Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Arrest Yourself" to free Burma

You can "Arrest Yourself" on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi. She will turn 65 under house arrest, which this Nobel Peace Prize winner has endured, when not in prison itself, since 1988. Although she won the prize in '91, her plight appears to have been largely ignored in the shadow of other human rights violations in the two sad decades since the dictatorship incarcerated her.

Not much is known by most of us about Burma. A documentary I have yet to see, "Burma VJ," compiled from smuggled handycam footage, has been acclaimed (and nominated for an Oscar) as one document of this struggle for freedom against the military junta. It covers the protests led by Buddhist monks in the fall of 2007. Anders Østergaard directed this and uses the "lens" of a young journalist through whom we learn of the protests, the repression, and the crackdowns.

"Arrest Yourself" is a novel way to share solidarity. You stay at home 24 hours and invite others to visit you to learn about the Burmese situation and to donate funds to assist the U.S. Campaign for Burma. At their website, a simple video can show you in 2 1/2 minutes easy steps to follow in how to set up your own house arrest, as it were, to raise both awareness and assistance.

I talked about this at my family's seder last night. I figured it neatly fit with my wife's efforts on behalf of three Jewish prisoners whom we support and spreads the Passover message of liberation in a practical, tangible way. Instead of paying lip service to freedom, or sighing over the headlines, why not visit this site? Faraway as we are from this country, we can do our share to ease the pain others suffer in a nation turned into a giant land of captivity, where 90,000 children are forced to be soldiers, thousands of women are raped, and 3.500 villages razed. 600,000 natives have been displaced, while another million have fled their homeland.

For background, I recommend this book. On Amazon US, Feb. 13, 2006, I reviewed Emma Larkin's "Finding George Orwell in Burma". This harrowing account of this American journalist's clandestine stint in the police state of Myanmar resembled a captive's tale, "and I alone escaped to tell." The whole country looms as a concentration camp, an open-air workhouse, a tropical penitentiary.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Benjamin Black's "Elegy for April": Book Review

Family ties, as a verb, here. Fog shrouds Dublin, secrets shame, and again intimacy curdles into revenge, hatred, and murder.

"Christine Falls" I liked better for its characters and mood than its rather mundane, if convoluted, plot. I favored "The Silver Swan" for its more exotic touches, and its elaborated focus on Quirke's battle with the bottle. (In this and in the evocation of portside Irish cities, it reminds me of Ken Bruen's Galway noir Jack Taylor series; I've reviewed all of the novels mentioned on Amazon US and both Blacks on my blog too.)

John Banville as Black enriches this third installment with meditations on mortality, night terrors, dreams gone wrong, and always the fog creeping in, staying inside after it sneaks in a door so a wisp stays like an "ectoplasm." The tug of families and their indiscretions, the public face hiding the private sin, as in so many Irish stories, blankets this mystery.

"Grains of mica glittered in the granite of the steps; strange, these little secret gleanings, under the fog."(4) Some of the author's best writing as either Banville or Black can be found here, which is saying something. Quirke grows on you, and you want his own fumbling reaching out for love from his daughter and from his new lover to succeed. I miss his co-worker Sinclair's jibes, and there's comparatively little time at his job at the morgue this time, but you gain more appreciation of his domestic life, or its lack: "Quirke's flat had the sheepish and resentful air of an unruly classroom suddenly silenced by the unexpected return of the teacher."(33)

Black moves among a few characters for indirect first person narration in Joycean style. This helps widen our familiarity with 1950s Dublin, and the tone shifts subtly. Via Patrick Ojukwu from Nigeria, we imagine what it was like to live in Ireland then. No bribes exacted by the natives, "but neither would they take you seriously. That was what puzzled him most of all, the way they mocked and jeered at everything and everyone, themselves included. Yet the laughter could stop without warning, when you least expected. Then suddenly you would find yourself alone in the midst of a circle of them, all of them looking at you, blank-eyed and silently accusing, even though you did not know what it was you were being accused of."(210)

The first third sets the scene and sets up the mystery; the second part broadens the suspects; the final third accelerates and the last fifteen pages hasten to bring it all together. It's done briskly but without any cheating, and I found it rather hasty, but in the spirit of many mysteries, such is their pace. I recommend it and while it can be read on its own, those who enjoyed the earlier books will benefit the most from another few hours with Quirke, Phoebe, Hackett, and their new circle among the "little band" and those it widens to encompass in another circle. (Posted to Amazon US 3-27-10; and to "Re:Print" at PopMatters.com 4-23-10.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dílis go bás: Fido, ár chú

Caitheann muid ag dul an dochtúir beithíoch inniu. Cruinnigh Leon agus mé ár chú ar cheile. Thiomaint beirt léi (mar bhí Fido ceann baineann) ar maidín seo.

Níos minic faoi deireanach, bhí sí ag tarraingt na hanála ró-hairde. Mar sin, ní raibh ábalta sísean a codladh go suamnais. D'aithnin ár teaghlach go mbeadh ag imeacht chuici go an taobh thall an tseachtaine seo. Bhí ocht mbliana d'aois aici.

Bhí croí bog aici ormsa i gcónaí. Thít sí i ngrá liom nuair casadh den chéad iarracht. Dhearca muid sna súile ar a chéile.

Thiomnaimh Fido orm go híomlán. Ní raibh madra eile chomh an leamh-phúdal dubh. Chan mé uirthi amhráin amaideachaí.

Is deacair orm a scríobh fúithí. B'fhéidir, insím an scéal brónach duit agus go mbeadh suaimhneas síoraí aici cheana féin. Shíothlaigh sí. Slán leatsa, a Fhido.

Faithful unto death: Fido, our hound.

We had to go to the veterinarian today. Leo and I gathered up our hound together. The two of us drove her (for Fido was a female) this morning.

Very often lately, she was drawing breath too hard. Therefore, she was not able to sleep in peace. Our family knew it would be this week to take her off to the other side. She was eight years old.

She always had a soft spot for myself. She fell in love with me when we met the very first time. Our eyes met.

Fido was devoted totally to me. There was no other dog like the dark half-poodle. I sang silly songs to her.

It is difficult for me to write about her. Perhaps, I tell the sad story to you and she may be in eternal peace already. Farewell to you, o Fido.

(Grianghráfadoir/Photographer: Inga Kornov, ár chomarsa/ our neighbor.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

John Waters' "Race of Angels: Ireland & the Genesis of U2": Book Review

An intellectual's heap of his highbrow reading, interviews with three of the band (where's Larry?), and big ideas on Irish identity in an alienated, globalized pop culture. It's a book that must have, when it came out in 1994 after "Zooropa," bewildered fans wanting another tell-all lightweight read about their idols.

I confess to a weakness for big ideas on Irish and musical and intellectual concepts. So, their combination here intrigued me. Waters, later known more for his socio-political journalism (and for his custody battle with Sinéad O'Connor over their son), brings his energy to the page. Looking back on this after 15 years, it may have worked better in the blog form not yet invented. It skips from a workmanlike term-paper feel citing Guy Debord and Jacques Attali, Daniel Corkery and Umberto Eco, Richard Kearney and Franz Fanon (source of the title, and if some or all of these names are obscure, it's indicative of the rarified audience for this work) to a chapter suddenly extolling the origins of "One Tree Hill." There's no chronological account of the band's formation or their discography; it starts rapturously recounting a Toronto Zoo TV concert that on the page left me nonplussed.

