Sunday, December 28, 2008

Complexity, Paradox, and Hope

Deborah says it better than I could:

...what I am hoping to see on the 20th is a vision of our collective spiritual mind-scape in which it's clear that everyone wants the world to be a better place, and yet the only mental tools we collectively have to do that are tools of destruction, of hammering complexity into brittle certainties. And I am hoping that by putting the two halves together and winding up with a total complexity, we wind up seeing a door to allows us to collectively comprehend complexity in the future.

I might be disappointed, but I am going to hold out hope because I think that this is the most important thing we could possibly be doing right now. We aren't going to get anywhere if we can't inhabit the world as it actually is--in terms of its profound complexity and irreconcilability and connectedness. Every time we create a construct that allows us to think that the world is simple or understandable, we are actively breaking something--shutting off understanding of something else. Defining the parameters of our minds and refusing to let in more. This has real physical consequences outside ourselves. We can't keep breaking things, but at the same time all the tools we have are the tools these men offer: lenses that focus one true or beautiful or correct thing to the point of oversimplification. We all do this. We all have beautiful smashing tools that tell us not how the world actually is, but how we want the world to be. So that means that we are all at this really funny crossroads: we have to learn how to stop breaking and hammering by selectively breaking and hammering our way out of the habit.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cultural Sickness

This comment on the NYTimes editorial page today got more attention than the Krugman article it was attached to:
The underlying cause of the economic catastrophe is cultural, not just a few bad policies or corrupt officials: The USA now has an excessively adversarial, exploitative, cutthroat culture, undermining the civility, generosity, tolerance and respect that societies need to function. It's a dysfunctionality that devastates human capital and ruins good people.

I'm an old engineer now, but I still teach classes and mentor budding engineers. This cultural sickness hits them in 3 cruel ways: an unforgiving financial sector where loan-sharking is the norm, mass outsourcing of critical jobs, and a legal system so vicious that good people find all their decency and good intentions subverted in the interest of personal destruction. Recent grads have crippling debt, yet they're "the ones who did everything right"-- thrifty savers who studied hard, didn't gamble or waste their savings, and patiently built their careers.

But education and living expenses debt are severe-- trapping them at the start of their careers-- and if grads hit a bump in the road, like suffering crime, illness, an accident of some kind, they're ruined financially. Interest rates in the US would be usury anywhere else, and since unfortunate circumstances causing debt are ignored, many decent, hard-working, entrepreneurial graduates are devastated. This is worsened by mass outsourcing and corporate abuse of the H1-B program, depriving grads of jobs and experience.

On top of this misery, our legal system is so viciously adversarial- with greed and high-stakes money ruling the system- that decent people are ruined, as they see their character attacked. I've seen good friends, business partners, even spouses who once loved each other deeply, pushed to "go at it" and destroy each other for money-- rather than accepting the fallibility in all of us, and coming to a reasonable accommodation better for everyone, that respects how much people have invested in their careers.

In short, the US has become an inexplicably vicious, hostile place that undercuts its talented people, denigrates achievement, and has lost touch with the basic importance of mutual respect.
There. I find I haven't a thing to add.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Investment Advice for Dummies

Unlike many other commenters, I feel no urge to excoriate Alexandra Penney for having once been wealthy:

When I hung up with my friend, I turned on the TV and began to scour Google for news until the message became nauseatingly clear: Forty years of savings—the money I’d counted on to take me comfortably through the next 30 years—had likely evaporated in Madoff’s scheme.

THAT MOTHERFUCKER!! The soufflé fell.

I do wonder, however--what was she thinking, to invest forty years of savings with one motherfucker? Why would anyone do that?

Once you are making more than your basic expenses, you invest in highly diversified index mutual funds. Socially and environmentally responsible ones. That way, the only way you're entirely bankrupt is if Western Civilization permanently collapses. Which, at the moment, is a distinct possibility.

So you also invest in real estate (income property, not just Second Homes, or first ones), gold, and bonds. You have a chunk of money in a money market account. You have an emergency savings account in an unpretentious mom & pop savings bank. You have a couple of friends in foreign countries.

This is basic. But the failure to follow common-sense money managing principles seems to be part and parcel of what I've been ranting about all day--that too many people submit entirely to the Big Authority, instead of building a network of lateral connections. It seems that the only reason Alexandra Penney trusted Madoff was that he was 'exclusive' and well-known among the upper classes; she never met the man, never understood the nature of his business. And yet she handed him the power to wipe her out.

