Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Power of Prayer

Last night was both the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the eve of what would have been my late mother’s 85th birthday, so I lit a Yahrzeit [Jewish memorial] candle in honor of both and thought about the power of prayer.

We’re at an unfortunate spiritual crossroad in America right now, a conflict between believers and non-believers that, in my opinion, is based on a skewed notion that rational faith is an oxymoron. The hubris of Fundamentalist Christianity has come to define all of Christianity in the minds of non-Christians, and Fundamentalist Christianity combined with Islamic Extremism has come to define the idiocy and danger of all religion, especially when it runs sufficiently amok, in the minds of those who call themselves Rationalists.

Very ironically, the Rationalists have something important in common with traditional religionists (extreme and otherwise), in that they believe in the letter of their dogma, which will not concede a difference between spirituality and religion, or that a person can be very much a rational, thinking, even intellectual, person and still engage in some aspect of spirituality. I think that's a very limited perspective.

A religious person fully ascribes to the tenets, scripture and mythology of a particular religion, a person who, as the Rationalists say, believes in the all-powerful bearded man in the sky and stories like the one about the talking snake in the Garden of Eden. I grant that there are billions of people who take this approach to religion and that since the dawn of time it has wreaked havoc on the world. But there are also people who believe in the basic principles of a religion and even enjoy some of its trappings without buying into its fairy tales, who gain personal strength and comfort from their faith and feel no need whatsoever to claim that theirs is the one and only true faith, and damn (or kill, or both) anyone who disagrees. They may not comprise the religious majority, but they exist and they’re a very different ball of religious wax from the norm.

There are also people who aren’t attached to any religion in particular, but put faith in their sense that powers exist that are both different and greater than ourselves, that science cannot explain every mystery, that the world is more than the sum of its evolutionary parts, that life is energy and energy does not die it relocates, that the part of us that feels instead of thinks is what can be called a soul, that history has produced a few particularly remarkable individuals with the power to effect positive change by the quality of their example and these role models are worth honoring (not worshiping, honoring), that what some people call God is a descriptor for a combination of love, kindness, fairness, honesty, compassion and service. Nothing about these ideas is in conflict with rational thought.

Prayer indeed has power that works in several understandable ways. For one, it is a classic example of the placebo effect: if you believe it’s true, you make it true. Give a sick person a sugar pill that he believes is a wonder drug and his body may actually heal. What we don’t know about the power of the mind/body connection could fill an ocean. Second, to pray is to clearly direct concentrated thought and thought is energy, it’s a real thing that exists even though we can’t see it, just like electricity. Humankind has learned how to harness electricity, we’ve learned a lot less about how to control the power of our thoughts, but occasionally we register a blip on the screen nonetheless. So a bunch of people focusing their thoughts on the same thing at the same time can indeed create an energy shift that can be expressed in many ways. In this sense, prayer is a form of quantum physics. Lastly, prayer is an idea that comforts, it can lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, lessen fear, loosen muscles, measure breathing; prayer is a form of meditation.

To dismiss mysteries and unexplained phenomena is to reduce the complexities of life to the three-dimensional meat and potatoes of who-what-where-when, with mixed regard for how and little curiosity for why. That’s not rational, that’s pedestrian. Art and music and elegant language are spirit. The beautiful appearance and intricate machinations of nature are spirit. The non-verbal, unconditional love between people and their pets is spirit. Enthusiasm, optimism, contentment, gratitude are spirit. Service is spirit in action. I have faith in spirit.

And in that spirit, and in the name of the Mysteries of the Universe, I wish you a healthy, Happy New Year. May all your needs be met and some of your desires realized. Rest in peace, Mama.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Singin' the Bailout Blues

Every time I think we’ve reached the pinnacle of greed and bald-faced chicanery of the free market in action, a new instance comes along to show me that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Apparently, the Congressional plan to bailout Wall Street has at last been re-worked and is awaiting final votes from our elected leaders to make this unprecedented situation a nightmare reality.

True, no one knows how much of the $700 billion will actually be dispensed to banks and investment companies, and yes, there is a possibility that this rescue measure will actually reap profits for the government before it’s all over and, certainly, anyone who’s been following this confusing and unfathomable story for the last couple of weeks understands that something had to be done to stem the nation’s economic hemorrhage. But I remain unconvinced that this bailout was the only possible answer, even with some sensible precautions/ provisions, which have now been agreed upon – and that don’t go anywhere near far enough.

I am furious, frightened and heartbroken about this turn of events. If, indeed, Barack Obama makes it to the White House, he will absolutely, positively, not be able to do many of the things he wants to do, because the absence of $700 billion in the national coffers, either in cash on hand or by increasing the already obscene deficit, is a deal-breaker, a plan-changer, a dream-stealer of unimaginable proportions. It won’t be about making hard choices, the situation threatens to leave the next President with very few options.

