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July 29, 2005

Personal and Political Freedom

I needed a new "thought for the moment", and I found one this evening while re-shelving a book I've been intending to read for the last few months. The Forward to Freedom and Destiny caught my eye. This should give you a picture of why this one is on my "must read soon" list.

Freedom and DestinyForeword

This morning a friend and I canoed out on a perfectly still and silent New Hampshire lake. The only ripple on the water's surface came from a great blue heron as it languidly took off from a patch of water lilies and headed for some secret spot farther into the swamp, undisturbed even by canoes. Amid this serenity, which seemed to cloak the lake and forests and mountains with a preternatural harmony and peace, my friend surprised me with the remark that today was Independence Day.

Whatever noisy celebrations were going on seemed far, far away from this quiet world. But being in New England, one could not keep from one's mind the images of lanterns being hung in the belfry of Old North Church, Bunker Hill, and the shots, fired by New England farmers, destined to be heard round the world.

Political freedom is to be cherished indeed. But there is no political freedom that is not indissolubly bound to the inner personal freedom of the individuals who make up that nation, no liberty of a nation of conformists, no free nation made up of robots. This book seeks to illuminate this inner personal freedom underlying political liberty. When I mention political liberty in the following pages, it will be generally as illustration.

This personal freedom to think and feel and speak authentically and to be conscious of so doing is the quality that distinguishes us as human. Always in paradox with one's destiny, this freedom is the foundation of human values such as love, courage, honesty. Freedom is how we relate to our destiny, and destiny is significant only because we have freedom. In the struggle of our freedom against and with destiny, our creativity and our civilization themselves are born.

Rollo May

July 1981
Holderness, New Hampshire

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July 23, 2005

Bliss and a head cold


My books have been yelling at me from my bag or bedside every night. I don't have the energy to read more than a few pages before being plowed into oblivion from daily exhaustion. This is a real pity because I'm in the middle of Life of Pi and it's been quite entertaining. I've been aching to get the energy to make a dent in this book and it appears I've got my wish.

It's over 80 degrees in Oakland today and the work stress has finally taken it's toll on my immune system. My resistance has failed me and I've got a nasty head cold on a day when the weather is completely hostile: 85 degrees, humid, and the air is as still and stale as an unopened closet. There will be no adventuring outside of this room this weekend. I'll be sipping iced tea and juice, eating cold medicine, ibuprofen, and cough drops -- and so gleefully happy that I have finally no option but to do exactly what I've been aching to do for over a week: just sit here and read.

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July 13, 2005

A Warning

As I prepare to move to another book, let me give you the thought for the moment (however long you wish to define it).

If we, citizens, do not support our artists,
then we sacrifice our imagination
on the altar of crude reality
and we end up believing in nothing
and having worthless dreams.

- Yann Martel

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July 10, 2005

The U.K., Terrorism, and their experience with it

After waking up to the news on Wednesday, I had to send a message to the only person I know in London just to make sure things were okay. Daniel was fine, if perhaps a bit stunned at the frightening ordeal. Here's the meat of his description:

Police cars and ambulances flying around. Everybody using their mobile phones - but too many as the networks went down after a while. A little bit frightening, but people were actually incredibly calm. The emergency services reacted with unbelievable speed: they were clearly following a well-rehearsed script. Where I was heading was near to one of the bomb blasts, and they had already cordoned off the area and closed streets within a sizeable radius.

I was able to speak with him the next day and we got into a discussion of why and how Londoners are somewhat more accustomed to terrorism than New Yorkers or Americans in general. Of course, the IRA is the reason -- people have lived in that city for decades with the feeling that something dreadful could happen at any time. I can't imagine what that's like, though I'm sure some of my friends still living in New York felt like that for months after the Twin Towers fell. Continuing our discussion in a later email, Daniel elaborated on that a little.

Regarding the IRA: now that the threat from that quarter has lessened, it is easily forgotten that for periods things were quite worrying, though the chances of being directly caught were still extremely slim. It is the fear that is the worst part (though that is small comfort for those actually hit). There is one very bizarre legacy from those times: try looking for a litter bin at a mainline station! This was a common place to drop a bomb - hidden but public. Result: all the litter bins were removed!

