2005-12-30

Journey to America

Originally posted July 10, 2005.


With the music of Sixteen Horsepower blasting from the speakers of Michael's black Chrysler LeBaron, Michael Totten and your present writer took off early Friday morning to escape the comfy enclave of Portland, Oregon. Soon the firs changed to pines and we were out of Ecotopia and heading straight for the heart of the Empty Quarter. It was Michael's idea. Michael is a native of Oregon and a travel addict, and there are few places in the Northwest he hasn't seen; for this trip, he wanted to visit Pyramid Lake and The Playa in Nevada. I agreed to go along, not having a terribly clear idea of where these places were, but fairly sure that a trip out of town would be fun, and might do me some good. It was, and it did.

Cross the Cascades, and the land is drier, the climate harsher, the life unforgiving. But already I'm lapsing into cliches. I want to describe the land as "barren", but it's not entirely true, and anyway I don't think you can really understand the idea of "barrenness" unless you have actually worked on a farm, which I have not. So instead I will say that the land is bare. In lush areas like the Willamette Valley, you don't spend much time thinking about the land (again, unless you work the land yourself) because you never really see the land. What you see is the stuff that grows on the land - grass, trees, utility poles, roads, houses, office buildings. Out there, though, you see the land itself. You see dirt. You look down at the ground and there's dirt, sand, rock, or salt, with a smattering of low scrubby plants or spindly pine trees, and the occasional stretch of road, a few telephone poles, and maybe a couple of buildings here and there. Then you look up, and there's the Western sky, which is famously "not cloudy all day" - it's just sky and nothing but sky, not blanketed by couds or smog or trees or buildings. And sandwiched ridiculously in between, there's you.

We drove through south-central Oregon, one of the most sparsely populated regions of the lower 48. We passed through Lakeview, with its big wecome sign depicting a genial cowboy waving to newcomers. We passed a big body of water, Goose Lake, on our right. We cut through a conrner of California and passed into Nevada. You can tell immediately where the California highway ends and the Nevada road (using the term somewhat loosely) begins. And from there on it was nothing but sand and mountains until we got to Pyramid Lake.

I took a camera but somehow didn't feel moved to take many photographs. Michael did, and I'm sure he'll post these on his blog before long. I'm looking forward to seeing them myself. (Update: they're here.) We made Pyramid Lake by late afternoon. The lake is big, and lies entirely within a Paiute reservation - as Michael said, on of the few good pieces of land the Indians got. We hit the lodge at about 5pm, after ten or eleven hours driving, and went down to get a good look at the lake.

Pyramid Lake is said to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the Western Hemisphere, and baby, they ain't kidding. It's a magnificent turquoise blue, and surrounded by sand and mountains. There are no high-rise hotels or any of that crap. The lodge we stayed at adjoined a general store / saloon / casino, which serves as the area's cultural center. Over a can of Miller beer (to my chagrin, I'd made the mistake of asking the barmaid what they had "on tap"), Michael and I unwound after the trip. I ordered dinner, which consisted of a basket of onion rings.

Now I have to say a word or two about food in the West. Quite simply, there isn't any. That is, if you're spoiled on the kinds of food you can get in Portland or San Francisco or Seattle, there is no food in the West. Period. What you can get is deep fried everything, and hot dogs. That's it. Oh, and omelettes, if you're lucky. My entire diet for the whole trip was two cheese omelettes. (I counted myself fortunate because the second one - eaten in Gerlach, home of the Burning Man festival - actually contained vegetables.) The concept of a salad just does not exist.

But that's part of leaving Ecotopia. The food - or whatever they call that stuff - quite literally goes with the territory. As Michael explained it, people in the West don't see Nature as benign because it is not. It is something to be wrestled with, mastered when possible and accommodated when it cannot be mastered. Michael pointed to an area that some of the early settlers had attempted to irrigate in the hopes of growing crops. Not only had it not worked, he explained, the attempt had actually made the soil even worse, resulting in whole expanses of lifeless sand, devoid of even the local vegetation. Nowadays people take the more pragmatic approach of importing truckoads of canned and frozen foods from elsewhere. This is why you're gonna have a tough time finding that organic vegetarian burrito you're hankering for (or even a celery stick), and it's why you don't have to spend a whole lot of time looking for a recycling bin to dump that plastic pop bottle in when you're done with it. Why, after all, should man respect nature? Does nature respect man?

We sat for a while in the saloon as evening came on. Local men and women - heavyset, somehow cheerful and melancholy at the same time - laughed and gossiped and shot pool. I bought a few items at the store; the girl behind the counter, who was pretty and simply cheerful, wished me a pleasant evening. Someone turned on the jukebox and we endured a godawful song about "the drinkin' bone's connected to the party bone"; after that we heard a surprisingly compelling number, "Holy Water" by Big and Rich. I turned in at about 9:30; Michael stayed up a little later to work on a piece for Lebanon's Daily Star.

I was talking about the land. The mountains are stony, rugged, and refreshingly solid-looking (not like the ones around here, which will occasionally blow up on you). We drove by a number of lakes - a few, like Goose and Pyramid, actually had water in them. Most did not. There is a curious custom of charitably naming a dry lakebed "Lake So-and-so" when the "lake" has been a flat expanse of dirt for countless years. They're even labeled that way on the map: "Coleman Lake (dry)", "Alkali Lake (dry)". And when I said dirt, I really meant dirt and salt; in some places the ground is literally white. It's the most amazing, humbling thing to see.

And this brings us to the Playa. We left the lodge at Pyramid Lake early to get there. I thought Michael was crazy for wanting to go at all, but I'm glad we did. Playa means beach in Spanish, and a beach implies sand, which the Playa certainly has. A conventional definition of "beach" generally involves the presence of an ocean as well, and thus implies water; this element, once again, is absent from the Playa. But it wasn't always so: in prehistoric times, that whole region used to be underwater, a huge inland sea; so the name (like the names of the waterless "lakes") is not entirely a misnomer.

The Playa is a huge expanse of dry sand and mud. In the hot summer months, it's dangerous to drive across because the temperature can get to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In the cool winter months, it's dangerous to drive across because the sand is wet an your car can get stuck. We were lucky: we got there when the temperature was mild and the ground was mostly dry. Still, we didn't venture out too far; I had vivid memories of my armored vehicle getting stuck in Saudi sabkhas "back in the day", and Michael's LeBaron didn't have a winch cable or recovery vehicle handy.

So there we were: the geographical center of nowhere. There is something therapeutic about just going out into the wasteland for a while. We got out of the car, and, without a word, wandered slowly away in separate directions, and simply stayed there for about an hour - standing, sitting, just letting the noise and chatter drain away. I did a quiet breath meditation for about 20 minutes. We took turns looking through the binoculars, noticing how the mountains seemed to float above their mirror image on the horizon.

This was a trip to the part of America we rarely get to see from where we live. It was a chance to purge some of the accumulated mental chatter and garbage, and to remind ourselves just how small we are and how big the world is. Standing on the caked clay of the Playa, surrounded by the mountains and the invisible coastline of what had once been a sea, we were probably as close to standing on Mars as either one of us will get. Eventually some clouds did start moving in from the west. Over the peak of one of the mountains, one of those strange, flying-saucer-shaped clouds hovered and then dissipated. It is at moments like these that you truly feel like an alien on your own planet.

Yet little more than a hundred years ago, that trip itself would have been science fiction. To drive a horseless motorcar, traveling a mile a minute, into the middle of a desert that even the Indians dreaded? And to do it as easily as we listen to recorded music out of a box, or write for a newspaper on the other side of the globe. And then there's Nevada itself: the land where our own Government tested atomic weapons, turning whole stretches of the desert into glass.

I've written elsewhere about the role of the wilderness in American spirituality. It is one thing to read about these things in books, and quite another to experience them for yourself. Michael's choice of Sixteen Horsepower for the ride was a good one, because their lonely and unforgiving sound perfectly captures the spirit of the landscape. Outside of the car, though, the only music is silence.

Why should man respect nature, if nature does not respect man? Because we have no choice. Nature is big, the wilderness is big, the world is big, and we are small. In such a world, it is very difficult to believe in a Sunday-school deity, some guy named "God" with a long white beard and a bag of gifts for good girls and boys. G-d is not a man, and if we expect human qualities from the Spirit we will only be disappointed.

On a hot July day more than 250 years ago, a Connecticut preacher used these memorable words:
"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God's mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment. ...

Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.

The very fabric of our world is held together by forces hanging in the most minute balance. The strong nuclear force is, to within a miniscule fraction, exactly enough to keep the protons in the nucleus of an atom from flying apart, repelled by their neighbors' electric charge. Were this balance to falter for even an instant, we would be annihilated in a flash. Humankind, having discovered the secret to upsetting this balance, now possesses this frightening power. With each generation, the consequences of our successes and our failures, our virtues and our sins, become greater. And the wilderness is still there, no less hostile. It gives us room to wander, room to get lost, and abundant room to die. So we are tempted to treat the wilderness as harshly as it treats us.

But if, as Jonathan Edwards believed, we are all in imminent danger of destruction, then our exile in the wilderness also gives us the liberty to find the spiritual materials of our own salvation. We must do this for ourselves; it will not be handed to us. Every one of us, from the moment we're thrust screaming into this world until the moment we're taken from it, faces this same exile. And every one of us faces the same task.

