serving you. In short, the torture hasn’t stopped. Even without the force-feeding and the beatings; 11 years of confinement without trial, with limited outside contact, and with no clear end in sight is torture enough. Try putting yourself in such a position. Even on death row, you know what’s coming and why you’re there. Two days after his inauguration—on January 22nd, 2009—President Obama signed an executive order to close Gitmo. More than four years later, it still holds over 160 prisoners, many of whom have been cleared for transfer. Certainly, there have been many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to doing this, but we need to find ways to overcome them. This one action alone would show that we’re making an effort to change the way we’re seen in the world.

3.       Stop profiling. The Muslim world could be forgiven for believing we are closet racists. While the abovementioned prisoners languish in suffocating conditions in Cuba as untried ‘enemy combatants’, we rarely, if ever, treat other terrorists the same way. Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Joe Stack, Eric Rudolph and Wade Michael Page all belong to an extensive list of domestic terrorists who were each responsible for at least as much destruction as the Tsarnaev brothers, and all were either tried in civilian courts or died before that option was possible. Yet the moment Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—a U.S. citizen—was identified as a foreign-born Muslim, many pundits and politicians were calling for him to be tried as—you guessed it—an enemy combatant. Meanwhile, former informant Craig Monteilh tells us the FBI’s anti-terrorism strategy “is all about entrapment”. While we maintain such double standards, we make ourselves look both fearful and xenophobic to the very types of people we target (read: Muslims). And while we target them, they will target us—and we happen to be a very big, stationary target—which makes us pretty easy to hit.

4.       Get out of other countries’ business. At least where we can. Drone strikes and similar operations—both overt and covert—do us few favors overseas. We can never hope to kill every last remaining potential terrorist, and our attempts to do so will only encourage more. If we know where these people are, we know how to keep an eye on them. Let’s trust our ability to do that, while investing more in diplomacy and nation building, and less in weapons of mass destruction. Give the insurgency inciters as little to feed on as possible.

5.       Wear it. While law enforcement does an excellent job at preventing the bulk of terrorist attacks on American soil, every now and then another Tsarnaev will slip through the net. It’s inevitable. When it does happen, we need to stand tall and respond without malice or fear, as has largely happened in the wake of the Boston bombing. The more we are able to do this, the easier it will be for the world to see that terrorism is one strategy that will never work on us.

6.       Talk. These incidents—no matter how misguided—happen for a reason. What is that reason? Stopping for a moment to ask is always a good idea. We may not like what we hear, but we can still listen and take in what is relevant. As Jane Goodall has said, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right.” At no point can we agree that people attacking us is right. At every point we should ask why.

I recall a bumper sticker that said we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. We can reverse that trend. The ideas here are not new, nor are they comprehensive. But we need to start somewhere, anywhere—for the sake of our peace of mind, for our country, for our children, and for the families and friends of all the people this country has touched for better or for worse—and in this increasingly global environment, that’s nearly everyone (and mostly for the better!).

Because, until we do take the lead on peacemaking, we’ll just be playing chicken.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bangladesh & Mrs Jones

With over 300 people dead in a collapsed sweatshop in Bangladesh, plus a string of earlier incidents—including 111 in a fire in November—is it time we started asking what part we play in these accidents?

How could we play a part? We’re on the other side of the world.

What are you wearing? Do you know where it came from? Did you pay what it was worth? Or are you like me, a little strapped for cash and therefore looking out for a good deal? Even if you’re not short of moolah, you still know a good price when you see one. It’s human nature: bargains are hard to pass up.

It’s also a foundation of capitalism: the best price often wins.

But what about the hundreds of people who just died giving us great prices? Even before they died, they worked in terrible conditions for pay just above the squalor line. If this was your neighbor, would you allow it to happen? If it was a relative, what would you do to stop it? They’re so far removed from us, yet as this world becomes more globalized, we are all becoming neighbors. And whether you believe in Adam and Eve or Lucy, we are all somehow related. So where is the line? Three doors down and second cousin? Different nationality and different color? Somewhere in between? We all have a line, and that is the point at which our humanity is replaced by our self-interest.

Can this line be blurred? Can we wipe it out completely? Is there a way to see our place in the world differently? Every time a disaster of this magnitude comes to our attention, it gives us pause. We go to a place—if only for a moment—where we feel sympathy for a distant fellow human being. And then we get in our car and drive to Walmart and shop ourselves back into unconsciousness. It is so hard to connect their suffering to our behavior. We didn’t build the sweatshop. We didn’t negotiate the contract. We didn’t know what their working conditions were like. We didn’t do it. But boy, did we get a deal on that sweater.