Waters may be at his best eking out connections between his own thinking and the band's own explanations of how they responded to the British punk movement as music meant "for," rather than "to" or "about" themselves. Waters labors to insist that the Irish punks out of which U2 formed their concepts, necessarily distanced from the rebellious stances more easily assumed by the masters in England rather than their colonized subjects in Ireland, could not have aped Johnny Rotten exactly. (It's a shame this came out the same year as John Lydon's "Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish" as Waters' case might have been severely altered if he'd been able to read Rotten; he also skimps over Shane MacGowan's bicultural upbringing.)

He compares Fanon's three-stage trajectory out of colonial subjection to a provocative defense of the much-derided showbands of the 1950s-60s, and of the often also unfairly derided Horslips of the 1970s, as cultural predecessors for the breakthrough that U2 found itself able to make in late '70s-early '80s Ireland. Waters wonders if in Ireland, with its 70 million abroad claiming a share of the oul' sod's bloodlines, if its World Cup team's makeup might be more representative of the true lineage of today's nation. He finds in its "human incontinence," the way Ireland has dribbled away to other lands its best brains and deepest talent, however, a cautionary reminder of how it squanders its energy and heritage.

He cites Professor Mike Cooley, a technological philosopher, in the delusion of the West's assertion of "the One Best Reality" as our tower of Babel, and Waters suggests that Ireland may represent an alternative vision of meaning. He warns of diversion by emigration, attention, by the same media that Zoo TV celebrates and mocks and subverts. "The original form of colonisation simply told their victims that they were worthless, and would have to live with it. The modern form of colonisation tells us that we are only worthless if we remain where we are; it bombards us with images which devalue our own place, diminish our psychic gravity, and lure us away. We are all angels now, rootless, restless, horizonless, homeless." (277)

Waters wrote this a decade and a half before a more diverse Ireland emerged and U2 released "No Line on the Horizon." It'd be interesting to have him and the band reflect on what they've learned since then that supports or weakens Waters' arguments here. They may be difficult ones to parse and this book may lack its own center, but it does stretch towards intellectual horizons in innovative, if uneven and erratic ways. These may be Irish, for the spiral rather than the linear, the "both-and" rather than the binary "either-or," has been suggested often as a characteristic of the unpredictable, utopian, and philosophical Irish mind, here seen in its divergent directions on paper, as it tries to track a band's own sound. (Posted to Amazon US 11-22-09)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Marcel Theroux's "Far North": Book Review

"My father spoke six languages but couldn't hammer a nail straight." (215) "It takes no words to do good." Makepeace Hatfield lives "at the end of everything," in "a late chapter in the history of humanity" when global warming scorches the center and shoves a few survivors to the far north of Siberia. There, her father and a few Quaker settlers sought, earlier on during "climate change" as they call it now, a frontier that replaced the westward expansion, towards the welcoming sun, with a harsher challenge that again recalls the American West with its narratives of Manifest Destiny and brutal conflicts that accompany idealistic renewal.

The clash of the dog-end, the remnants of civilization and cities, with those remnants (women tend to be relegated to their ancient roles as gatherers and bearers; men as manual labor and/or thugs) able to survive by their wits, their cunning, and their cruelty dominate the harsh tale this settler's daughter tells. It's a version of the road novel, the picaresque novel, but it's grim rather than humorous. Slavery returns and some choose it to stay alive. Technology appears to have regressed to scavenging scrap metal and relying on what can be built during daylight, measured by handprints.

"The best way to tell how long a thing will last is ask how long it's been around for. The newest things end soonest. And things that have been around for a good long while will last awhile to come." (47)
Makepeace sums up her survivalist philosophy.

Theroux's at his best when channeling this harsh landscape through the eyes and ears of one living off the land as one of the last people who sees a book as knowledge rather than as kindling. He tells neatly of how the Siberian promise for the American settlers soon turned to their own open-air stockade as the starving hordes, few as they'd be, still overwhelming the Quakers and back-to-nature adherents, made their way to the few frozen realms that were spared the climactic collapse.

"In the old days, living on the road was a boon, because it brought in trade. You got the lowest prices and the freshest news of anyone. But after a time the news was only bad. First people turned up hungry, then desperate and begging. Finally they'd just arrive quietly in the night, cut your throat while you were sleeping, take everything you could carry, and vanish like smoke before first light. Even the worst of our town learned to shun that road after a time." (36)

There's subtle allegory to our American expansion myths, as well as Noah, Adam & Eve, and Prometheus. I was reminded of Russell Hoban's "Riddley Walker" and Walter M. Miller Jr.'s "A Canticle for Leibowitz" as post-apocalyptic morality tales mixed with adventure and reflection within scenes allowing little articulation of a clever wanderer's deep thoughts. Some characters seem too easily summed up, but given Makepeace's sharp but honed-down point-of-view, this may reflect her own necessary ability to quickly get the sense of any stranger, for anyone not trusted, and few can be in this pitiless dystopia, represents a rapist, a murderer, and at best a thief.

A few points in the plot appeared towards both beginning and end to be underexplained, but this elision may be credited to how the narrator earns her insights, or when she chooses to reveal them. I did sense a bit of editing that compressed so as to hasten some final revelations, and I wondered why, as this wasn't a movie, why this sense of directed excision stayed with me as a reader. Why "quietus" and "milliards" for "millions" were employed threw me off a bit, but language does evolve even as, heartbreakingly told, Makepeace forgets the constellation names as part of all the acquired knowledge from civilization begins to fade from the memories of those forced back to primitive conditions.

In this moral, "Far North" poignantly reminds us of our fragile progress. I finished this thinking about how our civilization may indeed be rooted but a generation deep, and how quickly under catastrophe and fear our advances could be severed from those who follow such devastation on a shattered planet reverting back to a time when we were barely here to register our presence. All in all, Theroux's continued the legacy of father Paul and uncle Alexander (see all the latter Theroux's books reviewed on this blog and on Amazon US over the past year or two). Marcel's presented a strong novel and despite a few too-ambiguously revealed details, tonally quite a convincing, cautionary tale. (Posted 12-24-09 to Amazon US)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Better than a horoscope? Personality Test

I took the Jung-Myers-Briggs Typology test for the third time (different questions however each time) over the past year or two, and it's the same results. So, I guess it's really me. Link at: "Personality Inventories". I had my frosh Critical Thinking students try this, so I dived in again. Scroll down a bit at that URL for the test.

This may be our era's version of phrenology, mood rings, theories of the humours, or Ouija for all I know. But, out of 16 categories, I keep hitting the same target, so here 'tis. The Human Metrics site ("Try Your Traits Before Trying Fate") explains:
According to the Jung - Myers-Briggs typology all people can be classified using four criteria:
Extroversion - Introversion, Sensing - Intuition
Thinking - Feeling, Judging - Perceiving
Different combinations of the criteria determine a type. For example:
ISTJ - Introvert Sensing Thinking Judging
Upon completing Jung Typology Test you will obtain your type formula, strengths of the preferences and type description. It may help you to identify your life style in general and with respect to specific fields of activity. You will also obtain a list of the most suitable career choices based on your personality, along with some educational institutions where you can receive a relevant degree or training.

Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging
Strength of the preferences %
100 25 50 67

A pragmatic perfectionist, a mastermind, but a rather quiet and obsessively organized character. Here is a good link to the logic behind the types. I find its attached description scarily accurate for my type: INTJ Profile

I liked these compiled attributes, even if they relegate me to sidekick. Novelty's a good one, preferable to freak. Enigma definitely, to myself as to others. Anima matches Jung neatly, but many people I know might peg me pedagogue. Or pedant.