Why should man respect nature, if nature will not respect man? Ask instead how humankind may best show respect for the Power that lies beyond nature, and that lies inside each of us as well. Ask how to act in the face of the undisguised Nothingness, from which everything emerges and to which everything will one day be driven home. Nature makes no choices and asks no questions. Nature cares nothing for man because it is only the veil before the Void. Humans alone have the power to seek the presence of that nameless Source, to walk in its ways, and to honor it.

We got home at about 11:30 last night. I'm not gonna lie to you, it was good to be back in the land of fresh salads, micro-brews, Starbucks, and Powell's Books. Back in the rich and civilized climate of Portland, it feels like another world altogether. We can get the best clothes, the best books, the best food, and the best coffee. We have safe streets, comfortable weather, a pleasant city park, and a respectable college. We have all of the best things in life.

And we're living on top of a volcano.


2005-12-29

Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark

Originally posted November 6, 2005.

"Who's there?"

So begins Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play. It's the story of a young prince who sees his kingdom being destroyed from within, and yet feels himself powerless to stop it.

Today's [November 6, 2005] news: Muslim immigrants rioting in Denmark. Hat tip: Sandmonkey, and no thanks to the lamestream media.
Rosenhøj Mall has several nights in a row been the scene of the worst riots in Århus for years. “This area belongs to us”, the youths proclaim. Sunday evening saw a new arson attack. Their words sound like a clear declaration of war on the Danish society. Police must stay out. The area belongs to immigrants....

Four hours after the short meeting, Falck (Danish privat emergency service – Henrik) sent a group of fire engines under police escort to the nursery Kjærslund on Søndervangs Allé, right across the street from Rosenhøj Mall. Gasoline through the windowA window had been shattered at the back of the house, and the fire had been blazing, apparently because of gasoline poured onto the floor, then lit. Falck stopped on Viby Square, a couple kilometers from the site of the arson attack, waiting for the police to turn up so they could be escorted to the nursery. Two nights earlier, other Falck-employees were threatened, when they were covering up broken shop-windows. Cobblestones had smashed the shop-windows from one end of the mall to the other. The police wrote in their report saturday night, that the youths had their stones with them in bags, when they came to Rosenhøj....

He calls himself 100 percent Palestinian, born in a refugee camp in Lebanon 19 years ago, and now out of work in Denmark.“The police has to stay away. This is our area. We decide what goes down here”.



A crisis of will.

Hamlet knows clearly enough what he must do. He's cautious at first - he won't act on the basis of the words of his father's ghost alone, reasoning that the apparition may be deceiving him. But having set a "mousetrap" for Claudius, and by the evil uncle's reaction judging Claudius guilty, he sets out to kill Claudius - only to be brought up short by his own indecisiveness.

Europe - and certainly not Denmark alone - finds itself in the same situation as Hamlet. Its first task is to determine "Who's there?" Europe must honestly confront the threat of Muslim radicalism - and at the same time recognize the common interest of civilized Christians, Jews, and Muslims in eradicating it. Richard at Hyscience quotes Magdi Allam's speach in Rome:
Dear friends, I won’t hide my emotions as an Italian citizen, a Muslim, a layman in stating my defense of Israel’s unequivocal right to its existence. My dear Israeli and Jewish friends, your fight for Israel’s right to exist is also my fight for the right to life of all, including that of Palestinians who aspire to an independent state, including the many, too many, Muslim victims of barbaric acts of Islamist terror. On the foundations of the right to life, we all build our homes. It is a war of civilization which we will win together.

Go read the full post at the link, and understand what is at stake.


Of honor and honor killings.

I posted earlier about an honor killing in Denmark. A Danish story headlined Bror dræbte sin søster reads in part: "Calm and methodically big brother stoops over his little sister while shooting one projectile after the other into her. Her spouse, affected by several shots to the abdomen, can only look on helplessly, while his wife is executed by her own family." (The English translationbrother kills sister is courtesy of Free Republic.)

Not just in Denmark: "Honour-based violence is happening in Britain on a vast scale," says Kate O'Hara in the Yorkshire Post. 'Such crimes can involve false imprisonment, abduction, rape, men and women being forced into unwanted marriages, or in extreme cases, murders. "This murder (of Mr Ghorbani Zarin) fits the definition of an 'honour killing' absolutely," said Jasvinder Sangher, herself a victim of honour crime who is now studying for a PhD at Derby University. "Honour-based violence is going on in Britain on a vast scale. We are just beginning to scratch the surface," she said. Heshu Yones's father Abdalla Yones, 48, an Iraqi Kurd, was unable to tolerate his 16-year-old daughter's Westernised lifestyle and her relationship with a Lebanese Christian man. He stabbed his daughter 17 times at their London home in October 2002 and was jailed for life after pleading guilty to murder.' Hat tip to KBU News.

What happens when there is a breakdown of basic respect for the law - and not only the law itself, but the very values of humanity that the law represents? What happens when a modern state decides, through indifference or cowardice, that the lives of some of its citizens are not worth defending?


Hamlet's weaknesses: self-doubt, self-hate, nihilism.

Self-doubt. Hamlet has one opportunity to do in Claudius, while Claudius is praying. But he passes it up, reasoning, "And so he goes to heaven - and so am I revenged?! That would be scanned!" He's thinking of the posthumous reports he's heard from his own father ("a tale ... whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul") regarding the afterlife prospects of one who dies without atoning the benefit of final sacraments ("no reck'ning made"); if he kills Claudius at prayer, he thinks, Claudius will go straight to heaven. But this is dubious theology at best, and Claudius himself doesn't buy it: just a few moments earlier, we've heard Claudius musing, "what can [prayer accomplish] when one cannot repent?" No, Hamlet is only rationalizing. He can't bring himself to do the act when he has the chance.

Self-hate. Hamlet often speaks of how unworthy and ineffectual he feels, particularly in comparison to his late father. He doesn't hesitate to criticize his own culture, chiding his fellow Danes for their drinking habits (in keeping with the pervasive "drinking" metaphor of the play) but his real problem is with himself.

Nihilism. "To be, or not to be?" Hamlet's famous question underscores the most serious internal challenge he faces: his own will to live. Much has been made of Hamlet's relationship with his mother, Gertrude; here I'll just say that the young prince, raised in the sheltered environment of Elsinore, must find the courage to actualize himself as an individual - that is, to come out into the world on his own.

Hamlet is driven in part by a sense of a nation in general decline from a more noble past. (When he says, "O what a falling-off was there", he is referring specifically to the contrast between the honorable, elder Hamlet and the perfidious Claudius, but also to the general condition of his country.)


A spectre is haunting Europe.

Hamlet correctly perceives that "the time is out of joint" and laments that he was "born to set it right". But who else will do it? Who else is there?

The officious bureaucrat Polonius is so busy being a busybody that he can't accomplish anything. He's more interested in micromanaging his children's personal lives than in letting them grow into adults. Sounds like the EU.

(Side note: Polonius' advice to Laertes - "costly thy habit as thy purse can buy ... for they in France are of a most select and generous chief in that" - is not a typo, as some commentators believe. Chief is simply the Old French word for "head", so the line means, "they in France are of a most select and generous head (or mind) in that." Polonius being Polonius, he can't resist throwing in a French word, especially when speaking of France, because he thinks it sounds cool. Later, in V:ii, Hamlet satirizes the pretentious courtly vocabulary by throwing a lot of French words at the courtier Ostricke.)

The point is, Hamlet - given his many shortcomings - seems far from the ideal candidate for bringing down the usurper Claudius and restoring justice to the kingdom. But there isn't anyone else to do the job. It's him, or nobody.

For too long the West has denied the threat of islamist extremism in its midst. Due to a combination of self-doubt ("certainty" is for fanatics), self-hate (all the world's problems are our fault), and nihilism (one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter ... and after all, isn't all this freedom and modernity just a bit too much?) we have allowed the threat to grow almost out of control.


The name of action.

A recent letter published at Irshad Manji's website reads:
"Tell the truth on islam and not all these lies you crazy woman. Ppl like you must pay and will pay." - Abdel

Irshad replies (not to Abdel but to you, dear reader): Judging by his email address, the individual who sent me this message lives in Denmark. His last name is Andersen. Sounds to me a like a convert -- and a “homegrown” or “Western-raised” threat. We're seeing more and more like him. Which is why pretending that the problem exists outside of the West is no longer an option.

What is at stake is not merely an abstract notion of "the West"; it is civilization itself. Proof of this is the fact that progressive Muslims like Irshad Manji recognize the importance of this struggle. In a two-part post at the Belmont Club, Wretchard imagined a jihadi giving the following analysis to Osama bin Laden:
Having lived among them and killed many of them, peace be unto you!, you understood that the West on three occasions just barely escaped destroying itself. Whether in the muddy trenches of the Great War; or in the global bloodbath of the Second World War; or the Cold War, lived in the shadow of thousands of nuclear warheads, you understood the West was like a man who had escaped suicide thrice only through great good fortune.

