Category Archives: Insight

The Absolute Value of Truth

Some people have so little credibility that even if they happen to say something correct, we are entitled to tell them to shut up. But that doesn’t mean we adopt the opposite posture just because we want to oppose them.Dick Cheney is such a person.  Hillary Clinton is correct that Dick Cheney has no business asking for “transparency” from government in relation to its release of the torture memos. Not only was his administration shrouded in secrecy and given to disclaiming any obligation of public accounting of any kind; but he has also been severe in opposing this particular set of de-classifications.

What’s “transparent” is Mr. Cheney’s deeply principled commitment to the public’s right to know. . . whatever might be exculpatory for him and his peeps. Nobody owes him that.

BUT. . . if there are documents that contextualize the shameful new facts we are learning about the use of torture as an interrogation tool, we really should have that information, irrespective of Cheney’s request.

Notice I said “contextualize” not “mitigate.” Acts that are immoral, unconstitutional, and in violation of our international agreements are still all those things even if they are spectacularly successful in meeting the objectives for which they were designed. Our constitution is replete with prohibitions against wonderfully “effective” things that government could do.

* Suppression of speech and assembly is an excellent prophylactic against insurrection.

* Broad searches and seizures powers are great for prosecuting criminals.

* A government without checks and balances has far less gridlock.

All these barriers on government likely militates against the smoothest possible functioning of government’s otherwise permitted activities.

But our founders chose to provide such inefficiency-inducing mechanisms to avoid abuse of discretion. They put a higher premium on the quality of our lives – as freely determined by us – than on the logistical efficacy of how our government functions.

Plenty of people already think that torture yields useful information. Would it surprise anyone that some memos indicating that view were written by Bush administration advisers? These are the guys who got their people to (1) find strong evidence of WMDs and an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection just in time to drag us into a war they were looking for an excuse to launch, (2) torture — excuse the pun — all reason, tradition, and canons of text-construction to somehow conclude that American laws(!) permitted them to treat detainees in ways worthy of Saddam Hussein, and (3) sign off on the legal theory that the president can unilaterally declare someone an “enemy combatant” and detain him indefinitely without review or appeal.

OF COURSE they had memos extolling the virtues of torture! Let us see the documents. All the documents – you can redact any particular info that compromises national security.

*We are going to take anything the Bush people had to say about torture with a large grain of salt. Trust us.

*We are not going to assume that the morality or legality of torture turns on its effectiveness at gaining intelligence, if that is indeed shown to be true. Trust us.

* Most importantly, even if we do decide that those memos completely exonerate the Bush Administration, that’s kind of our prerogative.  Your job is not to direct our opinions. Your job is to tell us the whole truth. Your job is to TRUST US.

The Fundamentals of Terror

During my month-long visit to India, I have noticed the disturbing trend of “Hindu Fundamentalism,” which mirrors the same sort of culture war incited by all reactionary movements.In fact, there is only one Religious Fundamentalism in the world, designed to cultivate a shared sense of righteous rage at some perceived “enemy” among a certain historically identified group. That group is encouraged to internalize a received set of values purportedly derived from some mythical “fundamental” source of the group’s identity.

Like Christian fundamentalists in the US and Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, the new Hindu incarnation (yes, the pun is intended) of Religious Fundamentalism lashes out at an inchoate “liberal” society, allegedly hell bent on destroying their most cherished traditional values.

But what are these values, really? I don’t know very much about Islam, but scholars say that peace and generosity are its cornerstones. You wouldn’t know it from the explosions. At the very heart of Christianity, is the edict that forbids the faithful to judge others (a power that God has reserved for himself alone) and commands them to “love their neighbor.” Yet Christian “fundamentalists” sit in judgment of anyone who violates their interpretation of God’s will and express nothing but scorn for their neighbors who hold a different view.

As far as I know, Hinduism is an organic, flexible, spiritual tradition with no canonical dictates and a rich heritage of strong female deities. Unlike the monotheistic Semitic faiths, Hinduism – the world’s last great pagan religion – has never cast aspersions on sexuality. Sexuality is a deep spiritual phenomenon in the Hindu scriptural tradition (although the practice of the past several centuries has been woefully anti-female and anti-sex). But if you’re going to make claims based on the “fundamentals” of Hinduism, the pro-female, sexually enlightened spiritual tradition is completely at odds with the stance of Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like Sri Ram Sena, whose (male) members recently raided a pub in Mangalore and violently harassed women who happened to be socializing there. They beat them up for socializing in public instead of staying demurely covered and at home, like the Sri Ram Sena thinks good little Hindu women ought to.

In all three of my examples, the “fundamentalists” have taken the most perverted and oppressive social behavior and forcibly endowed them with a religious justification that is the opposite of the truly fundamental tenets of the cited religion.

