Friday, April 30, 2010

Joseph Conrad, The Absurd, Life, and Meaning

Throughout my life, my dear mother always encouraged me to “find my voice”. That has been some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. I will encourage you to do the same. Finding one’s voice is not an easy process. Some discover it early out of necessity, and for others it can take a lifetime. My belief is that it takes a certain amount of life experience mixed with love (or lack of it from those closest to you). Adversity also plays an important factor. As the spiritual teacher Richard Rohr says, “Great suffering and great love” are moments when we can reach a non-dualistic way of thought.

Joseph Conrad found his voice later in life, and only after encountering a great deal of his own adversity. For example, Conrad once attempted suicide after being told he couldn’t sail for the French. He knew no English, but found work on a British route instead. This transformed Conrad. Obviously, he eventually was fluent in the English language, and became one of the most prolific writers of the past two hundred years. Had he not been refused service for the French, we may have been deprived of his art.

“One truth, many expressions”. You have heard me say this quote from Rohr in the past, and the idea flourishes in Conrad’s narratives. We describe life and its common thread of truth through the lens of the settings to which we have grown accustomed. This can refer to religion, career, country, culture, race, time period, etc. Conrad was a sailor. His metaphors and allegories revolved around life on the sea. The sea…a vast expanse of water. What can it possibly teach us about life, history and humanity?

Conrad was able to draw so much out of the vastness of the space, the reliance on self and community, and the indifference of the waters. Entire books could be written on the way he used the sea as allegory, and have been. Edward Said wrote his first book on Conrad, and Said was my introduction to the author.

Many of Conrad’s first writings were shorter novels. The three I most recently read were Youth, Heart of Darkness and Typhoon. It’s obvious that the sea is transformed to life, almost a living being of its own. But no, maybe it only represents life and the process of growth that comes with age and experience. Or IS the sea itself alive? Is it a passage between one level of consciousness and another? Is it the way that we are able to shed our prejudices and narrow field of vision through its routes to new and exciting ways of seeing the world through the eyes of the other?

Does all of this sound familiar? Perhaps like something you’ve heard before, but in a different way? That’s the thing about truth. There’s a united aspect in all expressions of the truth because truth is ONE. Humanity is ONE. Whatever it is that we use to describe the truth comes back to the common thread of love and justice.

Youth shows the young Marlow on his first voyage as a second mate. It becomes a series of life lessons for Marlow. Things never go perfectly to plan. The voyage may be mapped to perfection, but something always gets in the way, whether it’s life, humanity or the sea. We see Marlow struggling with xenophobia, racism and disdain for those who are not of his own culture. Marlow has a certain suspicion of his French and German comrades because they don’t do things exactly as the English. However, in the time of crisis that came upon them when the ship’s hold caught fire, none of that mattered. Here, they all united around a common cause of keeping the ship afloat and completing the voyage. For days, they worked together as one. That is what extreme adversity will do for you. That is what imminent death will teach you. That nothing matters but how you feel about humanity. It will pull out either the adverse feelings or discard any dogmatic presuppositions and replace it with love.

His ship destroyed, Marlow has to row the additional number of miles to the shore in the East. Exhausted, he and his comrades awaken to find themselves surrounded by the inhabitants of that Eastern land. The land that was disdainful in the eyes of the Europeans. Obviously, these Europeans perceived their way of life to be “benevolent”. It’s a common human trait that one’s own life and culture, the FAMILIAR is better simply because it’s what we know. However, as Wade Davis says: “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you, they are unique manifestations of the human spirit”.

Next, I take you into the Heart of Darkness. The absurd starts with the very title. You immediately conjure in your mind something sinister, fearful, a place that you are averse to exploring. Fear is bred from unfamiliarity. Marlow illustrates this from the beginning by describing the typical man of the sea as someone who explored only the shores of distant lands, and then believes he knows everything there is to know about the culture.

This can be applied to today. We never learn from history or literature. Knowing nothing of deep Middle Eastern and Eastern politics and traditions, our own country has engaged in two quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have done this out of fear. Fear that we will lose our place in this world and have to adjust our lifestyle and position of power. What is it that we’re so afraid of? Why do we have to be constantly in control? Why can’t we WORK to UNDERSTAND instead of attempting to dominate and destroy?

Heart of Darkness is an example of this kind of colonialism, but it is also so much more. Marlow is sent to the very center of Africa to find an isolated trader, a Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz has far too many representations for the length of this review, but I will try to touch on only a few.

Marlow is fascinated by the legend of Kurtz from the start. He wants to meet this man who has not only conquered the culture of the “savages”, but has gained their trust (or is it their fear?). Kurtz has apparently used his knowledge of the African continent and the people to amass a huge personal fortune of ivory. As a typical European colonialist and industrialist, Marlow wants to meet and learn from a man of success.

Ah, colonialism is such an arrogant concept. It is seen in our mission work, and in the belief of the masses that we really are trying to bring democracy and religious “salvation” to these poor blind people of distant lands. It was quite effective as a back up plan to the WMD excuse for war in Iraq. “Benevolence”, that pompous word, has been used to justify the repression and control of another’s culture for centuries.

Kurtz is driven to the African jungle out of a desire for fame and fortune. To achieve this success, he is determined to let nothing get in his way. This is a faulty way of thinking derived from his English culture which he finally understands when looking back on the absurdity of his life. Kurtz steps on everyone from his fellow countrymen to the unfamiliar natives of Africa to achieve his own selfish ends. Kurtz is a sick man, reflective of a sick society, whose concern as he is being taken to recovery is mine, mine, mine; My girl, my ivory, my possessions, my power, my control, my piece of land in the colonialist world.