And again

Extreme wealth does not indicate merit, it indicates thievery:

As regulators and shareholders sift through the rubble of the financial crisis, questions are being asked about what role lavish bonuses played in the debacle. Scrutiny over pay is intensifying as banks like Merrill prepare to dole out bonuses even after they have had to be propped up with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. While bonuses are expected to be half of what they were a year ago, some bankers could still collect millions of dollars.

Critics say bonuses never should have been so big in the first place, because they were based on ephemeral earnings. These people contend that Wall Street’s pay structure, in which bonuses are based on short-term profits, encouraged employees to act like gamblers at a casino — and let them collect their winnings while the roulette wheel was still spinning.
Does anybody seriously think that these people earned their money, in any system of accounting that is tethered to the physical world in any way? Why, then, do we continue to behave as though people with large incomes deserve every penny they have, and that people with small incomes deserve to go without healthcare, decent education, transportation, etc.?

From the top down

As if there were any doubt:
Most Americans have long known that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not the work of a few low-ranking sociopaths. All but President Bush’s most unquestioning supporters recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services.

Now, a bipartisan report by the Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.
Yes, and what about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

This is not a joke. It is incredible to me, how many Americans seem unable to free themselves of knee-jerk deference to authority, sufficiently to hold the President and Vice-President accountable for war crimes. These men aren't gods. They are human beings who have knowingly committed unbelieveably evil actions, and have given orders for untold other people to commit those same evil actions.

Our country throws poor people in jail for possessing a few ounces of pot. It throws them in jail for street fighting and petty theft. The law is not an equalizing force, it is a controlling one. Its purpose is to control the underclass, while the upper class gets away with robbery on the scale of billions, murder on the scale of hundreds of thousands, and systemic torture.

We accept this state of affairs because we're trained to it. We accept the canard that 'the government is keeping us safe' because it is too terrifying to wonder what is keeping us safe from the government. Unconsciously, we believe that keeping our heads down, going along with the lies, will keep the finger of brutality pointed elsewhere.

It won't. As long as we keep silent about this, we are complicit.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lovely Interlude

I met the girls of Ember in Mexico in 2002, and their music is as gorgeous as ever. Their CDs would make great stocking stuffers, hint, hint.

Fundamentalism and Denial

Andrew Sullivan sums up the Bush psyche fairly accurately, I think:

With this president, it is actually hard to know for sure whether he is capable of understanding what he did. I have no doubt that Cheney and Rumsfeld understood very well that they were crossing a legal and moral Rubicon; they knew they were authorizing war crimes and made every effort to give themselves phony legal cover and a theory of dictatorial presidential power that would have made King George III blush.

With Bush, however, his levels of denial are so strong he may simply be unable to accept that he has committed an absolute moral evil.

This Christianist president has a hard time with actual Christianity. He is of the fundamentalist psyche that holds that since he is on the side of the angels, he cannot do evil. And so even when presented with indisputable evidence of his own acts, his own memos, his own staff's decisions, he cannot own the consequences. He asked for memos from apparatchiks saying it wasn't torture, as if this guaranteed it wasn't torture. He reacted to the tangible consequences of his own decisions as if someone else had been president, or someone else's signature was on those memos, or someone else's vice-president had publicly embraced torture as a "no-brainer."

There are many times in my life when I have had infinite patience with fundamentalists--people with rigid, absolutist moral philosophies, who freely discuss angels and demons and the cosmic struggle against evil. On some level I both understand where they're coming from, and perceive a great deal of metaphorical truth in their reasoning.

The problem is, THEY don't see it as a metaphor. And in their literalistic, black-and-white struggle against evil, they are far more likely to project the evil in their own psyches outside themselves, and use their rigidity as an excuse to bully, torture, attack, harass, mock and oppress people who do not see things their way. This is not 'fighting evil', it's a transparent and contemptible attempt to avoid the very self-examination that is the core of all true spiritual growth.

In a way, I can kind of get inside Bush's head. I think he believes that someone else actually was President. I think he thinks that he was following spiritual guidance in doing what he did. I think he saw the machinations of Rove, his privileges of birth, his innate charisma, all as the hand of God directing him to become President and carry out an evangelical crusade against the evils of the world. And I think that on some level, it actually was spiritual guidance.

But the one thing I've discovered about spiritual guidance is that the lessons it teaches you are never the ones you thought you were learning. Bush didn't stamp out evil in Iraq; he didn't stamp it out anywhere. He may or may not have learned a few things about unintended consequences, listening to others, personal responsibility, and perceiving the character (or lack thereof) in one's intimate advisors. I've said before that I think Bush is co-dependent on an international level, and I stand by this assessment.

