Archive for May, 2010

Grüner Tag

May 31st, 2010 No comments

The morning of January 2 this year, I got up in Ichenheim on the day I was returning to Hannover and went upstairs for breakfast. While eating, a Green Day song played on the radio and while it wasn’t the first time I heard it, at that moment it struck me deeply. “I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known. Don’t know where it goes, but it’s only me and I walk alone.” For years I liked Green Day but never got into them, but after hearing that song that morning I decided to finally get their recent albums—it would be the first ‘new music’ of 2010 for me.

I downloaded American Idiot and their latest album 21st Century Breakdown as soon as I got home, but it was actually a couple of months before I felt like listening to them. But as soon as I did, as soon as I was half-way through “Jesus of Suburbia” I knew I should have been listening a long time ago. American Idiot is just an all-around fantastic album, both musically and in terms of deeper meaning. I liked it so much that I listened to it whenever I wanted to hear Green Day, and barely ever listened to 21st Century Breakdown after the first time.

Then about two months ago the front-man for Green Day, Billy Joe Armstrong, went on Bill Maher’s show for an interview that provided me with more insight into the music and made me appreciate it even more. Maher told him that he thinks every album they’ve done is better than the last, so I decided to give 21st Century another chance. I found it was also incredibly good, though I still prefer American Idiot.

By that point I’d already seen a few posters around town advertising the Green Day concert in Hannover on 30 May for their 21st Century Breakdown tour. I’d thought about going but figured it would mostly be songs from the new album and at that point I hadn’t been listening to it much. If I was going to buy tickets to the concert I’d want to hear my favorite song, “Jesus of Suburbia”, and I figured they wouldn’t play anything from previous albums that hadn’t been a hit on the radio, and at nine and a half minutess that song was definitely way too long for the radio. But after realizing how good 21st Century was I figured it would be worth it to go just to hear those songs live, and I bought myself a ticket.

The show was last night. Over the weekend I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be up for it, as I got slightly sick—not enough to be truly debilitating but enough to be annoying and make me very tired. Rather than jogging I went for walks instead on Friday and Saturday, although on the day of the concert I did go jogging again just to listen to 21st Century once more before the concert (Green Day is great jogging music).

The show was to start at 8:00, and I left my flat at 6:30 on the long journey down to the Expo-plaza, arriving there at 7:20. It’s technically in Hannover but it’s really far from the inner city. Incidentally, it’s the same place where Cebit was held and the same tram stop as the Ikea, so I’d already been there several times before.

It was pouring rain when I got there and in spite of my umbrella (which was knocked about relentlessly by the wind) I got fairly soaked by the time I got to the concert hall. At that point, my objective was just to drink enough beer to get a good buzz going for the show. The beer was ridiculously overpriced but I’d expected it and sucked it up. I found my seat—having bought the cheapest possible tickets I was in the top overhang, as far to the left as possible to the point where had I stayed there I would have actually been looking at the performers’ backs. Luckily, the show wasn’t sold out so there were plenty of available seats in the overhang so I sat in the back row nearly center-stage, having the entire row all to myself.

There was an opening act called the Donots, and while they weren’t good they were at least much better than some other opening acts I’ve had to sit through. They played from 8:00 to 8:30, and then there was a 30-minute pause until Green Day came on at 9:00 sharp. I can’t remember ever being to a concert that started exactly on time, and I figured Green Day wouldn’t be the type of band to be punctual to the stage, but maybe they felt that while in Germany they would do as the Germans do.

The show got off to a great start with exactly what I expected—the first handful of songs from 21st Century Breakdown. They played the title track, then “Know Your Enemy” and then skipped forward to “East Jesus Nowhere” which kicks ass and I had really hoped they would play, and then skipped all the way to “The Static Age” which was near the end of the album. I was surprised at how little time they spent on the new stuff.

Before I knew it they busted out the American Idiot stuff, playing “Holiday” which I love and which got the crowd going wild, and then “Novocaine” which is good but nothing too special. At that point I really had to piss and my beer was empty so I quickly ducked out and tried to take care of those things without missing too much. I would have got back nice and quickly if there hadn’t been a problem with the beer—the keg was empty and they had to swap it for a new one which took an excruciating five minutes, during which the band played “Are We the Waiting” which is one of the best songs on the album and which I hadn’t expected to hear. I got to hear it, but it was very muffled and I was extremely pissed to have missed it. Although at least there was an ironic appropriateness to missing that song while waiting for beer.

I got back in just in time for the end of “St. Jimmy”, which they followed with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, the song that had been playing that morning at the beginning of the year which sparked my whole interest in Green Day in the first place. I’m really glad they played it, as it kind of brought things full circle.

But for the rest of the show they busted out the old school shit with which I’m less familiar. I really wished I’d gone for the beer during that portion of the show, but it was too late. The remaining thirty minutes or so were filled with songs I either didn’t know or didn’t care about, although I was definitely happy to hear things like “When I Come Around” or “Basketcase” which I’ve known since middle school and the latter of which was one of my favorite songs for awhile.

Unfortunately I was still a bit pissed at having left at the wrong time and as much as I admired them for spending so much time on their old-school shit to please the hardcore fans, I’d really wanted to hear more from 21st Century Breakdown. I’d been listening to it frequently over the past months just for the sake of getting familiar with it so I could enjoy this particular show more. But they hardly spent any time on it at all, and before I knew it they were building up to the big finish.

Billy Joe is definitely quite a performer. He was obviously enjoying the hell out of himself and he did lots of fun things like bringing kids up to the stage to sing along or firing water from squirt-guns or T-shirts from a cannon into the crowd. He spoke English even to the German crowd, though I’m sure most of them understood him as the crowd was pretty young. I’m not sure how honest he was being, but he said on more than one occasion how great the German crowd was and how it was “way better than America” which of course received thunderous applause. He might have just been pandering to the crowd as rock stars do, but he might also have had a point. The crowd really was fantastic, with more singing and clapping along and waving of the arms in the air than I’ve ever seen at a concert. It’s quite possible that Germans do get more into their rock concerts than Americans do.

Anyway, he said “Danke schön” a few times and they walked off the stage, with the crowd immediately chanting for more. I’ve never seen an encore happen so fast—they were back on the stage within a minute, busting out “American Idiot” (the title track). I was glad to hear another song I was familiar with, but figured it was likely that would be the last.

And then Billy Joe said, “Okay, this is the last song. And it’s called Jesus…of…Suburbia!” I nearly lost my shit with excitement. My favorite Green Day track—the one song I most wanted to hear but figured I’d have no chance of hearing—was going to be the last song. So for the next ten minutes of the epic rock ballad I stood up and danced and sang along liked a damned fool, making sure to squeeze every ounce of enjoyment I could out of this totally unexpected awesomeness.

But it turned out that wasn’t even the last song. Billy Joe concluded with a medley of some of his softer and more melodic tunes, beginning with “Last Night on Earth” from the new album and then “Wake Me Up When September Ends” which is fucking fantastic and unbelievably moving to see performed live, and finally “Time of Your Life” which is also hauntingly beautiful and one of my all-time favorites. When the show finally ended I felt I’d gotten more than my money’s worth.

Then I had to get home. I followed the crowd leaving the arena, not realizing that they were all walking towards a parking lot and not the tram. I had no idea where the tram was and it was dark and the Expo-plaza is a bit of a labyrinth. I kept asking people but nobody knew, until luckily one nice group of Germans who were also heading back to the inner city offered to give me a lift. I got home at midnight and I knew I had to work the next morning but I was still riding high from the show so I stayed up another hour, drinking one last beer and listening to Green Day for the first time since having seen them live. I’ll never listen to them the same way again.