This yearning for the death of the West comes from Shaitan himself and is proof of their accursed nature, and explains why we will eventually be victorious despite our material weakness. The desire for self-death is embodied in what is called the Left, the unnamed shadow motivating the carnage of the last century. We must remember its name, for we will invoke it again when deciding on how best to pursue the Jihad.

But if the West is like a stone balanced on a precipice, wanting to fall yet held back by those among it who wish to live, still its final plunge requires a lever, some instrument of power which by tipping it the decisive inch will unleash the self-destructive tendencies of the infidel; let them yield to the spirit that haunts them, "the spectre haunting Europe" and like the Gadarene swine of their scripture, hurl themselves into the precipice. That lever will be provided by Islam. ...


With the riots in France now approaching their eleventh day, we are out of time. This is not a clash of civilizations; it is a battle for civilization itself. We must understand what is at stake. But we must also understand that we can win - if we have the will.

IMPORTANT: For the positive side, read: The Decent Danish.

2005-12-27

Iranian Regime: Delaraam Must Die

A 19-year-old Iranian woman was sentenced to death for alleged "crimes" committed when she was 17, according to this e-mail message from the editor of UK Gay News:
I have had three emails today about a young Iranian woman who has been sentenced to be hanged in a public execution for a crime commited about two years ago when she was 17. All three emails said that it was not known what the so-called “crime” was.

There is a press report here … http://www.iranpressnews.com/source/009570.htm

I have tried to research exactly where Iran Press News is published – I suspect in the USA, but registration of their website is (naturally) very vague.

This is the text of one of the email received:

According to IranPressNews.com (Farsi version), a young Iranian girl has been sentenced to death by hanging. Her name is Delaraam. She was only 17 when she allegedly committed the crime. It is not clear what crime she committed when she was 17. She has been kept in prison for two years since then. IranPressNews reports that two other Iranians are to be hanged in public tomorrow (Wednesday 7th Day) - it is not clear whether Delaraam will be hanged with these two - in the city of Ahvaz in the southern province of Iran at 7 am. The place of hanging is said to be near a terminal in the SE RAHE TAPEH (the Tapeh three-ways).

It is also reported that a young Iranian man, aged 19, was recently hanged in the city of Saqez.

So the atrocities of the Islamic regime against Iranian children continue and no one bats an eyelid!

Shame on the free world!

I will be posting a brief report, suitably “vague” with “unconfirmed reports” etc., within the hour. But thought you might like to be informed of the “ horrific development”

Andy
Editor
UK Gay News

http://www.ukgaynews.org.uk/latest.htm

2005-12-26

Liberals, Conservatives, and Others

This post first appeared on my first blogiversary, April 21, 2005.
Every little while, I could hear something about the abolitionists. It was some time before I found out what the word meant. It was always used in such connections as to make it an interesting word to me. If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition. Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set about learning what it meant. The dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found it was "the act of abolishing"; but then I did not know what was to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not dare to ask any one about its meaning, for I was satisfied that it was something they wanted me to know very little about.

-Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life

It took me two years to figure out what a "neoconservative" was. I kept hearing the word in the news media, invariably in a phrase like, "some neoconservative hawks in the Bush Administration". If you thought about it, you'd have to notice that these "neoconservatives" - whoever and whatever they were - seemed only to exist in the government (specifically the "Bush Administration"); clearly, then, they did not represent any segment of the American people. Opinion writers would often describe them as a "cabal", suggesting a close-knit group of crafty outsiders, sort of like ... well, you could always draw your own conclusions.

The neoconservatives (whatever the term might mean) seemed always to be stirring up trouble. But who were they, and what had they done to earn the media establishment's enmity? I think it's partly because the liberal establishment has been caught sleeping on the job, and they're not happy about it at all. Liberals like to portray themselves as the messengers of enlightenment, open-mindedness, and freedom. But where was the liberal concern for the peoples of the Middle East suffering under islamist or ba'athist regimes? It appears that many of these self-proclaimed champions of human rights are really only interested in "human rights" when it provides an excuse to bash America - or those Americans they don't happen to like (for instance, Republicans).

Those neoconservatives, then, were a threat to the liberal media establishment. They showed up the weakness and hypocrisy of what liberalism had become. No longer could the people who controlled the newspapers, the TV networks, and the universities hide behind their vapid slogans about peace and brotherhood. If you're serious about fighting dictators, the neocons were saying, it takes more than writing a few letters for Amnesty International.

I've always thought of myself as a liberal. I was raised by Unitarian parents who opposed the Vietnam War and disliked President Nixon. I became involved in a number of liberal causes (including seven years with the Green Party) because I really believed all that stuff about human rights and freedom. And I still do. I've been reluctant to call myself a "neoconservative" mainly because I don't care to cede the title of "liberal" to a bunch of moonbats. What amazes me is the number of so-called "liberals" who, having been at best indifferent to the human rights of Mideasterners, were only too happy to actively defend the fascist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the democratic revolution begins in Iran in mid-June (mark your calendars), they will probably oppose that too.

The other big discovery for me has been the depth and scope of media propaganda. Leftists like to use the word "propaganda" in conjunction with "government" because they can't conceive of any other kind; after all, the left conceives of power - and the government - as intrinsically evil. But there are other kinds of propaganda too. And I have to admit I was slow to catch on to the media's game. After all, they were the voice of reason - educated, literate people who reported fearlessly on current events. Writing on the Vietnam-era news media, Neo-Neocon puts it this way:
I was getting my news from several sources: network TV, Newsweek, Time, the Boston Globe, and the NY Times. I was under the impression that this represented a broad spectrum of news.


But some of us have seen through the matrix of deception woven by the media machine. We've awakened to the mortal danger that threatens our very existence, even as the entrenched powers try to keep us hypnotized with their version of reality. We are the ones who have chosen to face the truth, however horrifying it may be; we are the ones who took the red pill.

(Maybe that's why they call us Neo-cons? But I digress.)

I'll always believe in the possiblity of positive change. But there are some things that are worth conserving. I've learned a lot from conservative thinkers, and I've learned a great deal of respect for the values of tradition, religion, morality, cultural authenticity, small government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise. Perhaps we are coming to the point where the old labels no longer mean much; in any event, I don't mind saying that I have a "conservative" side as well.

I think there will always be people who are temperamentally predisposed to seeing the possibilites of a better, future society, just as there will always be people who instinctively understand the value of our heritage of the past. What matters is to learn from one another, and to find common beliefs and goals. "Out of many, one."

See also:
Poison Pill - the Media Today

2005-12-24

The Kabbalah

THE KABBALAH – Part 1

You remember how it was when you were a small child? How everything was new and full of wonder? Even if you had a hard childhood, your mind would open from time to time, everything around you would fall away, and you felt yourself joined with something higher. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t tell me you don’t remember.

Even as a young adult, when you were first exploring new books and music, love and sex, you had the nagging feeling that there was something behind it all, some kind of secret – not quite like the secret codes you played with as a child, but still a way of changing and hiding a deeper message. And maybe you tried to find clues to this message in your Scriptures, or in science, or in art and literature, and you felt you almost had it, but it still eluded you.

And there were bills to pay, kids to raise, endless meetings and interviews and hasty late-night dinners in front of the television before you dropped off to sleep exhausted. You found the answers that worked for you, and they worked well enough, and you stopped asking the questions, not because you didn’t care anymore, but just because you had other things to do.

So here you are. Maybe now you’re at what they call middle age (whatever that means) and you start counting your birthdays in terms of how many down, how many to go. You wonder what comes next. In those private moments you’ve never spoken of to anyone, you wonder why you bother at all. You’re tired – tired of everything, all the time. You catch yourself thinking that if something happened to you, and you didn’t have to do this anymore, perhaps it wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing. An early retirement, you could say ... and then the alarm clock rings, and it’s time to do it all again.

What brought us here, and why? We’ve looked for answers to these questions in books, you and I, and we know that none of the answers we’ve found have been satisfactory. What we need is not for someone to hand us a diagram with our place clearly marked in the Master Plan (although let’s admit it, that would be nice, woudn’t it?) – what we really need is to learn a new way of thinking. Or maybe it’s an old way of thinking. Or maybe it’s a way of not-thinking.

Or maybe ...

(End of Part 1)


THE KABBALAH – Part 2

When I was in my mid-teens, my mother gave me my first book about Kabbalah. It was “The Book of Letters” by Lawrence Kushner. You have to see this book: it’s bound in natural colored cloth, printed on cream-colored paper; it’s not typeset, but written in the author’s hand in plain and elegant English and Hebrew calligraphy. There is a copy of the book on my lap, next to my computer keyboard, as I write this. I cannot imagine being without this book.

“Alef is the first letter. It has no sound ...” So begins the book, quietly, like the first letter. “Open your mouth and begin to make a sound. STOP! That is Alef.” At once, intuitively, you know where Kushner is taking you. You’re going to go to the beginning, the place before sound, the place before thought. You’re going to learn new words – and not just the words themselves, or even just their meanings, you are going to learn a new way of thinking.

Over the next fifty-five pages (it is a short book) we learn more than 200 Hebrew words: words like echad (one), bayit (house), hinneni (here I am), sefer (book), and tzedek (righteousness). We also learn that “you cannot pronounce the letter Tet until you go out early in the spring morning and see the dew (tal). Only when you secretly confess to yourself that you really do not understand how the tiny droplets of water have come to be, are you permitted to be cleansed in them.”