No We Can’t if we’re dead broke or drowning in debt. We can’t fully and properly reform health care and the Medicare/Medicaid systems, shore up Social Security, improve primary education and fund higher education, pioneer innovative energy solutions, overhaul the military and ensure veterans’ full rights, take creative and sensible steps to really increase national security, address poverty and homelessness, advance scientific achievement, re-build the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, build new affordable housing, reform the prison system, fully restore areas devastated by killer storms in recent years, or anything else that urgently needs doing in the public interest.

What I still don’t understand is why there is no legal punishment for the corporate decision-makers who brought us here; for that matter, why there is no punishment for the government agencies that turned a blind eye to the shady dealings of the free market; and why, even with revisions, the bailout plan offers so little relief for average people in this country.

I was raised in the midst of two standards of personal morality, by a mother who spent years and years with individual companies but wouldn’t bring home so much as a ballpoint pen or a legal pad, and by a father who had no trouble “shopping” in Harlem barbershops or near the trucks that merchandise fell off of. Since my mother took care of the family paperwork, we never cheated on our taxes and we paid every bill without fail. It was very important to her that she (and we) behave honorably in all things. I agreed, but I was confused. I still am.

I know virtue is its own reward, but really, where’s the payoff for the 90% of Americans who are not rich by any measure and who take pride in being self reliant? Where is the humane, even generous, assistance, where are the essential rights and privileges? In developed countries around the world, citizens don’t have to worry about the costs of health care or higher education, because they’re covered. Their homes are affordable. Their jobs are far more secure than ours. We ordinary Americans are routinely punished, whether or not we play by the rules – and there are stringent rules for us, while the Masters of the Universe run wild and free. I think it's fair to say that this is the last straw and something good better come out of this bailout, or a lot of nice, honorable Americans are gonna go ballistic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Cancel the debate in the best interest of the nation? John McCain showed his true colors this week - first shielding Miss Congeniality from the Big Bad Press, then behaving like a kid faking a stomach ache the night before a big test at school. His bald-faced self service is breathtaking. He's bullshitting and fear-mongering just like Dubya. They both make me sick.

Obama, on the other hand, was cool, gracious, came across as very presidential, and put McCain in his place when he said the president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time. What McCain (and his ignorant sidekick) can't do is lead or grasp complex issues.

Maybe some good can come out of all this fiscal misery and political garbage. Let's say it in unison:


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Straight Talk

Between the hysterical babbling press, the partisan commen-tators, and both presidential candidates walking on eggshells every time they speak, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of emotion, and a positive dearth of clarity. Someone should write a brief, plain-talk, objective, executive summary of the essential policy differences between the presidential candidates. Nobody asked me, but I’d like to take a shot – no revelations, just the basics.

Barack Obama and the Democratic Party believe that government should play an active, positive role in citizens’ lives, providing certain assurances, rights, privileges and benefits that people can count on for the necessities of a decent life. They believe eight years of George W. Bush have nearly destroyed this country. John McCain and the Republican Party believe that government should play a small and limited role in people’s lives and instead allow personal initiative and the activity of a free market in all things to determine what people have. As exemplified by the Republican Convention, McCain and The Republicans say little or nothing about Bush, who is the head of their party as well as the nation.

Obama’s position on the Iraq War is that it has been a dreadful mistake, devastating for this country in its human and financial toll and degraded perceptions of the US around the world. He would seek the soonest-possible responsible exit strategy and literally reinvent US military policy to reflect the new circumstances, alliances and dangers of the 21st century. John McCain believes that the decision to embark on the Iraq War was necessary because he thinks we went there to get the people who attacked us on September 11th. He feels any attempt to end the war without a classic military victory would be a disgrace to America. He believes The Surge has been successful and we should see the war through to its military conclusion, however long it takes and whatever the cost. He thinks anyone opposing his view of the war is being a quitter, unpatriotic, and dishonoring the troops.

Both candidates call for the maintenance of competent, efficient, and productive government operations in all areas, as free as possible from undo bureaucracy, mismanagement, fraud, partisanship, and deference to special interests. The Democrats see this as a prelude to better service to the American public through improved entitlement programs and other initiatives, while the Republicans champion greater government efficiency as the path to fewer government services and benefits, and less regulation of business and industry.

