Tuesday, March 11, 2003

C’est le vie in Washington: The name of pomme frites has been changed in the U.S. capitol to “freedom fries.” Viva la difference. Homeland Security now monitors video rentals for suspicious characters viewing films by Truffaut, Godard, Agnes Varda, Renoir and Jacques Tati. An amendment to the Patriot Act will now make it a federal crime to read Moliere, Flaubert, Baudelaire and above all, Alexis de Tocqueville.


A gallon of the cheapest gas: $2.25

A month of "reality" shows, reruns, war hype, studio wrestling
and Rudi Bachtiar but without HBO and BBC America: $41.45

A month of catastrophic health insurance with a
several thousand dollar deductible : $200

War, tax relief for the wealthy, and no response
to the climate crisis : priceless

TODAY IN HUMBOLDT COUNTY I saw my first homeless person with a cell phone.

But when you think about it, who needs a cell phone more? Actually, who else really needs a cell phone at all?

I get a kick out of Zen. I enjoy meditating though I don't do much, and I have really enjoyed books on Zen and Buddhism by (among others) Charlotte Joko Beck, Mark Epstein and Shunryu Suzuki, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and is credited for being largely responsible for bringing Buddhist practice to America (though there has been some kind of Buddhist presence in America for a long time. Emerson was fascinated by it, for example, as was William James especially.) (Wasn't that a song on Blonde on Blonde? William James Especially?)

I've never visited the Zen center in San Francisco and wondered if I should. Somewhere I recall reading about a scandal there, and the other day I came across a book about it: "Shoes Outside the Door" by Michael Downing. It begins with that characteristic Zen wit (he quotes an elderly Zen priest advising him at breakfast, "You can't change your karma, but you can sweeten your cereal.") before it turns decidedly grim, and even that enlightened drollery takes on tragic meanings.

I'm only part way through the book, but I've already gotten to the place where the American Abbott who succeeded Suzuki has everyone lined up to bow to him as he drives away in his BMW. His excesses and autocratic abuses went on for years, pretty much in full view of everyone, until a few events (not all that different from those that came before) brought him down suddenly and completely. Apparently the Zen Center just about collapsed in anguish and confusion, and felt the effects for many years (the crisis occurred in 1983).

There's a lot already that's reminiscent of other situations in which a charismatic leader who is apparently succeeding, especially in bringing in money, gets away with a lot because people around him look the other way, or just don't see what they see. But there's also the particular abuse of the leader sanctified by religious belief.

The first thought that came to me is that I have a reason after all to be grateful for the abusive nuns and hypocritical priests in my own twelve years of Catholic schools and 14 or so of practice. I, too, looked the other way even when I noticed that the parish priest who hectored the congregation for money every Sunday was driving a new Chrysler when my father could barely afford a second hand Ford.

I had a number of painful personal experiences in which either my rebellious spirit or my idealism or most often a combination of the two got me into the kind of trouble that involves being accused of not having faith, or being a stubborn and willful sinner. They could have been right about that, I thought, they're the experts. But then I started putting things together, such as my expectation that if, for instance, the Church couldn't quite live up to its teachings, it could at least not deny its mistakes. (I vividly recall questioning the morality of giving safe passage to an accused heretic to defend himself in Rome, hearing him out and then burning him at the stake. Sister Cornelia explained that safe passage didn't mean safe passage back.)

Ever since I've erred on the side of being too skeptical of authority, and the older I get the more impatient I am with officiousness. So I feel for those Zen students who got sucked in, but if I ever seriously abdicated my own moral responsibility to others, I've repressed the memory. (My problem is an often misapplied Hero complex, but that's another story.) I've never had authority for long enough to seriously abuse it, and I probably have morally shortchanged myself on occasion, but thanks to those nuns and priests of my childhood, not for very long. So in the spirit of Zen I won't not say thanks.

The voice of wisdom in this book, as he is on many matters, is Gary Snyder. Of how to view the fallibility of “roshis” or the Buddhist teacher-authorities, he says, “So you get the best you can from the guy, and you don’t imitate his bad sides. That’s basically the way monks and laypeople approach the teacher in Japan.”

I expect some Democratic party funds are going to research the wealth of statements prominent Republicans have made about the sanctity of the balanced Federal budget and the devil of the deficits. But I wonder if there is a reporter out there with enough guts, enough time and access to Lexis-Nexis to ferret out the vituperative statements of Republicans who considered Bill Clinton's lack of military service a scandalous disqualification for the post of Commander in Chief.

I'm reminded of this partly by Chris Hedges' interview on Bill Moyers the other night. Hedges has covered many wars and wonders why each generation cannot seem to learn from the awful experiences of the past. (Even the Gulf War I: he said for example that the Marines there loathed CNN and its sensationalistic coverage of a clean, technological war in which no one at all got bloody, maimed or killed, and the war was conducted with high efficiency, instead of being the fractious, confused, bloody mess we've since learned it was. And this was a war that Hedges supported; yet knowing war's cost is a heavy consideration in deciding to wage war. He believes Gulf War II is irresponsible.)

I wonder, too why every generation has to learn it all over again---that war is not a video game or a commercial, any more than it is a patriotic song or John Wayne movie. I suppose what links these thoughts with those prompted by the Zen Center book is something else I'm grateful for: an imagination. I experienced the war against the war in Vietnam in the United States, and all those painful and tumultuous years. I was a witness to the war itself only through information and imagination. Information, and judging information, are important. But was through imagination-through feeling the experiences of others, through entering into the published descriptions and accounts, as well as through the poetry and the films and novels of that war and of previous wars-that I learned enough of the realities of war to form my convictions, and inform my judgments. It is through imagination as well, through analogous experience, through empathy for the victims of authoritarian abuses and injustice, that I judge the rightness or wrongness of such situations, and above all, judge the rightness or wrongness of my participation in them and support of them.

It makes me feel again that to create works of the imagination that speak to the imaginations of others, that first of all help create the capacity to imagine more fully, and then to give the imagination something worth engaging, is a high calling, and a social necessity, particularly in our times, when we are aware of so much and experience so little of it.

Cartoon of the day: Satan gathers his minions in hell and says, “I know it’s tempting to rest on our laurels but it’s time to think ahead to 2004.”

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