Kurtz is both a dying empire and a dying man who is grasping at materialism in his last breath. He wasn’t out to love or aid in mutual assistance to the “savages”. They were terrified of him and anything that threatened their own way of life. Perhaps they were as guilty as he in not wanting to learn of the other. However, Kurtz (and Kurtz as England) was the oppressor and the Africans were (and still are to this day) the oppressed grasping for nothing but survival, mutuality, respect, and a place of equality in the world. But the drive to domination is a human trait, and we can see this today in the corrupt leadership of many African countries. They have seen the plundering of their continent and now in turn want to hoard as much as they can after centuries of forced poverty and slave labor.

The absurd must be confronted to be subdued in one’s life. Kurtz never faced the absurdity of the drive for temporal matters until his dying breath. Then everything came back to him. His dissatisfaction with the ideal of the “perfect life” dictated to him by his home country. His leaving a woman who loved him to satisfy what culture told him he must achieve. Then there was the great cost of achieving that success by the subjugation and oppression of another people. “The horror, the horror” Kurtz breathes at his end. Marlow seems to respect this ability to face life’s reality, although he is still wrapped up in some of the faulty thinking of Kurtz. Marlow has never achieved the material successes of Kurtz and we are left believing that there is a certain part of him that wants to.

The only person who seemed to see the human side of Kurtz was the woman who already had it all. She was the woman who loved Kurtz. She didn’t want him to prove anything, and saw the goodness in his heart, his ability to love. She, perhaps more than any other, realized his TRUE potential. To me, she represents the shining example of what we all can achieve as humanity by believing in one another and living for PEOPLE rather than the oppression that is necessary to gain material success. Success by our culture’s definition is a divide of humanity into winners and losers. True success is win/win, equality, justice, love.

Typhoon is a story that is bigger than the oppression of one by the other. It is representative of the adversities of life that we all face. However, our characters fail to realize that the bigger picture of life itself and the way it can destroy also represents the way people can trample on others. The “coolies” or Chinese passengers on board the English vessel to the East are second class citizens in the eyes of the crew who have little regard for their lives or comfort.

Captain MacWhirr is an even-keeled matter of fact man who has a job and will work to fulfill his duty at all costs. Jukes is the slightly unstable person who is reactionary and cautious. In times of great distress and fear, Jukes is shown to direct that fear onto the coolies in the form of repression and confinement. How typical is this man’s life? How much do we fail to understand that we are all human, each valuable in his own way? We all must face these storms of life together! None of us in the end will escape alive. The typhoon that almost destroyed the Nan-Shan would have destroyed each and every person on board EQUALLY, regardless of how they viewed themselves in respect to the other.

The sea and death DO treat all equally. The worst parts of our existence are no respecter of person. Shouldn’t this be a model as well for the best parts of life? Shouldn’t we strive for mutuality and respect and face the fact that the end of life as death is the same for all of us? Shouldn’t our time on this earth be one of the utmost happiness and satisfaction; one of love and the fulfillment that comes from giving and helping our fellow man? Why must we be so selfish? Who do we try to impress? Riches and materialism only breed contempt in others, do not bring satisfaction to ourselves, and kill us in the end while leaving us always wanting more.

Joseph Conrad did indeed find his voice. He had his own way of expressing the truth of love and equality, which is the most important reason for our existence. However you choose to exemplify it in your own life, I hope that you can find the peace and love that we all desire. “One truth, many expressions”.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Non-Dualistic Consciousness

“Just learn how to see, and you will know whatever it is that you need to see”. Recently, I have encountered a new way of thinking. Of course, the IDEA of “enlightenment” I’ve heard before, but never has it been explained to me like this. It’s a concept of expanding consciousness, of moving beyond what we would refer to as intellectual thinking or simply incorporating the rational mind to examine the world according to your personal condition (environment, place of birth, life experiences, etc).

Richard Rohr, the great spiritualistic teacher, is the one who has brought non-dualistic thinking into my field of vision. The quote in the above paragraph is his, and it comes from his book The Naked Now. I am writing this blog as a beginning and as a BEGINNER to what I hope will be a lifetime journey of looking at the world in a completely different way. Now, this is not some personal organized religious conversion I’m experiencing. When it comes to that god, I am an atheist. I can not believe in a man made god and its right or wrong, do this don’t do that, heaven or hell dualistic dogma. Truth is truth no matter where it may be found. Rohr talks about that at great length, and does not leave out any of the world’s ideologies in his search.

“One truth, many expressions”. If we would all be honest with ourselves, what most of us are looking for in life is our own way to express the truth, more so than the truth itself. Most of us have a basic idea of what is right and what is wrong. However, the INTELLECT, the rational mind, the left brain, can play many tricks on us through the process of interpretation. The truth becomes so convoluted in a globalized society that before you know it, everyone has their own ego-based version of the path, and anyone else be damned if they attempt to mess with it. Rohr points out that throughout history, this has gotten us absolutely nowhere. It is dualistic thinking. It becomes “I’m right and you’re wrong, and there is no negotiating”.

I was able to attend a retreat this weekend where I heard Rohr speak, and, in many ways, I have heard his ideas before, as we all have. The reason is that there is a common thread through world thinking and thinkers of THE truth. The question then becomes: How do we perceive the truth? What lens do we use to attempt to see it and why? Is it to satisfy some part of our own ego? Rohr answers that oftentimes that is the case. This can just as easily apply to people who believe they’re being radical and courageous by stepping out from the mainstream. Not that this is wrong, in fact it is encouraged as it becomes the way we change our world. However, contrarian thinking can be an ego trip just as much as it can for our mainstream newsertainment personalities who enjoy being in the spotlight.

So what exactly do we mean when we refer to “non-dualistic thinking”? I will be the first to say I don’t have all the answers to that. If I did have all the answers, then I wouldn’t even be on the PATH to non-dualistic thought. Once you feel you KNOW everything about this way of thinking, you probably haven’t even begun. I DO know some basic starting points that I learned from the book and Rohr’s speech.