If nothing else, my discussion brought one thing into crystal clear focus: We're the new kid on the block when it comes to terrorism, not only fighting it, but in knowing how to recover from terrorist attacks. That, in turn, made me ask if the English would have adopted the same kind of "pre-emptive attack" war policy in their fight against the IRA.

Terry Jones answers this directly in his editorial: OK, George, Make with the Friendly Bombs. It's well worth a read to expose some of the poor reasons we've given in going to war with Iraq. I'm also taking this as a reminder to look for similar faulty reasoning to continue this "War on Terror" in the way we have under "President" Bush.

As a side-note, I've found Terry Jones to be a master of the absurd in the exact same vein as Swift's "A Modest Proposal". He handles reductio ad absurdum like the sharp weapon it is. If you're at all interested in what else this former member of Monty Python has said, I'll encourage you to read more with this list of Terry Jones articles. As Daniel himself says: "Trust a Python to tell you the truth."

Let Them Eat Bombs, April 14, 2005.
George, God here ..., October 22, 2004
In Iraq, it's already July 9th, July 7, 2004
The War of the Words, June 16, 2004
This Week, May 22, 2004
* This Won't Hurt Much, April 30, 2004
Tony Really Must Try Harder, April 14, 2004
Why Tony Went to War, October 5, 2003
Alastair, God and the Devil, July 6, 2003
If Fish Can Feel Pain, Then Maybe Iraqi Children Can, Too, May 4, 2003
Mr Blair's Dark Days, April 27, 2003
Poor Tony Blair Wakes Up, March 16, 2003
Mr Bush Goes for the Kill, March 9, 2003
Could Tony Blair Look at the Internet Now, Please?, March 2, 2003
* Powell Speaks with Forked Tongue, February 23, 2003
* I'm Losing Patience with My Neighbours, Mr Bush, January 26, 2003
The Audacious Courage of Mr Blair, September 22 2002
Spare Our Blushes and Put a Sack On It , January 6, 2002
I Remain, Sir, Haggard of the Hindu Kush, December 30, 2001

* Personal favorites. If you have time to read a only a few, read these.

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July 05, 2005

From Fascism to Buddhism and on to Militant Christianity

Anatomy Of FascismI had some trouble trying to figure out what to read this week. I'd been slogging through The Anatomy of Fascism for about a half-day until I realized it just wasn't illuminating the point I bought it for. Mussolini said "Fascism should rather be called corporatism, as it is the merging of government and corporate power". This has always been my definition of Fascism and I expect its also an insight into how that form of totalitarian government can take root.

Now, of course, my interest in Fascism has to do with current politics in America (go figure). John Ralston Saul (among others) have been arguing that the U.S. and other Western countries are becoming corporatist states because they're basically run by a small group of professional politicians, interest-groups, and corporate influencers, which has the effect of removing political power and participation from the citizens. He also points out the use of propaganda and rhetoric to obscure facts and deter communication among citizens. The only reason I wasn't reading this instead was because my local bookstore didn't have it on hand.

Unfortunately, Anatomy of Fascism didn't address the historical marriage of government and corporations or theorize on it's involvement in today's politics. The author takes a different approach, analyzing Fascism from it's history and what Fascist governments have done rather than theory. It seems like a good approach and looks to be full of interesting history, but since it didn't directly address what I was interested in, I put this back on the shelf for later.

City DharmaFascism's ultimately a depressing subject, and I was already feeling a little depressed. Gravitating towards something lighter, I decided on City Dharma: Keeping Your Cool in the Chaos.

It's not as corney as the book title sounds. Though some people I know find Buddhist wisdom a bit on the shallow side, it really depends on the books you pick up. For some awful reason, there are more candy coated new-agey books that have a Buddhist flavor to them than any religion should be afflicted with. That's too bad. Buddhism is full of good practical advice and wisdom.

This book fits well in that "practical advice" category. So far, the stories are light, mildly amusing, and to the point. Now that I've found something to occupy my head for the next couple of days, I'm satisfied for the rest of the week.

Next on the reading list is: The Life of Pi, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, and finishing The First Crusade: A New History. Why the theme of the Crusades, you ask? Well, the Crusades came out in a discussion with a friend of mine. He pointed me to this article written by a Professor Madden called "The Real History of the Crusades", which portrays the Crusades as mere defensive wars and tries to wipe the blood off the hands of medieval Crusaders. I read the article with the dim memory of having read several books on this long ago. Mind you, when I say "long ago", I really mean it; I put down those library books almost fifteen years ago and I don't trust my memory with facts and details for a quarter that long. After reading that article, I strongly suspect that Professor Thomas Madden is being misleading, perhaps worse. I'll probably have to digest more than the two works on my reading list to have the tools for adequate investigation, but that article has been sitting on my mind since I read it and the longer it sits there, the more it makes me curious. I'll eventually have to resolve the issue for myself.