The real reason behind oppression – all oppression – is the fear of power dilution. Those who have power want to limit access for everyone else. There are a couple of historically tried and true methods of this. 1) intimidate the masses and 2) exploit whatever characteristics you share with a portion of the masses to develop a fear of difference, so that they will focus their energies on hating others, equally as powerless as themselves, and never even realize that the powerful elite egging them on shares with them only some arbitrary and manufactured “values” and some irrelevant demographic characteristics, but none of the power and privilege.

A big tip off that Religious Fundamentalists are really all the same, is that by far the biggest object of condemnation – across the board, for all fundamentalist movements – is cultural liberalism.

Seems odd on the surface. Secular liberalism is no enemy of religion. It may be indifferent to the supernatural beliefs of particular religions, but its “agenda” of tolerance actually helps religions thrive. But, Religious Fundamentalists are right to perceive liberalism as a grave and mortal threat. Because liberalism is the proposition that all individuals should be free to make peaceful choices about their own lives, it becomes a powerful alternative to the narrow ideologies promoted by those who seek to exclude others from gaining resources and influence through a divide and rule strategy.

To anyone who isn’t keyed into the power structure of the society he or she lives in, but has bought into the idea that enforced traditionalism and intimidation form a legitimate and tenable part of his or her religious or cultural “heritage” I say, remember this: your ability to live your own life in accordance with whatever tradition you identify with, without the threat of someone else taking that away once they ascend to power (and let’s be realistic, empires change hands, they have since the dawn of civilization) will be secured by liberalism and only liberalism.

[photo by Pixabay from Pexels]

If Music Be The Food Of Love, Why Do I Need This Loaf-Thing In My Basket?

Maybe human civilization is more resilient than I suspected. A very simple bit of evidence of that came my way this morning. NPR Weekend Edition this morning featured a segment about young people becoming farmers. It’s a trend apparently. The reason this struck me is that I’ve wondered for some time whether the abstractions that make up my life (words, legal theories, financial products, information etc.) have become too prominent in the way we think about “value” in contemporary life.I’m not complaining about abstraction itself. I love meta stuff. I live in a world of ideas and have what I like to call a “language fetish.” But what troubles me is that over the several thousand years we’ve been civilized, we have increasingly favored the abstractions over the tangibles.

It’s not that language or the Morse code has been valued more than jewelry and gadgets. Those things are just as much “abstractions” for the purposes of this point. The source of their value is abstract. What I mean by “tangible” is not merely tangible. I mean something tangible whose value derives from something essential to survival. Food, water, air, land. . . . I know that music is “essential” to a life with any meaning, but right now I’m really just talking about physical survival.

Also, by “favored” I don’t mean we have chosen to consume literature rather than food (quite the contrary) — I am talking about “favoring” abstractions in the way our system of trading values is prioritized.

I think we’ve divorced the idea of value from the essentials to an amazing (you might even say alarming) degree. The value of money is an abstraction. It’s an indicator for every other kind of value. But we’ve so reified that indicator that we now call money “wealth” and treat it as the source rather than just the indicator of value. Then, there are stocks, derivative securities, indexes valued by the movements of derivative securities in the market. . . . indicators for indicators for indicators for something that has “value” as defined by our priorities, many of them nonessential to survival.

Why do I care? Well, because when we treat all value as equally fungible, then it matters very much whether the value really is “equal” in the final analysis.

I have a great bookmark that says “when I have a little money, I buy books. If I have anything left over, I buy food and clothes.” I really do love it. It expresses a sentiment that resonates with me at some level. If I had to shave a few years off my life in order to read, I certainly would. But honestly, if I really had to choose, in the immediate sense, between food and books, I probably would pick food. And without doing any research to back it up, I would hazard a guess, that even among avid readers, an overwhelming majority of people would pick food.

What’s more, the essential stuff of life (food, water, air, land) is finite. It really is, in an as yet unchangeable way, finite. We hear a lot about “creating wealth” by “growing the economy” to safeguard against poverty and want. But the way we’ve been “growing” that wealth (which we now almost unthinkingly equate with money, the stand-in for wealth), has nothing to do with safeguarding the essential wealth of our animal lives; it has to do with new and varied ways of “growing” the indicators (money, securities, etc.).

I won’t comment on the current financial market here. That’s a different discussion, and my friends can tell you I have been sounding the alarm bell for years. But I didn’t have a blog back then and frankly, I never had the leisure to write a full treatise, which is what the topic deserves (I was too busy surviving, working my way through school, trying to make a living by building my abstraction-driven professional life).