Growing up in Rabbi Kushner’s New England, I knew well the chill of the dew on bare feet in the morning, at that time in spring when school is not quite over, but you can at least forget about it long enough to watch the shimmer of the early sun on those droplets. And maybe you weren’t happy in school, and maybe your home life wasn’t so good either, but could put it out of your mind when you saw the dew glistening on the blades of grass.

What was I feeling at those moments? I don’t know. I know that at other times, I was feeling “Shevirat ha-Kelim. The discord and confusion which is the beginning of growing. And then trying to get it all back together again.” So life was not meant to be easy: this much was clear. But what could be broken and shattered could also be mended: “Tikkun. Mending. The repair of the universe.” I didn’t understand what it all meant, but I wanted to find out.

Now there’s another book in front of me: big, square, and slick, printed in eye-popping day-glow colors and metallic silver. The title is “The 72 Names of God – Technology for the Soul (TM)” and the dust jacket informs me that the book is a “National Bestseller”. Its author, Yehuda Berg, is “an ordained Rabbi and is internationally-renowned as a leading authority of Kabbalah.”

The Forword informs us that “the 72 Names are a technology for asserting the power of human consciousness over physicality.” The book is quite emphatic about the “technology” aspect, in fact, using the word ten times in the two-page foreword (and four times in the first paragraph alone).

So it is a technology. Well. If it is a technology, then it must be practical, efficient, and reliable. I certainly hope it works better than my AOL dial-up or Windows Millennium Edition.

But if it is a technology, then it must also be inscrutable. Anything technological has already been theorized, understood, studied, researched and developed, and is now in full production, ready for consumer use. Science – or what used to be called “natural philosophy” – belongs to the conjoined realms of understanding and experience. Technology, by definition, does not ask to be understood or even thought about; only used. Did your computer come with a brochure explaining the fine points of silicon doping and photolithography? Neither did mine.

What are the 72 Names? They are combinations of three Hebrew letters each, derived from Exodus 14:19-21 by a simple algorithm (one letter from each verse, in order, reading the middle verse backward). The book promises that by meditating faithfully on the various letter combinations, certain specific effects can be achieved. Of course, there is a stipulation: the Names will not do anything for you unless you commit to “proactive behavior” and renounce “ego games”.

Well and good: the 72 Names of God help them who help themselves. But these little tricks – being proactive and dealing with that nuisance called the ego – does the book offer us any practical advice regarding these things? Is it not astonishing that whole shelves of self-help books, even entire religions, have been devoted to these tasks, yet Berg offers us not so much as a handful of pointers for keeping the mind and body still during meditation, or winning friends and influencing people?

And conversely: once we’ve got will and ego under control, what will the 72 Names do for us that mere meditation, prayer, study, and action alone will not? On this point, too, the book is resolutely silent.

But let me stop nitpicking over the book; now I want to visit Yossi Kein Halevi’s article on Yehuda Berg and his Kabbalah Centre.

(End of Part 2)

THE KABBALAH – Part 3

Yossi Klein Halevi visited the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles earlier this year (he was there for Purim), and in the May 10 print issue of The New Republic, he tells us about it.

“In the prayer room they call ‘the war zone’, where the cosmic battle against Satan is fought, several dozen young men are swaying to the rhythms of the morning Jewish service,” the article begins. It is like an Orthodox synagogue, Halevi notes, except for “some oddities”: some men wear kippot, tallitot, and tefillin (the normal acoutrements of a weekday morning service) while others do not. “The Centre has transformed Kabbalah – considered by Jews to be the inner sanctum of Jewish thought – into generic, nondenominational mysticism.” The various triliteral terms of the 72-letter Divine Name may now be found imprinted on T-shirts and trucker’s caps. According to Halevi, “the Centre claims that merely scanning the text of the Zohar, the seminal thirteenth-century commentary on the Bible, offers divine protection. You don’t have to understand what you’re reading; in fact, you don’t even have to know how to read the Hebrew letters to absorb their magical properties.”

So it has come to this. Lawrence Kushner, writing in 1975, could tell us of the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet: “Bait is a house, Bayit. It is of the ground. ... The dot [in the middle of the letter] which is called a dagesh represents one who lives within. When Jacob our father slept in the wilderness, he was certain that he was alone. But when he awoke, he had learned about Bait: “Surely G-d has been in this place, and I didn’t even know it!” (This verse would provide the title for a later book by Kushner.) The text goes on to observe: “All the other letters might fall over, but not Bait [which is flat on the bottom]. See how the base of a Bait is so close to the earth. The ground. Bend your knees to the ground and be blessed. A blessing: beracha.”

We have learned the shape of the letter, and two words. We have also learned something about seeking the Mysterious One, and about awareness, and about humility.

But we have learned nothing at all about the letter’s magical powers, so what good is it?

Back to Halevi. “In the Centre’s world, though, the spiritual quest isn’t about God, but about the seeker. The Centre does teach the need to give to others – and Madonna, for one, credits it with making her a better person. Accompanying the Centre’s candles for better sex is a divine name and a prayer ‘to purify my desires so that I share love and energy with my partner, putting his or her needs ahead of my own.’ But, as the Centre’s own literature makes clear, the motive for such altruism is selfishness.” As the article quotes one Kabbalah Centre disciple, “It has nothing to do with being a good person. It’s about not hurting myself.”

“The Centre doesn’t merely trivialize Kabbalah; it inverts its intention. ... Where Kabbalah’s goal is to transcend this world, the Centre’s goal is to master it,” says Halevi. “ ‘The Centre doesn’t speak about God, but about “the light”, which is an impersonal force,’ says a professor of religious studies researching the group. ‘If you link into the right name, you get the right result. The Centre turns God into our remote-control panel.’”

More disturbing stories emerge: the man who filled his swimming pool with Kabbalah Mountain water (blessed by leaders of the Centre) to cure his fatal illness, or the one who left his wife anf family to pursue his involvement with the Centre. What kind of place is this?

Then Halevi brings us to a scene at the Centre on Saturday night (the end of the Jewish Sabbath): after the meal, Centre members – Madonna among them – recite the traditional Grace After Meals (known as “bentching” – a rare Romance word in the Yiddish language, being derived from the French “benediction”). They’re reading the Hebrew prayers from transliterated texts – remember, no one has taught them to actually read the letters. To the writer, Madonna appears “hunched down, in an uncharacteristic humility.”

You remember 1986? A long time ago, I know. Maybe you’re too young to remember. America was slowly winding down its long struggle with something called the “Soviet Union”. The internet didn’t exist, and home computers were still a novelty. And so was MTV, but there were some pop artists who were learning to master the medium.

That was the year a wildly popular and inventive singer released a song called “Live to Tell”. Madonna was not quite 28 years old.

(End of Part 3)

THE KABBALAH – Part 4

I know where beauty lives
I've seen it once, I know the warmth she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can't take that from me
- Madonna


There’s someone inside, behind the mind, behind the feelings. This is the soul, the deep self. It strives and struggles to make its way through the world, knowing that this is its only way back home.

It knows what you’ve always suspected, that there is a deep underlying order, far below what the eyes and ears can find and far beyond what the mind can grasp. You’re dimly aware of this deep self, but if you think of it at all, you treat it as a problem to be solved, or a figment of your overworked imagination. You tell yourself you really need to get out more.

But still, you wonder ...

You’re not the only one:

“Rabbi Isaac said, ‘The light created by God in the act of Creation flared from one end of the universe to the other and was hidden away, reserved for the righteous in the world that is coming, as it is written: Light is sown for the righteous. Then the worlds will be fragrant, and all will be one. But until the world that is coming arrives, it is stored and hidden away.’

“Rabbi Judah responded, ‘If the light were completely hidden, the world could not exist for even a moment! Rather, it is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained.’” – The Zohar (translated by Daniel C. Matt in The Essential Kabbalah).

Depending on who you listen to, the Zohar was written in the First Century by Rabbi Simon bar Yohai, or around 1280 by Rabbi Moses de Leon. Don’t worry about it. The Kabbalah is the unfolding story of the soul’s search for itself, and the Zohar is one of its chapters.

The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah), a much shorter book than the Zohar and older by almost all accounts, also speaks of the soul’s search. It describes an orderly universe, created by means of mystical “letters” and by other quantities called “Sefirot”, a universe in which there is a correspondence between form, number, and sound, and between space, time, and the soul. An appendix to the Book of Creation, called the Thirty-Two Pathse of Wisdom, describes these entities in detail. (You can find a translation of the Thirty-Two Paths, with commentary, at The Ocean Names of Night.)

This is the literature of the soul’s journey. It is often chaotic, sometimes contradictory, always symbolic and usually opaque. Is the Kabbalah Jewish? It can’t seem to make up its mind. It wants to be quintessentially Jewish, but it also wants to be universal – which is perhaps the most Jewish thing about it.

But isn’t it that way with all of us? Don’t we all have to struggle with that tension, the conflict between our uniqueness as individuals and our universality as human beings? And isn’t that what makes us human?

(End of Part 4.)

