The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Monday, February 27, 2006
Music ...

Way back in the 1970s when I was in college, a hard-playing band hit the rock scene. They were called KISS. They were arguably the last of the four-man super-groups patterned after the Beatles, where each member was considered an equal. Since the 1980s, it seems as though most rock bands revolve around one guy, e.g. Steven Tyler and Aerosmith, Kurt Kobain and Nirvana, Eddie Vetter and Pearl Jam, Bono and U2, Ed Roland and Collective Soul, Chad Kroeger and Nickelback, etc. KISS was the last band that I memorized the names of each member: Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. (How many people memorized all the members of The Doors?). By the late 70’s, KISS music was a given; tune in any rock station and you were going to hear some KISS.

Actually, I wasn’t a big Kiss fan. I did take a liking to Detroit Rock City, especially before they toned it down by removing the big car crash at the end. But otherwise, Kiss’s music was OK but nothing special. I never did see them in concert; just wasn’t impressed by the crazy costumes, the bizarre guitars, and the makeup. I never bought any of their records either (what for? they were always on the radio).

And now here it is, 30+ years since Kiss hit the big time. Like me, the band members are getting old. Their voices aren’t quite what they used to be, and their bodies probably aren’t up to the wild theatrics that thrilled their fans, not to mention the sex and drugs that went together with rock stardom. I read the other day that drummer Peter Criss has developed carpal tunnel syndrome. But back in the gravy days, Kiss and their fans never imagined that old age would someday start catching up with them — no young person ever does.

Nonetheless, Kiss did muster enough energy for a 30th anniversary concert back in 2003. They did what some other bands had tried in the late 90s and early 00s — they performed live with a professional orchestra behind them (the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, in Melbourne, Australia). And they put out a CD and DVD from that concert, called Kiss Symphony, Alive 4. Almost three years after that concert event, in the sunset of their fame, I finally gave in to the Kiss phenomenon by buying a copy of the Alive 4 CD.

At my age, it’s hard to fall in love with a song. When I was young, it would happen every month or so. But now, almost nothing new catches my ear. However, when I heard the symphonic rendition of “Love Gun” on the radio last week, with violins and horns fighting for attention against Kiss’s driving guitars and pounding drums; with the disciplined power of the orchestra conductor competing against the raw urgency of Kiss’s sexual lyrics, I had to smile. I knew that this was music I had to hear. A quick tour of Ebay showed that Alive 4 was available for $10 (with shipping). So I took the plunge.

The nice thing about Alive 4 versus the other symphonic concert ventures that various bands such as Deep Purple, Metallica and the Scorpions have made in recent years is the incredible tension between Kiss’s “loud and wild” style and the orchestra’s complex discipline. There are over 100 reviews of the album on Amazon, and most of them either love it or hate it. I personally enjoy the contradictions, the yin and yang of the Kiss / Melborne Symphony Orchestra interaction on Alive 4. It’s just too bad that Kiss waited so long to try this.

It’s also a shame that this approach is mostly a novelty. To me, symphony music lacks spontaneity and liveliness, and yet rock music lacks the intelligent design and wonderful range of instrumental sounds that are blended together most every night by concert orchestras. If you could put the two styles together somehow, you would have a sound experience that approaches the full range of human experience. On Alive 4, Kiss and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra came pretty close at times.

Not that the whole album is perfect. Far from it. The first six songs in fact are by Kiss alone. And they are good songs, but you can sense that this is an old rock band that hadn’t been working together much lately. There are some obvious off-notes and missed beats (but not serious enough to stop the flow of energy that even a middle-aged Kiss brings to their music). Five songs then follow where Kiss is backed up by an “ensemble”, a lite version of the orchestra. The first tune in this lineup is probably the worst of them all; it’s the power ballad “Beth” by drummer Peter Criss. Despite his hand problems, Criss can still keep a beat; but his voice is not a young, supple voice anymore, which is what “Beth” calls for. No mind, though. The next four numbers are melodic harmonizers (Forever, Goin’ Blind, Sure Know Something, Shandi), which are accented nicely by the ensemble strings.