Back to the point: the essential stuff of our physical lives (let’s call it “survival wealth”) is limited. We are consuming and wasting resources at rates greater than ever. (Also, when we think about increasing “production” we forget that some of what we’re doing isn’t so much “production” as “extraction” but this entry is already too long, so I won’t pursue that line of thought). Yet, we kid ourselves that we are getting “wealthier” by generating things of abstract value, and treating them as interchangeable with survival wealth.

The person who invented the ipod, a person who manufactures it, the people who market it, package it, or sell it, the musicians who produce the music we put in it . . . all of them have done something of value. That value is recognized by those of us who want to consume it. Because money is the general unit of value and it is fungible, all those folks (inventor, packager, musician) who get paid with money actually do increase their own [access to] survival wealth because they can buy food, water, land, etc. But they have not created, or in any way increased the amount of survival wealth that exists. By helping bankers and issuers design financial products that are legally sound, I have done absolutely nothing to increase survival wealth and yet by doing so, I have eaten well and been considered a “productive” member of society. Interesting, right?

Now, I’m not suggesting that only organic farmers and environmental scientists deserve to eat. And I think ipods and books and airplanes and space exploration and The Daily Show (and for those who are into such things, baseball games, designer handbags, or Speed Racer) have all enhanced our lives so wonderfully that it makes sense that we trade some units of value (that we could well use for food) for such things and people who make such things possible can earn their food in these ways. The ipod is important enough to me and my work is important enough to my client whose work is important enough to his investors whose work is important to somebody who is an opera singer or a sommelier whose work is important enough to an environmental scientist or organic farmer to make all of this work. It’s the market, a cornerstone of human civilization. It’s a beautiful thing.

But I think there is a danger in forgetting the difference between survival wealth and, let’s call it “enhancement wealth” especially when the market, our system of trading values, becomes increasingly centered on the enhancement wealth (“media” is one of the most consistently profitable industries) and perhaps even more seriously, on the indicators of wealth — ever more remote from the actual wealth, of either the “survival” or the “enhancement” variety.

To state (what should be) the obvious: no matter how much money we create even through the most legitimate, honest to goodness trading in whatever we deem “valuable” and no matter how much we “grow” that money through trading in financial products, that money will mean nothing if all the pollinating bees disappear, if seedbanks go bust because of terrorism or because we have run out of places on earth that are naturally cold enough for storage, if soil depletion from over-planting and overgrazing just makes sufficient food impossible to grow, if the air becomes unfit to breath, or if we run out of clean water to drink.

So, donate money to the Met. Pay for Knicks tickets. Pay for tickets to the one-time only showing of your next-door neighbor’s indie film at the local porn theater. Hire me as your lawyer (or buy my novel when it comes out). Become a performance artist specializing in Just Standing There and charging people handsomely for it.

But please remember, that meanwhile, all of us get to eat, and not contribute very much (even indirectly) to the food supply.  Nor, unfortunately, do we want to. This is part of what’s been bugging me most. All through the 20th Century, young people seemed to have yearned to move away from the family farm and rural communities and “make it” in the cities, where “things were happening” and where all the money was. In the 1990’s every other adolescent I knew wanted to be a journalist or filmmaker or lawyer (yes, lawyer, believe it or not!) and those are great professions. . . but who’s gonna grow the food??!!! And why can’t the professions that make food “happen” have some more cachet?

Well, I breathed a sigh of relief this morning when I heard that farming is a trendy new career choice among the youth, many of them are from cosmopolitan cities and educated families.

How cool is that?

The Ebb and Crest of Who You Are

When we speak of someone’s “personality” or “character” we tend to treat it as something more or less static. If we allow for change or growth, we think they are relatively extraordinary events that “transform” the personality into a new static thing.

But really, isn’t a personality more of a range? Maybe a wave, with an amplitude, period, and frequency?

Even the most gregarious person becomes withdrawn at some point (and in a sort of predictable – if highly complex – pattern). The most effervescent person has ebb time. The most cynical or confrontational person has high tides of warmth and kindness. It seems banal to note this, but what I’m asking is: do you ever notice there’s a rhythmic quality to this?

When we make a new friend, we form an impression. In time, we find discrepancies, surprises, maybe even a u-turn in their general disposition. We might think we had made a “mistake” in our original impression. We might think our friend has “changed,” or worse, we may think the “original” impression was a deception or a deliberate projection of a manufactured persona (assuming our discoveries about the friend are of an “unpleasant” sort).

Most often we are generous enough to think that we are getting to know our friend – and his/her complexities – more “fully” but do we ever really think that perhaps there is a temporal element to “who” our friend is? That what we are witnessing at various moments are simply snapshots of particular phases of a “personality cycle” (if you will)? Each snapshot may be rich and complex in its own right, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a periodic feature of a more fluid system.