Type Relationships for INTJs:

Who fits these? The results suggest these INTJs, inter alia: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chevy Chase, Ike, Nietzsche, General Grant, Lance Armstrong, Colin Powell, Stephen Hawking, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jefferson, JFK and Hannibal Lecter.

No idea how shrinks figure out historical figures who match me such as Jane Austen, Julius Caesar and the other Hannibal. Not to mention fictional figures: Professor Moriarty, Cassius (in Shakespeare), Mr Darcy, Gandalf, or Clarise Starling, A definite "Silence of the Lambs" vibe going here. What did some of you find out?

Photo: More intriguing than the usual pie charts from an image search. Those are neither my stockings nor my legs. Taken by "ATENCION" and labelled "Jung Typology." Captioned:


After prolonged socializing you feel you need
to get away
and be


Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Ocras": Léirmheas scannáin

Chónaic mé leis mo mhac is sine faoi deireanach seo. Bhí maith linn é. Mar sin féin, ní mór a bheith an-aireach sa chás scannáin seo.

Bíonn ábhar brúidiúil go minic anseo. Tarlaíonn gníomhú ar feadh 'Na Trioblóidí" ina Éirinn ag imeall an dara stailc ocrais i 1981. Feiceann tú an dúshlán ag baint de faoi ghlas. (Chuala mé mír as Gaeilge-- "ina Jailteacht"--ag ráite anois agus ansin freisin.)

Ina príosún Caise Fhada atá suíomh an scéil nach beag. Is cime phoblachtach "Roibeárd Ó Seachnasaigh" é. Ceannaíonn sé féin a stailc eile.

Tá radharc staitse níos cumhachtach idir "Roibeáigh" agus sagart ag cur cuairt dó go Caise Fhada. Ní chuireann in eagar i gcaitheamh seacht noimead déag. Níl amharc cíneama chomh fada cheana ann.

Déanann Riobeáigh (ina páirt le Micheal Fassbender) agus An t-Athair Domhnaigh Ó Moráin (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin-- ach níl ó h-Oideas Gael) ag caint a choinneáil ar chéile faoi fáth bás a fháil den ocras. Mheas mé féin go raibh an agallamh seo ag labhairt den ghorta níos suimiúil. Molaim duitsa a breathnú an scannán ag stiúraidh le Stiofain Mac Shuibhne ('eolaiontóir fideo' ó Sasana). Is saothar ealaine é ag déanta go dána ach go grinn.

"Hunger": Film Review.

I saw with my older son recently this. We liked it. All the same, it's not an easy subject in the case of this film.

There's often brutal material here. The action happens during "The Troubles" in Ireland around the second hunger strike in 1981. You see the struggle coming out behind bars {"under lock (and key)"}. (I heard a bit of Irish-- in the "Jailteacht"--spoken now and then also.)

In the prison of Long Kesh there's almost the entire setting. "Bobby Sands" is a republican prisoner. He himself begins another strike.

There's a very powerful set piece between "Bobby" and a priest paying a visit to him at Long Kesh. There was no edit cut for seventeen minutes duration. There's no scene in cinema as long ever before.

Bobby (in the part by Micheal Fassbender) and Fr. Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham-- but not of Oideas Gael) are conversing in dialogue together about the reason to starve to death. I myself thought that this debate about starvation was very interesting. I urge you to watch the film directed by Steve McQueen ("video artist" from England). It's a work of art done boldly but subtly.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My review of Eamon Carr & Ben Howard's poetry

This appears in Estudios Irlandeses, Number 5, 2010, pp. 187-189. The pdf is on line at "Irish Studies around the World". I compare two new collections of poetry that emphasize Japanese, Zen, and cultural connections between that milieu and Ireland/ Irish America. And one expands into soccer the fated year of Roy Keane & Mick McCarthy, the other upstate New York academia. Not sure which arena of conflict is more harrowing for these two survivors, urbane, witty, wise.

In case you wish to track down them down: (1) The Origami Crow: Journey into Japan, World Cup Summer 2002 by Éamon Carr (Dublin: Seven Towers, 2008).ISBN 978-0-9555346-5-2 (case bound); 978-0-9555346-6-9 (perfect bound). 75 pp. (2) Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt by Ben Howard (Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2009) ISBN 978-1-907056-13-0 (paper). 69 pp.

I finished the review originally on Carr the day I found out about Howard's book, and I had to revise my article immediately after opening Howard's collection and hearing such resonance. Professor Howard also has a blog, The Practice of Zen: One Time, One Meeting. This is his sixth verse collection. Information from press: "Salmon Publishing"

As the blurb goes for "Origami Crow,"-- "Chronicling the wild World Cup Summer of 2002 in Japan, Carr follows the fellow spirit of medieval Japanese poet Basho on a journey that is both movingly personal and exceptionally universal.." These prose-poem reflections are Carr's first volume (unless you count his contributions to the pioneering late-'60s Tara Telephone collective and the broadsheet "The Book of Invasions." Perhaps that name, and his, sound familiar?

That album is one of the classics of modern Irish music. Carr was the drummer and lyricist for the 1970s electric folk band Horslips, Later, his sports commentary, and/or his journalism on the air and in print via Dublin has kept him in the media spotlight. More about his book can be found via the publisher: "Seven Towers". The image of Carr's from a video of his reading a selection from the collection, at "Eamon Carr@Balcony TV.ie"

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gwen John, Fenella Lovell & "rasa"

Coxsoft Art Works remarked: "Here are two portraits of her friend Fenella Lovell, not exactly a bundle of laughs with or without her clothes on! She looks more like a caricature than a real girl. You can see why Gwen didn't make it big. A little imagination required here, I think."

Rather cruel. Gwen John, apparently seduced and abandoned by Rodin, overshadowed by Augustus John, her brother-- see his "Nirvana,or the Girl by the Cliff" at the very bottom of my blog panel on the right-- deserves more sympathy, and more acclaim. I place her-- a Welsh artist from early last century-- and her model in the real world, where we don't all match centerfolds or pinups. An artist demands, in his or her vocation, a commitment to giving us the same conviction that he or she sees within the craft, the medium, through which the subject bears witness to a dimension that art illuminates. Taking the gender of the artist out of the judgment of the work, why the Coxsoft putdown? Perhaps the expectation that a nude woman's representation inspires unabashed eroticism, and that the undraped female figure elicits caricatured passion. But, need this simplistic equation of voluptuousness with curves, or frigidity with lines, be the case?

If Modigliani, one of my favorite artists as it happens, could portray elongated femmes, and if El Greco gained earlier acclaim for the same dimension, why not Gwen John? There's a dispassionate gaze that accompanies Gwen's depiction of Fenella.

As the cliché gets twisted, I'm no art critic, but I know what I like. Fenella's a clever twist on the clothed maja/ naked maja of Goya, perhaps. As with Goya, a quiet transition hints, as a jump cut from a skilled film editor is masked, between the monochromatic drawing and the muted painting. The bold look, I'd contend, of Fenella on the right shows not a shrinking violet but a delicate daisy, I don't see a wallflower but an expectant bloom in her eyes meeting ours. This may be a secret quality, one that eludes rather than engages our eyes, but patience evokes it.

There's a patience, an invitation in this depiction. I deny the off-putting quality here. Rather, I offer this as a truer portrayal of how a woman looks at us looking at her. With the defense of clothes, without the distraction of garments, Fenella presents herself to her friend Gwen, and thus Gwen gives her friend's boldness, beneath her demure composure, to us. After all, she is robed and disrobing, and this transition expresses her confidence as well as her reluctance.