Then comes Act Three, the main event. Kiss and the full symphony orchestra cut their way through ten solid rockers. They start out slow with Detroit Rock City, where the orchestra seems to put a drag on the wild energy that drives the tune. But after a few measures, Kiss brings it up to speed, and the oboes and flutes and cellos soon contribute to the momentum. At many points, the screaming lyrics and wailing guitar-work drown out the orchestra; but conductor David Campbell always seems to bring it up for air and recaptures the stage with a dramatic violin or horn movement. When it all finally wraps up with the Kiss National Anthem (I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night), you wish it could last longer. You wish there were other albums like this, maybe done with younger guys still in their prime. But no; it’s back down to reality, back to the modern moodiness of Nickelback and Staind and Godsmack (oh, and let’s not even get into trance and hip-hop stuff). The younger folk just don’t share this vision. Once again, I got a quick taste of the world as I would imagine it, only to have it pulled away in favor of the world such as it is. That’s pretty much been the story of my life.

But I shouldn’t complain too much, as one day life will be over (I hope that’s still a ways in the future yet). And maybe there’s an afterlife. And maybe Saint Peter will be there to greet us at the gate to eternity. But if instead, it were Gene and Paul and Peter and Ace (or his replacement on Alive 4,Tommy Thayer) who came out, with full makeup, and they shouted in unison “THE PARTY’S JUST BEGUN, WE’LL LET YOU IN” . . . . well, I’d be a bit uncertain as to whether it was heaven or hell. (If the orchestra were also there, I’d be a little more at ease about it all.)

But either way — it would probably turn out to be all right.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:52 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, February 25, 2006
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SHIPS AHOY: I live about 10 miles from one of the seaports whose operation might be taken over by a foreign corporation owned by an Arab government, i.e. the United Arab Emirates. I would like to be on the open-minded side of the fence about this. Foreigners own and operate all kinds of businesses here in our country, and the UAE has been generally cooperative with the US over the past decade or so. The US government didn’t find any ties between the corporation that would run our ports and terrorists or anti-American factions. They are probably just mariners and traders, something that the Middle East has been good at for perhaps two thousand years. So why stop them? Why give in to all the knee-jerk anti-Arabism that our politicians are now displaying?

Well, I do see a legitimate reason to halt this transaction, or at least to tie some protective conditions onto it. The Arab / Islamic nations are not the most politically stable places in the world. Iran was once as much of an ally to the United States as the UAE is. Our relations with the Palestinians have recently taken a turn for the worse. So, Middle Eastern governments can change and change quite quickly and unpredictably. What if there is an uprising in the UAE (perhaps tied to the projected populist assault on the Saudi monarchy sometime in the future), and a fundamentalist, anti-western government takes over? Would we want the current Iranian government running our ports? Before we let this deal go through, our government needs to establish its right to seize these port operations in the event of a radical governmental change in the UAE.

Another irony: President Bush often cites and celebrates the “march of democracy” in the Middle East. What if they held a fair election in the UAE? Or Saudi Arabia or Egypt, for that matter? An anti-western / pro-al Qaeda faction could take power via democracy. The people of Iran recently had a choice between pro-western and anti-western candidates, and chose anti-western / pro-fundamentalists. The Shiites in Iraq also seem to favor their own Islamists. If we are going to push democracy in the Middle East, maybe we need to hedge our bets by not letting the management of our seaports be tied to popular opinion on “the Arab street”. Because we still have a long way to go before that “street” sees us and our culture in a better light. Giving the sheiks in the UAE free reign to run our container ports would not do much to shine such a better lite.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:24 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, February 20, 2006
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ENTERTAINMENT TIME: I’ve decided to offer my readers (all two or three of you) some audio entertainment. Here, for your downloading pleasure, is an MP3 audio file that I made from a series of messages on my answering machine. The messages seem to be from a bill collector who was trying to contact someone named Steve (that’s not me!). These messages were obviously wrong numbers, but they just kept coming every day for about a week. If you’d like to listen, here is the link:

BillCollector.mp3

The bill collector dude is using a variety of psychological techniques. He’s trying to be calm and professional, mostly. He needs to maintain the higher ground, to stay in control. But sometimes he injects assertion and even an air of threat (“you need to return the call”). And then he mixes in a bit of mock helpfulness (“we’re trying to help you”, “we have an excellent offer for you”). Plus some occasional exasperation (“we’ve left messages”). Most interesting.