Obama has been outspoken and specific about his support of the protection and enforcement of individual liberties, most especially personal privacy; free speech; freedom from discrimination and harassment; religious freedom balanced by secular governance; just and humane treatment in criminal matters; autonomous reproductive decisions; and the right to bear arms within reasonable limits to avoid the incidence and increase of gun-related crime. McCain approves limits on personal privacy through government surveillance at will, sees benefits in far less separation of church and state, justifies torture, opposes reproductive freedom, and believes the right to bear arms should be unfettered.

Both Obama and McCain call for fair taxation. Obama wants to decrease taxes for the vast majority of people, increase taxes on the wealthiest 5% and on American corporations, especially those that have benefitted from outsourcing and downsizing. McCain believes in as little taxation of any kind as possible and is particularly concerned about business being burdened with taxes that they claim will hinder their growth, profitability, and ability to provide jobs for Americans.

Obama advocates an energy policy that is active, innovative, impartial, cooperative, and focused on achieving energy independence, options, and fair prices through the development of alternative energy sources. He believes energy needs must be balanced with environmental concerns. He accepts the scientific reality of global climate change and its damaging impact. McCain proposes an energy policy that focuses on the development of new oil resources throughout the US, including the environmentally controversial drilling in the arctic. Cheaper gas prices a.s.a.p. is a key goal. He remains skeptical about the cause and scope of global warming.

Obama wants to craft an economic policy that also is active, innovative, impartial, and cooperative, focused on expanding business and industry, and both increasing and ensuring full and fair employment. He supports unions and collective bargaining. McCain advocates an economic policy that relies on the expertise of American business and the wisdom of the free market. He thinks it is necessary and reasonable for businesses to outsource many of their functions to other countries where labor is cheaper than here. He believes protecting business and banks is the best way to revitalize economic growth and that unions are a hindrance to this end. He still advocates the classic "Trickle Down" theory.

Obama wants to undertake a detailed reexamination and revamp of major government policies, particularly those related to poverty, immigration, national security, and foreign affairs, in order to come up with creative new initiatives and fair solutions. McCain believes that cutting government costs and responsibilities, as well as enforcing existing prohibitions, is largely sufficient to address these national problems.

Obama proposes comprehensive, government-funded health care – physical, mental, dental, elder/special needs, experimental, catastrophic, long-term and hospice. McCain calls this socialized medicine and advocates maintaining the privately-owned, profit-oriented health care industry while providing modest tax cuts to better enable Americans to provide their own health insurance and treatment.

Obama believes in practical access to life-long quality education and training, and proposes a fair exchange of government funding of higher education for a stint of public service. McCain believes in personal initiative substantial enough to warrant privately-funded scholarships, and endorses vouchers for K-12 education rather than a major investment in the overhaul of public education.

Obama guarantees the sanctity, protection, and improvement of Social Security. The same goes for Medicare and Medicaid, unless and until such time as new health care policies and programs render them obsolete. McCain makes no such promises.

Barack Obama’s running mate has decades of leadership, legislative, and executive decision-making experience, a thorough understanding of domestic and foreign policy, and a proven track record of working effectively with disparate constituencies. John McCain’s running mate does not.

Barack Obama is not a Muslim. He and John McCain are both practicing Christians.

Bone up. There will be a test in November.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

American Vampires

For the past few days, I’ve been ponder-ing three subjects: the advent of Repub-lican Vice Presiden-tial nominee Sarah Palin; today being the seventh anniversary of the World Trade Center attack; and the clever new HBO series True Blood, based on the wonderful Dead Until Dark, the first book in the Southern Vampire Series by Charlaine Harris. They all seemed connected, but I couldn’t quite figure out how. Then yesterday, within a few hours of each other, while searching for other images I found the picture of Dubya that illustrates this post (apparently it’s available on T-shirts), and a friend sent me an article about the status of the 2008 campaign by Camille Paglia entitled “Fresh Blood for the Vampire” (available on Salon), and it suddenly came together.

Vampires are currently as popular as Beanie Babies were in the 90s, in fact, there’s a flourishing vampire subculture. We’re not just talking about youthful, cartoon Goth, we’re talking about mostly normal looking adults with an active vampire obsession. It seems that not since the magnificent vampire books by Anne Rice took the nation by the throat 20 years ago has America had such a love affair with the sexy, captivating, undead (or, as the advocates of vampire rights in True Blood call them, “life-challenged Americans” who just want to “come out of the coffin” and be part of mainstream society). There are numerous other offerings in vampire fiction, including a children’s series; several major non-fiction tomes on vampire history; vampire discos, social clubs and dating services; vampire dentistry for those who elect to go through life with genuine fangs; and of course, a nest of vampire Web sites.

