Port Huron to Wall Street

"The Whole World is Watching"

My sense is that it is largely young people driving the Occupy Wall Street protests. They’re usually the ones behind revolutions and movements of this sort, which I think is very different from the Tea Party Movement. For me, it’s like Yogi Berra said, “déjà vu all over again.” The protests remind me of Chicago ’68. Without the extreme violence, thank goodness.

“The Movement” of the 1960s began with the Civil Rights movement, which was predominately black. However by mid-point in the decade, when Martin Luther King Jr. courageously spoke out against the war in Viet Nam, it become fused, to some extent, with the predominately white student protest movement that in the end was about many things: Civil Rights, The War, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, the counter-culture, the disparity between rich and poor, and of course, rock and roll. Similar in a way to how CNN describes the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is now spreading to other cities: “A mix of protesters . . . decrying a loosely defined list of financial problems and mixing in places with others marking the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.”

I have always said that the 1960’s were left unfinished. By that I mean that we are still dealing with the same issues now as we were then. We, this nation, didn’t finish solving any of them. Didn’t even come close. We’ve been struggling with the same problems and fighting the same culture war for nearly 50 years. The only difference now is that the lunatic fringe is on the right.

Yesterday, I re-read a document I had not even thought of in years. Composed 1962 as a manifesto for the American student activist organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the document was about democratic values, it was a generational call to action, laying out a vision for a revolution that many actually thought was feasible. Although a number of people participated in its drafting, the primary author was a University of Michigan student by the name of Tom Hayden.

Here are the opening paragraphs of “The Port Huron Statement.” Change a few words here and there and it could have been written yesterday. Later on, in the sections that deal with specific ideas about the New Left and so on, it becomes somewhat dated. But maybe not. Maybe whatever this new movement will grow into can benefit from the ideas presented in this important document:

Port Huron Statement

Introduction: Agenda for a Generation

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people–these American values we found god, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration “all men are created equal…” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers under nourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than “of, by, and for the people.”

Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered, but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international disorder, supertechnology–these trends were testing the tenacity of our own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize their application to a world in upheaval.

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority–the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox; we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through,” beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Read the entire Port Huron Statement here.

And visit the Occupy Wall Street site here.

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Where’s The Man of Steel When You Need Him?

Lane: Clark, where you going?
Kent: This is a job for Superman… I mean, I’ve got to find him.

I don’t get political on this blog too often. But like most folks these days I have been shaking my head at the current situation. Especially the last two weeks. I’ve been around a while and I have never seen such an appalling lack of leadership in our nation’s capitol. This country is in a crisis and yet no one seems to be in charge. Congress is on vacation, and President Obama might as well be, too.

Last week President Obama said “There is something wrong with our politics.”

You think?

I think that it is time to stop stating the obvious and start laying out a solution.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that is it going to be a long road to the 2012 election. A very long road. Election night 2008 I was happy Obama won but I was happier the damn thing was over. That election was a painful austerity. It felt like the longest in the history of mankind.

Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll. This one is going to be even more excruciating.

In Thursday’s Republican debate Bachmann said, “People are looking for a champion, they want someone who has been fighting.” That’s right. But please note those words come from a woman who a few seconds later patted herself on the back for passage of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, “so people could all purchase the light bulb of their choice.”

Yes, let’s not use a more efficient light bulb, one that uses 1/5 of the energy of the traditional bulb, and saves the country $12.5 billion annually, because that’s an intrusion by big government. Sometimes I wonder what planet these people hail from.

The first time I saw Barack Obama was on the Larry King Show in 2006. I wasn’t all that impressed. He seemed like a very conventional politician with very conventional ideas. I still feel that way to some extent.

Other’s don’t. Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), said Wednesday that Obama’s was “the most anti-business and I consider anti-American administration in my lifetime.”

That’s just bad form if you ask me. You know, I didn’t agree with any of Bush’s policies but I didn’t call him anti-American. A moron, maybe. A liar and a cheat. But I never questioned his patriotism.

Obama’s really under the gun right now. He’s getting it from both the right and the left. I’m a bit frustrated with the Prez, too. Up to now, I’ve liked his style. It’s almost Zen-like. He seems to lead like a Taoist sage would, using wu-wei or non-action, avoiding confrontation, speaking carefully and thoughtfully. A nice change of pace from the previous 8 years.

But as admirable as that approach is, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. I really have no idea what goes on in his head. Sometimes I have to wonder, though, if he isn’t in a state of deep denial. Something akin to that was suggested by Ron Reagan Thursday on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews,

. . . we are in a place right now where we really need a sort of transformative leader, and that was the sort of leader that President Obama promised he would be. He talked about being a transformative president. But once he got into office, we seem to discover now that temperamentally he is unwilling to break the furniture, tip over the system that already exists here, and really get down to the brass tacks of reforming the system that we all agree is broken. He just doesn’t seem to want to do that. And you get the feeling that what we really elected was a kind of center-right politician . . .