I suppose we come to internalize this if we’ve known someone for a very long time. Most people know, without thinking too much about it, the patterns of their parents’ personalities or those of very old friends. Maybe that’s why the longer we know people the less judgmental we are of them… unless of course their entire _cycle_ is annoying!

Too Much Information?

I have a phone interview coming up. I’ve never done one before. It makes me a little nervous trying to communicate without the benefit of face time.

How is my self-editing function supposed to react and adapt if it doesn’t have all those pieces of information – the blank expression, the hint of a derisive smile, the warm nod of agreement, the admiring surprise of the enlarged eye and raised brow, the shifting impatiently, the cozying into a chair as if you’re a favorite TV show, and heaven forbid, the openly contemptuous quizzically furrowed brow?

I got a really bad one of those once. When I was job hunting between college and law school. Even though the job I was up for was essentially clerical, the guy asked me about my legal interests – it came up in conversation. I said something about legislative policy and he told me that his department had a lobbying component (we were a few blocks from the hill). I jumped in with my not-yet-inappropriate youthful animation (I still have a lot of it, much to my own chagrin but that’s another story) and I told him about some back-end work I had done with student environmental groups to help the lobbying efforts of a grassroots clean air campaign.

He of course was running a business, not a non-profit but I hadn’t thought that mattered since the whole lobbying thing had nothing to do with what I was interviewing for. Mostly, I just lacked the savvy to anticipate that this _could_ be a problem. He furrowed his brow AND his lip and held it that way for almost five seconds before telling me: “well, what we do is industry driven.”

Shudder. Don’t wish it on your worst enemy.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not so bad to be spared that kind of crap. Pilots have to learn when and how not to depend on their visuals but fly strictly on sensors. Even in a job interview there might be some benefit to shedding the distraction of processing all this extra “information” and focusing on what they are willing to actually say to you. That “industry driven” guy probably would never use words that were the equivalent of his scornful expression – that would be admitting he was a bit of a jerk.

But then, and this is the nagging question: what if something I say on the phone is greeted with a few seconds of dead silence on the other end? Isn’t that the aural equivalent of a blank expression and don’t we drive ourselves nuts trying to interpret what’s “behind” a blank expression?

Is there any way of getting around our inclination to “interpret” everything?

Susan Sontag thought that analysis creates a false description of “reality” by destroying the reality of the surface experience (or something like that). I wonder how much of that applies to hyper-deliberate interactions like job interviews?

Old Years’ Eve

The “New Year” thing is so old, isn’t it? Starting from the banal (resolutions to do what you wanted to do last year) to the quietly sublime (not being able to help contemplating the drowsy but inevitable passage of time).

The idea of there being a “beginning” of a year is completely arbitrary, of course. Yet we have endowed this one day with the history and traditions that make it impossible not to feel a sort of significance.

I remember a conversation with my father, the last complete conversation I had with him, when he gently refused to commit to spending the “big new year” (2000) with me. My family had repatriated to India where both my parents were born. I was the only one left in America. I saw a lot less of them than I’d liked, especially at that time, when I was in law school, always short on both time and money. But I was going to be with my family on the “big” new year come hell or high water.

I was on the phone with Dad in late September, 1999. He said “come see me soon.” And I said yes, I’ll be there after my exams we’ll all spend the big new year together. He said that was just a construct and the important thing was that we would be together soon. He was a very rational man and this was just the sort of thing he might have said in another context, but he also had an emotional richness about him that was very generous toward the sentiments of others, so I’m not sure it was in character for him to dampen my enthusiasm in that way. In any case, a chord in his voice struck odd in my ear.

So I insisted. I know it’s a construct, but it has a value, doesn’t it? Aren’t most things we observe constructs that we have somehow found useful? I know it’s not even technically the new millennium, but it’s cool that the date format will change… and everyone in the world will be celebrating…. I wondered if he would tell me that millions of people in the world would have nothing to celebrate that night. He thought deeply about those things, but again, it wasn’t at all like him to dim someone’s joy.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but he didn’t argue with me. He didn’t humor me either. He just gently floated away from the whole new year thread of the conversation. He told me to come see him soon. But I just couldn’t get him to commit to the date. He was absolutely firm on that point. Looking back, I wonder if he had a premonition that it would have been a promise he couldn’t keep.

He died on December 2, 1999.

And while the Y2K fears turned out to be baseless, my world had changed utterly and forever.

That was eight years ago.

This is what the new year is about. Counting how many years it’s been since one thing or another. Counting the passing of years generally. It’s really all about the old years. It’s quite fitting that its anthem is Auld Lang Syne.