Luckily, I haven’t had any dealings with bill collectors; I don’t know any, have never worked as one, and (thank goodness) have never been hounded by one. So it’s interesting to hear a “collection account executive” in action, and ponder what techniques he’s using to earn his pay.

After a week or so, the calls stopped. Perhaps the collection agent finally realized that he had the wrong number. Or maybe Steve started paying. Hopefully I won’t be privy to their dealings again.

NOTE: The MP3 is about 1.84 MB. I made it, and I retain all rights to it. I zapped out the last names and scrambled the numbers so as to protect the guilty. You’re welcome to download it for free and to keep the file, so long as you use it for non-commercial purposes. You are not allowed to use it to make (or try to make) money. Trying to make money is probably what got Steve into trouble. So make your money some other way, and keep this thing pure, OK? Thanks.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:38 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, February 16, 2006
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ISLAMIC RENAISSANCE: This will be the third and last (for now) installation of my comments on Islam in light of the recent controversy (and rioting) over the European cartoons. If it wasn’t apparent from my last two blogs, I believe that Islam is more than a religion; as with Christianity, it has a history of worldly empire. That history is long past, but the memories of its former greatness and power still reverberate amidst its tribes. As with Judaism, Islam is as much a cultural and social identity as a religion. However, over the past 5 centuries or so, the Islamic culture has been in a slump, not unlike the Dark Ages and Middle Ages that the Euro-Christian culture experienced after the fall of Rome in the Fifth and Sixth Century.

I believe that history runs in cycles, and while our Western Christian-based culture has been riding the positive side of the wave since 1500 or so, the Muslim-based culture has been on the down side. Eventually, the Islamic world will start coming up again (and the culture of the West will eventually see a downturn; hopefully it will be a soft landing). At some point, Islam will see a Renaissance, just as our culture did, probably followed by an Enlightenment and maybe even a Reformation.

But until then, they are going to be like our society was between the 6th and 13th Centuries: tied strongly to basic notions of survival, including war, violence, religious prejudice, intolerance, sexuality that is both repressive and crude, etc. To paraphrase Hobbes, their lives are too often nasty, brutish and short. This is, of course, a broad-brush interpretation. Just as during the Middle Ages there were Christian oases of civilization in Byzantium, many Muslims live peacefully as “Renaissance men” and “Renaissance women”. Unfortunately however, in the impoverished lands of Pakistan and Morocco and Iran and Saudi Arabia (remember, the oil wealth stays in the royal family and hardly trickles down to the masses), the average person lives in an older world, without access to art, education and critical thinking.

Take that situation and mix in a cultural memory of former greatness. Then add just enough access to modern media and technology to get a distorted view of Western culture, and provide relatively easy access to powerful weapons thanks to the evolving “one-world economy”. Then add a generous dash of Western addiction to the oil found under Islamic sands, and stir in a strong dose of support for a rival religious culture/state (Israel). Now what do you have? A good recipe for fundamentalism and terrorism, that’s what. Oh, and throw in increasing access to nuclear weapons, and you’ve got a real witches brew.

Some commentators have said that in order to protect ourselves from the Islamic Dark Ages, we need to come to grips with our energy situation and seek to achieve independence from Mideast oil. A few others have hinted that maybe we need to be a bit more equivocal about Israel. And then of course there is the homeland security mentality, i.e. try to wall ourselves off as much as possible from foreigners. Finally, some conservatives suggest that we are just going to have to fight them, sooner or later.

Although I definitely agree that the USA needs to face up to its insane and untenable energy situation, the second and third ideas are non-starters. We can’t walk away from Israel, and we can’t become fortress America; the multi-national corporations wouldn’t let us. And the fourth idea is the worst of all; the crusades with tactical nukes (I’m sure some US military types wish they could have hit Tora Bora with a quarter megaton device).

And then there’s the Bush administration, saying that democracy is the key. Democracy will certainly be a part of the Islamic Renaissance, once it comes. But when you emphasize democracy without enlightenment, you get things like Hamas (in Palestine) and Ahmadinejad (in Iran).