Spiritually speaking, however, he is a child, and the people around him are bullies. A Sullivan reader sums it up:

...their faiths themselves are defined by the people they exclude: the unbelievers, the unsaved (or let's be blunt: the "damned"), the always-demonized Other: without that division, that exclusion, their entire theology, indeed their entire worldview, collapses: a theology of inclusion is anathema to them, just as a politics, a sociology or even a science of inclusion (evolution) is anathema.

And why? Because despite their fine words, and their closely-guarded self-images, the actual and real ruling principle of their lives and their theology is fear, not love.

Everything flows from that original orientation, that original choice (because it is, finally, a choice). For them, to be inclusive is to expose themselves to what they fear; and what they fear most is summarized in their mythology of hell and eternal damnation: an eternal torture of body, mind, soul and spirit administered by an angry, vengeful, psychopathic god. It is all pure projection.

And irony of ironies, it is precisely the opposite of the message the Christian Savior tried to bring: that salvation is found only through love, through inclusion, through openness of mind and heart and spirit, through, ultimately, trust -- that this world, with all its difficulties and pain and imperfections, built through evolution, and including endless Others, is as it should be, as it was intended to be.

But that leap, from fear to trust, from fear to love, from fear to inclusion, is not an easy one, either for the individual or for a society. No evolutionary leap ever is -- and that is precisely what the leap from fear to love is: an evolutionary leap; evolution in action, evolution at the cognitive, emotional and spiritual levels.
Tangentially, this same Sullivan reader references a This American Life episode which I also listened to, and which I highly recommend, about an evangelical pastor who committed the ultimate heresy--he stopped believing in hell.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Okay, I'm angry.

BAGHDAD — An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.
Translation: The Bush administration wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, and told blatant lies to cover their incompetence, stupidity, and ignorance, quite possibly destroying this country as well as the country of Iraq in the process.

You people--you know who you are--voted for George W. Bush, TWICE. You people--you know who you are--cling to the belief that Sarah Palin is a much-maligned, abused innocent who made a valid Vice-Presidential candidate, despite the fact that she is even more ignorant, even more jingoistic, dogmatic and demonstrably incompetent than George W. Bush, and a proven pathological liar as well.

Have. You. No. Shame.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Compassion and Vitriol

Now, tell me. Which of these two people deserves an outpouring of compassionate empathy, and which deserves to be mercilessly excoriated for narcissism, selfishness, and general asshole-hood?
I have been to 11 schools in different parts of the world and there must be thousands of people I could, if I wished to, call my classmates. I was never sad when leaving and I never had trouble making friends; I blended in just fine with whatever crowd there was to blend in with. My trick was that I never missed friends and relatives whom I left behind. The moment I set foot in a new country, even the moment I set foot in a plane that was to take me away, the friends I made in the country I left stopped existing. I have never written a letter or an e-mail or a Christmas card to anyone, never called, never tried to catch up with people with whom I used to hang out. If I got letters I never replied.
I didn't intend to be celibate for the rest of my life. I just wanted to get some therapy, wanted to understand why I kept choosing men who were smart and funny but critical, sarcastic and merciless like my father. I figured I'd give it a go again later, when I felt stronger, more confident. In a couple of years, say. But here I am -- 55 years old, a spinster long past my sell-by date, no kids -- and I haven't had sex in a decade and a half.

It's my own fault, I know. I'm picky. Casual sex doesn't do it for me. (I've always thought I had to be in love in order to make love.) I regard men with ambivalence, with alternate longing and fear. I've grown accustomed to being alone.

Can anyone explain to me why example #1 received dozens of gentle, forgiving responses, many of them with the heading 'Me Too,' while example #2 received seven hundred and thirty two comments, the majority of which were along the lines of 'Quit whining, you bitch'?

Because I am going to go out on a limb and state that candidate #1, regardless of Childhood Trauma, regardless of the human Need to Adapt, regardless of Coping Strategies, nevertheless still bears the moral responsibility for acting like a narcissistic user. In fact, this person IS a narcissistic user, whatever the reasons behind her behavior. I say this because she knowingly and habitually behaves in ways which hurt the people she claims to care about. Their unhappiness is less important to her than the discomfort she might incur in making the effort to change. And that is lame.

The second candidate obviously has Issues, as well. But while she may be losing out on life in protecting herself from its hurts, at least she's not out there actively harming others in the process. So what is the deal? Is this simply an example of vulnerability drawing attack?

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Genesis of Pretty Lady

Hello, everybody. This is Pretty Lady's author.

Those of you who have been around since the beginning have probably noticed a falling off of Pretty Lady's style and elán, lately. The truth is, I think she may have come to the end of her incarnation. At the very least, the tone of this blog will change. I could make this blog an archive and start a new one, but then I'd have to start my ad revenue programs from scratch, and I need that fifty bucks a month right now ;-). So Pretty Lady will integrate with the much more down-to-earth voice of her author, Stephanie Lee Jackson, and those of you who are enamoured with third-person singular and over-the-top affectation will have to go elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I owe you all a bit of an explanation.