All in all, it was a great experience. Not the best show of my life, of course, but probably in the Top 5. If I had made a list of the top 10 songs I’d wanted to hear them play, they played at least 7, and while I stupidly missed one of them it was more than made up for by getting to hear them play the song I wanted to hear most. If this is the only concert I go to this year, it was a damned good one. For me, Green Day will always be the music of the first half of 2010.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Pantheism + Egoism = Altruism

May 29th, 2010 No comments

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece asking the question of whether the financial crisis would have happened if Wall Street bankers had all been devout Christians, and concluded that there was no good reason to believe it wouldn’t have. That essay sparked a discussion on the TYT forum that wandered into some very abstract metaphysical territory, but it was one of the best online conversations I’ve ever had. Among the many points I was made to consider was whether a belief system, even if it has no scientific basis, can be justifiably adopted due to the potential positive consequences of its widespread acceptance. There is a belief system that would undoubtedly guarantee positive consequences, and while I wouldn’t urge anyone to accept it I’d urge everyone to consider it. If this belief were to be universally accepted by humanity, there would almost certainly have been no financial crisis, no oil spill, no war on terror, no 9/11—virtually none of the tragedies we’ve faced in the last decade or throughout human history.

There were many stops along the road I took from Christianity to atheism, but the one I spent the most time considering was a kind of pantheism I later learned was the core metaphysical belief of Hinduism. Pantheism is the belief that God is everything, a revelation I came to at the age of 13 which gradually led me away from the Christian dogma that conflicts with that belief. Not that Hinduism doesn’t have its fair share of dogma, but the core belief is one I find much more elegant and appealing. It’s a belief I came to on my own (though I’ll confess a few experiences with substances I no longer take might have played a role) and only later discovered that the idea had already been around for thousands of years. In spite of its many gods, Hinduism is at its core a monotheistic religion, with the “Brahman-Atman” in the role westerners would call God. The Brahman-Atman simultaneously creates and experiences the universe. It is the awareness within all of us. When we die, we become one with the Brahman-Atman like a drop of water returning to the ocean.

Picture yourself waking up in total darkness with complete amnesia. You have no body, no memory, no knowledge of what you are or how you came to be. You are aware of only one thing—you exist. But although you lack memory you have the ability to imagine, so you begin to imagine things based on what you experience. If the only thing you experience is darkness, you imagine something else—light. You imagine darkness fading into light and back into darkness—time. You imagine light taking different forms—substance. You imagine the forms operating according to simple patterns—physical laws. You imagine these forms interacting within a confined space—a universe. Once you have all the ingredients necessary for a universe, you begin to imagine very simple universes, perhaps one in which two particles come into existence, meet, and disappear. Next you imagine more particles and more complex interactions. As time goes on the particles and their interactions become more and more complex and eventually you have the hydrogen atom, from which you get stars and galaxies and eventually other heavier atoms and composites of atoms from which you get planets with solid surfaces upon which DNA can form and slowly evolve into life-forms. The life-forms also gradually become more and more complex until they become capable of thought. All the while you have been capable of being any of these things and experiencing these universes of your creation as the elements within them. You can become so involved in being the elements of your creation that while you are in that state-of-being you lose awareness of the fact that it all came from your imagination. While you are experiencing your universe as a tree or a fish or a human, you know only what it is to be a tree, fish, or human. You don’t realize that you are not merely this particular being but every other being in the universe as well, and that all of these beings are your own creation. You are God—everything and everyone else is also God—and none are aware of it.

And yet, many people do seem to arrive at this belief through intuition. Meditation and reflection can lead one to the understanding that everything springs from Mind. Unfortunately, such a conclusion is subject to serious doubt, as it’s not hard imagine why Mind, with only Mind as a tool, would determine that Mind is all that exists. The scenario I described above rests on a whole slew of dubious assumptions which is why I ultimately decided I could no longer accept it as the likeliest candidate for the fundamental nature of reality.

However, we still know so little about awareness and how it works—how consciousness comes into being and the causal relationship between it and the body—that this pantheistic scenario could still be considered a legitimate possibility. And if it is possible that this is the way things are, it has profound implications for morality.

We are not separate beings. At the deepest level, I who am writing this am no different than you who are reading it. The same thing that looks out from my eyes is what looks out from behind yours. It’s the same thing that has looked through the eyes of everyone and everything that has ever lived or ever will live. It’s as though a solitary light is shining through an enormous canvas full of holes and projecting billions of tiny points of light against another wall. Each point of light appears separate and distinct, but the source is the same.

The easiest way to think of this is to imagine that as soon as you die, you are born as another person, and when you die as that person, you are born as another, and so on. You don’t merely have a handful of past lives—every past life is yours. You live every single life that comes into being. You have been every person or animal that has ever existed on this planet or any other planet in the universe. Everything that has ever been experienced has been experienced by you.

If this is what you believe, how likely is it that you will harm another? You don’t even need to live by the “Do unto others as you’d have done to you” principle because everything you do to others is done to you when you live that life. Empathy is not a virtue to be cultivated, but rather the default position. You care about what happens to other people because you must care. You are other people. You are all other people.

It is human nature to be selfish. Selfishness seems far more primal and prevalent than empathy and compassion. But under this belief system, the line between egoism and altruism disappears. If such a belief were universal, even the most selfish individuals would have to help others out of their own self-interest. If you thought the promise of a heavenly reward was a strong motivation to perform altruistic actions for egoistic reasons, imagine how strong a motivation this belief system would be. If one’s sense of self extends to every human being or every living thing, then the most selfish actions would be those that benefit the greatest number.

So let’s take this discussion back down to earth and consider how different the world would be if this were the prevailing belief system. Wall Street bankers would not have caused the financial crisis if they knew they would have to live the lives of everyone who suffered as a result of it. British Petroleum would never have been so negligent as to let their rig explode and spew out all that oil into the sea if they knew they would not only have to live the lives of every fisherman put out of work due to the spill but every last bird, fish, and sea-turtle that chokes and dies on the filth. In fact, it’s likely that there would be no offshore oil drilling at all because humans would have collectively decided that the risk to the many would absolutely outweigh the reward of the few. The American people would never have allowed Bush and Cheney to start the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because we would have been unwilling to live the lives of the millions of innocent people who would suffer, die, or lose loved ones as a result. But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wouldn’t have happened anyway, as who would want to blow up a building knowing that in another life they are in that building?

Who would murder someone if they knew they would have to be murdered? Who would rape someone knowing that they also experience the rape? What kind of person would ever harm a child, knowing that they would have to be that child and experience the full degree of fear and horror that the child would have to endure?

What politician would sell out his constituents for the promise of a lucrative job later on if they knew they not only represented those constituents but that they are those constituents? What board of directors of a multi-national corporation would allow their corporation to harm millions of people if they knew they had to live those lives as well? Why would society even allow such an entity that places profit over the common good to even exist and become so powerful in the first place? Would a small group of wealthy and powerful elites make so much effort to accumulate more wealth and power at everyone else’s expense if they recognized how small a ratio of time in which they live their privileged lives would be in comparison to the amount of time in which they would have to live in poverty?

Who can honestly say that if human beings universally believed that we all share the same awareness, that the common good of all living things wouldn’t be the number one consideration on everybody’s mind? That after thousands of years of brutality, all those violent battles we both won and died painfully in, all those heretics we both burned and were burned as, all those people we tortured and were tortured as, all those animals we’ve slaughtered and been slaughtered as—we wouldn’t collectively decide to end the suffering, to stop being so cruel to each other and thus to ourselves, and to do whatever would be necessary to provide everyone with the basic requirements of a comfortable, worthwhile life?

I no longer believe in this Brahman-Atman view of things, but I still look at the world with the possibility in mind. When I find myself loathing someone like a racist carrying a hateful sign or a politician lying through his teeth to protect a corporation, I force myself to consider the possibility that I am that person too. When I consider any new law or policy I think about how it will affect everyone, just in case I am everyone.

So I don’t think the world needs to believe this is true in order to for us to drastically improve things, but it’s enough to believe it might be true. Think of Pascal, who said that it’s better to believe in God because you lose nothing if you’re wrong and gain everything if you’re right, but if you bet against God’s existence and He does exist your loss is infinitely terrible. If we believe that we all share one consciousness and we’re right, we gain billions of lifetimes in an earthly paradise. If we believe that we all share one consciousness and we’re wrong, we gain an earthly paradise anyway, though experienced merely in one life. But if we reject the possibility that we all share one consciousness and it turns out we do, we have to endure billions more lifetimes of pain and suffering.