THE KABBALAH – Part 5

You know how you tell a really good Orthodox shul? I mean, every synagogue has its good points – charismatic rabbi, nice architecture, good food on Shabbos afternoon. But in a really good shul, you don’t have to be anybody except who you are. They don’t care if you’re rich or famous, whether you’re converted or if you “look Jewish” or not; they don’t worry about how you’re dressed or what kind of university degree you have. Their priority is the Torah – everything else is trivial in comparison.

It was at one of those shuls that I met actress/comedienne Sandra Bernhard a few years ago. This was in San Francisco, where I was living at the time. The congregation didn’t have its own building (although it used to, many years ago); we met in an office building downtown. It was a small, eclectic, and devoted group. Services were led by a man named Henry, a tall, unkempt, and brilliant man who had arrived as a refugee from Germany in 1945. He was highly regarded as a scholar, both as a talmudist and as a kabbalist; he also made a terrific tuna salad. Services were held on Friday night (Sabbath eve) and Saturday; if you stuck around for Saturday evening services at the end of the Sabbath, you’d find the small group singing “baruch elokeinu she’branu likhvodo”, a verse from the prayerbook, in solemn tones.

I didn’t know who she was at first, because she went by her Hebrew name Sarah. (This wasn’t an affectation; it’s common for Jews to switch from their common name to their Hebrew name in the synagogue.) She must have been in town on a tour. She was there for Sabbath morning services and the meal afterwards; I don’t remember much of the conversation but she seemed relieved to be able to just relax. I don’t remember whether she was there for one of Henry’s talks on kabbalah; if she was, she might have been treated to a detailed discussion of the connection between the Messiah and the lowest sephirah, Malkhut, perhaps making mention of the gematria (Hebrew numerology) of the word “malkhut”. (It’s 496, in case you were wondering.) Henry often emphasized the importance of the Shekhinah, or feminine Divine presence, in connection with the Messianic Age.

Sandra Bernhard is still learning kabbalah, dammit! and is now one of the high-profile disciples of the Kabbalah Centre (along with Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Britney Spears, and various other celebrities mentioned by Yossi Klein Halevi.) According to the blurb on the back of the book, Sandra says that we must “tap into the 72 Names of God IMMEDIATELY!”

But “immediately” isn’t the word most meditation teachers use for serious practice. Something seems to be missing here. The Berg family are certainly not the only ones, or the first ones, to make mysticism available to the general population. Whey, then, are they at the center (or centre) of this new fad? Halevi thinks he knows the answer, and he may be right; I’ll come back to his article “Like A Prayer” in The New Republic, and add some thoughts of my own.

I don’t know what Sandra Bernhard is learning from the Bergs’ Kabbalah Centre now that she has become a devotee. I hope it’s as good as listening to Henry. But I’ll bet they can’t touch his tuna salad.

(End of Part 5.)

THE KABBALAH - Part 6

Will it grow cold, the secret that I hide?
Will I grow old?
- Madonna


You’ve had those moments when you heard a song, and you had to drop everything, because nothing else was happening except the song? You just stand there with your eyes closed, literally entranced, bewitched by the music and the words and the voice? And for a moment it seems that everything in your life is contained in the song, like a secret hidden in some kind of code, and you wish you could reveal that secret to the world, but you know you can’t, because if you did, the world would crumble before its beauty? You know the feeling, right?

(Oh. Well, maybe it’s just me, then. But you get the idea.)

The song “Live to Tell” was one of those moments for me. Hearing it, I was sure that it was the work of someone who, like me, was searching for the path back to that higher place that we all come from and to which we are all destined to return. “If I live to tell the secret I knew then, will I / ever have the chance again?”

So picture Yossi Klein Halevi sitting with the Bergs and Madonna at the Kabbalah Centre. Madonna is sounding out the words to the Birkat ha-Mazon, while Halevi is mentally taking notes for his article in The New Republic.

What is Madonna Ciccone thinking as she recites the Hebrew words? Has she found what she was looking for?

Halevi closes the article with some intriguing hints about the Kabbalah Centre: an unnamed source familiar with the Centre says, "They don't tell everyone who walks through the door that it's really about immortality ... but subtly, the more you get into it, the more they reveal their real agenda." The author ends with a wry speculation: "What, after all, is more likely to entice a sex symbol confronting middle age than the promise of eternal youth?"

Perhaps many things, I think. It is easy for a male journalist to dismiss an attractive, seductive female entertainer as a "sex symbol" - and undoubtedly, whatever else she may be, Madonna certainly is that. But remember that Madonna's early role model, and the source of her principal public persona, was Marilyn Monroe - another talented, intelligent young woman who gained fame by marketing herself as a "sex symbol". Madonna, now ten years older than Norma Jeane Baker at the time of her death, must have had occasion to think about what she is going to do with the rest of her life.

A news item on Madonna suggests that there is more to this person than a "sex symbol confronting middle age". Madonna has announced that she is taking the Hebrew name Esther; she is also toning down the public sexuality. I think both of these things are important.

Taking another name - a Hebrew name, for example - is a big step. Yes, some people do do it frivolously, but when you ask to be known by another name, whether or not it replaces your old one, you are making a big change in your life. If you change your name, your parents may not take kindly to it. (Mine certainly did not.) Madonna, who was named after her mother (as was I), emphasizes that her assumption of the Hebrew name is "in no way a negation" of her mother, who died when Madonna Jr. was very young.

The news item also indicates that she is no longer interested in the "raunchy pop vixen image". "I don't regret it, but it's just ... I mean everybody takes their clothes off now. And then what? You know? And -- and then what?"

It's interesting, too, that she takes the name Esther, which is associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim. Halevi's article mentions a Purim celebration at the Kabbalah Centre, where, in the author's estimation, "Jews can pretend to be non-Jews, non-Jews can pretend to be Jews, and everyone can pretend to be Kabbalists." Halevi plays the scene for laughs, but the joke is really on him, because the ambiguity of identity is exactly what Purim is about - and I think this may help us to understand Madonna better.

The holiday of Purim and the book of Esther are unique in many ways. Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Scriptures in which the Divinity is never mentioned by name. It is also the only book set wholly in the diaspora, and the only book in which Jews are called by the name we use today: not Hebrews, not Israelites, but survivors of the Tribe of Judah - Jews.

And Purim, the holiday derived from the Esther story, is a law unto itself. While the moderate, sacralized use of wine or liquor is common at Jewish festivals, Purim is the only holiday on which we are actually expected to get drunk - so drunk, tradition tells us, that we should no longer be able to distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai". And above all, of course, Purim is a masquerade festival - and the only time when Jewish law officially sets aside the prohibitions of Deuteronomy 22:5, permitting celebrants to dress outside of their assigned gender.

Purim isn't one of the major Jewish holidays. Its origins are not in the Torah, but in the historical period, and so the Sabbath-like strictures that apply to Passover, Rosh HaShanah, and especially Yom Kippur do not apply to Purim. In fact, Purim is the one Jewish holiday that can never fall on the Sabbath. And yet tradition holds that in the Messianic Era, when redemption has come to the world and all other holidays are abolished, Purim alone will still be observed.

In taking the name Esther, Madonna has taken on the identity of the Jewish queen of Persia in the Biblical book of the same name. (I always identified with Vashti myself.) In the Jewish reading, Esther represents the "hidden Jew": either the Jew who must hide her or his identity for fear of persecution, or, still more allegorically, the higher Divine self that stays hidden within each person.

Perhaps Madonna is no longer content to entertain the king's court by presenting - however skilfully - the image that the outside world wishes to see. Now she can begin to come to terms with her spiritual identity as a woman, as a human being. Now, as Esther, she can begin to reconcile her public image with her true self.

(End of Part 6.)

THE KABBALAH - Part 7

No one is watching you, and yet you feel you're being watched. Maybe you've had this feeling from time to time; maybe you have it now. You don't believe in God - you gave up this guy named "God", this old man in the clouds with a white beard, long ago. So you subtract things - prophets and saints, churches, synagogues and mosques, you subtract the body from the soul and the soul from the body, and you subtract everything but the random interaction of subatomic particles. And this is the only truth you're left with, but because it has no meaning, none at all, you subtract even that.

And yet you are still left with something.

Where do you go from here?

Do you turn back to the guy named God? That was where the process started, after all; so perhaps you can begin there. But He always disappointed you - because you expected Him to be human, like a man, and idealized, powerful, all-good and all-compassionate man, but somehow human nonetheless. And God failed you; he failed your expectation. He failed to be human.

But God is not a man. You always knew this, intellectually, but it only hits you now. The guy named God is an illusion, but there's something else that is more than real. It is not human, and you hesitate to call it "He". You hesitate to give it any name at all, but you have to come up with something, so you write the word with letters missing - G-d - because the whole enterprise is futile anyway. Or you could use another word, something neutral, Spirit, or Light, or Mystery, or The Way.

More than twenty-five centuries ago, an Arab named Ayoub discovered the mysterious Spirit in the tempest of personal tragedy. His story comes down to us in one of the longest books of the Bible, written in an uncommonly opaque Hebrew and bearing the Hebrew form of his name - Iyov, or Job. Job's friends try to explain away his suffering, offering either blame or false hope. Job will accept neither. What galls him so is not the fact of his suffering, but the unfairness of it. Rejecting the sugarcoated theodicies of others, he finds no peace until he is confronted by the voice from the whirlwind, and declares: "I will ask, and you will inform me."