Non-dualistic thought is not only a new way of being open-minded, it becomes the highest level of consciousness that you can attain. It is the ability to see with what Rohr calls the “third eye”. (The Indian or Hindu “Bindi” is perhaps the most well known symbol of this level of enlightenment). It enables us to think beyond “either/or” dualities. It’s the humility to admit you’re wrong, to be willing to change, to examine the viewpoint and take the good from that of the other. It’s a win/win way of thought vs. “survival of the fittest”. It’s not “us vs. them”, but WE. In the end, it’s love, justice, empathy, compassion, equality.

This non-dualistic way of thinking often comes to us in certain situations in life. Without a previous awareness, we may not even know we’re experiencing it. I felt it during my car accident when I had peace amidst the chaos after opening my eyes, realizing my leg was shattered and that I was upside down and bleeding profusely. I have experienced it recently though other times of suffering with my divorce a couple of years ago, an uncertain future in my lifelong radio career, and shaky finances as a result. Some of the most creative work mankind has produced is a result of adversity. This is what happens when we think non-dualistically. We just BECOME. WE ARE. We act as nature intended us to act, in the NOW and not through the filter of pre-conceived notions. In fact, it can often happen in times of great love or great suffering. It becomes a moment(s) of clarity, although it is fleeting if you try to make it solid and something that you can grasp with the intellectual side of your mind…your left brain.

Now, this is not to say that by moving our consciousness forward that we are to give up all rational thought. No, rational thought is quite necessary to get us to the place of this level of consciousness. We NEED to bounce back to our rational mind to allow the entry of the raw data that we then process with our non-dualistic way of thought. You can’t take a situation requiring justice, such as Israel/Palestine, and not know the basic rational facts surrounding the situation. Where non-dualistic thought can start is by acquiring your facts from different sources. Blindly following one person or ideology for your interpretation is dualistic. You have already decided that what you see is the “right way”. You are not open to other potentially applicable information.

Non-dualistic thinking by nature involves change. One of the hardest things a person can do after much intellectual experience is to begin again on a different path. However, a non-dualistic mind will go to any length to acquire the truth. The third eye sees that our primary mission on this earth is love. If some system of thought begins to repress, oppress, or step on the other, then our intellectualism has become dualistic. We must re-examine, and if necessary, start over.

My path to non-dualism is beginning and will be a constant journey throughout my life. I have many questions. For example, how do we not take sides and become dualistic in what seems like an obvious case of injustice in places such as Palestine? I think one way of looking at it is to say: “is there an absence of love”? Obviously, in the case of Palestine there is an extreme lack of love and justice. However, we can practice non-dualism by realizing that all of humanity is valuable. The Israelis are every bit as human as the Palestinians. The much HARDER process is enacting non-dualistic thought in the real world. This particular Middle Eastern situation is exemplary because while YOU may hope to obtain a win/win for all involved, both sides are firmly entrenched in their position. However, that doesn’t mean that you stop thinking in terms of love for all vs. love for one side. No one “wins” in that scenario. What happens is that the ongoing cycle of violence and hate that is so much a part of dualistic thought continues. As a human race, we have never grasped the idea of non-dualistic thought. If we had, there would be no war and no bigotry, homophobia, racism, oppression or sexism.

Rohr and other great spiritualists like him have warned us about becoming TOO wrapped up in “having a cause”. If you’re not careful, that “cause”, however justified it might be, can become oppressive when you’re trying to avoid oppression. Obviously, this can grate an activist like me. But what Rohr is referring to is “taking sides” and therefore refusing to show love for all. Great love is non-dualistic. It is an important statement for all of us to remember as we begin.

Non-dualism can be found in all the advanced teachings of the world’s great traditions. The problem is that it becomes so easy to revert to dualistic thought when someone challenges you. I have quite often been guilty of this. The ego suddenly re-appears, the third eye closes, and the battle begins. There is no good to come of these kinds of situations. Until we learn to see with the third eye, to practice non-dualistic thought and balance it with our rational mind, we will never experience true peace and true love. I hope you decide to attempt the journey. I’m right at the start along with you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Toni Morrison's road to Paradise

Why is it that so often in life the very thing you’re trying to avoid becomes you? Why do the oppressed become the oppressor? Why do the abused become the abuser? Why do those who demand openness and equality become insular and elitist? Why does the love that we strive so hard to obtain turn into a protective curse when we attempt to contain it vs. allowing its empathy and compassion to extend to all? These open-ended questions are only the tip of the iceberg in Toni Morrison’s Paradise. It is an incredible novel that incorporates many complex themes, mind shattering symbolisms and an obvious personal investment of experience, echoes of generations gone by and silent whisperings from history that we should heed and never repeat.

The idea that a group from any oppressed race can run from their problems, form their own society, and live by their own rules contains within it the basic dangers inherent in utopian thinking. So often, it is not applicable or realistic according to the complexities of human nature. In fact, the idea that this utopia can be acquired affirms the thesis of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. We can see this in modern society with the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Or the way that America has chosen to repress and exploit the Third World and the various racial/class/homosexual/religious/political groups at home. Here we have victims creating new victims…and the cycle continues. The REAL question is, how do we BREAK this cycle? It is only through immense courage, LOVE, empathy, compassion and strength that we step up and say NO. I forgive you for what has happened to me and to make that forgiveness concrete in my own life, I will strive to not become bitter and will do my best to not consciously or unconsciously pass it on to others.

The concept of Paradise in Toni Morrison’s novel is akin to looking into an endless sea of mirrors. It reflects back upon you over and over and over. Its meanings can go on to infinity, and those religious representations in the novel imply that Paradise CAN be infinity itself.

First we have the town of Ruby. It is an honest, and at first, noble idea of escaping exploitation. Ah, but here we have our first red flag. These African Americans are descendants of a group that has set out from the post-Reconstruction era in Louisiana and Mississippi to establish their own community VOID of whites, or for that matter, any inter-racial mixing. So the very idea of exclusion is there from the start. This is what gets us into trouble. While it is obvious that the group believed they were simply avoiding intense suffering, there was a deep dark seed of hate that had been planted by the white man. Now lest anyone come down on me, I am NOT saying that this hatred has no reason for being there. It would be quite impossible to be treated as chattel for centuries and not carry animosity. I am only pointing out that this is one of the great tests of life, and applies to ANY oppressed group. How do you handle this situation within a history of racism experienced? How do the Jews react to the Holocaust? How do the Palestinians react to Jewish oppression?