There are many sides to every transaction. We see some of them (great price, how do they make a profit?) and are blinded to most of them. How do we open our eyes? How do we see the true cost of our actions? All we have to compare with are the people around us—the Joneses—and keeping up with them becomes a central focus of our reality. Immediacy trumps dissociation every time, and the only time Bangladeshi sweatshops emerge into immediacy is when disaster strikes and a pang of empathy erupts. Then, very quickly, Made in Bangladesh once again means only that it’s cheap.

So what do we do? Do we accept personal responsibility for this tragedy? Do we blame the importers? The retailers? The factory owners? The factory’s builder? The officials that watched it go up without a permit? Do we put it down to globalization? To capitalism? Every one of these is a factor in all this suffering: hundreds dead, hundreds wounded, hundreds of families experiencing loss with little compensation. And every one of us is in a position to deflect responsibility to one of the other parties.

Is that who we are? Is that what being human is all about? Can we simply be reduced to seven billion egocentric organisms? Or is there a way to see us as one organism with seven billion parts? If we are the latter, then we just received a stab wound from the sudden loss of 300 significant elements. How many more self-inflicted wounds do we need to subject ourselves to before we recognize that we’re suffering from a self-harming disorder?

According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, global wealth is sitting at over USD 50,000 per adult. Surely that’s enough? There is enough to go around. But while I have the mentality that I need much more than I really do, and while I value my success more than someone else’s existence, there will never be enough for many. We are seeing this play out here in the US, as income inequality approaches the extremes of the ‘20s; those who are best at getting more for themselves are doing so at the expense of those who don’t have the same skills. And while this kind of thinking pervades economic rationale this will continue to happen—at least until the system implodes under its own weight as it did in 1929.

Our whole economic system depends on factories like that one in Bangladesh. It needs cheap labor and cheap means of production. It’s been happening since the Dickensian age. The industrial revolution required a minor revolution in thinking: the serfs who served nobility were now required to serve industry. Globalization just helps keep the serfs out of sight, out of mind, in collapsing factories in countries like Bangladesh, while we—the nobility—preoccupy ourselves with the Joneses and all the things we don’t yet have.

Until we’re ready for a real revolution in thinking, we’ll have blood on our hands every time we seek a bargain. But don’t worry, there’s always someone else to blame.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Warren G. Harding, President March 4, 1921 to August 2, 1923, Republican; Calvin Coolidge, President August 2, 1923 to March 4, 1929, Republican; Herbert Hoover, President March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933, Republican -> Great Depression: Aug 1929 – Mar 1933

Richard Nixon
, President January 20, 1969 to August 9, 1974, Republican -> 1973–75 recession: Nov 1973 – Mar 1975

Jimmy Carter
, President January 20, 1977 to January 20, 1981, Democratic; Ronald Reagan, President January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989, Republican -> Early 1980s recession: July 1981 – Nov 1982

Ronald Reagan
, President January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989, Republican; George H. W. Bush, President January 20, 1989 to January 20, 1993, Republican -> Early 1990s recession: July 1990 – Mar 1991

George W. Bush
, President January 20, 2001 to January 20, 2009, Republican -> Late 2000s recession: Dec 2007 - Dec 2009

Could it be coincidence that 7 of the 8 Presidents who preceded the five major economic collapses since the Great Depression were Republicans? (A Republican was in office at the start of ALL of them). Or could it be that gutting government services and putting all your faith in business is bad economic policy?

Monday, September 29, 2008

How bad you gonna smell?

Back in the early ‘90s, my flatmate and I came to the realization that the world was really fucked up. It wasn’t just the rampant consumerism destroying the planet that we noticed, but a combination of unsustainable practices being championed by every political and industrial leader in existence. Everywhere people were talking about progress, and we were holed up in our flat talking about the regression we could see coming: regression back to the Middle Ages if we were lucky or, more likely, the Dark Ages.

We used to ask, “How bad you gonna smell when the shit hits the fan?”

I’m no economist, and I’ve never understood how debt can continue to increase without it all eventually collapsing into one big black hole. There’s a story I heard once that illustrates this: a man comes onto an island where the people have no concept of money. He has a big bag of marbles with him, and he shows the people how—instead of bartering—they can just give each other an agreed upon number of marbles for each transaction. He gives each of the people on the island 50 marbles to get started, with the simple proviso that when he returns in a year, they each give him 55 back.

News flash: we’re living on that island, folks! Have you got all your marbles?