So evocative is the language of the Divinity's final address to Job, that the kabbalistic commentator Ra'avad discerns "fifty gates of wisdom" in chapters 38 and 39 of the book. But really, if you just read the passage aloud - even in a good English translation - you will get a sense of the mystery that Job must have experienced. And I think that is the main point.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who lived in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi invasion, saw more death and cruelty than anyone should ever have to see. And yet - somehow - he kept teaching Torah, and he left a record of his teachings from the years 1940 to 1942. Unearthed by a construction worker after the war, this last work of Kalonymus, titled "The Holy Fire", is the spiritual diary of a man watching his world being destroyed.

In an entry dated Parashat Mishpatim, 5702 (February 1942), Kalonymus writes: "We learn from the commentaries that the voice of G-d at the giving of the Torah [on Mount Sinai] traveled from one end of the Earth to the other, and that Israel heard the voice of G-d in all the winds of the world. This comes to teach us that we must not think of the physical world as being far from the Torah, nor in opposition to it: it is not so. The voice of the Torah is heard from the whole world, because the world too was created by the word of G-d and the word of G-d is the essence of the world; it is only that human beings use the world in an evil way, and destroy the world that was 'created with ten commands' (Avot 5:1). And whoever uses the world for good, the world itself helps them in their study and deeds. ... For the world was created by the word of G-d, and the Torah is the word of G-d, and in fact the Creator is one with the Divine Word; and the whole Torah is contained in the Ten Commandments, and all the Ten Commandments were spoken as one word. And the Word of G-d in the creation of the world, and the Word of G-d in the Torah, are one."

Near the end of "The Holy Fire", shortly after the passage quoted above, Kalonymus (himself a kabbalist) returns to the Jewish mystical doctrine one more time. He is discussing the configuration of the ten Sephiroth, the potentialities or dimensions which kabbalists (and now physicists) tell us underlie the fabric of creation. In a conundrum going back at least to the sixteenth century, scholars have offered various ideas as to how the Sephiroth might best be schematically represented. Interestingly enough, Kalonymus eschews the familiar "Tree of Life" diagram (which can be found in any popular book on the Kabbalah) and returns to the older model of concentric rings. He presents two alternative views: "In the configuration of 'circles', each higher level encircles its [lower] neighbor, so that the Divinity surrounds all of them, and the World of Action [i.e., the lowest, material level] is at the center. In the 'direct' configuration [so called even though it is also circular], every lesser level enwraps its [higher] neighbor, so that the ray of the Infinite is found at the center, and the World of Action is outside." The first configuration, in which the greater surrounds the lesser, represents the body, for we stand surrounded by ever greater mysteries. The second, in which the greater is concealed within the lesser, is the way of the soul, for "there the soul, not the body, is of the essence."

Let's picture this. Warsaw is in ruins and Nazis are prowling the streets. Kalonymus' whole family have been murdered, and his people are being shipped off to the gas chambers day by day. He himself will make that trip in a few weeks. And here he is, writing about the unity of the world, and the soul, and G-d.

The paradox of the Jewish tradition is the tension between the individual and the universal. The festival of Purim plays on this tension by turning Jewish identity on its head ("queering" it, as we'd say nowadays) and deliberately blurring boundaries of identity. (Jews can dress like goyim, and even drink like goyim!) Because of a Jewish woman who went undercover in the Persian regime, the Jews of Persia were spared a fate like that which befell Europe's Jews in a later age. And this is the messianic symbolism of Purim: it calls on us to imagine a day when, without losing our Jewish identity, we will no longer be separate and segregated from "the nations"; rather, Israel and the nations will have evolved toward a higher commonality.

It would be easy to laugh at Madonna's interest in Kabbalah and to dismiss her as another shallow, fad-following entertainer; but I won't do that. I do hope that she can look beyond the Bergs' Kabbalah Centre for inspiration. I think she is looking for the same thing we are all looking for: to find meaning and our place in the world.

(End.)

This post, occasioned by an article in The New Republic, originally appeared in seven installments in May and June 2004.

2005-12-22

"I understand US history. There are a lot of heroes there."

I know I said I was taking a break from political blogging, but you can't miss this comment response by Jane from this post at Armies of Liberation:
All Im doing is highlighting the situation for the West where there’s no ready understanding. As is my right that was won for me through the last two hundred years by many people who died for me to have the opportunity to speak freely. I’m not necessarily talking about the world war one and two guys although they secured my liberty, but the women who wanted the right to vote in the twenties and were beaten by the police and called immoral, the unionists who where beaten and murdered by big businesses and security forces until they figured to all band together, and the black people in the US who marched and marched for years, not engaging in violence even when martin luther king’s house was bombed and the thing he said then was we must counter hatred with love.

The US local governments set viscious dogs on them ( students and mothers and regular people just marching) and shot them with water cannons and arrested them. I have very vivid memoires of that. A young guy was beaten to death, Medger Evans [Medgar Evers, 1925-1963]. Lots of people died, mostly blacks, a few white. When the rights of the minority becomes stronger, majority rights are more secure as well.

I am very appreciative of my equal rights and my right of free speech. The blood is barely dry, you are right. Some papers in Yemen are calling for my arrest by the US govt. There’s a lot of people I’ll never know who suffered greatly and saved me and all Americans from that. Medger Evans was beaten so badly he was unrecognizable to his own mother.

So talking about the shortage of rights in Yemen seems a logical response to the lynching of so many black people who were standing for their rights. I understand US history. Theres a lot of heros there. Theres a lot of heros in Yemen today. Lots of people in jail who shouldnt be, lots of people targeted, and lots of grievences not in the public realm, lots of people starving, actually starving. And you expect me to be quiet? Sorry but no.

2005-12-20

The Hours, the Days, and the Years

Originally posted May 6, 2005.


Sometimes interesting things happen when you watch two totally incongruous movies back-to-back. I had such an experience this week when I watched "The Matrix" on DVD, followed by "The Hours". And while Stephen Daldry's beautiful film with Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf seems to have little in common with "The Matrix", it occurred to me that there are some points of connection.

There are no computers and no kung fu fights in "The Hours"; and when people fall out of buildings, they don't get up again. And yet, like the denizens of the apocalyptic world of "The Matrix", many of the characters seem to live in an invisible prison - one they cannot "smell or taste or touch". And some of them, like Neo and the other inhabitants of Zion, choose to confront the reality of their world - even if it is unpleasant and dangerous, even if it threatens their very sanity. Virginia Woolf has no use for the comforting retreat of the suburbs, and precious little patience for the well-intentioned efforts of others to "take care" of her. She, too, prefers "always to look life in the face, and to know it ... to love it, for what it is." She is a red-pill person.

But there are many kinds of prisons. Mental illness - Virginia's depression, Richard's schizophrenia - can also be a prison. Sometimes the only way to exercise your autonomy is to have some say (as Virginia says) in your "own prescription", just as Neo must choose for himself which pill to take. (Or like Richard, who simply takes too many pills.) The choice is in your hands; but once the choice is made, you must live with the consequences.

I live alone, and spend a great deal of time in my own company. Often, this blog is the only conversation I get during the day. It's a strange conversation, the one you and I are having: we do not meet face to face, and with the exception of a few friends who read my blog, we are probably strangers to each other. All you know about me is what you read here; and all I know of you is the anonymous statistics collected by SiteMeter.

Sometimes I have a certain feeling - as if something is wrong, it's not fitting together somehow, and it's not a problem that's definable, and it's not a problem that is fixable. As if no matter where I go or what I do, I'll always be surrounded by this invisible membrane that keeps me separated and locked away from the rest of the world, from humanity, from life. I don't even know what name to call it; I don't know if it has a name.

I do know that I can make my own choices. I do not want anyone making them for me. I don't want anyone telling me how to live, or what to read, or what to listen to, or how to think. I don't want anyone feeding me pre-digested answers like some kind of processed food. And I do not want to be stuffed into some kind of mental coccoon and told that it's for my own good.

We do not get a choice whether or not to die. That decision is made for us, and in the end, without exception, it will always end the same way. The choice we do get is whether to face each and every day. Sometimes it is not an easy choice. Even the most fortunate among us may inhabit prisons invisible to others. Freedom from fear does not, alas, bring freedom from suffering. To choose, consciously, to live each and every day that is given to us - to say with Audre Lorde, "Today is not the day" - this is the real test of our humanity.

We are at our most when we forget ourselves. Clarissa is sustained through the difficult years - which seem to go on and on - by her duty to her old lover. ("When I'm gone," Richard mockingly reminds her, "you'll have to think about yourself.") Neo can fulfill his mission only after the Oracle convinces him that he is not "the One", the messiah of Zion.

When Virginia walks into the river, she makes a choice that many of us have contemplated at one time or another. Perhaps, like many people who make the same choice, she is no longer the master of her own actions. Do such people sin by this act? Perhaps that is for the Righteous Judge to decide. What we do know with a certainty is this: That just as the actions and kindnesses of others have affected our own lives, so too do we affect the lives of others, even in ways that are hidden from us. We have the choice to extend and accept such kindnesses - whether in the form of a fancy dinner or a simple cookie - at every moment we draw breath. By choosing kindness and love, we also choose conflict and suffering; but we choose life.