So to all the egoists out there who are incapable of caring about anyone other than your self: do you want to risk it? How sure are you that your self is limited to you alone? If the little girl in Iran might also be your self, how sure are you that you want to drop that nuclear bomb on her? If that child dying of starvation in Africa might also be your self, do you still not give a damn? If those lefty liberal commie bastards you hate so much might also be your self, do you still refuse to consider what they have to say?

A Proper Attack on Rand Paul

May 26th, 2010 No comments

I took a lot of heat last week [mostly in other forums] for writing a blog post called “In Defense of Rand Paul”. Right at the start I said it was more of an attack on the media than a defense of Rand Paul himself, who was growing less defensible by the minute. I also wrote that I might very well regret writing anything sympathetic towards the guy, and now that a few more news days have passed and I know more about him, I have to admit that I almost regret defending him. But for the most part I stick to what I originally wrote, which is that the media—particularly the small segment of it which could justifiably be called ‘liberal’—was being unfair to tacitly label him a quasi-racist wacko just because of his libertarian approach to the Civil Rights Act. But this morning I read this excellent piece on the Huffington Post by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos which focused on Rand Paul’s more objectionable positions regarding American interventionism and foreign policy. Whoever this Kelley Vlahos is, the mainstream media should take a lesson from her about the right way to criticize a candidate.

One of the reasons I was so quick to defend Rand Paul is because of his father Ron Paul, whom I came to respect during the 2008 Republican Party primary in which Ron Paul was the only candidate willing to come out and say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a stupid idea that was costing the country more than it could afford. The Republican establishment was quick to label him a crazy wackaloon, and while some of his positions were a bit extreme I thought they were at least philosophically defensible. Ron Paul seemed to be the only guy on the republican side—indeed one of the only candidates from either party—who was actually saying what he genuinely believed with little or no regard to political popularity. So when I saw the liberal media attach the same wackaloon label to his son Rand Paul after what appeared to be an honest philosophical disagreement over the Civil Rights Act, my initial reaction was anger.

And if Rand Paul really were an honest politician as his father seems to be, my anger would still be justified. I get that it’s the media’s job to call attention to some of the more extreme and/or controversial views held by a political candidate, so I don’t begrudge Rachel Maddow for pressing him on that point. I just wish she’d gotten to other issues. I do, however, begrudge Keith Olbermann and a few other commentators who went about covering the story by mercilessly beating up on the guy just for having an unorthodox opinion. “Can you believe this guy?” was the tone. “Doesn’t he know anything about politics? You can’t have that opinion in Washington. What a buffoon!”

They were acting as though Rand Paul had been running on a platform of repealing the Civil Rights Act. As though his first act as a U.S. Senator would be to introduce legislation making it legal for private business owners to refuse to serve minorities. But this was never one of his campaign platforms, he never had any intention of going near the Civil Rights Act, and it only became a major issue because it’s the first question Rachel Maddow decided to ask him about and he foolishly spent 20 minutes trying to avoid giving her a straight answer.

And for the next several days all I heard about Rand Paul was his position on the Civil Rights Act, which I completely disagree with but which I also understand philosophically. If you accept the premises upon which libertarianism is based, then you have to accept the conclusion that business owners have a right to discriminate (particularly if you also accept the premise that businesses are akin to persons). I reject these premises so I reject the conclusion. The media barely even examined the premises and simply lambasted the guy for his conclusion. Although credit should definitely be given to Chris Hayes of The Nation, who brought on a real libertarian to have an honest discussion of the matter while guest-hosting for Rachel Maddow. That, I felt, was the proper way to deal with the issue—as opposed to Olbermann’s approach of bringing on Washington pundits to snicker and crack jokes.

But the real issue is that the Civil Rights Act isn’t even the issue at all. What does Rand Paul think about financial reform? He’s probably against it. Why don’t we talk about that? What does Rand Paul think of the oil spill? We were fortunate enough to see him asked about it and to hear that he believes BP is being treated unfairly—a position far more ridiculous and unprincipled than his stance on Civil Rights. But most importantly, what is his stance on American interventionism, the one position in which I was in 100% agreement with his father Ron Paul?

According to Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, it’s pretty unclear. We know that the Republican establishment opposed Rand Paul because they were afraid he would be critical of the wars like his father. But Rand Paul, who apparently made a political calculation to harness as much Tea Party momentum as possible for his campaign, hasn’t been willing to speak nearly as openly on this issue as he seems to be on others. It may very well be that deep in his libertarian heart of hearts he agrees with his father that the United States has no business spending trillions of dollars on foreign occupation, but that’s the kind of position that will get you thrown directly under the Tea Party Express bus.

The article, which I recommend anyone unfamiliar with Rand Paul to read, excellently presents all we know about Rand Paul’s feelings regarding American foreign policy. He does support the war in Afghanistan, he opposes closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he supports Israel’s right-wing government and doesn’t think they should be pressed to make any concessions to Palestine. Most telling of all, however, is that while father Ron Paul likened the potential use of nuclear weapons against Iran to genocide, son Rand Paul thinks the nuclear option should remain on the table. Vlahos also calls attention to the fact that he personally courted Sarah Palin’s endorsement and enthusiastically welcomed her support.

This is how it should be done. After reading that article I now feel I know everything I need to know to make a conclusive judgment about Rand Paul, and that judgment is definitively negative. I was wrong to assume that like his father, Rand Paul was a man of principle.

I responded to a few commenters by saying that Rand Paul is not the enemy. His political philosophy may be dangerous and wrong, but at least he truly believes in it. The real enemy, I wrote, are the corporatist politicians who will say whatever they think the public wants to hear and then do whatever benefits them personally once they’re in power. The media should be going after the liars and hypocrites as opposed to demonizing candidates who merely have non-mainstream opinions.

But it now seems quite clear that Rand Paul is the enemy—another hypocrite willing to say whatever he believes is most likely to get him elected, and to refrain from saying anything he thinks would drive his poll numbers down. If he valued principle above power, he would be advocating the non-interventionist principles of the libertarian party in spite of their unpopularity among Tea Partiers, knowing that even if he lost he’d been fighting for what he believed in. If he valued principle above power, he would advocate closing Guantanamo and admit as his father did that dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran would be an act of genocide. If he valued principle above power, he would certainly not have sought and embraced the endorsement of Sarah Palin, the most transparently unprincipled player in American politics today.

So you won’t hear any more defense of Rand Paul coming from me, though I will continue to criticize the liberal media when I think they’re taking the wrong approach. Hopefully as the Rand Paul saga continues into November they’ll go about their criticism with a little less hyperbole and a little more attention to issues that really matter.

Long-Term Pessimistic

May 24th, 2010 No comments

Allow me to depress the hell out of you for a moment as I step back and take a broad look at the state of affairs in the world and draw my gloomy conclusions. Hopefully someone can tell me why I’m wrong and that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Cenk Uygur, the host of my favorite political show—The Young Turks—sees most things almost exactly as I see them with one major difference. He insists that while he may be pessimistic in the short-term, he’s “long-term optimistic” and I know a lot of people who also feel that way. But not me. I look at the world and the human race and I see a species on the verge of extinction, brought about by its own blind ignorance and refusal to accept responsibility for its fate.

Just look at what’s in the headlines today. Wall Street Executives are expressing sighs of relief at the financial reform package just passed in the senate. You don’t need to know a damned thing about economics to take that as an indication that the reforms didn’t go far enough and the bankers can continue with business as usual. Banks can still be too big to fail and they can still trade derivatives. There is slightly more oversight and rules banning some of the more reckless financial practices…but no penalty for banks that break those rules. Just this one line from the New York Times piece says it all:

Some experts predict that Wall Street, like water overcoming a dam, will easily adapt to the new regulations, or at least exploit what loopholes do remain and thrive again.

If I had any money I’d bet heavily on another financial crisis hitting within the next few years. And when it does, the damage is going to be far worse than the last one. The big banks haven’t been broken up so they can still hold the economy hostage. The public has to bail them out or it all goes under. But people are still enraged about the first bailout—how is it going to be politically possible for anyone in congress to vote for another one? I suspect they all will because they can hide behind the cover of “this is absolutely necessary” like they did the first time, but there’s a chance that the people just won’t stand for it this time and the banks will go down. In any case, Obama will be blamed (rightly so in one sense) and the Tea Party movement is likely to boil into open revolt. Economies all over the world will fall like dominos and countries that have a social safety net will find the number of unemployed far too large to handle. Billions will be out on the street with nowhere to turn, and global chaos will ensue.