The only way out of this is for the Islamic world to begin its renaissance. But renaissances aren’t easily controllable. They seem to happen only when certain things come together, such as increased trade, better technology, and a critical mass of artists and thinkers who decide that “it doesn’t have to be like this”. America has always been a “can do” nation, but triggering such a macro-historical event within the Muslim lands seems beyond even our great genius. Having US Marines in Baghdad and Falluja doesn’t seem a good way to make it happen.

But then again, we do have one card to play with the Muslim world. We are one of the biggest providers of technical education to their children. A whole lot of kids from Jordan, Tunisia, Indonesia, Kuwait, etc. wind up in our science and engineering schools. Too many of them go back home with our technical skills, the best in the world, but without the wisdom to use them for the betterment of their societies.

It’s ironic how many active terrorists or other anti-westerners were educated in America or Europe, usually in technical schools. And that doesn’t surprise me. I went to an engineering school back in the early 1970s, and they made us take enough liberal-education courses to give us some appreciation for critical thought and social progress. But I’ve heard that the corporate and military establishments have since pressured the tech schools to cut the liberal crap way back. They want computer software analysts and petroleum engineers and weapons designers, not enlightened thinkers who ask questions — so that’s what the universities are now giving them.

We need to change that, especially for the children of the Islamic lands. They are sending us their children, their future, and we let them go without implanting the seeds of open-mindedness and free thinking. We need to REQUIRE that tech students spend a whole lot more time talking philosophy and learning ancient history and modern sociology. (And we need to work with Europe on this, so that the sheiks won’t be able to avoid our cultural learning requirements by sending their kids to pure-tech schools in Brussels or Vienna). We should probably require that foreign students spend FIVE years getting a techie bachelors degree, and encourage them to spend summers in our heartlands, getting to know our peoples and our institutions (they need to learn that America is not what they see on TV).

This obviously wouldn’t change things overnight. It would be a decade or two before the al Qaeda recruiters and the government nuclear programs in Iran and Pakistan noticed that their young geeks were now asking difficult questions. It would be even longer until this new breed would infiltrate the halls of power and have a chance to change things for the better (assuming that they somehow held on to the love of thinking and cultural progress that we tried to plant in them). It might not work. But to be honest, I don’t see any better ideas out there right now.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:09 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, February 12, 2006
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WAR WITH ISLAM, CONTD. Again, I don’t think it does our nation any good to think of a monolithic “Islam” with which we are fighting a cultural war (an underlying condition that allegedly spills over in to revolution, violence, war and terrorism). But then again, I am a half-assed student of history, so I do think that our present problems with various groups of Muslims who share troublesome political ideals may have roots in the past. Yea, there is certainly the Israel thing. But I’m not ready to take sides on that one right now.

I’d like to avoid getting tripped up on 20th Century Zionist resettlement and go all the way back to the days of Muhammad. Muhammad and his followers found themselves on territory that had once belonged to the Roman Empire and was still ruled by its successor, Christian Byzantium. For better and for worse, the religion of Islam became politicized very quickly (it took Christianity a few centuries, i.e. between Paul and Constantine, to do that). The early Islamic movement became very successful at territorial conquest, and in a few centuries controlled most of the southern and eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.

The eastern part of the Roman Empire was its economic powerhouse. The eastern provinces along the Mediterranean had the trade corridors between Europe and the far east (India and China), and north Africa was its breadbasket. Thus, unlike today when western Europe has more economic power and wealth, the major cities and highest populations were in the east, e.g. Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, etc. There was plenty of money to be made by taxing and serving those trade routes, and early Islam did indeed make money off that.

By the 11th Century, when western Europe was locked in the backwardness and isolation of the Middle Ages, the Islamic world (stretching from western Africa to northern India) was a thriving civilization. In many ways it was like the Roman Empire in its prime, say in the second century. There was much trade, much wealth, and much military power. There was also much of the better things such as learning, art and scholarship. The Caliph was known then for its tolerance of the many Jews and Christians still living in its territory; the effort to convert the infidels was put on hold. Islam was also high-tech back then; it used math and astronomy to steer its ships, and picked up on the development of guns. When the last stronghold of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, was finally taken in 1453, it was the Islamic forces, and not the Europeans, who introduced the cannon.