Update

Okay, so I've decided to take a break from political blogging until the new calendar year. Don't even think that I'm going to shut up, because I'm not! But I do need to take some time to deal with personal stuff and get away from politics. I just had a friend call to say she no longer wishes to stay in touch; no explanation given. Guess I'm just stupid, I really don't know how to deal with it when somebody says "You're a nice person, but I'm done with you now. Go away."

Meanwhile I'm going to re-run one more old DiL post - a non-political one - while I try to deal with real life.

2005-12-18

State vs. Defense

This post originally appeared on May 6, 2004. In light of recent discussions about the CIA, and Chalabi's continuing prominence in the news, I think it's as timely now as anything I could write today.

When you first read the article linked at my post “Chalabi Aiding Iranian Mullahs?”, didn’t you think it was just a tiny bit curious that “intelligence agencies” (meaning the CIA) were suddenly concerned about about those Iranian insurgents in Iraq? Especially when the Agency has never said peep about them? I know, it sounded odd to me too. But, according to the Newsweek piece, “the State Department and the CIA are using the intelligence about his Iran ties to persuade the president to cut him loose once and for all” [my emphasis – aa]. While “Chalabi still has loyal defenders among some neoconservatives in the Pentagon,” according to the article. (Those pesky neoconservatives! That damn Pentagon!)

In an April 30 article, Barbara Lerner addresses criticisms of what has been termed “Rumsfeld’s occupation” of Iraq. “First,” she says, “it’s not Rumsfeld’s occupation; it’s Colin Powell’s and George Tenet’s.” And second, that’s the problem. And one more thing: now there’s talk of handing Iraq over to the United Nations and Lakhdar Brahimi.

There are two factions at work in Washington: one, led by the White House and the Defense Department, and the other, led by the CIA and the State Department. According to Lerner, “Rumsfeld’s plan was to equip – and then transport to Iraq – some 10,000 Shia and Sunni freedom fighters led by Shia exile leader Ahmed Chalabi” to join Kurdish freedom fighters led by Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. General Garner would have then handed power over to these three, and six others, in “a matter of weeks – not months or years” thus greatly enhancing the legitimacy of the new Iraqi government.

But State and the CIA had other ideas. Garner was replaced with State man Paul Bremer. The Iraqi exile force was slashed to a few hundred, while Rumsfeld’s trio was inflated to a total of 25, with the result that “Bremer’s face [was] the only one most Iraqis saw.”

In Bemer’s GC, many Iraqis “saw a foreign occupation occupation of potentially endless length” led by untrustworthy Americans, while Syria and Iran set about trying to carve up the newly liberated Iraq.

Now check out David Frum’s new piece (May 6). Money quote: “Those inside the government pushing the line that Mr. Chalabi has divulged secrets to the Iranians come from the same bureaucracies, the State Department and CIA, that have also advocated for the inclusion of Iraqi parties with more open links to Tehran in the Iraqi Governing Council, such as the Dawa Party.” Attention, Department of Pots and Kettles.

And speaking of Foggy Bottom and Tehran, read this from Frum’s May 5 post: “And those intrepid foes of Iranian imperialism at the State Department? What have they done? In March 2004, Colin Powell agreed with the European allies to drop US demands for Security Council action against Iran. US policy is now one of “engagement” with Iran – even as Iran hosts al Qaeda on its territory and supports terrorism inside Iraq.” For Frum’s devastating analysis, read the whole post at the link.

But I digress. Back to the original question: Is the Iraq occupation Powell’s or Rumsfeld’s? With the horrifying revelations [i.e., the Abu Ghraib scandal] that have come to light since Barbara Lerner’s article was published, Rumsfeld’s reputation is now badly tarnished. But in any event, Lerner is adamant that the occupation must not be Brahimi’s. “The UN as a whole is bad; Lakhdar Brahimi is worse,” she writes. “Men like Chalabi, Talabani, and Barzani have nothing but contempt for Mr. Brahimi, the UN, and the Old Europe.” These are the ones we must support – regardless of where Rumsfeld’s career may take him.

Here's the take-away for this post. (1) Contrary to what the Left like to think, Washington is not monolithic and the CIA are not minions of the White House; in fact, many neoconservatives are convinced that the CIA is working to undermine the Bush Administration. Why? Because the CIA never bought in to the whole "democracy in the Middle East" concept. They like stability, and they see dictatorships as being "stable". (2) The mainstream press doesn't like Chalabi any better now than it did last spring. But this recent article by Michael Rubin gives a good overview of the politics: "Disdain for Chalabi runs deep in the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and U.S. Central Command. As an advocate of both regime change and democratization, he became a lightning rod for criticism among proponents of the status quo." Read the whole article at the link.



Update

Comings and goings. I'm still recovering from a local move and a trip to San Francisco. Went down to SF to visit The Next Generation. Had a great visit, and TNG recorded his first movie on my digital camera! George Lucas, watch out. Also I've moved ... back into my old building, after spending about 14 months in a much-too-large apartment. (At the time I moved there originally, it made sense because I needed the space to sort through all the books and stuff I'd inherited from my family. But I'm glad to be back in my old, cozy building on Morrison Street.) Small (and cozy) is a good thing in Portland right now, because we're having a serious cold snap.

Posting break. I'll need to spend some time over the next couple of weeks taking care of household stuff (i.e. unpacking) and looking for a new 8-to-5 gig. Also I am getting active in the creative department again, with a new story in the works, plus I want to get caught up on several other blogging-related projects I've got going on. So I'm going to take a hiatus from new posts on Dreams Into Lightning through the end of the calendar year - but that doesn't mean I won't be busy.

Lightning strikes twice. For your continued entertainment, I will be posting re-runs of some of my important earlier posts that you might have missed, along with whatever updates or addenda may be necessary.

Latest events in the Dreams Into Lightning universe. New fiction (in progress) can be found here. And keep an eye on Pacific Memories as our narrator describes life on Fiji circa 1943. (Plot spoiler: Digging pits for 155-mm howitzers isn't fun.)

2005-12-16

Morning Report: December 16, 2005

Millions of Iraqis vote. Purple fingers were once again seen throughout Iraq yesterday, as Iraqi citizens cast their votes in the country's parliamentary elections. From the in-depth report at Iraq the Model:
The polls closed in all centers 90 minutes ago!
The IECI had a press conference half an hour ago that pretty much summarized today’s events. From watching this press conference and analyzing the reports we received today we can say that the following points represents the most important findings:

-Security was much better than last time in January and there were only a few minor incidents.

-It was clear that the IECI and its multi-thousand strong staff did a wonderful and exceptional job in such a hard time to make the election go in the best way possible.

-The Iraqi Army and police were successful in giving our people the opportunity to vote in a peaceful environment.

-The total registered voter-count was 1,000,000 higher than in January after adding Iraqi citizens who were born in 1987.

-15, 5 million+ Iraqis cast their votes in more than 30,000 station spread nationwide.

-All the assassinations and intimidation that preceded the election could not stop the process.

-There have been strict measures to make sure that all ballot boxes and station are in compliance with the standards of the IECI and now it’s their-IECI-duty to make sure that no boxes were replaced or manipulated.

-The presence of the press and representatives of political bodies and civil society organizations was profound although there were limitations on the presence of media workers. But however, the process was being watched 600,000 eyes!

-The IECI distributed 5,000,000 posters nationwide to educate the population on the process and encourage Iraqis to vote.

-2 million brochures were distributed to inform the people on the technical and moral aspects of the election.

-Countless numbers of conferences, lectures and workshops were held to educate the people and encourage them to vote.

-Almost all the defects that took place in some regions today were basically cases in which voters couldn’t find their names in the voter-lists.

-Counting the votes has begun in all stations and the results will be collected and conveyed to the provincial offices to be later conveyed to the IECI HQ in Baghdad.

Full report at the link, with bulletins from correspondents throughout Iraq. Pajamas Media has more; read about Iraq's oldest voter, and about the conscientious official in Babil, where NOBODY votes without showing the proper ID!

2005-12-13

Vote for Regime Change Iran

Don't forget to cast your vote for Regime Change Iran - a vote for the blog is a vote for the goal! Click here or follow the link at the RCI homepage.

New Blogger: Ghazal Omid

Please welcome Ghazal Omid to the blogosphere! Her new blog, Nuclear Iran, is now up and running. Please bookmark it on your browser, and visit often! Here's a portion of Ghazal's first post:
Iran and its future

My lawyer suggested I see your movie, Syriana, because he expects I will be asked about it on radio and TV appearances on my book tour.

I pre-purchased a ticket, a first for me, for opening night here in Vancouver. The theatre was packed with adults for a change. I have never seen such emotion from a movie audience. It was almost as if they attended a funereal; so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. When the movie ended, half the audience ran to the doors to hide their tears. The other half remained in their seats, feeling powerless and betrayed, crying with their head in their hands.

It was especially hard to watch because I am an Iranian Muslim woman. I saw patterns of my country and the future of people I care about at stake. It is as if we are in quick sand ...