Unfortunately, the citizens of Ruby handled it by attempting to keep their society untouched by “contamination”. Contamination represents anything outside of their direct ancestors. This incorporates skin color (even as compared to other African Americans), an unspoken but expected moral code, a hierarchy in society that revolves around the founding families, and the expectation of keeping the generations continuous through marriage within the community. It revolves around purity in religion, in dress, in being a productive upstanding member of society, and, consequently, becomes patriarchal, authoritarian, repressive and a power struggle.

This is where we can introduce the Convent to the story. The book does it from the very beginning, but that beginning is actually the end of the story. Or is it the beginning of another beginning? Is the symbolism involved in how the women of the Convent treated the attacking men of the town only the beginning of another cycle of repression? Or, to put it more clearly, are the women plotting revenge at the end of the story that will then turn THEM into the oppressors? Again, they would certainly be justified. However, what will it accomplish? Only more and more violence.

The Convent is located about 17 miles outside of the town of Ruby. It was originally the project of a white collar criminal, but was taken over by a group of nuns who became yet ANOTHER symbol of oppression. The patriarchy that bleeds through the pages of Paradise is evident in the treatment of women by the Catholic Church. The nuns of the Church have been programmed with this repression to such a degree that they in turn act as the patriarchs in this very convent. It is an important point to understand, because of the way that Connie is affected. She believes that she needs this authority to survive. Connie is the perfect example of the woman who has been pushed down by patriarchy and authoritarianism to the point where her thoughts are not her own. She has not learned the process of discovering her own individuality, but she will and does.

A quick side note, as I’ve mentioned it before in my writing reviews, but Morrison doesn’t miss a beat with touching on what I refer to as “the benefactor syndrome” of missionary work. The convent was set up to take the message of Christ to the Native Americans and “wean them away from anything that was enjoyable in their lives”. It’s the idea that WE have it right; YOU are the sinner, so CONFORM to our way of thinking.

But the Convent is to go through another evolution centralized around Connie. After Mary Magna passes away, Connie is all alone. Mary Magna was the woman who rescued Connie from the poverty of being an orphan, and she was who Connie lived for. Connie never thought of the crucial process of discovery while Mary Magna was around, because she never felt the need. She never had to think for herself as long as she had the convent and the sisters. She didn’t realize that she was a prisoner. It was only the ability to “step inside” that was introduced to her by Lone that not only symbolized empathy, but allowed her to realize the importance of herself as HER OWN PERSON. Yes, this seeming display of supernatural power from Lone is symbolic of the power of Connie and the rest of the women she takes under her wing to realize THEIR OWN potential.

These free thinking women are precisely what a threat to the utopia of Ruby is. Women are a threat to this society because they stand in the way of “progress”. Female babies can not carry on the “holy” family names of the town. Female midwifes and child bearers stand between the successful births of healthy baby boys. To the men of the town, this is everything. Without the ability to continue the utopia, the dream dies. Any woman who is able to amass too much power is a clear threat to their authoritarianism. What if she doesn’t want to bear children? What if the 8-rock women gain so much power that they refuse to marry the men of the community, and instead go outside and inter-marry with others?

All their dreams, all their fears, their purpose for living, the very idea of the town of Ruby, the outside threats, the unsubmissive women, the impurity, the non-conformity, the strangeness of the other is all wrapped up in the women who have taken residence with Connie in the Convent. This is why they must be stopped. This is where the idea of PURITY and a way of life become more important than love and acceptance. This is the culmination of our narrative. The formerly oppressed (the citizens of Ruby) have made the transformation into the oppressors. The woman has become the victim.

It is perhaps no mistake that our story revolves around the Civil Rights era. For it is in this very movement that the fight for equality in the black community became patriarchal. The idea of freedom for the race did not incorporate the equally important drive for women’s rights. That fight would have to come later. It is symbolic and central to Morrison’s novel that the women are left out of “purifying” the town of Ruby. What the men have to say, and how they plan to execute their actions is no place for a woman’s involvement. In this, we can see the warning from Morrison that ANY fight for equality can become repressive in and of itself.

This idea of “Paradise” therefore involves many different elements to Morrison and our characters. Freedom is one common thread. Self-determination is another. The ability to ESACPE is a third. However, what many of our characters struggle to grasp is the all-consuming LOVE that is so important for Paradise to become a reality. Through the lens of love, everything becomes clear. One’s vision of a Higher Power (yet anther Paradise theme) is all about how love is incorporated. Without love our world falls apart. Love and its corollary, equality, is about EMBRACING the differences we see in the other. This CAN NOT be accomplished by a dogmatic adherence to principle, purity or structure. It is not done by taking sides. It is searching for the common ground that makes us all human.

In the end, the road to Paradise IS narrow. However, it is NOT a narrow experience or way of thinking. It is simple yet complex much like Morrison’s novel. Love is never easy, but in the end it is all we have. Love is meaning, our very existence, the essence of what we describe as “God”, and the ONLY way to Paradise.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Questioning religion in the process of discovery with Baldwin

Interpretation can be everything. The subjectivity involved in the interpretation of life becomes an individual’s reality. Interpretation is also a process of discovery. Done right, discovery incorporates an open minded approach to life. This applies to politics, culture, religion, career, etc. How you perceive your world and what you perceive its meaning to be becomes your motivation, inspiration, aspiration and perspiration.

Religion and scripture are the perfect illustration of how interpretation plays into a belief system. The idea of a Higher Power and the way to it involves subjective not objective thought patterns. First, there are the various major religions with their own “inspired” scriptures and traditions. Second, WITHIN those religions, there is a constant battle of conflicting opinions. These thought patterns are tied to race, economic status, system of government and historical conditions.