Why is this phenomenon happening here and now? I think it’s because (at least in part) George Bush has been draining the lifeblood out of this country for the past eight years, and the horror that began with the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC in 2001 and continued with the double wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has left us ravaged, bereaved, and in desperate need of both comfort and distraction. Real monsters – like Bush, McCain and Vampira Palin – are too difficult to cope with for a lot of people, especially when they’ve lost loved ones or homes or jobs, or are just astutely aware that many of the essential tenets of our democracy have been eroded into dust. Add to that a large dose of inflation/ recession, killer weather, impossible gas, fuel and food prices, the wholesale aging of a once-vibrant generation, multiple instances of toxic vegetables, and the mind-numbing mediocrity of reality television and, well, it’s enough to make anyone want to engage in an exotic fantasy.

Paglia, who is enthusiastic in her support for Obama, says in “Fresh Blood For the Vampire” (she sees the aged, unvanquished McCain as the vampire): “In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.” I love the outspoken, contrary, fresh-thinking Camille Paglia, but I think her appreciation of Palin and her conviction that America could survive Palin’s ascension to power should it come to that, is dangerously misplaced.

Palin reminds me of a couple of demonic “p.r. gals” I worked for briefly, full of cozy smiles for clients and press, but shockingly hateful, wildly demanding and completely clueless with their staff. In a Palin story that has just surfaced, a waitress in Alaska reports that she served lunch to the Governor and some of her cronies the day after Obama unofficially clinched the nomination and heard her exclaim: “So, Sambo beat the bitch!” That, and everything else about her, gives me…pause.

Today, as we once again cast our eyes on Lower Manhattan and remember that day not so long ago when nearly 3,000 people were incinerated and we as a nation descended into a quagmire of heartbroken fear, it’s important that we remember that we cannot resurrect the dead, nor should we try. And we dare not once again put our future in the hands of those who would drain the life out of our nation with their ignorance, arrogance, greed, conceit and religiosity. There isn’t enough garlic to go around.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day 2008 - It's Still the Economy, Stupid

With Hurri- cane Gustav storming towards the Gulf Coast and the Repub- licans trying to salvage their convention in the face of it – not to mention the millions of Americans preparing to head for the mall in areas not plagued by homicidal weather – it’s easy to forget that today is Labor Day. But especially this year, Labor Day should not be forgotten.

The US Department of Labor explains that Labor Day is celebrated annually on the first Monday in September and is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers… and the
“…contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.” The holiday was first celebrated in New York City in 1882 and after campaigning by union activists and acceptance by more than two dozen state referendums, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. It was conceived as a day of parades and festivals and major speeches by labor leaders, businesspeople and politicians. It was always intended to be a joyful day off for working folks, but not a socially unconscious barbecue.

As I write this, two million people from Texas to Alabama along the Gulf are settling in for the night somewhere other than home. State and federal efforts to evacuate the region and not repeat the unconscionable nightmare of Hurricane Katrina seem to have so far been successful; those who were physically or financially unable to get out under their own steam were apparently dispatched in a decent manner. But as this AP photo of Gustav evacuees in a shelter in Tyler, Texas shows, the displacement for many is still hard going, and what people will return to when it’s over, nobody knows.

Unfortunately, the millions uprooted by Gustav, most of whom are American workers, are not the only American workers who won’t be going to work on Tuesday. Per thinkprogress.org, the country lost 51,000 jobs in July and the unemployment rate (a misleading figure to begin with) rose to 5.7% from 5.5%, which is the highest rate since March, 2004 and the seventh consecutive month of job losses for a 2008 total to date of 463,000.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are nearly nine million unemployed Americans – but that number doesn’t reflect those persons no longer receiving Unemployment Insurance; those in the military (many of whom have no civilian jobs to come home to); those working one or more part-time jobs and barely making ends meet; high school and college kids who need part-time jobs and can’t find them; the retired and disabled on inadequate fixed incomes; or those who have full-time jobs acquired in recent years that provide a fraction of the salary and benefits of their old, longstanding jobs, the ones that were downsized through corporate mergers/bankruptcies or outsourced overseas.

Fewer people will be shopping this Labor Day and those who do will be buying less and making every effort to pay the cheapest prices possible. Huge problems, and a great many of them, face America on this election year Labor Day, but none so urgent as the wholesale under-employment and outrageously increased financial difficulty (if not outright poverty) of the vast majority of Americans. We are not contributing nearly as much strength, prosperity and well-being to our country as we want and need to.

My heart goes out to the citizens who call the Gulf Coast home and who at this moment have no idea what level of crisis they’ll have to deal with after Gustav leaves. Considering that relatively little improvement was made in the three years since Katrina, it doesn’t look good for them. And until all of the politicians courting our votes this year show that they understand that a seriously damaged work force makes for a seriously damaged America – and then do something about it – it doesn’t look too good for the rest of us, either.