Pretty Lady fell into my mind on New Years' Eve, 2006. I'd been thinking for awhile that if I'd been born in a different century, I might have been a courtesan; the more I considered the many absurd, colorful, raucous episodes of my past, the more I realized that with a slight change of context and tone, they'd be excellent raw material for a picaresque novel. Moreover, I'd been thinking about the power of the feminine. Women managed to obtain and wield power long before most of us had any political or economic status; what did that look like? Could my inner courtesan shed any light on the subject?

So, Pretty Lady arrived. Originally I conceived of her as wildly transgressive and politically incorrect, along the lines of a Camille Paglia--narcissistic, sexist, racist, trivial and vain. But the parameters I'd set soon began to take on a deeper dimension. The fact that she referred to all comers as 'dear' and 'darling' began to rub off; I soon found that the promiscuous affection she spewed everywhere was genuine. By definition, she did love everybody. And I found that affection is necessary before any communication occurs.

Then I discovered that although she had an unflappable level of self-esteem, based upon her unassailable 'prettyness,' she had no ego whatsoever. She greeted all attempts at personal attack with blithe acceptance, and undiminished affection for the would-be attacker. This proved to be incredibly disarming. It obviated a lot of unwinnable, pointless arguments, because when someone is defending an identity, they're unable to absorb any other perspective. Since I wasn't trying to change anyone's mind, and was operating without fear, I was as free to consider radically different perspectives as other people were to consider mine.

I think that a lot of what she wrote, particularly in the first year, was channelled. A force that I might call the Holy Spirit took hold of my mind, my history, my ideas and my fingers, and poured itself out without too much direction from me. Sometimes I look back at old posts and can't believe I wrote that; I rather think I didn't. The ideas are with me still, but the force that wrought their expression is beyond anything I consciously set out to achieve. This is also why I relentlessly stuck with the third person singular, despite the fact that it often seemed forced and annoying. Pretty Lady was written by me, she had my ideas, experiences and sometimes my face, but she wasn't me. She was both more than me, and nothing at all.

The process was an extraordinarily healing one for me. It allowed me to lay to rest a lot of ghosts from my past, and move forward without so much baggage. It allowed me to articulate a lot of things that bothered me about gender politics in particular--namely, that feminist cant is often used against women, by selfish and unscrupulous people who then claim the moral high ground for it. It allowed me to clarify the fact that the dividing line is not between 'left' and 'right,' liberal and conservative, feminist and anti-feminist, religious and secular; it's between egoism and basic decency. Any ideology can be used to beat people up, and just about any ideology can liberate them. So many of the quarrels we expend our energy on are smokescreens for fear, anguish and desperation.

It also allowed me to bridge the gap between my religious upbringing and my transpersonal perspective. For the last twenty years or so I have considered myself 'spiritual, but not religious.' The bigotry, rigidity and dogmatism of the Christian religion as it is practiced by millions today is something I can't swallow, even in the tempered Anglican version; yet I acknowledge that the best parts of Christianity have formed my outlook and dwell at the bedrock of my soul. Now I believe that dogmatic, rule-based morality is a necessary phase in the development of human moral reasoning. It provides the first solid step out of egoistic chaos, and the first intimation that other people are more than just objects to be used, attacked and defended against. We can't combat bigotry by attacking religion.

We can, however, do extensive damage control by defining and maintaining boundaries. A lot of harm would be avoided if we simply did our best to establish a clear, universal understanding that the rules of any religion apply to the voluntary adherents of that religion, not to random bystanders. Evangelism at its best is just rude; when it becomes political, it violates the tenets of spiritual equality on which all major religions are based. The only truly transformative discipline is self-discipline. It would be nice if religious institutions generally acknowledged that.

As most of you know, Joe and I are expecting a daughter in February. I find that pregnancy has sapped the vast majority of my creative energy; mothers and healthcare providers assure me that it will come back after the baby is born, but for the moment I have not had much inspiration to spare. That is, I think, as it should be. Narcissists make terrible mothers.

And the election perhaps marks a turning point as well. Something about the reality-denial, dogmatism, solipsism and incompetence of the Bush administration years seemed to call out for the creation of a whimisical mask self, if only as a way of whistling in the dark. Now that it looks like the adults are finally in charge, a lot of the exigency has gone out of the pose.

So I will still be here; I will still tell you what I think; I will still love you. I'll just be a bit more muted about it. Thank you for the three years of bliss! Let's have many more!