The best writers often ask more questions than they answer. It is rewarding to read works of literature that open your mind to ways of thinking that you didn’t realize were there. This is the role of the great writer. If you can’t step away from a book compelled to think deeply about the meaning of things, then either you or the writer has not tried hard enough.

James Baldwin’s classic first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain takes a look at an African American family’s interpretation of religion. Even WITHIN this family, we are able to see the vast differences in thought incorporated in the representations of God. The imperfections of humanity are what take center stage as our narrative develops. Our characters are faced with the challenge of fusing everyday life in a racist America with an all-powerful yet judgmental God. The deepest, darkest thoughts, actions and desires of our various characters are painfully portrayed, painting a reality so vivid that one can find ways to relate to all of the characters at one time or another. However, the very NATURE of Baldwin’s writing style leaves it open to subjective interpretation. To read the novel completely through and properly define the writer’s beliefs in narrow terms is near impossible.

Baldwin’s profound questions are subtle. We are challenged in every way about the concept of religion and the Higher Power. Gabriel as the patriarch of the family uses religion as a crutch for his faults. This is often true in religious communities. It is the idea that God will cover up your sins and erase them, thus causing you to become a pure person no matter if you consistently fall. It’s all about asking forgiveness. It is the reason Gabriel sees his affair and child born with Esther as no longer a concern in the eyes of God. He is therefore abdicated of responsibility. He sees his physical, emotional and verbal abuse of his family as keeping them on the straight path. It never occurs to him that his dogmatic way of thinking is causing repression and doubts in the minds of those he loves about the possibility of a compassionate God, let alone Gabriel’s own true motives FOR his actions. Is Gabriel acting out of a feeling of guilt for his own demons, or is he just as selfishly insisting on absolute compliance to what HE believes as a way to ensure his own salvation?

Furthermore, Baldwin provokes contemplation on what IS the very purpose of religion. From the beginning of time, man has looked to a moral system (often involving gods) that defines what is good and evil. We can see this in the author’s way of incorporating various situations such as the “sinful” father of Elizabeth. Here is a man whose business revolves around “sin”, yet treats her better than any other man in her life, especially those supposedly more “Christ-like”. What it amounts to in the end is that the common theme of the great moral traditions, religious or otherwise is love. Elizabeth’s father saw love as the greatest thing that he could do for his family. That can never be faulted in a person. Yet the majority of society would choose to elevate the “wrong” behaviors of the individual, failing to balance it out with the good.

Baldwin’s emphasis on religion is central to understanding the African-American experience. Religion and the church were for centuries a source of hope, joy and fellowship in the midst of unbelievable suffering. The sense of COMMUNITY and support also rings loud through the pen of Baldwin. I believe that this CAN be a positive with religion. However, too much good has an equal opportunity to become evil.

Gabriel and Elizabeth’s son John’s intense vision is an interesting way to end the book. It would appear that he had a genuine spiritual awakening. What are we to make of that? Again, my opinion is that the question is left up to us. There are many possible answers, not least of which is whether or not the experience could be self-induced.

James Baldwin tells it like it is, but does so with an open mind. This is the kind of book with which you could easily discern different meaning every time you read it. It is this certain amount of vagueness and open-ended questioning that in an ironic sense (at the risk of sounding blasphemous) is relatable to scripture.

Life involves much tragedy and joy which is also possible in religion. However, the most important theme I derived from this book is that questioning is common to humanity. I grew up in a stifling community that discouraged questioning in religion and education. It was all about rote learning vs. free thought. As you grow older, the process of personal discovery and reflection is one of the most important that you can incorporate into your life. This questioning is essential to you becoming your own person. Blindly following any ideology takes away your individuality. Intellectual laziness should be avoided at all costs. Don’t let modern society (as it’s so masterful in doing) dictate to you how you are to believe. Learn from being your own person. You will find life to be all you thought it could if you are true to yourself and don’t repress that process of discovery.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Awakenings and Epiphanies in the aftermath of an accident

Last summer I was involved in a near-fatal car accident. I recently went back and re-visited my thoughts that I had put on paper one month after this horrendous yet eye-opening event. Here is the blog that I wrote on August 22, 2009, almost a month to the day since I'd had that life-changing experience:

Some things in life are simply inexplicable. Until you are suspended upside down in a vehicle next to an open gas line it is hard to explain how you can still feel a deep down unfathomable perfect peace. Now, I have struggled with the concept of a higher power. I have gone through phases where I doubted any existence of a God or at least of an engaging God…one who communicates with us and is involved in our daily lives. These beliefs have manifested themselves as a result of my strong belief that religion is environmental. Many of you have heard me say this before, but it’s really a simple concept. Where you are born determines your religious belief 99% of the time. It is rare to find a Muslim born to an American Christian family. It is just as rare to find a Christian born to a Shiite Iranian family. For this reason, I find it hard to put the concept of a Higher Power into a dogmatic description, when something as simple as where you are born determines the religion that you learn to accept. However, on July 21st, 2009, I can not deny that there was a perfect peace that took over my entire being and helped me through that most hellish of days. I do not know how to define this peace. I DO know that from the moment I woke up to a paramedic calling my name and realized that something was horribly wrong because of the intense pain I was experiencing with bones sticking out of my legs that I should have been terrified, and I was for a bit. Nonetheless, I somehow knew that I would be ok. I was at peace in a way that made no sense to me whatsoever. I was in the most indescribable pain, but I sensed deep down that I would live. I don’t know how to refer to this peace/power/realization other than to describe it as The Almighty. I do not feel that any of the religious terms (especially Christian) that I’ve learned from my childhood until now adequately describe this power. Any reference to God makes me cringe as it brings back dogmatic teachings that I was exposed to as a young child that made me uncomfortable in many ways…feeling that if I slipped I was indeed headed for hell. The value of my life was dictated to me by an American educational system that claims to be open-minded and truthful, but is nothing more than government propaganda. It teaches us that in order to be of value to society that we must adhere to the system. We must complete grade school, junior high, high school, college, and if we really want to succeed then we obtain our master’s and doctorate degrees.