Maybe that won’t happen for a few decades, but that seems to be the direction we’re heading in. Thanks to these financial crises the human race seems to be waking up to the fact that the entire global monetary system is based on nothing more than a kind of international consent. We agree that your money is worth something and you agree that ours is too. But economies are becoming less based on actual tangible goods and more on abstract ‘financial products’ that have no intrinsic value. Wealth is just a number in a bank account, scarcely more real than points in a video game. The entire global financial system is a balloon filled with hot air and we’re doing nothing to stop those who keep blowing into it because they hold the balloon—they own everybody in a position to potentially stop them—and sooner or later the balloon is going to burst.

But that’s just money. The global chaos that will ensue when the balloon bursts may set humanity back to the Dark Ages but it won’t kill us all. The other big story in the news these days is the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which in and of itself won’t be too devastating but it’s just one symptom of a much larger problem—one far more threatening than any economic collapse.

Not everyone accepts that CO2 emissions are warming up the earth’s atmosphere and not everyone believes that the earth’s resources are as limited as environmentalists claim they are, but just about everyone accepts the concept of a food chain. Anyone who knows anything about ecosystems knows that all forms of life depend on other forms of life for their survival. Nature establishes equilibriums, and when it’s thrown off balance the consequences are usually devastating. Remove just one species from a marsh and hundreds of others might disappear depending on how crucial that species was.

This planet is currently undergoing what scientists have labeled the Sixth Extinction, in which the earth loses about 30,000 species per year due to human activity. This has been going on since the development of agriculture thousands of years ago, but there is no doubt it’s accelerating rapidly due to industrialization. The Gulf oil spill is almost sure to take its fair share of species from the ocean, and there is no indication that we as a species have any intention to stop drilling any time soon.

And of course there’s only so much oil in the earth’s crust, so when that’s gone we’re really going to run into trouble unless we can find another fuel source that can provide us with as much energy as fossil fuels do. Wind and solar won’t provide enough power to keep civilization running as it currently is, and nuclear energy has its own problems, the biggest being radioactive waste.

But even if we find a way to keep the engines of civilization churning, those engines will continue to rape the environment, pollute the sky, and destroy species by the minute. Common sense tells us that there’s only so much damage we can do to the environment before a tipping point is reached and some element of the food chain that was critical to our survival disappears. It may not happen for another century, but unless we drastically alter our way of living it is bound to happen, and I see no sign of willingness on the part of humanity to make such drastic alterations.

The last story I read today is about the Muslim world’s perception of America on the one year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, and how nearly all of the hopes he raised in that speech have been dashed over the last year. The prison at Guantanamo remains open, Israel is still building new settlements in disputed territory, and American troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding the wars, Iraq may be “winding down” but people are still being killed by insurgents nearly every day, while Afghanistan truly is “heating up” while many objective observers are saying that our presence there is counter-productive. Our troops are basically there to prop up and support a corrupt, criminal government with a leader who almost certainly won the election through fraud.

Why is this important? Why is it a sign of humanity’s impending doom? Because the leader of the free world is not George W. Bush anymore—it’s Barack Obama.

I came to true political awareness during the Bush administration and back then I was just as filled with doom and gloom. Clearly, the guy was the worst possible president we could have had. Not only was he an ignorant buffoon who probably genuinely believed that Jesus wanted him to start these wars—he was transparently a puppet of the giant corporations that dominate us. He was a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Oil and a staunch ally of the military industrial complex. Under Bush, you could be sure that the environment would continue to be raped and war would be the order of the day. Clearly, there would be no effort towards world peace or environmental sustainability.

But then Barack Obama came along with a promise of change. He talked the talk and inspired the world with the very vision we needed most—the vision of a world united in peace, an end to unnecessary wars and a true drive towards clean and renewable energy that would protect and preserve the environment we all depend on. If anyone was going to lead the way to that future dreamed about by men like Gene Roddenberry or Carl Sagan—in which humanity survives its technological adolescence and dedicates itself to its own betterment and to exploring the universe beyond our planet of origin—it was Barack Obama.

But clearly we’re a long way from the United Federation of Planets and it’s doubtful we’ll ever get there. If Obama had the best of intentions when he got into office, he quickly discovered that there were serious limitations to what he could accomplish. The powers that be were already too powerful. If the best he could do with Wall Street was to give them a slap on the wrist and warn them not to cause another financial crisis, if the best he could do with the two wars was to slightly alter the deployment numbers and shift a few resources around, if the best he could do to address climate change was to offer more subsidies for offshore drilling and then give up the fight when something went wrong, and if the best he can do during an actual environmental catastrophe like the one in the Gulf is to let the corporations handle it and hope the story just goes away—then humanity is more fucked than most people care to admit.

It turns out that it really doesn’t matter at all who the president is. If we’re heading in the wrong direction no matter who is at the helm, we’re eventually going to fall off the cliff. And what can I do about it? What can any of us do about it? That’s a question for another blog entry, one I’ll write if I ever come up with anything. For now I think the best we can do is simply recognize it. To understand that humanity’s survival is not guaranteed—that our grandchildren may not live to have grandchildren of their own—and that the only hope we have is to stop making enemies of each other and to come together and fight against extinction, the common enemy of us all.

Obama’s Missed Oil-portunity

May 23rd, 2010 No comments

(Sorry, I can’t resist those cheesy puns). I haven’t written much about the oil spill because I haven’t had anything to say that hasn’t already been said a million times. I considered going after claims by right-wingers like Limbaugh that it’s all the environmentalists’ fault, but you don’t need me to explain why that position is ludicrous. I also thought about possibly defending the president against charges that this is “his Katrina” but after the passing of this financial non-reform package I have no appetite for defending Obama. But yesterday I read that James Carville had criticized Obama’s response to the spill and I found myself agreeing so forcefully that I figured I could squeeze a little blog entry out about it.

Carville’s criticism was essentially that the administration’s strategy is just to let BP handle everything as though that company has good motivations. This is obviously wrong. BP doesn’t have America’s best interests in mind—it only has BP’s best interests in mind. Not because it’s evil but because it’s a corporation and that’s the very nature of corporations. They’re going to do whatever they can possibly do to mitigate their own financial damage and the best Gulf Coast residents can hope for is that at least some of BP’s interests (namely containing the leak) coincide with theirs. But rest assured, if it were somehow profitable for BP to let the oil keep leaking, they wouldn’t bat an eyelash as the entire Gulf Coast was swallowed up in black sludge.

Obviously, the Obama administration has just wanted this story to go away from the very beginning because of his monumentally wrong-headed decision to include more subsidies for offshore oil-drilling in the climate-change bill. This spill made him look like a fool, and as Carville said he’s been treating it like an ‘inconvenience’. It seems that his strategy is to just let BP handle everything and hope the story stays out of the headlines.

But imagine if you will that we had a Hollywood president—by which I mean the kind of president you see in action movies. Imagine if on the day of the leak, President Denzel Washington stepped up to the podium for a prime-time address to the American people to say, “My fellow Americans, I will not sit idly by while the Gulf Coast is threatened by this oil spill. Containing the damage caused by this leak is now the Number One priority of my administration, and we will not rest until the well is capped. I am assembling a team of this country’s greatest engineering minds and experts on oil-drilling technology to come up with the best solutions to this problem. Containing the leak is ultimately BP’s responsibility, but protecting the Gulf Coast and the Americans who depend on it for their livelihoods is my responsibility and I intend to live up to it. We will work with BP to cap the well but once the immediate crisis is over we will not hesitate to hold accountable those who were responsible for causing this catastrophe.”

He could continue: “Several weeks ago I announced my support for offshore oil-drilling. I was assured that it was safe, and that the risk of a large-scale spill was negligible. Clearly, this is not the case. I was mistaken, and I humbly ask the American people to forgive me for listening to bad advice. Now that the risks are clear, I promise not to allow any new offshore oil-drilling to begin unless it can be demonstrated that procedures exist to handle this kind of incident should it happen again, and that the drilling poses absolutely no risk to the environment that Americans depend on to earn a living. I accept my responsibility for dealing with this crisis, and I intend to make sure it never happens again.”