Over the next five or six centuries, the Christian and Islamic religious empires both fell apart. But the Christianized territories in Europe secularized themselves from within during the Enlightenment. Also, for a variety of cultural, technical and political reasons, things in the former Christian lands generally got better. The Middle Ages came to an end, and trade, wealth and political unification slowly made their way back into Europe, along with culture and learning. In the Islamic lands, things just didn’t go as well. Their luck turned the other way. You can’t say that Europe deserved the revival it experienced, nor that the Islamic lands deserved the contractions that they had encountered. As the book “Germs, Guns and Steel” points out, civilizations rise and fall based on a lot of things that often amount to luck (changes in technology, changes in climate, new diseases, and the rise of a successful or unsuccessful political ideal, e.g. democracy in America versus communism in Russia). Some empire/cultures have a lucky streak (like Rome between the second century BCE and the second century CE, and like America over the past 250 years); but as any gambler can tell you, lucky streaks come to an end. That’s probably a good way to look at what has happened to Islam over the past five or six hundred years, and what could happen to us eventually.

Unfortunately, the ascending European culture was not sensitive to the mentality of its Islamic neighbors to the south and east. During the colonial craze of the 17th to 20th century, when Europeans set up their flags on the soils of Africa, North America, South America and Asia and told the natives “now we run the show here”, France and Britain and even Italy had no qualms about setting up shop in places like Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, etc. To the nations with battleships, these were just another set of weaklings to be exploited for their natural resources. The Euro-powers didn’t ponder whether they may be inflicting deep wounds in the pride of a people who had once conquered the likes of France and Italy’s own Roman ancestors. But even if the West knew that it was “rubbing it in”, then so what? How were these backward nomads and villagers with their camels and bazaars and minarets ever going to hurt the civilized bastions of London and Paris?

(Again, I’m not qualified to say too much about the history of modern Israel. But I can’t help but wonder if Britain and France’s support for Jewish resettlement in Palestine in the early to mid 20th Century was another example of the insensitivity behind colonialization. I’m not saying that the Jews weren’t deserving of a land of their own, nor that they were total strangers to Jerusalem; but there does seem to be a good argument that Muslim Palestinians were often pushed aside unjustly to make room for the Jewish settlers from Europe. The British, who were overseeing Palestine before and after WW2, may well have thought “so what if the natives get bent out of shape? How are they ever going to hurt us? Besides, we have to take care of our own Jewish Problem.” What I’m saying is, European treatment of the natives in all of its colonies was quite bad, but in the Islamic lands it had the effect of “hatching the chickens that are now coming home to roost”.)

My point here is not to say that it’s all our fault that a lot of Muslims are now acting badly in our midst. But it is partially our responsibility (i.e., the responsibility of Europe and America; you can’t separate the two, can’t say that America had no interest in what happened). Thus, I don’t think that it’s helpful to pontificate now about our superior virtues (democracy, tolerance, science, womens rights, rationalism), and their backwardness, as many conservative writers do. The Muslims are currently going through what our culture went through during the Middle Ages; back in those days, when their civilization was peaking, our virtues were inferior to theirs. Not so long ago, we sought to exploit their current lack of luck, i.e. to get access to their oil and to find a place for the Jews that we had mistreated. So here we are today, in a tightly connected world where the natives that we formerly mistreated now have a way to get back at us, e.g. by taking flight school lessons and by obtaining plans for uranium centrifuges from European engineering firms.

It’s nice that in most places, such as India and Africa and Latin America, the children of the natives are mostly willing to forget the colonial days and use their ties with the West to make money. But they don’t have the memories of once being the “empire next door” as the Islamic world does. They don’t have the long history of inter-empire struggles with us such as the Islamic taking of Spain and then its repulsion, the Ottoman expansion and contraction from the Balkans, and the Crusades.