However, we must ask ourselves what is value? How do we let society define what value means to us? If we think about the design of higher education in this country, the primary purpose is to spit out cogs in the machine. Cogs that will become new pieces of the military-industrial, financial, political, multi-national corporate hegemonic nature of our empire to replace the old cogs. There is very little encouragement to think for ourselves. We are not taught to question everything and trust nothing. We are not taught to examine the material lectured to us by the professor, but to make sure that we understand and program our heads with that particular version of knowledge (which amounts to one woman or man’s opinion) so that we can regurgitate it on a test and therefore become a model cog to keep the exploitive empire of the United States in position to oppress the peoples of the world who are too weak to stand up to us and defend the human, natural, and financial resources that we steal from them.
Let’s step further into what we are taught from grade school in our educational system in the U.S. (Let me stop right here just long enough to state that I’m sure that many of these same principals apply in foreign countries as well. It also is a fact that everyone says that their way is the right way and the other countries have it all wrong. Sound familiar? That statement is true in the American educational system, and it is also true in the religious community in America.) We are taught that by God’s decree and religious freedom that we had the right to come in and decimate the native population of this country. Oh sure, this is painted as a rosy picture with our tradition of Thanksgiving and the inviting of the natives to not only share their planting and exotic foods, but to even share the same table with us. We are also taught that the Native Americans who resisted this God-given expansion of the early Americans were resisting divine providence and therefore must be dealt with accordingly (wars, torture, displacement of homelands that had been in their families for hundreds of years, and numerous other indescribable atrocities that we should be ashamed of…certainly as “enlightened” as we are supposed to be in the year 2009). We pushed them onto plantations and plots of land where they could be controlled. Our advice and funding of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians shows that we still support and encourage this policy. Dialogue and constructive peace and reconciliation can just go to hell for all we’re concerned. We have it right, and everyone else can either accept it or experience the full power and backing of the U.S. military. This view is not taught to us in school. We are told that everything and everyone that we stole from, killed, tortured, displaced and degraded as less than human with an intelligence equal to ours…well, this was all part of “God’s plan”.
How much do you remember from your days in school? Do you feel that what was taught to you can be applicable in a modern society of globalization which is a complex mixture of different cultures incorporating racism, hatred, wars, distrust of other ethnicities because of our own ignorance (case in point in today’s world…the Muslims). Do you feel that you were given the proper tools to combat this ignorance that is so prevalent in our world today? Do you feel that when you were taught in your chemistry class about the chemical structure of coal that it is applicable in helping to show compassion, love and equality to your neighbor? I’ve been reading the autobiography of Stokely Carmichael and he incorporated an interesting statement that “Education is what is left over after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned in the classroom”. He applied this in particular to the brutality he experienced as an African-American student at Howard University in the 60’s. In particular, he praised his fellow comrades who supported the cause of equality more than the expected American standard that I described above of the average college student. By this, meaning…go to school to learn how to be a functioning wealth gainer in a Capitalistic society. These students fought for justice rather than follow the expected standardized American course. They have my complete respect because of the courage they showed. Because, after all, in American society, money is what really matters right? Forget equality. Forget love. Forget helping your common person in the ghetto escape from the unbelievably lopsided odds of their own success at even earning an income to support their family. It’s every person for themselves. If you don’t succeed, then someone else will step over you and obtain that position. It could be that person from the better school. It could be that person from the more privileged family. It could be the person with more charisma, with more connections, with more beauty; the list goes on and on. If you don’t succeed monetarily, then something is obviously wrong with you. Forget the idea that you don’t want to take part in a system that exploits people. Our financial services industry is one of the biggest industries that we still have in this country, and it is going down hard and fast. I was a part of it for a while, and I did do quite well monetarily. However, the entire structure of it is centered around profiting someone at the expense of another. No matter what you hear, there is no win win. That’s a lie that a Capitalistic society uses to encourage economic expansion for big business. In Capitalism, someone always pays the price. My soul was destroyed in that business. It was during those years that I started to examine my political and moral beliefs. I couldn’t live with myself any longer and continue to be a part of that business. I don’t care how poor I am. Making my living at the expense of another takes away your sleep and will lead you to an early grave…and for what? So you can have more on your credit column than your debit column? This car accident has further emphasized to me what is important. I will fight for equality, justice, peace, compassion, love, respect, decent living standards and PROPER education for my fellow citizens until the day I die. I will combine my talents of political passion and radio to achieve this goal. I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know that I will not be a part of the system any longer. Life is too short, and there are too many hurting people to look the other way. If you can do that and still live with yourself, then you have something I don’t and a drive that I can’t find in myself. I’m not saying that I’m some saint and someone who makes no mistakes. I have to constantly check my pride, criticism, cynicism, ego, self-righteousness, feelings of superiority, and I could go on and on. That look in the mirror can be a humbling experience. I AM constantly humbled by the fact that The Almighty chose to keep me on this earth for a while longer, and I hope that I can use this time to contribute to the equality of all of us. That is my prayer for you and I today. Let’s unite and treat each other with respect and equality. It’s idealistic I know, but we can accomplish it if we put half the effort into helping others instead of stepping on them to get ahead in life. Thank you for reading and I welcome your thoughts and comments. May you experience many blessings today.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

The absurd is central. It’s central to any life (whether or not the mind is conscious of it), and it is central to the protagonist in Invisible Man. In a book that is literally (at times) dripping with metaphors, we see moments where the crazy path of our own life is articulated. Life is never a set of the known and perfectly pre-determined plans. No, it takes a bit of being knocked around and a sense of reality to make one realize that all is not how we first thought it would be. This process of living life and learning from experience slowly begins to draw back the curtain. We are then able to see how some of the “chance happenings” around us were not so accidental after all, but were part of a much larger plan.