I give you my take on Gwen's take on Fenella. She coolly takes the measure of us as we peer at her. Her power lies in her tensed strength that defies its slender stance. I admire both the model's bravery and the artist's clarity. This critique may not play into the expectation that no clothes equals yes to sex, but I hazard that Gwen John's unsparing eye of her friend portrays its own engaging, if chillier and clearer, more honest look at the female exposed to her gaze, and ours.

This morning, I learned a new term, "rasa," in a book about Indian culture. John Bowker's "Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions" defines it thus: "Rasa (Skt., ‘relish’, ‘passion’). Hindu state of spiritual ecstasy in union with the divine. In a more general way, it then refers to the eight different sentiments or emotions, e.g. raudra (see also ART)." I also found out it's related to "sap" or "juice," that is, the essential flavor of the artistic impact, within a blend of other aesthetic ingredients.

Reminding myself of what I'd written above about Gwen John, I remembered that after she was dumped-- at an early age-- by her lover Rodin, she gravitated towards religion, and in a French convent, she painted and grew closer towards faith, although remaining a laywoman. I thought about the "rasa" in the paintings above. Fenella may present us with an analogy to a religious, ascetic appreciation of the body: perhaps more astringent a taste, more bittersweet a sap, a flavor less appealing to most, but to a few, preferred and desirable, if in a severe, harsher, sharper way. Maybe you will view her paintings, find her female gaze of the female body, and find your own tastes matched, spurned, or savored. That's the imagination required. Art, like appetites of other sorts, seeks its own intangible appeal by the preparation of the tangible.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tom Moon's "1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die": Book Review

Music "can take your blues, dust them in a wicked mojo, sneak them to the crossroads where the Devil hangs out, and swap them for a veggie burrito made by a blissed-out Deadhead in a parking lot. This may not be what you ordered, but it can inspire you all the same." (xiv) As a musician and a critic, Moon's experience enriches his explanations. He loves what he urges us to try, and mixes verve with wisdom over a three-year labor of love.

To stick with only "B," and rock, you can see his range. Familiar with nearly every rock artist listed in this volume, I admit no bent for jazz, a scanty education in the classics, and hit & miss for world music and pop, so I tended to scan the rock entries, but that still meant arguably two dozen "B" artists. Given the Beatles among them, more than that of discs. (These far outnumber songs, but a few of these, as "Good Vibrations" sits next to "Pet Sounds" for example, do highlight songs that deserve attention.)

He takes on "Sgt. Pepper's" and finds he can summarize after so much previous scrutiny: "Consider whether it's grown lame and corny. Glean what truth, if any, it holds for you." (61) Of Bauhaus, "In the Flat Field": Concerning "dissatisfaction and frustration as learning opportunities," the band moves 'through' the emotional states they describe, rather than wallowing endlessly in them." (54) For The Band's debut, "It's as if itinerant old-time medicine show somehow skipped a few generations, pulled off a two-lane Arkansas highway in 1910, and woke up in 1968, with its remaining potions turned to hallucinogens." (44)

After each entry, key tracks, back catalogue choices, a "next stop" to another artist, and "after that" for more related sounds enhance the usefulness. Also, surprising connections emerge, such as "Old Hag You Have Killed Me" from the 1970s Irish trad "The Bothy Band" linking to Genesis, "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," a choice I'd never have contemplated. Moon's range works well in many instances.

Inevitably, any reader-listener will argue for alternatives, but there are 108 more selections appended (too many of them too new, I think, for inclusion even there), but the joy of such a compendium is in its stimulation of your own critical juices. Listings by occasions, such as cocktail hour, parties, reflection, romance, cardio workouts, kids, morning and evening roadtrips, heroism, headphones, and "lazy Sunday morning" round this out for devoted playlist makers.

This book needed courage to make, and the effort it took Moon was worth it. "No matter how fast the download speed, music still unfolds in real time, one stanza after another." This journey, as he says, takes a while to unfold its terrors, heights, lows, and beauties. Great music may slowly sink in, but when it does, it stays there. Moon gives any music admirer much to ponder, even with familiar works, and any fan will find more here to hear than imagined before opening this inviting book. (Posted to Amazon US 4-12-10)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jonathan Kirsch's "Grand Inquisitor's Manual": Book Review

Efficiently told, often convincingly argued, this surveys the late medieval and Spanish secret police, courts, and prisons where "heretical depravity" could lead to execution, a life sentence, ostracization, or exile and destitution. Kirsch extends the parallels with Stalinist, Nazi, and contemporary applications of authoritarian suppression of what an authority deems thought-crime. He strives throughout to alert us to the parallels that for nearly seven hundred years have perpetuated the crushing of what "heresy" means in its Greek derivation: "choice."

That this choice lies within the individual dissenter infuriates the forces seeking monotheism, and/or conformity of expressed opinion. Kirsch cites Kafka's "The Trial": "You can't defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess." The show-trials and the torture were applied to not only punish resistance, but to exact the ultimate humiliation-- to reduce the accused to admit accomplices, among his or her family and loved ones.

"Fautorship," the aiding and abetting of heresy however unintentionally by one's circle of friends and family, itself could land any sympathizer, entirely uncomprehending or wholly aware, into prison as a heretic. Such pressure ensured that the eradication of some heresies in medieval Europe was nearly total. For those "guilty" of having one-sixteenth in Spain or one-fourth in the Reich degree of "Jewish blood," there was no way to escape sentencing for ancestral ties. A cadaver decades later could be exhumed and found guilty; its descendants could then be found suspected of heresy. The wealth accrued by such ambitious investigations to snare the guilty or excuse the innocent, funded by those found guilty or seeking exoneration, furthermore, corrupted the institutions that ruled all the citizens, and by such data the apparatus of Church and State grew into its modern reach and cruel imposition. Naming names, Kirsch shows skillfully, became the goal of every inquisition. To catch one guilty party, one early functionary gloats, a hundred innocents merit pain.

Kirsch touches on intriguing sidelines: the revisionist historians who finesse legal vs. moral niceties, the inability of monotheism to compel fidelity among humans hard-wired for diversity in thought and belief, and the "free-associative sexual libel" of the biblically based "impulse to equate theological error with sexual adventure." (40) As an aside, I remained curious if the legality that allowed the Church to "abandon" heretics once tortured and sentenced as guilty into the secular authority for the death penalty to be carried out had any asserted Catholic medieval parallel in the infamous scripturally justified separation by the Jewish authorities of Christ's fate at the hands of Pilate, but Kirsch does not cite any medieval predecessors of this rationale from earlier exegesis.

Reviewers on Amazon have noted the same flaws I found: uneven documentation, a wavering attitude resisting any firm tally of how many medieval victims resulted, and a slanted, if humanist and understandably offended, tone. I would add an over-reliance on a few studies about the medieval period, too rapid a glance at witchcraft in the pre-early modern period, and a tendentious attitude regarding the McCarthy era, given that later historians have unmasked some "real" spies who were working during that period in the US. Their undercover presence does not excuse the excesses of the HUAC proceedings, but as a scholar, Kirsch should have nodded towards revisionist data recently uncovered for Cold War Soviet espionage as he had for those challenging the status quo in medieval studies.

However, the bulk of his readable, brisk presentation focuses on the lack of actual guilt among earlier prisoners for deviation vs. the inquisitorial topsy-turvy rationale. Without any knowledge of one's accusers, the evidence amassed, or the charges weighed, the accused might be charged with heresy. A vulnerable woman, especially from fifty to seventy, eccentric, might be blamed for witchcraft after a botched midwife's case, a bucket of spoiled milk, a neighbor's illness. Out of such coincidences, the devil was seen to infect the social order.