I’m saying that it’s going to take a lot of cultural and historical sensitivity to untangle the mess that we are now in with Islam. And if that means us going first with mea culpas, then so be it. If you accept the comparison between 9-11 and Pearl Harbor, then remember that WW2 ended by going nuclear. Within a few years, the Shiia clerics in Iran will probably have the bomb, and a fundamentalist Sunni regime may well control Pakistan (and thus its nuclear arsenal). The question then is where the first ones will go off: will al Qaeda us
e one in the West, or will Hamas shoot one at Israel, or will the Shiia and Sunni throw them at each other? It’s all bad, unless we start encouraging everyone to admit, yes, I’m partly to blame here. Perhaps we need to set the example, to start the ball rolling.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, February 9, 2006
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TA’INT FUNNY, McGEE. I’m the last person who enjoys thinking that we are presently “engaged” with the “Muslim world” in a “clash of civilizations”. But the current brouhaha regarding the European newspaper cartoons satirizing the Prophet over the past 3 months does give me pause. In the past week, people have lost their lives and there has been significant property damage over what appears to be a differing value system and different ways of thinking. But again, this is not to say that every (or even most) Muslims are a part of this value system and way of thinking. And I hope that Muslims don’t think that all non-Muslim Americans/Europeans enjoy such humor. I for one don’t think that the joke about Muhammad halting the parade of terrorists entering heaven because they have run out of virgins is particularly amusing. It certainly is rather insensitive, even if the “virgins in paradise” story is more a part of cultural folklore than a central religious tenant of Islam.

I’ve read articles saying that many Muslims don’t like the freewheeling, “anything goes” forms of popular entertainment available in America and Europe. Personally, I don’t always like them either. Take Howard Stern — I just don’t get his humor. Ever since Andrew Dice Clay, American comedy seems locked into a race to the bottom. The local paper today had an article about a local policeman here in northern New Jersey who moonlights as a comedian. His stage name is “Club Soda Kenny”. Club Soda has been getting increased exposure lately, making it to the Anthony and Opie radio show. But like many other American comedians, he’s working his way up by going low. According to the paper, his routine includes a story about raping a bride on her wedding day, and about his molesting his 5 year old son (hypothetically, I hope).

Yes, I would agree with the ACLU that democracy requires allowing such distasteful ventures even on the part of important civil servants (and I think that police are important civil servants — at least when they live up to it). But I do regard the conservative notion that such continued lack of virtue on the part of those who should be role models for our youth does not do our society much good.

But as to fundamentalist Muslim culture (again, not covering all Muslims, probably not even most Muslims here in the USA), I can’t say that I understand their humor. I’m not sure that we could laugh at the same things. So I did a Google on the subject, and I found a nice-enough looking Islamic-oriented web site that had a discussion on the topic, seemingly meant for non-Islamic types like me. The site goes by the name www.IslamicWisdom.com, although it exists on the talkislam.com site. It doesn’t seem like a jihadist or Wahabbist site. It seems devout but family-oriented.

Anyway, it has a link to an article entitled “The Muslim Has a Sense of Humor”. But when you click the link, you get a “NOT FOUND” message. Hmmmm, is that a meta-joke in itself, or just an irony? Hard to tell. There are also some humorous pictures relating to Islamic culture, which you can send as an e-card. In putting your e-card together, you can select a witty “poem” to add to it. But the wit isn’t entirely innocent. Here is a sample of one of the available poems:

The Inter-Faith Discussion

Rabbi Moishe, Joe Christian and Mullah Nasruddin were having a discussion about who was the most religious.

“I was riding my camel in the middle of the Sahara,” exclaimed Mullah Nasruddin. “Suddenly a fierce sandstorm appeared from nowhere. I truly thought my end had come as I lay next to my camel while we being buried deeper and deeper under the sand. But I did not lose my faith in the Almighty Allah, I prayed and prayed and suddenly all around me, the storm started to die out. Since that day I am a devout Muslim and am now learning to recite the Quran by memory.”

“One day while fishing,” started Joe Christian, “I was in my little dinghy in the middle of the ocean. Suddenly a fierce storm appeared from nowhere. I truly thought my end had come as my little dinghy was tossed up and down in the rough ocean. But I did not lose my faith in Jesus Christ, I prayed and prayed and suddenly the storm started to die out. Since that day I am a devout Christian and am now teaching young children about Him.”

“One day I was walking down the road,” explained Rabbi Moishe, “I was in my most expensive designer outfit in the middle of New York city. Suddenly I saw a black bag on the ground in front . I put my hand inside and found a million dollars in cash. I truly thought my end had come as it was a Saturday and we are not allowed to handle money on Saturdays. But I did not lose my faith in Jehovah, I prayed for what seemed like many hours, and suddenly I realized it was Sunday!”