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July 04, 2005

Fourth of July

If I had any doubt we're actively creating the next wave of terrorists and fueling their hatred of America, I choked when I read this New York Times Article.

Here's an excerpt:

The journalist Seymour Hersh wrote last month in the British newspaper The Guardian that a memo addressed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shortly after the 2001 invasion reported "800-900 Pakistani boys 13-15 years of age in custody." Juvenile detainees in American facilities like Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base have been subject to the same mistreatment as adults. The International Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Pentagon itself have gathered substantial testimony of torture of children, bolstered by accounts from soldiers who witnessed or participated in the abuse.

According to Amnesty International, 13-year-old Mohammed Ismail Agha was arrested in Afghanistan in late 2002 and detained without charge or trial for over a year, first at Bagram and then at Guantánamo Bay. He was held in solitary confinement and subjected to sleep deprivation. "Whenever I started to fall asleep, they would kick at my door and yell at me to wake up," he told an Amnesty researcher. "They made me stand partway, with my knees bent, for one or two hours."

A Canadian, Omar Khadr, was 15 in 2002 when he was captured in Afghanistan and interned at Guantánamo. For 2½ years, he was allowed no contact with a lawyer or with his family. Seventeen-year-old Akhtar Mohammed told Amnesty that he was kept in solitary confinement in a shipping container for eight days in Afghanistan in January 2002.

A Pentagon investigation last year by Maj. Gen. George Fay reported that in January 2004, a leashed but unmuzzled military guard dog was allowed into a cell holding two children. The intention was for the dog to " 'go nuts on the kids,' barking and scaring them." The children were screaming and the smaller one tried to hide behind the larger, the report said, as a soldier allowed the dog to get within about one foot of them. A girl named Juda Hafez Ahmad told Amnesty International that when she was held in Abu Ghraib she "saw one of the guards allow his dog to bite a 14-year-old boy on the leg."

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, formerly in charge of Abu Ghraib, told Maj. General Fay about visiting a weeping 11-year-old detainee in the prison's notorious Cellblock 1B, which housed prisoners designated high risk. "He told me he was almost 12," General Karpinski recalled, and that "he really wanted to see his mother, could he please call his mother."

Children like this 11 year old held at Abu Ghraib have been denied the right to see their parents, a lawyer, or anyone else. They were not told why they were detained, let alone for how long. A Pentagon spokesman told Mr. Hersh that juveniles received some special care, but added, "Age is not a determining factor in detention." The United States has found, the spokesman said, that "age does not necessarily diminish threat potential."

It's true that some of these children may have picked up a stone or a gun. But coalition intelligence officers told the Red Cross that 70 percent to 90 percent of detainees in Iraq are eventually found innocent and released. Many innocent children are swept up with their parents in chaotic nighttime dragnets based on tips from unreliable informants. "We know of children under 15," Clarisa Bencomo of Human Rights Watch told me, " held for over a year at Guantánamo Bay, whom the government later said were not security risks."

I've always thought Democracy means we all share some responsibility for the actions of our country and our elected president - more so than in any monarchy, theocracy, or communist state. Whether you align yourself with the Republican or Democrat party is irrelevant. This kind of tragedy is something I expect to hear about some corrupt tyranny in another hemisphere. After reading this, I'm ashamed and embarrassed for my country and unfortunately this hasn't been the first time I've been so embarrassed recently.

I expect Americans will continue to make excuses about this: ("the military has some loose cannons acting on their own", "these are justifiable casualties in the war on terrorism", "the media spins everything and this is surely exaggerated"), but I'd much prefer that we stop being moral hypocrites, face the fact that we have responsibilities as citizens of this democracy, and act.

Happy Fourth of July. I'm going to celebrate Independence Day by writing my Senator, Representative, Governor, and President and encourage you to do the same. It's probably the best way I can think of to celebrate: by exercising the rights citizens of other countries don't have. I encourage you to be politically active and change things for the better, however you define it.

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