This plan that society has for us is rarely what we thought it would be. In fact, most people can go through life never having the awareness that they are living the dream of another. They are told what to think, when to think it, who to think it for, why it is to be thought and where it is to be done. Oh sure, they can be paid good money and experience all the material benefits that are available to a person. However, the real questions remain. Do they know what they see when they begin to examine the internal? Do they know where to find the internal? Do they even know what the internal is?

Our unnamed protagonist is black, which further buries his identity. In the white man’s world, he has to dig much deeper to find the mark of where his subconscious realization of self begins and where others have trained him to stop looking. Society and “culture” can become, and really are, ways of trained thinking; of groupthink. It extends from the economic system in which we provide for ourselves to the way we accept or decline the notion of a Higher Power to the patterns in which we dress, talk, walk, speak and relate to others. This situation is further complicated when the individual loses or has never gained the sense of BELONGING in American society. THAT condition of the absurd applies to the black person and other minorities.

The grasping and searching that result from the absurd lead the unprepared mind into ideologies, institutions, groups and cultures that become a definition. This is where the symbolism opposing dogmatic thinking enters Ellison’s writing. For while we may look to find meaning OUTSIDE of ourselves in these defining factors, it is only through looking INTERNALLY, VOID of all other elements that we can see who we are. When we become too dogmatic or hold too tightly to anything in life, we fold or melt into it.

Our protagonist found this out when he devoted himself to Communism or “The brotherhood” as it’s described in the book. Ellison’s novel would be tainted were he to make obvious his political affiliation, so we can not say whether the corrupt bosses of the Communist party were a symbol with which we could pin him down. Rather, Ellison is warning us that no matter what the ideology, when we lose our sense of self, then we lose our ability to love; our ability to understand justice; our ability to empathize. Instead, we become a cold part of the machine. We are easily manipulated. We cling to the external with all our might to find fulfillment. It will never come through the external. Our identification with our amount of education, our job, our contacts, our politics, our religion or our friends can not provide it for us. We MUST look within.

Ellison has provided a path towards discovery. However, even the strict following of the path that Ellison himself has set up in Invisible Man would be to defeat the purpose. Life is NOT about how someone else says it should be. This is not to say that we think only of ourselves when we are finding the way. On the contrary, when we are able to LOVE, when we are able to KNOW our own humanity, we begin to recognize it in others. What we then owe to ourselves is NOT to follow someone’s pre-designed system, but to get a grasp on our how our own INVISIBILITY is directly tied to the strict dogmatism of conformity. When we realize that the world viewed through the external will only de-humanize us, then we realize that to truly serve the cause of justice, love and empathy requires us to cast aside definitions and BECOME that person we always were. WHO ARE YOU? Think about how to answer that question without restriction. That is true freedom, and that is the challenge which Ellison leaves us in the life of the Invisible Man.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cornel West Matters

In recent years, the distinguished Dr. Cornel West has attracted not a small amount of controversy over his message vs. his lifestyle. He has been attacked from both the far right and the far left for preaching his message of equality while sitting amongst the towers of the Ivy League. It certainly doesn’t help his case that he is a much desired speaker and has managed to make quite a good living for himself. I can understand the viewpoints of my fellow leftists who frown upon this, but I don’t believe that the message of Dr. West is worth discarding simply because he has done well financially.

It is only relatively recently that I myself have seriously read the work of Dr. West. It started 3 years ago when I first made my way through the dense prose of The Cornel West Reader which included his philosophical musings on the Marxist tradition alongside American Pragmatism and some of his more academic writings. It was certainly a stimulating read, and, for an Ivy League professor, somewhat of a radical worldview.

In the past month, I have read the two most popular books of Dr. West, Race Matters and Democracy Matters. Reading these two back to back was particularly rewarding as West himself considers Democracy Matters to be a sequel to Race Matters. They are both eloquent and articulate as one might expect from such a great orator. However, they are accessible to a wide audience.

It saddens me that in America whenever a strong African voice speaks out against injustice it’s ironically called racism. And it angers me that these charges come from WASP’s and other white elements of society. West addresses some of the common charges thrown against African Americans in Race Matters. These include high crime rates in African American communities, welfare queens, high unemployment, etc… West hits hard by saying “Conservative behaviorists talk about values and attitudes as if political and economic structures hardly exist.”

At the same time, a common theme in both Race Matters and Democracy Matters is nihilism. “Any disease of the soul is conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth.” West makes an emphasis in both books of the nihilism of the Western world, and primarily among the poorer and minority classes by “This market way of life promoting addictions to stimulation and obsessions with comfort and convenience”.

In listening to or reading Dr. West you will find yourself coming across his description of arriving from a blues tradition. This partly involves West’s embracing of the pain of his ancestors and the color line that is still so clearly defined in present day America. West encourages us to NOT look at a color blind world. That would be a mistake that discards the unique and sometimes painful traditions from which we have arrived. Instead, he exhorts us to EMBRACE the rich cultures of the different ethnicities, religions, cultures and countries that make up our world. It is only through appreciating the equality yet uniqueness of the other that we can develop the proper respect and love for humanity.

The fight for democracy has ever been one against the oppressive and racist corruptions of empire.” As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Dr. West would subscribe to the belief that the very nature of Capitalism leads to racism. The idea of competition, of survival of the fittest, of being the better man naturally incorporates nihilistic elements of race and class.