Look, I don’t mean to be inflammatory here, but that joke seems to exploit a brand of ethno-religious stereotyping just as negative as a drawing of an angry mullah with a burning-fuse turban. The scary thing is that this wasn’t from a rabid anti-Zionist site. The anti-Semitic remark seems fairly off-the-cuff; it probably wasn’t intended to be hurtful. But that’s all the more troublesome. It appears to have come from the subconscious, quietly inherited from ancestors and elders.

I know that there are humorous Muslims, and I can accept that there is true humor in cultural Islam. But as to patience with unsaintly humor, and the ability to see one’s own unsaintliness . . . . perhaps we all need to work on those things.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, February 5, 2006
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TREE OF KNOWLEDGE: I recently read an interesting quote from “Baba” Ram Dass, a holdover guru-dude from the Timothy Leary era. Because Baba Dass was into meditation more than drugs, he’s still alive today . . . . unlike many of the other children of the psychedelic 1960’s, i.e. the “turn on, tune in” / “peace, pot, microdot” days. (Being a computerish kind of guy, I’m tempted to call him “RAM DOS”; but that’s getting old too.) Anyway, here’s his quote:

“We’re sitting under the tree of our thinking minds, wondering why we’re not getting any sunshine.”

Heavy, man. But seriously, the good master here is talking about spiritual realization. He’s saying that too much intellectual life gets in the way. A lot of other spiritual avatars have said similar things. This idea may go all the way back to the Book of Genesis and the Adam and Eve story — recall how the first couple got into trouble with the tree of knowledge and the forbidden fruit. Nonetheless, I’d like to challenge the notion that thinking and intelligence isn’t such a great thing (despite all it’s done for our species, Adam and Eve not withstanding).

Let’s go back to Plato and the Cave of the Forms. St. Paul said that we see through a glass darkly, and Plato said that we see the ultimate truths of the forms in roughly the same way. Instead of a dirty mirror, however, Plato imagines that we live in a cave and always keep our backs to the entrance, where the light of the sun comes in. The “sun” in this metaphor is the ultimate metaphysical power, something like what Christians and Jews call “God”. The “cave” is something like our Earth, a dirty place where things hardly ever go right. Despite its darkness and gloom, however, the light does illuminate some walls within the cave. When it does, we sometimes see shadows from the ultimate truths and principles that live outside in the higher realm (i.e., outside the cave, in the dazzling sunshine of truth). Plato makes it clear that we’re not able to go outside the cave and see these wonderful things for ourselves. The light of the “ultimate sun” is too bright for our eyes. Our eyes, being imperfect like everything else in the cave, could not work in such an intense condition.

Moses basically said the same thing in the Old Testament, when going up to the mountain. The light of God is too bright, it will blind you. Many of the great Christian contemplatives have agreed with that notion. They report “seeing” or experiencing God in terms of “darkness” and not in light. The medium of that darkness is usually a contemplative mental state brought on by prayerful meditation.

The 2nd Century neo-Pagan Plotinus (who influenced a lot of the early Christian writers including Augustine) basically said that thinking is also an approach to the greater truths, so long as the intellectual concepts are grasped at the highest level of the mind. In other words, you can think about math or physics or most any other scientific subject and fool around with it and get some results for a particular problem. But you don’t really become great at it until you have the “ah hah!” moments, until it merges into your highest planes of intuitive consciousness. That’s the Einstein level, where your mind “lives” and “breathes” things like matrix algebra and quantum chromodynamics. (Unfortunately, most of us reserve that level of our minds for things like whether Shop-Rite is going to have a sale on ground round next week). That’s where thinking and intellectual effort become spiritual acts in themselves, according to Plotinus; we then realize that we are part of a “Great Universal Mind”, a metaphysical entity that is not far from Plato’s “Ultimate Sun”.

So, if this ultimate sunshine is too bright for us, maybe the tree of knowledge and cogitation is where we are supposed to be right now. Instead of cursing the darkness with the Baba, or forbidding the use of our minds in approaching the ultimate truths (as the great religions so often do, with their “pay, pray and obey” attitudes), let’s climb the tree of the intellect. Let’s reach for higher and higher levels where more and more light gets through the leaves and branches. Let’s hug the tree of our mind and intellect, not curse it. With all due respect to Ram Dass, I think I’m with Plotinus on this one.