I think his approval numbers would have gone through the roof. Sure, the wingnuts who hate him no matter what he does would have pounced all over him for being weak because he admitted a mistake, and for being a socialist by getting the government involved in the containment when he should just let BP take care of it. But most people would see a bold leader willing to rise to the occasion and not afraid to admit when he’s wrong.

It’s ridiculous to call this “Obama’s Katrina” but unfortunately some parallels can be drawn. If Obama really wanted to distinguish himself from Bush he could have stood up and said that he refused to turn a blind eye to the people of the Gulf, to do everything he possibly could to make sure the areas devastated by Katrina would not have to face further devastation as a result of the spill.

Instead, he’s just been hoping that BP would fix everything and that the story would quietly disappear. Meanwhile, he refused to support legislation raising the cap on damages BP would have to pay those financially hurt by the spill from $75 million to $10 billion. The administration’s position is that the amount of the cap should remain unspecified, which almost certainly means it should be less than $10 billion and not more. Because the damage is probably going to be more than $10 billion, who is going to pick up the tab? The American people, obviously. British Petroleum drills our oil and rakes in the profit, and when they fuck it up we have to pay for it? It’s disgusting, and it makes me wonder how on earth there are still progressives who are defending this guy.

He had a great opportunity to be the kind of president from the movies—the kind of president that Americans all secretly wish we had. But he squandered the opportunity out of his own political over-cautiousness and what seems to be a naturally-ingrained proclivity to defer to corporations in each and every instance, even when those corporations are almost quite literally shitting all over us.

In Defense of Rand Paul

May 22nd, 2010 No comments

Okay, so this will actually be more of an attack on the media than a defense of Rand Paul, who seems to be growing less defensible by the minute. I just read that he cancelled an appearance on Meet the Press…What are you doing, Rand? A little bit of rough treatment from the media and you go running for the hills? Stick to your guns, man. I was on your side when this frenzy began, even though I disagree with the position that put you in hot water. So at the risk of writing some things I’ll later regret once I get to know more about you, I’ll explain why I think the attacks on you have been unfair.

Let me start by addressing Rachel Maddow, who conducted the interview which sparked the whole controversy. Rachel, I’m deeply disappointed in you. Just last week I was defending you against a commenter on my blog, saying that for the most part you rise above the typical sound-byte “gotcha” journalism that the rest of the cable-news hosts can’t help themselves but to sink into. Yet when you interviewed Rand Paul, you went at him for a solid fifteen minutes on this one little issue—a controversial statement he made on NPR regarding the Civil Rights Act.

You pointed out the implications of his libertarian worldview in regards to civil rights. He doesn’t believe that the government should have the power to force private businesses to serve minorities. He’s not in favor of segregation and he finds racism abhorrent—a point he went to great lengths to hammer home. But he is a libertarian, and his political philosophy is that the government should have as little power as possible. That means that it can’t tell the owner of a private business that he can’t hang a “whites only” sign on his door. If you accept the libertarian worldview, then you have to live with a few ugly consequences. Giving people as much freedom as possible means that some people are going to abuse that freedom.

Rand Paul stood by his principles. And you just kept hounding him, asking the same question over and over again in pursuit of that one precious sound-byte of Paul saying, “I believe businesses should have the right to segregate.” Paul, who understands politics, refused to give you that sound-byte because he knew it would be played over and over again in the news and in attack ads by his opponent. I would have had a lot more respect for him if he didn’t dodge the question and just came right out and said what he believes, but I understand why he felt it was politically necessary to dodge it.

But the thing is, he didn’t even really dodge it. He defended his views. He said that the Civil Rights Act was, for the most part, a good thing. He simply believes that it went too far by giving the government the power to prohibit private business owners from segregating their business.

Do I agree with this position? No, but I understand it. I may be a flaming liberal on most issues, but I think the government should have limited power when it comes to private businesses—particularly small businesses which don’t constitute major segments of the national economy like big corporations do. I happen to believe that the government should have the power to force small business owners to serve minorities, but I understand the argument for why it shouldn’t. It’s a free speech issue, and even if we deplore racism we have to tolerate it. If you’re a black man and see a “whites only” sign on a restaurant, don’t eat there. And anyone else who hates racism won’t eat there either. In a perfect world, all segregated businesses would fail because no one would want to give them their business.

Unfortunately, there is still too much racism in this country for that to work, and if you did allow business-owners to hang “whites only” signs on the door, you’d have tens of thousands of businesses refusing to serve minorities and they would have a much harder time finding places that welcome them. It would probably lead to an almost completely re-segregated South where blacks and minorities would once again be second-class citizens due to all of the businesses given free reign to turn them away. This is why I believe the government should have the right to force integration.

I never would have even considered this issue if it hadn’t been for the Rand Paul interview. That’s the value of hearing opposing points of view—you get to consider them and refine your own opinion. This is enormously valuable in a free and democratic society.

But is that how the mainstream media treated it? Not even close! At the slightest whiff of racial controversy, the entire cable news world erupted in a simultaneous ejaculation of righteous indignation. “Did you hear what Rand Paul said? He thinks white people should be allowed to discriminate against minorities! I told you the Tea Party was full of racists!”

Now I don’t actually believe in the myth of the “liberal media” but I could see how anyone watching the reaction to Rand Paul might have got that impression. The guy was beaten, flogged, and crucified just for having an unorthodox opinion. I normally enjoy Keith Olbermann’s program but watching his show on the day after the Maddow interview I wanted to grab him and shake him and scream, “Get ahold of yourself, man! Calm the fuck down, okay? The man has an opinion you don’t agree with—that doesn’t mean he’s the second coming of George Wallace!” He even floated the idea that Rand Paul should withdraw his nomination.

Are you fucking kidding me? He should drop out of the senate race because he’s consistent to his libertarian political philosophy? Congress is full of hypocrites and flip-floppers, and one guy who actually stands by his principles should step down?

I might disagree with Rand Paul on just about everything, but I have to respect a guy who has a genuine political philosophy that he adheres to and stands by. Unlike most republicans (and probably most democrats), Rand Paul seems to actually believe in what he says, otherwise he would have flip-flopped on this issue right away. But instead he defended his position in spite of the political cost, and in return he’s been devoured for it. Contrast that with republicans like Eric Cantor who wouldn’t even go near the question with a ten-foot pole. Who do you have more respect for—the guy who will take an unpopular position or the guy who won’t take any position at all?

I can’t help but suspect that the media is being so hard on Paul because he’s not a part of the establishment. Republicans say ridiculous, radical, racist things all the time, but nobody calls for them to step down. But Paul, whose father Ron Paul was also repeatedly criticized and lambasted from all sides during the 2008 republican presidential primary, is not a Washington insider so that makes him the fairest of fair game. Whatever you do, don’t focus on his actual campaign platform or what he might actually do as a senator—just keep pressing him on this one controversial statement from an NPR interview.

The guy is not running on a platform of repealing the Civil Rights Act. If he becomes a senator, he’s not going to push to reinstate the right of business owners to discriminate against minorities. I don’t actually know what the hell he’s running on or what he intends to do as a senator because everyone just keeps talking about the segregation thing. This is typical media bullshit—it’s infuriating—and this time it’s coming from those in the media that I actually like.

Here’s an idea—let the voters decide. Let Rand Paul have his political philosophy, let him articulate it, and let the voters decide whether they want him to be their representative. It’s called democracy, for fuck’s sake. If the media weren’t so quick to pounce all over anything a politician says that may be even slightly controversial, politicians might actually open up and tell us what they really believe sometimes. We might actually be able to have honest, rational discussion amongst ourselves and find common ground with one another. America might actually work the way it’s supposed to work, with a well-informed populace choosing as representatives those who best represent them. If America were that country instead of the hyper-polarized ideological battlefield the corporate media has made us, it would be a hell of a country indeed.