Read the rest at the link. That link again? Nuclear Iran

2005-12-11

Happy 4th to Kesher Talk

Kesher Talk is four years old. Do you have any idea how old that is in "blog years"?

Happy birthday, KT. Judith, keep up the great work.

Update

I'm in San Francisco for a couple more days, visiting The Next Generation for his 10th birthday. So I'm mostly incommunicada until I get back to Portland. Had a great visit last night: TNG made his first movie! It was a finger-puppet adaptation of "Star Wars". Yours truly recorded it on the digital camera's "movie" feature.

Normal posting should resume next week. Meanwhile, don't forget to visit the activists at Free Iran news forum, Palestinian-American blogger Nadz (with some observations on Ted Rall), and Kat at The Middle Ground.

See you soon.

2005-12-09

Morning Report: December 9, 2005

Iraq election report. Omar and Mohammed of ITM post a special Iraq elections report at Pajamas Media. Extract: 'In spite of the wide variety of political bodies competing in the December elections, making speculations and estimations is not difficult at all when one realizes that most Iraqis will follow their emotions, rather than minds, when they vote. This is not unexpected, in a country that lived under a totalitarian regime for so many years, where the State wasn’t the protector as much as were the tribe or family. Based on this fact, and by analyzing the nature of each electoral district, we can reach reasonably close estimations to what’s going to happen. But more important than all of this is the fact that in these few years, we have witnessed the birth of a sensibility that was buried for decades -- Iraqi patriotism. This sense is currently represented in three political alliances/parties that ignore the ethnic and sectarian issues in their platforms. ...' Full article at the link. (PJM)

Russia reacts to Ahmadinejad's "Israel in Europe" proposal. The chief thug of the Iranian regime recently proposed creating an autonomous Jewish region in Europe while abolishing the existing Jewish state in the Middle East. Mosnews (via Google News) reports: 'The Iranian president’s proposal that Germany and Austria give up some of their territory to make room for an Israeli state contradicts the international community’s perception of Israel as a sovereign state, Russian Foreign Minister’s special envoy to the Middle East Alexander Kalugin said, the Interfax news agency reported. “This is in line with previous Iranian statements on Israel. The proposal is unacceptable,” Kalugin told Interfax on Friday. “Yes, Israel has problems with Palestinians, but there is a path to peace. According to the roadmap plan, both states, Israel and the Palestinian state, should finally live together in peace and security,” Kalugin said. Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered a new international outcry by saying the “tumor” of the state of Israel should be relocated to Europe. ...' Go to the link for full article, and for a photo of Ahmadinejad channeling the Grinch. (Mosnews via Google)

Fayrouz: Interview with Lisa Ramaci-Vincent. Fayrouz has an interview with Lisa Ramaci. Lisa is the widow of American journalist Stephen Vincent, who was murdered by paramilitary death squads in Iraq earlier this year. Extract: 'Q: Who do you believe killed Steven and why? A: I believe radical Shia militiamen, possibly with Iranian influence, killed Steven and shot Nour. This was not a random killing, nor, as has been suggested, an “honor” killing. Steven was targeted for what he had written. The men who abducted him did not even want Nour, but she kept trying to prevent them from taking Steven ...' (Fayrouz)

Belmont Club: "No longer war ... but politics, Middle East style." Wretchard's latest analysis concludes: 'Victory when it came, was both greater and less; more partial and more complete than expected. It did not take the European form of parades down the Champs Elysee, followed by a return to old and establish ways of governance. What the destruction of the Ba'athist regime did was reanimate long suppressed local and ethnic interests and channel them into competition through the ballot box -- with the occasional recourse to violence. Tremendous forces have been unleashed which critics of the war will point to as signs of an incipient civil war, but which supporters of OIF will describe as a newly liberated society feeling its way forward. Whether OIF has wrenched events in the Middle East from their old tracks and put them on a better route remains to be seen. What is less debateable is that OIF has subtly changed America. ...' Go to the link for full analysis. Also read (courtesy of BC) lebanon.profile's guest post at Michael J. Toten's Middle East Journal for some startling insights on pan-Arabism.

Iranian air crash round-up at Free Iran. Free Iran has a collection of news reports - from government, media, and dissident sources - on the recent crash of an Iranian military plane which cost some 128 lives. (Free Iran)

Debka: Al-Qaeda's passage to China. A special report at Debka states: 'n mid-September, Al Qaeda diverted a small but potent force from Iraq to a new mission: the opening of a new front in China. The unit was smuggled into the Chinese border town of Kushi in the Xinjiang Uygur province in November ...' Details at the link. (Debka)

2005-12-08

Take that, Howard Dean!

The Countercolumn News Ticker:
EU unanimously rejects Iran's call to move Israel to Europe ...

France gives up 1,000 Jews in goodwill gesture ...

Renaults outburn Peugots in Consumer Reports study ...

Local lovers overheard saying "At least we'll always have what's left of Paris."

Howard Dean surrenders to South Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, California, then goes on to surrender to Oregon, then goes to surrender to New York. YEAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!!

Dean, France dispute over who gets to surrender to Oregon first ...

Heh.

2005-12-05

Update: New Digs

Just got moved in to a smaller but comfier place - it's actually in my old building, where I was living up until summer of last year. At the moment there's barely any room to move, because of the amount of "stuff" I have. (Yeah, the classic George Carlin problem.) But I actually like this place better than the other one, because it's more comfortable and better maintained.

Blogging will resume when I get a chance. The new (old) building now has wireless service by a company called Zigzag - they've really branched out since the days when they only made rolling papers! It's no substitute for my hard-wired DSL service, though, which ought to kick in later this week. Anyway, I'll post any updates I find on that case in Beaverton - but I'm hoping I can post about something more positive, too.

2005-12-04

Report a Rape, Get Charged with a Crime

This is repulsive. I'm in the middle of a move, and I don't have time to blog - but I have time for this. By way of Ginmar, here's the story as the O tells it:
BEAVERTON -- A municipal judge found a 19-year-old woman guilty Friday of filing a false police report after she said she was raped by three young men.

Even though the woman never said she lied or recanted her story, city prosecutors say they took the unusual step of filing charges against her because of the seriousness of her accusations. ...

Beth at My VRWC:
There are just way too many things about this story that make no sense at all to me. When a judge without a clue calls the perps “boys” and decides he doesn’t believe the girl because of the testimony of a criminally delinquent mother (with a child-molesting boyfriend), what sense is to be made of it? When alleged victims end up being charged with making false reports because they don’t “act traumatized enough,” how many more victims are going to be afraid to report sexual assault?

Shakespeare's Sister:
A 17-year-old girl went to police at the urging of her friends after she was allegedly gang-raped by three men, including her boyfriend. The men testified that the act was consensual. After reviewing all the information and statements, prosecutors decided they didn’t think they could prove a rape allegation, and so declined to prosecute the case.

Instead, they prosecuted the victim for filing a false police report. Yesterday, she was found guilty.

The victim has never recanted her story. Instead, the decision was based on the judge’s opinion that the three men were more credible, in part because a police detective and the victim’s friends testified she did not “act traumatized” in the days after the incident.

In cases like this, people tend to draw their own conclusions, based on what’s reported, filling in the blanks in a way that satisfies one’s judgment. What are you thinking right now? That maybe it really was a false rape charge? That maybe the victim was just vindictive? That there had to be some reason that the judge found her guilty?

Let me give you some more information—something that is only a possibility because The American Street’s Kevin Hayden has known the victim nearly her whole life. He attended the trial. ...

Here is the link to Kevin Hayden at The American Street, which unfortunately isn't working for me at the moment.

More at Night Bird's Fountain, Pam's House Blend, Pandagon, and Alas, a Blog:
The Judge seems to believe that there is a typical way in which all rape victims act, and that if a woman fails to act that way, she must be lying. But that's nonsense. There is no "rape victim script" that every rape victim follows. Essentially, this woman has been convicted of a crime for failing match the judge's stereotype of what "legitimate" female victims act like.

Judge Ackerman has sent a message to rape victims in Oregon: If the judge doesn't think you're weepy enough, emotive enough, hysterical enough, whatever enough, then he might just convict you of a crime. There's every reason to think an asinine ruling like this will deter rape victims from reporting rape to the police. ...

Please visit these posts, for links to more. This is a disgrace.

2005-12-01

Update

Regular posting to resume next week. I'm in the middle of a move.

Meanwhile, did you know CaribPundit is back? For those of you worried about being called, er, certain disparaging names, she's got some pointers. Oh, and the LA Times is all up in arms about press bias! Go check it out.

Just "Neo" Now

Vanderleun informs us:
ONE OF THE THINGS that escaped my report on the Pajamas OS Media convocation in New York a fortnight ago was that we decided, en masse and by acclamation, to change a blogger's name. For untold ages now, she has been known to the blogsphere as neo-neocon, but as we ascend upwards into the rarified realms of blogger celebrity this will no longer do.

Henceforth, it is a Law of the Blogsphere that neo-neocon will be called, simply, "Neo."

I like it. I've been a fan of Neo-Neocon for a long time, and have been referring to her familiarly as "Neo". I think it fits: like the hero of "The Matrix", she's dedicated to cutting through the web of illusion created by the mainstream media. She's a red-pill person.