P.S. But I will admit that there is a dark side to the intellect. I’ve been reading “The Wizards of Armageddon” about the great old time that a bunch of eggheads had designing and planning the use of the H-Bomb back in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, people are still having such a great time today in North Korea and Pakistan and Israel and Iran and India, maybe other places. I just pray that they will eventually start seeing the true light, as did American nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer . . . . before the the Third World blows itself up (and probably takes a lot of Americans down in the process).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:14 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, February 2, 2006
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ONE STEP OVER THE BORDERLINE: I live pretty darn far from the Mexican border, so I may not be qualified to say much about it. But then again, we live in interconnected times; what goes on down in Nogales can affect northern New Jersey quite easily these days. So here’s my take on the situation down there — or lack of take, really. That’s because it’s a complex, confusing situation with very few absolute rights or wrongs.

A lot of people are illegally crossing into the US from Mexico; maybe a quarter million per year, maybe more. But that’s nothing new, really. Despite all our immigration laws, plenty of Mexicans (and others from Central and South America, maybe even other places) have come into our country via the South over the past 100 years. And life has gone on. Even Alan Greenspan had to admit that all of those illegals willing to work for what we consider pittance wages (they’re pretty lucrative to them) have done our economy much good. Mexicans have gotten used to the illegal entry option, and reportedly feel that it’s their right to cross the border to make some dolares. The American labor unions are angry because they say it takes jobs away from Americans. But hey, if Americans wanted the lousy, dangerous, low-paying jobs that the illegals take, there are more than enough to go around.

So, as a person with internationalist sentiments, I’m tempted to join in with those who decry the current trend toward militarizing and sealing off the border. But on the other side of the coin . . . . these are dangerous times. An open, uncontrolled border might lend itself to the designs of terrorists, might increase the danger of a nasty communicable disease (like SARS or bird flu) reaching our country before we’re ready, and certainly does allow a lot of illegal drugs and guns to get in. So I’m also feeling some sympathy with the “get tough” people.

Believe it or not, I agree (in theory) with the Bush Administration’s approach of hardening the border while allowing more Mexicans in if they do the paperwork (under an expanded guest worker program). Supposedly a Mexican has a choice of making around fifty cents an hour at home or $5 an hour across the Rio Grande. Such a huge wage differential is now causing such people to risk their lives treking through the desert (because the Border Patrol is tightening up the easy crossings zones in California and Arizona with fences, lights, infra-red monitors, ground radar, even remote control aircraft). If the incentive to get here is that great, however, perhaps they would also be willing to do some paperwork to come in legitimately (and avoid the desert). Of course, paperwork isn’t going to help the criminal element. But we have enough criminals here in the USA as it is, don’t need any more.

Of course, given American politics, there will be pressure to limit the guest worker program; the unions will certainly try to choke it off. And even though most Republicans don’t rely on union support, they might treat such a program as window dressing; something that lets but a handful of Mexicans seeking work opportunities in, so as to justify increased spending on a militarized border. (That’s where Republicans make their money, giving big orders to defense contractors for high-tech stuff.)

Unfortunately, though, I don’t think that we can go back to the good old days when an open border wasn’t that big a deal. The US is going to have to get control of those 1950 miles of badlands. The liberals will have to keep lobbying the powers in Washington to make good on the guest worker part of the deal.

All this would certainly tick the Mexican government off. However, maybe we can give them a cut of the action. Before we station troops out in the New Mexican desert, the US might offer an incentive system; if Mexico will take affirmative acts to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and cooperates with a legitimate guest worker program, we will provide aid for economic development projects that stimulate the Mexican economy and create better ways to make a living down there. We could do a whole lot more to provide grants and low-interest loans aimed at putting in roads, expanding schools, establishing water systems for agriculture, and — sorry if the conservatives don’t like this — encouraging population control. We could set it up as an incentive system. If they make the effort, we fork over the dough. If not, we send the troops in (not into Mexico, but up to the line anyway).

But I realize that there is no instant solution to this messy problem. If our government starts today and puts up some serious money and effort, then maybe in ten years things would get better. But if we do nothing (or do the wrong thing, more fences and no countervailing positive actions as Senator Sennsenbrenner would have us do), then it will just get worse. Worse for everyone, even us gringos way up in el norte.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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