“This is God’s Country”

May 19th, 2010 No comments

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

Forget all you learned about how the United States was the first country ever to be founded under no particular religion. According to right-wing political celebrities such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, the United States of America is indisputably a Christian nation. In recent speeches, both have declared that this is “God’s country” and that its founding documents are every bit as sacrosanct as Biblical Scripture. This is the kind of claim that drives me insane, as I just can’t grasp how so many people just accept it without question when the level of absurdity is literally astronomical.

Evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians believe that the creator of the entire universe is a being much like themselves, which is already ridiculous. If they bothered to learn anything at all about science and cosmology, they’d know that human beings are one of billions of species who have ever walked the earth, that the earth itself is one of potentially trillions of planets orbiting the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, which is merely one of hundreds of billions of galaxies or more in the universe. Do they seriously believe that of the hundreds of billions of galaxies God created, our Milky-Way is His favorite one? That of the trillions of planets in this galaxy, Earth is His favorite? That of the billions of species that have come into being and passed into extinction throughout this time, human beings are His favorite? And of every nation that has ever existed throughout history, the United States of America is His favorite?

Please. This is obscenely irrational. If the history of the universe were condensed into one year, the amount of time humans have existed wouldn’t even amount to a full second. Recorded history is but the tiniest fraction of a second, and American history is merely a fraction of that fraction. If God really created untold trillions of worlds and waited billions upon billions of years so that one particular country in one of those worlds could come into being, then God is one strange character to say the least. And what interest does God have in America anyway? He waited billions of years for its formation so He could what? Help it win wars? Seriously, what does God want with us if we’re so important to Him?

The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814

One thing’s for sure—He couldn’t possibly be a fan of the United States government. There’s nothing these right-wingers loathe more than the government. So apparently God loves America but hates the American government. So it must be the people he loves. But wait, I thought half the people were damned godless liberals. America is filled with atheists and homosexuals and all kinds of other abominations, so I guess He really just loves churchgoing conservatives. He doesn’t love the United States of America—He loves the Red States of America.

And apparently there’s something intrinsically better about American churchgoing Christians than churchgoing Christians from other countries. Perhaps because America is the country He personally founded by, according to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, guiding the hands of Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Never mind that Jefferson didn’t write the Constitution—God obviously guided the hands of whomever it was that did.

After all, it certainly sounds divinely inspired:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
-Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, June-July 1776

No doubt about it—that’s some eloquent expression of passionate, righteous ideals for you. All men are created equal. What a brilliant concept. Definitely something for America to be proud of. And who knows? Maybe it did come from God. Just like the U.S. Constitution, a part of which reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
-Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the original United States Constitution

Wait a minute, what’s this “three fifths” business? If I’m reading this correctly, it would seem that when we calculate how many representatives each state should have in the federal government, “free Persons” are to count as 1 and “other Persons” (i.e. black people—slaves) are to count as 3/5. So all men are created equal…but black people are 2/5 less equal then white people. As for women…don’t even ask.

This perfect, divinely inspired document has since been amended to count minorities and women just as equally as everybody else, but you’d think if God was guiding the hands of those men who wrote it (themselves nearly as holy and sacred as the Apostles) He would have had them get it right the first time. Unless He really did mean for blacks to be counted as 3/5 of a person and those less holy men of subsequent generations went and fucked it all up by reconciling it with that “all men are created equal” idea that God wrote in that other document. Whether one contradicts the other is just another Great Mystery—like how some passages in Genesis 2 contradict some passages in Genesis 1. Or maybe what God really meant was “all white men are created equal to other white men, all black men are created equal to other black men, all Hispanic men are created equal to other Hispanic men” and so on. I suppose one could interpret it that way.

So it seems I’ve failed to defeat the claim. Just because there are trillions of trillions of planets in the universe doesn’t mean this can’t be God’s favorite. And just because the United States of America has only existed for less than the blink of a cosmic eye doesn’t mean it can’t be God’s favorite country—even though He hates its government and half the people in it. Just because the Constitution contradicts the ideals of the Declaration of Independence doesn’t mean they couldn’t have both been divinely inspired. And in the mind of an evangelical Christian, if something that feels good to believe even might be true, it’s safe to assume that it must be true.

Thomas Jefferson, a deist who believed that God merely set the universe in motion and didn’t interfere in human affairs, a scholar who actually published his own version of the New Testament with all of the miracles and supernatural claims removed, must have been divinely inspired by the God whom he believed did not divinely inspire people to write the founding documents for a country which he and the other [Holy] Founders intended to be a Christian Nation. So all of us liberals who insist on a firm wall between Church and State should just shut up and face the facts—unless you’re a Christian, you’re not fully American, because the two are and were designed to be intertwined.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802

The Iranians: Supplemental

May 15th, 2010 No comments

There were a few details about my conversation with the Iranians on the last night of Rheinfest that I left out of the entry, and because I consider that encounter to be one of the most significant I’ve yet had in my travels, I feel compelled to record them before they are forever lost to my memory’s slow decay.

Both Mozhgan and Kiyoumars were offered beer by the locals, and she drank one out of courtesy while he had two. It’s not something either of them were used to, her especially, as drinking alcohol is illegal in Iran. Some people make their own alcohol and it’s much stronger and more dangerous than it would be if it were regulated (like drugs are in the U.S.), and anyone caught drinking it goes to prison. They have their own drink which they drink socially, but it doesn’t contain any alcohol and is supposedly actually healthy for you. They were surprised to learn from me that alcohol was also prohibited in America back in the 1920s. They hadn’t known about this.

They both had their hair covered, but that was the extent of their religious attire. She was otherwise in plain-clothes, though in Iran she’d have to wear a burqa in public.

While we were discussing politics, they said how they believed the Shah is a good man, a man of God. The German man who had been sitting with us at the time told them how when the Shah had come to Germany in 1979, students had protested and called him a dictator, and they were both very surprised by that. But they seemed to credit America with giving protection to the Shah. As for the Ayatollah, they believe he’s not a man of God at all, and that the government only pretends to follow Islam.

This interested me because I’ve assumed that the Iranian government actually does consist of religious fundamentalists who want to see Islamic law imposed on the rest of the world. It’s the basis on which we believe it would be so dangerous for Iran to get nuclear weapons—if they’re serious enough about their religion and believe it’s their God-given duty to wipe out Israel, they might actually use their nukes and start WWIII. But this couple doesn’t believe they’re sincere at all about Islam, and they don’t understand why their government keeps pursuing nuclear weapons, especially when it brings about sanctions that only hurt the common people.

The people aren’t terrorists, she insisted. The governments are terrorists—all governments are terrorists. They control the people through fear, and they maintain hostile relationships with other governments to serve their own purposes. As I wrote before, it’s to the mutual advantage of America and Iran (and according to them, to Israel as well) to continue to posture as enemies. As long as the people of each nation believe in an existential threat, they’ll go along with the government.

Finally, I’ve given off the impression that this was a very somber, serious discussion, when in reality it was very light-hearted with lots of smiling and laughter. At one point, Kiyoumars stood me up and put his arm around my shoulder, inviting me to join him in some kind of dance which involved lots of bending of the knees and kicking. It was slightly embarrassing and I totally fucked it up, but we all had a good laugh. It was clear that those two beers went straight to his head, which is to be expected from someone who spent most of his life in a country where drinking one beer could land you in prison.

As for the story of the raven which accompanied them on their journey, I’m too much of a skeptic to simply accept them on their word that it was the same bird every time. She said that at first they also chalked it up to coincidence but over time they came to believe it was protecting them and showing them the way. I think it’s far more likely that it was a different bird each time, and looked similar enough to allow them to believe they were being guided by a spirit. Still, it’s so much more preferable to believe that the bird was a spirit than to dismiss it as coincidence coupled with wishful thinking. Hearing their story made me long for the days when I could accept such things on faith, but those days are over. I’ve accepted the more scientific approach of never accepting extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence. Sadly, when you take that approach to its logical conclusions you wind up with a universe completely devoid of any higher value or deeper significance. Life is empty. There’s no real reason to live—the best you can do is live for a small reasons. Love would be enough of a reason for me to live, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Instead, I’ve settled for experience. If there’s really nothing more to the universe than particles and forces, then even that is inherently devoid of value, but on nights like that one it almost feels like enough.