The family of one arrested might find themselves homeless and penniless; the crime could be charged for one nine or ninety-six; any who refused to confess were then made to be tortured, for rarely could any escape sentencing. If one refused to confess, one hid one's stubborn, devilish motivation, If one confessed, one betrayed one's complicity. If one gave the names of others to save one's soul, one showed one's terrible connection to a sinister underground network of diabolic fifth columnists. Under the Soviets, the Spanish, the Gestapo, one finds the same set-up repeated as with the Holy Office. Eradication of any rebellion demanded total compliance, for one's own soul and to terrorize one's neighbors and community into submission. By such reasoning, "the victims of torture were the only ones to blame for the necessity of putting them to torture." (98)

Alonzo Salazar y Frias, a Spanish friar-inquisitor, noted: "There were neither witches nor bewitched, until they were talked about." (147) He hunted Jews and Muslims instead. "I have not found the slightest evidence, from which to infer that a single act of witchcraft has really occurred." (188) Perversity, however defined, meant that the forces of clerical and monarchical power would crush those accused. Mercy seemed extremely rare, and cruelty became the norm, for hundreds of years.

As a lawyer as well as historian, Kirsch navigates the intricacies of such "logic" in the name of crushing conformity deftly. He integrates scholarly predecessors smoothly, and while he may not offer as much original research, he presents in an accessible fashion the best of what's been researched and argued for hundreds of years. The fate of the Spanish Jewish converts, or holdouts, is demythologized by Kirsch deftly, for he shows how most were ardent Christians rather than defiant crypto-Jews, but also how "purity of blood" strategies inspired future Nazi outrages. Kirsch reminds us how far the terrible continuum stretches-- just over a hundred years after the last Spanish execution, crackdowns under Hitler commenced.

And here Kirsch keeps the lessons of the fragile prisoner and defiant rebel fresh, those unfairly burnt, those whose consciences could not give in to false confessions, those tormented into delusion, those beaten to death or driven mad. He also portrays those incarcerated and/or burnt alive for the "crime" of greeting a Cathar "perfectus" unwittingly, or sheltering a persecuted freethinker on the run. Ensuring that none evaded such "justice" meant that cities and towns needed to coordinate testimonies and confessions. These reports were carefully kept, humble or outrageous the faint words exacted by fear and torture as set down by scribes may seem to us today.

They form our first international database, as the medieval friar-inquisitors stored duplicate records that allowed neither the accused nor his acquaintances to escape scrutiny, for long years after. The ranks of the tainted grew as names were named, a prerequisite of arrest being this duty for the accused to accuse others. Not even corpses of those sentenced were safe from immolation. One rarely escaped the inquisition's penalties once they were extended, and the reign of terror, although somewhat exaggerated by a few, for many thousands accused or associated with those found guilty of such defiance against the norm appears to be horrifying indeed.

As Kirsch sums up: "The fundamental fact that real human beings suffered and died at the hands of the inquisitors for nothing more than a thought-crime-- or no for no crime at all-- is sometimes overlooked in the scholarly debate over the Inquisition. Now and then, we need to recall the ordeal of the Jewish 'converso' named Elvira del Campo, stripped naked and put to torture by the Spanish Inquisition in 1568 because eating pork made her sick to the stomach, if only to remind ourselves of the human face of the Inquisition: 'Lord,' she cried, 'bear witness that they are killing me without my being able to confess!'" (210) (Posted to Amazon US 1-19-10)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Colin Spencer's The Heretic's Feast": Book Review

My son asked if one could survive only on meat. Contrarily, I looked up this history of vegetarianism to find out. Orthodoxy and conformity long allied with the herding & consumption of animals. To those in control, those refusing to eat flesh posed a social and moral threat. Not eating meat equalled rebellion against the state, the faith, and the norm.

Spencer starts with early hominids and ends with fast food. He roams necessarily widely, if focusing most modern attention to the British take on vegetarianism. Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India all earn ancient testimony for a long-lived counter-cultural tradition. While Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures appear to have come down harder on what become known as "Pythagorean" practices, the Hindus seem to have had a more balanced approach. A "dharma-sutra" ca. 600 BCE counselled: "In eating flesh, in drinking intoxicating liquors and in carnal intercourse there is no sin, for such enjoyments are natural, but absention from them produces great reward." (qtd. 76)

For the West, however, resistance to meat-eating smacked more of deprivation than moderation. Spencer defends deftly the reputation of Epicurus as more principled than "epicurean" today connotes. Gluttony came from satiation which left one more deprived than before, Epicurus reasoned. So, as with any addiction or longing, the cure stemmed from avoiding anger, irritation, and lust. Pleasure, thus controlled, did not lead to overindulgence but to self-restraint as "the absence of pain."

But such subtleties were lost on many pagan and Christian critics. Sacrifice harbored in its action food plus energy to equal meanings charged with much more than merely roasting a beast. As with Jews, Muslims, or Hindus in their dietary choices, it was impossible to keep secret one's preferences: "the lifestyle is an unspoken criticism." (97) For a radical, it became a mark of humanity and higher standards that often "makes meat-eaters uneasy and they often react aggressively."

The heretical associations of vegetarianism in the Bogomil, Gnostic, and Cathar movements outraged the Church. The renunciation of meat did come out of a more negative refusal by the dissenters to separate themselves from the profane, rather than a celebration of the natural realm as deserving of its own rights. "It is a doctrine that expresses fear of humanity more than a love of God. With such ideas, animals became too easily associated with the devil and his evil minions, hence the domestic cat came to be seen as the witch's familiar."(161)

For most people now as then, vegetarianism may have been involuntary, furthermore. Not out of religious objection or ethical solidarity, but because of poverty. Only when surpluses exist can a community afford a minority to find alternative foods. For a few faithful Christians, monks and saints, renunciation of meat was not identical with vegetarianism, perhaps oddly to us. Heretics were linked to vegetarianism, but clerics were not. "For a vegetarian philosophy to exist, it needs an ethical system of greater power and significance than the prevailing code in society." (181)

The glimmers of this began for the West with those who chose, for ideological reasons, to eschew meat. The Renaissance alerted Leonardo da Vinci and Giordano Bruno to the options argued by classical predecessors. Here, as in Bruno's proto-holistic system, or Leonardo's rarely cited vegetarianism, a sympathy for animals within the cosmos begins to emerge. Suffering elicits sympathy, and rather than a Christian solution, humanists begin to compete with the Church for an earth-based understanding of harmony and kinship.

As modernity dawns, Spencer concentrates on Britain. The Victorian denial of flesh and its promotion of unadulterated, but often unsalted or unspiced foods, formed the common English stereotype of sandals and nutloaf, bland pablum as fare for pale aesthetes and bearded cranks. This was a wise reaction to the horrors of slaughterhouses, true, but one that went so far in its po-faced rejection that its grim, ascetic influence lingers nearly two centuries later. Dogmatic puritans, the 19c and early 20c proponents of vegetarianism often carried with them a severe air.

George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter, and Leo Tolstoy, famously, symbolized the intellectual contingent. George Orwell fulminated in 1930: "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." (qtd. 299)

Orwell objected to a vegetarian, for not being able "to relate to the working classes," in Spencer's interpretation-- as "a person out of touch with common humanity." Faced by such prejudice, our author wonders if Orwell's disgust is with the bourgeoisie associations; "If Orwell could have found a vegetarian coal miner he might well have written differently." (300) Orwell continues his own holy war against what Spencer labels a "secular heresy" for the Victorians. Immorality, sexual license, and fervent egalitarianism allied with it in popular opinion.