At the same time, West also has a deep hope for America. Democracy Matters acknowledges the democratic traditions that are underneath the surface. The book was quite prophetic in this sense by the reaction we saw to the election of Obama. FINALLY, the people felt that they were really making a difference in their society. Unfortunately, as the Obama presidency has had some time, this “hope” has been misplaced. It is now clearer than ever that our SYSTEM is broken, although one of my criticisms of Dr. West is that he publicly voices a little too much confidence in our current President. As a Socialist, Dr. West should realize that it will require much more than a new face in the White House to change the rule of the plutocrats in America.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Christianity from Democracy Matters in which Dr. West broke down modern day American Christianity into two main strains: That of the Prophetic Christians vs. the Constantinian or Imperialistic Christians. One of the main identifying factors between the two is separation of church and state. The Prophetic is more likely to hold the government accountable for its actions whereas the Constantinian has BECOME part of the government. This is evident in the view of the right-wing evangelicals that the wars of America are “holy” in the sense that we are spreading Christianity and democracy to a heretical part of the world. This is hubris in its purest form, and is blindness from the nihilism of American politics in the sense that the Constantinians are playing right into the imperialistic government agenda. This can also be seen by the undying Zionistic support of the Constantinians which spreads the illusion of divine blessing on the actions of America’s client state Israel.

Prophetic Christianity is the blues tradition of which Dr. West speaks. It calls out injustice. It speaks truth to power. It follows in the great traditions of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and ultimately Jesus who condemned authority for being drunk with power. It challenges America to follow the all-embracing love of Christ which looks at the poor not as “unintended consequences” of American domestic policy, but as equal humans to be loved, respected, and if necessary, cared for by our government. It preaches equality in health care, employment and civil rights. It calls for a respectful attitude towards the sovereignty of other nations and the immigrant looking to come to OUR nation. It is the true spirit of Socialism that is inherent in the very message of Christ. This is the common strain of love that all of the world’s great ideologies strive to achieve.

West is on a mission of hope. His belief that the restoration of democracy is critical to the future of America can only be accomplished by a more level playing field. Plutocracy and oligarchy control our country. We as the PEOPLE must take our country back. We can do so through the Prophetic tradition of which Dr. West speaks by educating and waking up our fellow citizens from the nihilism that currently controls our Race and Democracy Matters. As Dr. West says “We must all strive for justice. And justice is what love looks like in public.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The BDS Movement

I’m always inspired and reflective after reading Edward Said. He himself talks about the very definition of authority in literature, and if anyone has been an authority in the Western discourse for the Palestinian cause, it has been Said. With that in mind, some of my latest readings of Said prompted questions about the global BDS movement against Israel.

Let me say from the start that I have been and continue to be a supporter of BDS. For that matter, I am open to discussing ANY method of engagement with Israel to force the end of the occupation of the land of Palestine, the enactment of self-determination for the Palestinian people and the total end of all blockades of supplies to the Palestinian people.

As an American citizen, I am responsible in many ways for the continued torment of the Palestinians. It is my tax dollars and the profits from the multinational corporations based in my country that go towards the continued repression of the Arabs in Palestine. I am outraged that the vast majority of Americans are so ignorant when it comes to this fact. Most are unaware of the basic language and geographical/demographic terms of the conflict such as Nakba, Arab Israelis, The Right of Return, West Bank zones A, B and C, Oslo and all its implications, The pre-1967 borders, The Green Line, etc… It is inexcusable to be uninformed as to the foreign policy of one’s country. Our internal problems are not nearly as important as how our dollars affect other nations.

Historically, any movement to blockade, embargo, boycott, divest, sanction a particular country always hits the citizens of that country harder than its government. In fact, as we saw in Iraq in the 90’s, the government can find ways to further enrich itself while the people starve and die by the millions. The same is true today with Israel’s blockade of Gaza and with the embargo against the people of Cuba instigated by the United States.

Our responsibility is great. We must step back and examine the minute details of what it is we’re doing, and how we plan on implementing the plan to free Palestine without being counter-productive or downright inhumane. For that reason, this article does not pretend to be an answer. It is a question that I am wrestling with, and one in which I am proposing to my comrades for consideration and deciphering. How do we cause a change in policy in the Israeli government without hurting the CITIZENS of Israel? How do we continue to keep the elements of Israeli society that are morally sickened by the occupation fighting for justice?

I believe, as does Said, that any satisfactory resolution of the torment in Palestine is going to involve the aid of people on both sides of the literal divide. It is the morally upstanding elements of Israeli society that are critical to the process. Will we alienate them and shoot ourselves in the foot by the very process of BDS? It is a question that was raised on the BDS website, but is one that I believe deserves more thoughtful consideration. Who will be affected the most by the BDS movement, and how will those results translate to change for the Palestinian people? Are we certain that our actions through BDS are going to cause a change in the century old process and thought of Zionism, or will the very actions of the movement make Zionism more resolute? Will BDS backfire and cause INCREASED rather than REDUCED suffering to the Palestinians?

I ask these questions from the perspective of someone who values each human life as equal to the next. It is the very reason for my radicalization both politically and morally. The reactionary politics of individuals and governments are exactly what motivates me to avoid dogmatic assumptions and assertions. It is only through constant questioning and self-examination that we as radicals/progressives can continue to move forward and cause REAL change. The moment that we become set in a pattern of belief is when we become reactionary ourselves. If we profess to be more open-minded than those whose beliefs we oppose, then we must continue to question.

No one is more pro-justice than I. The struggle against oppression is one that I have adopted as my life’s battle. It is my reason for returning to school, for declining jobs in my long radio career, and for my political affiliation with the ISO. I am raising these questions on BDS to help us achieve the maximum results with the minimum of harm. The Palestinians have certainly endured enough, and we can NOT continue the cycle of violence with Israel as a solution. I do not pretend to be the expert. This is an open-ended discussion that must continue, and my hope is for an honest and critical soul-search on how to best accomplish our goals. It is only through equality that we will reach peace. It is only through valuing the life of the other as much as our own that we can begin to practice justice. I not only welcome your comments, but I hope that we can have an ongoing dialogue on the BDS movement as well as other potential pressures on the racist and unjust Zionists. This statement is meant to start the conversation (from the beginning if necessary), not to end it.