It doesn’t really matter, because 700 billion more of them ain’t gonna stop the inevitable from happening. You see, this is the thing: all the current US Administration’s policies have done is catalyse an outcome that was always going to happen. You can’t have everyone spending more than they make without a consequence. And the longer it takes to get there, the bigger that consequence is going to be.

The proposed bailout package is like using a bandage to stop internal bleeding. Listen to what they’re saying: all they want to do is ensure that everyone can still get credit! It’s like that guy coming over with a ship full of marbles and saying, “This should solve your problem. Just remember to give me a ship and a bit back when I return next year.”

The problem is systemic. John Ralston Saul said it well in his definition of Competition in The Doubter’s Companion: “An event in which there are more losers than winners. Otherwise it’s not a competition. A society based on competition is therefore primarily a society of losers.” Our entire economic system is based on the idea of competition. At the end of any competition, there is only one winner. We could well be nearing the end of ours.

So the question is, who wins? Microsoft? Politicians? China? The Illuminati? The real question is, what is the definition of winning when the whole world is losing? It is altogether possible that our existing definitions of power will be meaningless on the other side of the black hole.

My guess was, and remains, that the winner will be the one who can look after himself. It will be the person who can feed and clothe and house himself without owing anyone a cent. It will be the one who doesn’t need any of the institutions which are folding now to keep him afloat.

The winner, I think, will not be an individual. The winner will be community. When a group of people use their individual talents to support one another, there is more power than any bank could ever possess. No bank can ever touch a group of people who have never needed it.

I love the irony: the competition winner is community.

So … how bad you gonna smell when the shit hits the fan?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Play day

Spring aromas wash around me with the wind. Blossoms blow by, and a tractor works on high. The cats by my feet wait and play, play and wait, wait, play, and a fly buzzes bright by my ear. The shadow before me reflects the warmth behind me. Green grass shining, greening.

Today I make my affirmations, today I give myself to freedom: until I can say 'I'm perfect', my answer is, 'I'm getting better'; kindness is a kindness I owe to myself; I am here to help.

If this is a dream, I must be dreaming. I like circles.

Butterfly bites off as much as it can chew and flaps off to another bud. Kitty cat smile smells of cherry blossom. Yonder hill awakens in a red flourish, and the bonfire beside me asks for a light. Sorry, don't smoke. Bouncing ball in the distance, distance, distance.

It's a nice day for a walk.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Waiting for Godot

If someone told me, "Katie, wait till they start chemical warfare," I would say, "Good. I can wait. I can do that" – Byron Katie

I have been asked to wait recently, and this quote from Katie came to mind. I can wait. It is something I can do.

What I notice is that when I’m the one saying, “Wait until…” that I’m already there. I’m not waiting, I’m being impatient, pushy, getting way, way ahead of myself. What is happening here now when I’m saying that? How would I know? I’m too busy over there, possibly years ahead, possibly never, living a life I fear. Yet right here, right now there is nothing to fear, there is only support.

It seems the whole world is waiting for something. Once it was AIDS, there was Ebola, SARS, Avian Flu – epidemics are popular things to wait for because they speak of death, finality, the end of waiting. There are many people here waiting for the end of Bush’s reign – they even have timers for sale counting down the seconds to his last day in office. We count down the days to Christmas, to the next football season, to 2012, there’s always something to keep us away from this.

In this moment, I find myself waiting too. Waiting for the next word to come, waiting for Godot.

When I am waiting with expectation, when I want an outcome: that is when I’m no longer here. When I am waiting purely in anticipation of what could come next – waiting for Godot – then I remain here, at peace, aware and open. Anything is possible and everything is welcome.

Yes, I can wait. I can do that.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Could it be...

Could it be that my only function is to complete reality? Could it be that the squished bug, the ugly divorce, the hate crime, war, pollution, the grisly death, are all absolutely necessary for no reason other than they are happening? Could it be that the only decision I’ve ever had to make is whether to accept this or not? Accepting reality. Could it be that no other decision I’ve ever made carries any consequence at all? Could it be? Could it even be that those decisions were never really made? That if my only function has been to complete reality, that my function has therefore already been set?

Fatalism? Does fatalism allow for the acceptance of reality? Or is it relinquishing to reality? It seems to me that there is freedom in acceptance, bondage in relinquishment.

Could this be? Could freedom be as simple as simple acceptance? Could I, with all my theories, thoughts and cherished dreams, could I accept such a simple premise? Could it be that if this is the only decision I ever need to make, that it is as inevitable as reality itself? Could it be that even this decision is not mine to make?

Could it be?