The book moves predictably if appropriately into an outcry against factory farming and ecological degradation. The examples are well-chosen, if again largely British. This is one shortcoming, perhaps, for readers expecting a global treatment; the book narrows as it nears the present into a study of British reactions to the vegetarian refusal. Spencer writes with verve and compassion, and has read widely. The book can be a bit repetitious, but he makes his claims and supports them well.

We face, he concludes, a dual challenge. Consumption of meat psychically for most of us still marks a celebration, an entry into affluence, a fine night out to cash in a bonus or impress a date. Yet, he reminds us that, despite the persistence of the off-beat vegetarian caricature, abstention from meat also runs through our history back to ancient times as a reminder of our higher nature, in league with Nature.

Today, the notions may persist of woolly-headed middle-class do-gooders, but Spencer, writing this in 1995 (reprinted as "Vegetarianism: A History"), also notes a sea-change in attitudes among those who came of age in the hippie era. Urbanization perhaps ironically or appropriately drove together the scattered rural-based resisters to the meat-eating rule, and the media and markets allowed people in cities to rally, shop together, and raise their own crops in gardens. The seeds of today's farmer's markets, locavores, and green cuisine might be planted a century ago in such alliances. (Posted to Amazon US 1-21-10)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

"Roicéad Buidéal": Léirmheas Scannáin

Bhreatnaigh mé an scannán seo le Wes Anderson aríst faoi deireanach. Bhí cuimhne orm sé chomh an-mhealtach ann. Chonaic mé "Roicéad Buidéal" nuair go raibh céad iarracht ina pictiúrlann i 1996.

Feicim sé mír go difriúila anois. Níl suim agam leis plota scéil an am seo. Tá trí loiceadóirí ann, mar sin níl fuinneamh freisin ann.

Bhí maith liom searc idir Antoine agus Inez. Is gustóg í. Tá sí ag obair ina ósta cé bhfuil ag dulta Antoine agus Dignam ag teithite.

Tá dha deartháir ann: Antoine agus Dignam ann. Ceanglaíonn beirt leis an cara, Bob. Iarrainn siad airgead a ghoid ó dha áit gnó.

Ar ndóigh, níl ábalta buail an trí ar aghaidh duine eile. Ní gheobhaidh siad cuid taisc gach áit. Foghlaimeoidh siad cleachtadh níos cáiliúl.

"Bottle Rocket": Film Review.

I watched this film by Wes Anderson again recently. I recalled this as more engaging. I saw "Bottle Rocket" when it made its debut at a cinema in 1996.

I see it a bit differently now. There was not the interest for me in the plot this time. There are three slackers, therefore there is not momentum there either.

I like the love ["~between two people"] between Anthony and Inez. She's a spirited girl. She works at the motel where Anthony and Dignam went on the run.

There are two brothers: Anthony and Dignam. The pair join with a friend, Bob. They want to rob wealth from two places of business.

Naturally, the three will not win against other people. They will not find a share of treasure in any place. They will learn a very familiar lesson.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Charles Prebish & Martin Baumann's "Westward Dharma": Book Review

Buddhism beyond Asia's explored by 22 scholars in this 2002 collection. It focuses on the transformation, since the later 19c, of the Buddha's teachings into Western, and cross-cultural, and analytical transformations that try to retrieve a purer, primitive, or truer original teaching. Thomas Tweed sums up these evolving trends: "If modernist Buddhists have de-mythologized and rationalized traditional Buddhism one may say that post-modernist Buddhist practitioners secularize and psychologize modernist Buddhism." (60)

Tweed distinguishes a "migrant religion trajectory" from a "missionary-driven transmission," in turn separate from a "demand-driven transmission" as the three methods of current transfer. (62-3) He notes how the 'foreign' religion might have deliberately been fetched from abroad by sympathizers and initial converts. In the case of Buddhism, texts in Asian languages were transmitted and published, Buddhist ideas and practices were adopted, and Asian teachers were invited to lecture." (52) Westerners rely on Eastern exchange, as transport, globalization, and immigration thicken the ties rather than allow the crude models of Orientalist domination or imperial manifestation to control the emergence of a dharma-practice adapted not only to secular First World settings, but contemporary capitalist and countercultural markets all over Asia, Brazil, Oceania, and North America.

Tweed pioneered efforts to try to define who in this milieu's actually Buddhist. Besides converts, "night-stand" sympathizers who try out practices often in privacy and those who mix and match Buddhist with other religious or therapeutic or esoteric approaches complicate easy tallying. It seems that in Europe, most Buddhists still are of Asian origin, but the authors agree that Westerners continue to make it, as in France, one of the West's fastest-growing denominations. B. Alan Wallace, Martin Baumann, and Charles S. Prebish all discuss the ramifications of this acceleration, as Tibetan Buddhism and vipassana "insight" meditation widen the appeal beyond the slightly earlier arrival of Zen midway through last century.

For section two, the territory of Western Buddhism emerges. Baumann looks at Europe, while Richard Hughes Seager examines in America the three strands Tweed separates. Bruce Matthews does the same for Canada, Michelle Spuler for Australia and New Zealand, Michel Clasquin for South Africa, and Frank Usarski for Brazil. In "Buddhism in the Promised Land," Lionel Obadia looks at the tiny Israeli community, comfortable in its Jewish identity while taking on the dharma. A Zen master, Soen Nakagawa, founded an early center with the pun of "Ki"="Basis" and "Butsu"="Buddha" as similar to the Hebrew for "Kibbutz." (181) He also translated poetry based on the linguistic happenstance between "mut"="die" and "Mu"="emptiness" from Japanese. (182) It makes an intriguing counterpart to Rodger Kamenetz' Tibetan-Jewish dialogues documented in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" (see my reviews last year on this blog & Amazon US) during the 1990s.

Section three surveys how changes happen, more topical and less geographical. Duncan Ryukan Williams studies Buddhism in the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII; Douglas M. Padgett reports from a temple in suburban Tampa, Florida; David L. McMahan takes up the repackaging of Zen for Westerners into its current ubiquitous use as a name-brand conjurer of sold serenity, hip detachment, and instant well-being; Sandra Bell briefly retells the sadly familiar stories of scandal at the San Francisco Zen Center and at Chögyam Trungpa's Vajradhatu/ Shambhala Training-- these episodes have been covered elsewhere in more detail as the subject deserves, but her summary may serve as an introduction for the newcomer. It seemed more than these two prominent examples might have broadened the material beyond these two oft-told tales.

Lifestyle in section four gives testimony from those who practice. Ajahn Tiradhammo looks at how the Thai Forest Tradition faces the task of dealing with the Asian model of a strong leader and obedient followers when Westerners and Western influences broaden the traditional expectations in a monastic discipline. Karma Lekshe Tsomo tells an intriguing predicament: unlike Christian monastics, Buddhist monks and especially nuns must support themselves while in their pledged status. This leads to many who study in Asia finding themselves unable to continue as nuns, and they must go to the West to work to afford to go back to an Asian monastery for more training. Or, they leave and return to the West, often "disrobing" and teaching as lay instructors. Out of such shifts, Sylvia Wetzel sees a new in-between type of full-time, often necessarily professional, Buddhist practitioner who is "neither monk nor nun." Gil Fronsdal, a leader in the expansion of the vipassana movement into ethically interdependent awareness and therapeutic venues, looks at the tension when people try to expound "virtues without rules" in their often New Age-affiliated interpretations and modifications of Buddhist dharma into a self-help, transformative type of holistic healing.