Rheinfest Lessons, Part 2: The Iranians

May 13th, 2010 No comments

It’s still the night of the last night of Rheinfest and I’m extremely tired but I have to spend most of tomorrow on the train, so if I don’t write this down now it won’t be nearly as fresh in my mind as it should be.

I learned a lesson from the first half of Rheinfest: I’m still fixated on my lack of a romantic relationship, and when I’m around beautiful women I can’t have that’s still all my mind can think about. I only feel as though I’ve grown out of it because now I can avoid it most of the time. But I learned a much different lesson from the second part of Rheinfest, one much deeper and more important.

Although last night was the third night of Rheinfest, I didn’t end up going. Wednesday was the only good-weather day of the entire week, and I spent a good two hours riding around the little villages on a bicycle, stopping at the Rheinfest tent for only a short time while Dieter and a small group of others (Elena included) were setting things up for the night’s festivities. They would be singing old folk songs that evening, but nobody else wanted to go so I didn’t end up going back at all that night.

Tonight, Thursday—Father’s Day in Germany—would be the last night I would spend at Rheinfest, and we all went together at around 2:30 in the afternoon. For the first two hours or so it was no different from my experience of the first few days. Elena was there, as was Lara and that girl with the boyfriend I’d been focused on during the packing-up operations Sunday evening. As the bands played and I drank my first few beers, I would just keep moving my eyes around the room from girl to girl, attempting to “appreciate without desire” but not quite achieving that goal.

I discovered soon enough that I was sitting right across from the parents of Tanja, one of the girls from the night of the Musik Club Offenburg—one of the two that stuck out most in my memory as being rather beautiful. She was working there too, just like Elena, Lara, and the mystery no-name girl, but occasionally she’d come up to talk to her parents and I’d get to admire her up-close. We made eye contact a few times but there was no indication that she remembered me from that night.

After the first band finished a small group of pre-teen kids got up and did a few numbers, so I got to admire some younger girls as well, though I actually found myself more emotionally affected by the actual songs they played, which included the themes to Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump, two films very close to my heart (for very different reasons). When they finished, it was time for the final band to play—the “Old Timers”—which included Dieter and many of his friends, and they played for a solid four hours with only a few pauses in between.

They’d frequently stop to call attention to some of the people working there or visiting, and at one point the man with the microphone called for a round of applause for the two women at the hefeweizen stand, one of whom was Simone. Well holy shit. I hadn’t noticed, but there she was. The very same Simone who had been the main focus of the Musik Club Offenburg night all those years ago. She definitely looked the full six years older, and much less attractive than I remembered but still with a very nice face. It was surreal for me to consider that there I was in the same tent with both Tanja and Simone, the two most memorable girls from what was undoubtedly one of the most memorable nights of my life nearly six years ago—the night when I learned that I was just as incapable of attracting German girls as I was of attracting American girls. The night when I completely solidified my conviction that There Is No Hope for me in terms of ever being with a woman. For years these two girls have been nothing more than a vivid and significant memory, but they were both there in the flesh tonight.

Several beers in and I was already feeling the urge to die. But then my mind began to take a different turn. The man with the microphone took a pause to recognize a woman who was sitting at a nearby table, this ancient-looking woman with more wrinkles than I’ve ever seen on a human being. They raised their glasses to her and sang her a song, as she was the oldest guest at Rheinfest at the staggering age of 95. For awhile my mind dropped its focus on the unattainable girls and started thinking about this woman and how old she must have been at various points throughout the century. Born in 1915, this woman was my age in 1941. She probably had kids already when the Second World War began, and undoubtedly lost some good friends who died fighting for Hitler. She was already 69 when I was born. If I live to be her age, it’ll be 2079. Unbelievable. And there she was alive and well—not only that but clearly enjoying herself, singing along to all the old folk songs the band was playing.

But the most interesting part was yet to come. After another few songs the man with the microphone brought a couple of dark-skinned people to the stage and asked everyone to welcome these people, an Iranian couple, to Rheinfest. Apparently they’d been traveling all the way from Iran and throughout Europe by bicycle, riding as far north as Denmark and then coming back, stopping by chance in little old Ichenheim during what just happened to be Rheinfest.

For a little while I just glanced at them every now and then out of the corner of my eye, sitting alone at a table near the counter, behind which were Elena and Lara who still got most of my attention—the mystery no-name girl having gone home a short while earlier. But as the moments passed by I began to feel a gradually increasing urge to go up and talk to them. If they’d been traveling throughout Europe they must be able to speak a little English, and how often do I get the chance to speak to genuine Iranian citizens?

So after another couple of beers I did something very uncharacteristic of myself and got up and walked right up to them, waving hello and introducing myself. I asked if they spoke English and the woman said she did. I started off trying to make small-talk and quickly learned that they had nowhere to sleep for the night, and had been offered only to pitch their sleeping bags in the Rheinfest tent after everyone had gone home. The weather being particularly cold and shitty for the middle of May, this was guaranteed to be rather uncomfortable, but apparently they’d run out of money in Denmark where they couldn’t camp and the hotels were ridiculously expensive.

I said I’d ask my family if they had some extra room for them to spend the night with us, and went back and told everyone—except Dieter who was still playing music on the stage—about their situation. They were not too enthusiastic about the idea of opening their doors up to these strangers from Iran, but as I kept talking about them word spread throughout our table that the Iranians were low on money and had no place to stay for the night.

I went back to them and said that we weren’t sure if we had enough room for them to stay with us that night but we’d ask Dieter when he was done playing, and they made it clear how much they appreciated my efforts. The woman said she was very uncomfortable asking other people for charity, but at this point they had no choice. A short while later, one of the men who had been sitting at our table when I explained the situation went up to them and spoke to them himself, apparently wanting to offer some help.

After the next song, that man took the microphone and called upon everyone at the festival to chip in a few euros for our Iranian friends. One of the young girls who’d been playing music earlier went around the tent with a little collection tray and everyone tossed in a few euros like a Church collection plate. Needless to say, this warmed my heart immensely, as I had been the catalyst for getting these people some help.

I remained at my table for a little while, as the man who’d initiated the collection and his wife were now sitting and talking with them, but once the collection tray came back to them I glanced over and made eye contact with the couple, who smiled at me and waved me over.

So I got up and went back to their table, sitting down and joining in the conversation they were having with the German couple, who apparently spoke just enough English to be able to communicate with the woman, who apparently was an English teacher for schoolchildren in Iran although her English was far from perfect. She would translate for her husband, and the German couple seemed to understand well enough, but I could also help out when they couldn’t find the right words.

What followed was hours of fascinating conversation. We spoke about the political situation in Iran and how the government was abusing Islam for its own purposes. They apparently believed in Islam but in a very stripped-down way, accepting that there was a God but not that He favored Muslims over other groups. They believed in a common spirit shared among all human beings, and that people were the most important thing. The husband was apparently also a lover of philosophy, and he was very excited when he found out that was my area of study. Apparently he was very interested in Socrates and Aristotle, but he also recommended someone named Carlos Castaneda whom I’d never heard of before but fully intend to look into.

The German woman, Petra, was equally drawn to these people and remained with us over the hours even as her husband went about the tent talking to others. But he apparently found someone willing to take them in for the night, which was great news. The four of us talked for hours and hours, and I wish I could recall all that was said but what’s more important is the fact that we formed such an intimate connection over this period of time. We made sure to exchange names and information with each other. The woman, Mozhgan (which apparently means “Black Eyelashes” in Farsi) spoke about how their main desire in traveling was to meet other ‘deep’ people from around the world and connect on a human level. The man, Kiyoumars (named after an old Persian king) insisted that this was the most important thing in life.

At one point, he asked me—through his wife’s translation—what made me come up to them in the first place. I replied in all honesty that the moment I saw them I felt that I could learn something from them. Petra said she felt the same thing. He responded by quoting an old Persian poet who wrote about how sometimes when you meet people it’s as though you already know them. He put out his hands for me and I took them, and we looked at each other for a solid minute, smiling at first but then becoming very serious, staring deep into each others’ eyes as though in an effort to see beyond them at what lay in each others’ souls. This moment will live forever in my memory, as I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a connection to a complete stranger as I did then. We were communicating without words, reaching a level of understanding that most people never find with each other even after years of knowing one another. We let go just before our eyes began to tear up—it was an indescribable feeling.

So much was said about so much, including how so many people in our countries misunderstand each other and judge one another by our governments. So many people dismiss all Iranians as terrorists just because of the nuclear ambitions of their government, but these people were a couple of the kindest, most good-hearted people I’ve ever met. One thing they said that surprised me but that made perfect sense after a moment’s thought is that the United States government and the government of Iran were working together. It’s to their mutual advantage to remain enemies on the global stage, as this allows the industries to continue to build weapons and keep the money flowing to the hands of the privileged few while the rest of the people remain mired in hatred and mistrust of one another. Mozhgan said that people need so very little to be happy in life—just a little food to eat and a place to sleep—but that so many people don’t understand this. I completely agreed, adding that too many people—especially in America—see life as a game with winners and losers and the goal is to get as much as possible for yourself. I could tell they shared my core belief that experience is infinitely more valuable than possessions. She said that this experience—the moment we were experiencing right now—was eternal.

The music had long since finished and Dieter and the rest of the family had already gone home by the time I was ready to leave. I hadn’t wanted to leave when they did, so Petra agreed to give me a ride when I was ready. Everyone around us was busy packing up as we were finishing our conversation. Elena herself came by and said something to Petra, and I laughed inside my head—oh yeah, she’s still here. Tanja and the others were long gone. I hadn’t even noticed them go.

Sensing the need to get back to the house so I could write this all down and get a good night’s sleep before the journey back to Hannover tomorrow, I asked Petra to take me home. I bid a fond farewell to Mozhgan and Kiyoumars, with whom I’d exchanged e-mail addresses and a promise to keep in touch. They welcomed me to come visit them in Iran sometime, at which I replied that I thought Americans were not allowed in Iran but they said they could get me the necessary documents. I would love to visit them in Iran, I said, and I sincerely hope that’s something I’ll end up doing one day.

Kiyoumars and I embraced each other before saying goodbye, making sure to fully appreciate the moment of intimate contact that might never come again. Mozhgan took my hand in hers and bid me a fond farewell with the promise to keep in touch and the hope that we may meet again. After that I left, and Petra took me home.

What may have been the most interesting thing they said to me all night had to do with how they ended up there in the first place. I’ve recently been chatting online with some other people who are also philosophically inclined, debating the merits of supernatural beliefs—and I’ve been arguing against the likelihood of God or any deeper metaphysical realities. But Mozhgan said that throughout their whole bicycle trip, a raven had been flying overhead. Whenever they came to a fork in the road and didn’t know which way to go, the raven would be sitting on one of the paths and that was the one they would take. Earlier in the day, that raven had led them down a road which had led them along the Rhein, and when they heard music playing they asked someone what was going on, and that’s how they came to Rheinfest.

Were we really connected on some deeper level? I had certainly felt drawn to them from the moment I saw them, and the fact that I actually went up to them was something I would almost never do. But there we all were, I an American and they two Iranians in the same obscure little German village during their annual spring festival. I was there because it was the place where my grandmother had happened to be born. They were there because a raven had happened to be sitting that morning on a path that led them there. I wouldn’t by any means call that conclusive proof that there’s a deeper nature to life in this world. But it definitely makes me wonder.

You Have the Right to STFU

May 13th, 2010 No comments

Watch out—I feel a big ol’ rant coming on. Republicans have been making the argument that the biggest problem with the way we go about dealing with alleged terrorists is that we read them their Miranda rights, and the so-called journalists who interview them are treating this as though it’s a legitimate concern. That leaves it to obscure bloggers like me to point out how mind-bogglingly retarded that claim is (sorry, Sarah) and call them out on what they really mean.

The argument is obscenely simple, which is necessary for the peanut-sized brains of their Tea Party constituents to understand it. When the authorities read a suspect his rights, they tell him he has the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Presumably, any suspect in his right mind would immediately decide to take advantage of those rights and refuse to give up any information until they get a lawyer. Thus giving ample time for any of their terrorists friends who may have been involved in their sinister plot to escape, or possibly detonate another bomb that the authorities don’t know about.

Is that logical? Sure. But if you think about it for more than two seconds, you can see what utter bullshit it is.

First of all, so far these guys have only built one bomb at a time, and they haven’t seemed to be doing a very good job of it. Second of all, they seem to be acting alone except for some training and/or financial support from terrorist groups abroad. But even if there were other bombs or other people involved, reading a suspect his Miranda rights does not decrease the likelihood of the suspect talking.

Why? Because there’s a fucking difference between reading someone his rights and giving someone his rights. These sons of bitches have the right to remain silent whether you tell them or not. And honestly, do you really think any of these assholes actually don’t know what rights they have under American law? All they have to do is watch one episode of Law & Order or any other crime show on television, or watch just one action movie, and they’ll know. It’s not some big secret. And anyone who takes months to plot and plan to commit a crime in the United States probably knows what his rights will be if he gets caught. Just because they might be Arab doesn’t mean they can’t understand English.

Furthermore, the police have ways of getting people to talk in spite of their right to an attorney. All they have to do is explain to the guy: “Look, we caught you red-handed. You are going to be convicted, and you’re going to be executed. The only chance you have of being shown any leniency at all is to tell us everything you know. Cooperate now and we may show you some mercy later on.” Stunningly enough, this has seemed to work so far. It worked with the Underpants Bomber and it worked with the Times Square bomber, both of whom have given up very valuable information even after being told—as they already fucking knew—that they could remain silent if they chose to.

When I heard Attorney General Eric Holder say that they were going to consider the possibility of no longer Mirandizing terrorism suspects, my head nearly exploded. What the fuck, Obama? Is there no republican talking point, no matter how insane or ridiculous, that you won’t kowtow to if they shout loud enough? Seriously—has this country ever had a more pussy-ass administration? It actually makes me respect Dick fucking Cheney, who never gave a shit what the other side was saying. He may have done the wrong thing 100% of the time but he just went ahead and did it, criticism be damned. Here you have an administration that has actually gone and legitimized the right-wing’s brain-dead moronic cries of Miranda putting our national security in jeopardy, even though they could destroy this argument with one two-minute statement.

Of course, what republicans really want is not just to stop reading suspects their rights but to actually deny them these rights in the first place. We’ve now got Joe the cold-blooded murderer Lieberman introducing legislation that would strip alleged terrorists of their American citizenship. Great idea, Joe. Let’s just revoke someone’s citizenship if they’re accused of terrorism before we actually have a trial to determine if they actually are terrorists. You know, I could probably get enough people—mostly unhealthy Americans between the age of 55 and 65—to bring a terrorism case against you. It may be groundless, but it would be enough to strip you of your citizenship if your disgustingly un-American legislation actually passed.

But it’s completely pointless anyway, as the right to remain silent is not exclusively for American citizens in the first place. If a British citizen commits a crime in the United States, he gets the Miranda rights too! Why? Because this is America, asshole, and that’s how we roll. We have a system of justice based on principles of fairness and due process. You are innocent until proven guilty, no matter what nationality you are. If we want to grant these rights exclusively to ourselves, we’d be the biggest nation of hypocrites on the face of the earth.

Why don’t Joe and the republicans just come out and say what they really mean? It’s not about Miranda rights at all. What they really think is that we should be torturing the shit out of these people, wringing every last bit of information from them as we possibly can before allowing them to lawyer up. Why won’t they say that? I honestly have no idea. Apparently they think that might be going too far. Don’t worry, republicans, after eight years of Bush’s war on terror and eight seasons of 24, you’d be surprised at the percentage of Americans who believe that torturing suspects is a great idea.

And if you want to make the argument that we ought to use torture to get information from terrorists, then by all means have at it. I’ve already ripped this argument to shreds as well, but at least it makes more sense than the brain-dead proposition that reading a terrorist his Miranda rights makes us less safe.

Look republicans, I understand it’s your job to find fault with everything the administration does, but in cases where it’s clear that they’re actually doing a good job—as in catching and extracting information from terrorists—you may just want to hold your tongue until they actually make a mistake. This is America, guys, and you have the right to shut the fuck up. I suggest you use it.