The final section shows similar widening of styles. Judith Simmer-Brown examines "women's dharma in the West;" Christopher S. Queen in an excellent article takes on the "interbeing" promoted by Thich Nhat Hanh and the "universal responsibility" advocated by the Dalai Lama. Queen shows how "engaged" Buddhism as Bernard Glassman's Zen Peacekeeper Order, Nhat Hanh's "Order of Interbeing," methodological agnosticism, and globalization align with Joanna Macy's popular concept of interdependence to create a Buddhism that demands social action. Franz Metcalf follows a similar path, showing how intertwined the dharma can be with psychoanalysis, yet how fundamentally difficult it may be for Buddhism to resist the pull of appropriation of the dharma-- as may have happened already with yoga, meditation, and arguably Zen in many Western adaptations or distortions-- into a more "transformative" but perhaps less faithfully Buddhist contribution to healing. Metcalf hopes that Buddhism can overcome the diminishing tendency by some Westerners to commodify it as "a form of religious psychotherapy." (360)

Ian Harris takes on art and modernity, musing how romanticism, modernism, and commodification alter what passes as Buddhist when entering the Western market. His example of a Tibetan artist raised as a dogmatic social-realist in Communist-occupied Lhasa, Gonkar Gyatso, and the artist's subsequent attempts to intergrate Buddhist themes into his "modern 'thangkas'" that led to his flight to Dharamsala, shows a cautionary tale about too reductive an approach taken by observers into whatever's authentically Buddhist. For, it's a subject perpetually open to the unexpected, as cultures merge and practitioners migrate. As these scholars here remind us, Buddhism can never stand still; its very nature is to undermine permanent or defined categories that resist change. (Posted to Amazon US 3-4-10)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How humanists might trust the spirit

Robert Wright writes about the folly of assuming critics such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett deploy reason to their advantage when dismissing religious persistence. Wright reminds us that the "virus" attributed to belief by the two scientists fails to distinguish the symbiotic relationship possible between evolutionary advantages for believers and the parasitic association implicit in how Dawkins and Dennett use the loaded term "virus" in their purportedly objective presentations of data. Wright also notes that the "zero-sum" attitude within such reductive diminishments of religious contributions does little for the rationalist opposition to bolster their ethical bonafides. Wright's brief entry comes on Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish" blog, carried by the Atlantic Monthly, "Are the New Atheists Really Rational?".

This reminded me of what I'd read two hours before, in Christopher S. Queen's chapter about Buddhism and psychology in the scholarly collection (my review will follow on this blog; it's up on Amazon US already) "Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia." Queen follows an author I've discussed on this blog, Stephen Batchelor, in advocating a "methodological agnosticism." This careful objectivity refuses to freeze our conceptions of any Grand Unified Theory That Explains It All Once and For All, so to speak awkwardly. A Buddhist might phrase it more pithily: "let go."

We cannot do it all. Put your own house in order first. Take the time to do what you do well lest you undo what others have not done well to make it worse. Listen to what the spirit, soul, psyche, whatever non-theistic if you prefer message within prompts, within the quiet you hear, before grabbing the mike or running up to the podium to preach to the rest of us your particular salvation show. Or as Dylan sang: "don't follow leaders." Not sure how "watch your parking meters" fits, but good advice I'm sure you'll agree.

My kids were watching the opening credits of the failed adaptation of "Watchmen." Again, increasing no doubt the budget with the original singer braying "The Times They Are A-Changing" again, the crawl recreated under the titles many iconic moments from the '60s, among them a clip of an immolated monk in Saigon. My older son scoffed at the seemingly endless parade of scenes such as this; the movie already seemed long. My younger son told me that in "South Park," said monk's accidentally lit on fire by Chef (not sure if Isaac Hayes or Barry White) who tries to ignite a racist flag of the town in protest, and up instead flames a monk sitting behind him. The original context, alas, seemed lost on my boys, despite my explanation. I found out his name, Thich Quang Duc, and the day, June 1, 1963. Buddhists later led a peaceful if quixotic overthrow of Diem in '66, who wanted to turn Vietnam into a Catholic nation. Brave monks seem driven and perhaps in this life doomed to protest, now in Burma and Tibet-- if to dimmed revulsion on network t.v. as opposed to rebellion by way of cellphones, Twitters, and contraband cameras.

The regimes now learn to censor better what they sell to the networks, perhaps, in collusion. Given we're all "indebted" to the PRC for national and personal finances, I consider how the rapt Western media fawned over Beijing's Olympics vs. ten years ago making the Dalai Lama an Apple celebrity pitchman, co-opted for "being different." We'd hate to offend the 1.3 billion who enable bargains at Wal-Mart and the 99-Cent Store. Is the Tibetan or Burmese resistance as outnumbered as the "White Rose" was against the Nazis? These despots do not proclaim any religious utopia, but the boot on the face, forever, predicted by Orwell, and witnessed by him already in Fascist-- and Stalinist-- Spain. I wonder how future generations will judge our capitulation to similar oppression, as we bow to global finance to pay what we owe?

The example of resister and eloquent advocate of non-violence from the '60s, Thich Nhat Hanh, may not be as famous as the Dalai Lama. But, in French exile, he promotes his concept and his community centered around "interbeing." This pulls the individual back into line with the community, but in this "interdependent" tug there's controlled movement forward, not relentless dragging by a bully or reluctant kicking from a cowed recruit beside you. One selects where and how to do one's best, not out of some hypnotized chanting of slogan or mantra, but out of a prepared, grounded, and thoughtful intervention done with literally pre-meditation. Unless one takes the trouble to set one's self straight, one will find one's self in trouble on a dangerous detour away from the best path upon which one will meet one's match, to help, to heal, to listen, to learn from as well as to teach. Sound like babble from a typical Californian, or a distillation at the keyboard of timeless wisdom?

My point after today's reading from three disparate but overlapping sources? Not to wind up naval-gazing, not to vanish within your own vision, but to move this necessary detachment away from "ideological zealotry," or "zero-sum" (Queen too uses this adjective) political or policy treatment that ignores the spiritual as it seeks to solve the actual problems. Many ask what good is meditation, and like the Buddha, Queen counters that only out of one's own restoration of balance and purpose can one then take on the array of difficulties surely overwhelming us. We need to choose our battles, as the cliché to harried parents goes, and fight the good fight, as another cliché went.

This "engaged Buddhism" applies to the blog post I shared last summer about the Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast and the efforts of such as Bernard Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, an activist alliance founded in the mid-90s in Washington D.C. to put dharma into practice for the ease of suffering in real-world, tangible programs. Increasingly, whatever one's views on monasticism, retreats, and inner-directed self-help, I think that those out there (my late dad despite his Catholic piety was a big practical naysayer to monks "doing nothing but praying all day") worn out by strife along sectarian, party, or philosophical lines after so many decades of turf wars, peace walls, and reconciliation workshops may want to settle down and recognize the good that can come from learning to sit still a while.

Too often, we rush out to the barricades to change it all. My wife's been volunteering with a well-intentioned local branch of a national non-profit founded with great intentions by hipster do-gooders who had made money off their memoirs about the hipsters like themselves and who then wanted to start tutoring poor kids in the big cities. The problem is that the paid staff cannot be bothered with assisting the volunteers. It's a half-run, half-baked set of grand initiatives that may sound ideal when getting the grants, but fail dismally when delivering the goods.

She's so frustrated that the center may well lose her expertise soon. The burn-out by compassion fatigue and the Great Society and so many subsequent trillions of our taxpayer dollars thrown at similar inner-city schemes remind me that many who jump in to put out the fire fail to learn how to don protective gear. They get burned, those they want to save get consumed, and the truck and the firefighters drive off to another conflagration all over again down the block, another arson on another night.

Jay Michaelson-- the prototypical hipster able to go off to the Himalayas for a five-month silent retreat, and then return to Yale Law to teach or write poetry or get grants himself or practice his gay-yoga-dharma-Torah while apparently leading a wonderfully intellectual East Coast Jewish life that seems Platonic in its forms-- writes again in his column "The Polymath" in the "Forward" about the need to recharge ourselves before charging out for "tikkun olam." In "Allowing the 'Yetzer Tov' To Win," he starts by admitting his own reluctance to meditate or exercise, vs. grabbing another beer or updating his Facebook page.

He urges us to do something, call it spirituality even if "we're not the spiritual type." (I digress in an already lengthy piece, but my wife watching Bill Maher last night really ticked me off when he idiotically lambasted the "religion" of Buddhism re: Tiger Woods' confession. This professional debunker-- whose hapless slaying of sacred cows with rhetorical overkill ruined his documentary "Religulous," as clumsy as its title-- roused laughs from the Tibetan practice of selecting a "tulku" from the newborn reincarnation of a lama. Yes, ripe for satire if "South Park," but on Maher's show, his rant smelled sour, felt frantic, and rang dim. Maher's smug self-righteous act tempted my articulation of a "yetzer hara," the evil word in me, but I stayed silent, continued my work for school on my laptop, and tuned him out.)

Many confuse doctrine with dogma, and popular Buddhist practice shows this despite the corrections of non-theistic gurus. Good luck charms, statues, candles, flowers, amulets, pictures of saints or loved ones-- it's natural for humans to comfort ourselves. The caveat and implicit distinction that Buddhism is not originally a "religion" I add for pedantry; many apply its ethical and existential principles as with Batchelor in "Buddhism Without Beliefs" (reviewed by me recently) alongside or apart from any devotion, obesiance, or profession of piety per se.

I cite the heart of Michaelson's essay. Nice to see the Velvet Underground applied to the care of the soul and the ethics of the fathers (and mothers), the Pirke Avot of Jewish tradition, to repair the shattered vessels, the torn and weary human realm.
Don’t we believe, religionists and secularists both, that there are faculties of the self worth developing, and that if we do not develop them, we are somehow missing out on something essential about the human condition?

And do we humanists not believe that the gifts of this world, whether endowed by a Creator or not, are here to be savored? That our hours on Earth are to be led deliberately, sucking the marrow out of life? And if we do believe such things, then what a shame it is to restrict the horizons of our experience to the zones of the familiar or the conventional. There are ecstasies, insights and loves that are our birthright as human beings; there are experiences so profound and so holy that it seems the greatest of shames to pass them by out of ignorance or fear. As Lou Reed once sang, “some kinds of love/the possibilities are endless/and for me to miss one/would seem to be groundless.”

My claim is that while we each may prefer different spiritual flavors, all of us require spiritual nourishment if we are to be anything other than the humanistic equivalents of 98-pound weaklings. Without some way of opening the heart, expanding the mind and integrating the body, we’re incomplete human beings — and our incompleteness has real effects on ourselves and those around us. Time and time again, our tradition warns us against hardening our hearts. There’s a reason for that: The hardened heart doesn’t know what it’s missing, doesn’t care and doesn’t want to do anything about it.
I am thinking of a determined friend of mine who may read this blog entry. He's spent long years, many suffering in self-inflicted sacrifice and under torture for a cause for which he first gave up his youth and then his contact with his family. The intensity of his convictions led him to take another man's life. By this he was convinced that he would radically better his vexed corner of this unjust world. This led him as a convicted teenager into prison. Long stints later, he left as an adult with a doctorate as he labored to master the workings of the movement's political philosophies that he embodied.

He eloquently and vociferously differs from my own religious sympathy with the contributions of Catholicism-- despite its many scandals-- to our culture; he and I agree on the many detriments also accompanying perhaps any human-directed attempt to produce indoctrination. As a former Marxist, he too may recognize the appeal of a secular technology mimicking the movements of that claimed to be the divine will evinced in the hands of a few chosen leaders appointed to carry out the demands of an historically shattering, messianic or utopian scheme that orders billions of people to follow the liberating Will-to-Power, Little Red Book, Manifesto, Scripture from on high. Ultimately, as Batchelor cites, the dharma itself is not to be followed-- unless the listener tests it out personally. After being convinced of its truth, one may put it into practice. I am reminded of the Torah at Sinai. The Hebrews were told to "do" it first; afterwards they'd "get it" by a higher understanding. The action precedes the insight. Carrying out the orders makes you understand them. This reminds me of "culture precedes consciousness" in what used to be a Marxian koan.

Many of his colleagues, and his enemies, hardened their hearts. They keep rancor and fondle bitterness. Many of them spent time in prison alongside him. Upon his release and his renunciation of the policies that led to betrayal by the leadership of his movement, comrades turned his sudden enemies. He decided to tell the truth about what he saw around him, the gaps between party policies and media proclamations clashing with the injustices and corruption now perpetrated by his colleagues and his bosses, rather than only by those long defined as the conventional foe across the divide drawn by neighborhood, border, creed, surname, sect, and flag. The cynical actions of those who he once followed led to his deeper understanding of their hypocrisy and collusion. Out of this, he asserted his own moral principles against threats to his life and that of his family. He did what he had to do, and he learned why his allegiance then aligned with forces that renounced violence and hate.

So, maybe even non-believers can let the "yetzer tov" win, the "good side" within us all. He figures that without religion, goodness would flourish easier. I wonder, for the neo-atheists seem to me as shrill as those whom they seek to convince of their futile faith.

A relevant aside: "'Atheist Ireland' publishes 25 Blasphemous Quotes" to protest a new PC-Catholic backed-- by Fine Gael with the Greens-- law in the Irish Republic against such, as of 1 Jan. 2010. (I wrote most of this entry last summer and let it mellow. However, the hundreds of comments at that URL show the folly of typing before thinking.) The vast majority of over 500 comments in one day-- when I checked around New Year's Day-- displayed spiteful, puerile, invective-laden anti-religious comments appended. The shouters betray far more intolerance than that they protest against with this law.

For both the left and right, believers and deniers, humanists and God-fearers, the trick is in the self-control we exercise, the self-actualization we achieve. Not chanting slogans or scripture at our put-upon neighbor. As Buddhism, Judaism, and any shrink might agree, we all have a moment when we pause before we act. We make the choice, as Michaelson explains, whether or not to listen to the whisper within.
"So next time your heart tells you, on a small scale or a large one, that it would rather have another beer, click another link, or otherwise postpone and delude and equivocate, tell your inner selfish child to get lost. It’s not “you” — it is a set of mental patterns, many of which probably have long outlived their usefulness. Don’t believe it! The part that appears to be doing all the controlling is itself not under your control. And it has no idea what it is missing, because that is precisely what needs to be transformed."
I started with Wright urging the neo-atheists to reconsider their reduction of religious opponents to their minimal presence rather than their possible potential as compatriots in a struggle to put an "engaged" witness to work to better everyone's suffering. I moved towards Queen's glimpse into how Buddhists join with others of faith or no faith or non-faith to fight for peaceful justice. And, after a snack spent reflecting on Michaelson's reminder for humanists to find their reflection perhaps in those confessing a very different set of values, I pass along these thoughts to you. Familiar as they are, perhaps even more so than Lou Reed's lyrics, they may resonate at a quiet moment within you as you listen to their chords.

Cartoon: Dave Piraro, "Bizarro". C/o "Open Parachute" blog: "We're atheists".