He doesn’t seem to understand that he’s dealing with people who want nothing more than his destruction – with people who are not trying to help the American economy, at least not for the next year or so. They want the American economy to suffer for the next year so that it will hurt him. That’s the kind of game they’re playing . . . He needs to call these people out. He needs to identify them and he needs to identify their tactics and their strategy as well.

The President talks a lot about tough choices, but he doesn’t seem to want to get tough himself. Perhaps the President could learn something from one of the greatest tough guys that ever lived, Japan’s most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi.

Musashi (c. 1584–1645) was a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wrote The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy still studied today, not only by martial artists, but also throughout the business and political world. It’s considered a classic text on the subjects of leadership and management.

Mushash understood wu-wei, and he also understood that sometimes you gotta fight the fight. This is from the translation by Hidy Ochiai in A Way to Victory:

Whether a general of a foot soldier, a samurai must always carry two swords . . .

Understanding how to use each weapon correctly is crucial, as one must apply each weapon in the appropriate time and situation . . .

When you and your opponent are dragging on the fight in a particular posture, each knowing the other’s intentions, it is important that you completely change tactics in order to open the door to victory . . .

When there is no clear sign of an end to the combat between you and your opponent, you should immediately change your tactics by adopting a new and unexpected technique in order to overwhelm him.

It’s not a good idea to rely just on one sword, or one strategy. Obama doesn’t need to go after his opponents with a “ferocious personal assault,” as was reported earlier in the week. It’s not necessary to sink to their level. But it’s just common sense that if compromise and conciliation aren’t working, another approach needs to be employed.

If the President can’t change tactics, at least he could try to recapture the spirit of Obama in 2008. By the time the election was over, I was impressed with Barack Obama. I found him inspiring. His campaign was exciting. Some of his speeches, especially the one on race, were not only masterful, they were historic.

I didn’t expect Obama to be Superman, but I did expect to get a little more than I seem to be getting.  And frankly, I am not interested in seeing Obama fight for his job. I want to see him fight for our jobs.

We do need a champion. We need the Barack Obama of 2008 back again, that guy who convinced us that yes, we can, the man who said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Then what are we waiting for?

Along with some of my nutty theories, I’m also kind of proud of the fact that I can still recite this intro word for word.


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Democracy

As I see it, we’ve been sucked into this debt ceiling crisis because some folks in Washington are more interested in demagoguery than discussion and quite a few of them don’t have a very good understanding of the spirit of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, all parties share the blame. I think they could get some valuable insight by taking a look at how the early Buddhist Sangha functioned as a democratic body.

During the Buddha’s time, or what we assume was his time, around 2500 BCE, the prevalent form of government in India was republican, although it was making way for monarchies. The Buddha’s father, rather than the rich and powerful king of legend, was probably the elected head of a tribal assembly, known as a sangha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha*, says that “Government by discussion was the keynote of the republics.” And it’s believed that the Buddha modeled, and obviously named, his assembly of spiritual seekers after this form of government.

Prof. Ling further notes that,

Certainly every member of the Sangha was regarded as having equality of rights in any deliberations concerning the life of the community . . . The Sangha has been described, also, as a ‘system of government formed by the Bhikkhus, for the Bhikkhus and of the Bhikkhus’**, and therefore a democracy.”

Ling points to the Buddha’s response to the controversy regarding the Vajjian confederacy, found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

So long as the Vajji meet together in concord, and carry out in concord their affairs . . . so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”

Prof. Ling calls attention to the word “concord.” He says “It is expressly stated that ‘concord’ or unanimity is essential for the proper functioning of the Sangha.” Some other translations use “harmony and unity.” Further on in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha relates the seven factors of non-decline for the Bhikkhus: regular assembly, concordant assembly, reasonable rules, respect for others, skillfulness at non-attachment, peaceful atmosphere, and mindfulness.

The spirit behind these factors should be integral to any kind of democratic assembly. It’s about mutual respect, listening to others, working together harmoniously. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. Difference of opinion is only natural and should be encouraged. But, in the end, harmony and compromise must rule the day for any group of individuals to prosper.

What many of our elected officials tend to forget is that they are representatives, and as such, once they take office they serve everyone in their district, including those who didn’t vote for them and those with whom they disagree. They are not really in office to vote solely out of concern for their principles, they’re supposed to vote with a concern for the greater good of all. I don’t think anyone wants to see the interest on their credit card go up, or have any further damage inflicted upon our already weakened economy. We’d rather see them come to some sort of agreement, sooner than later.

When something like this happened in the early Sangha, when there was no hope of compromise, the dissenters would leave and form their own assembly: “The Buddhist method is one which allows minority views to be held, and not disregarded, but the price to be paid is the multiplication of bodies with different points of view . . .”

Unfortunately, when it’s a nation at stake, picking up your ball and going to play elsewhere is not an option. Actually, we did that once before. Didn’t work out too well. I think they call it the Civil War.

The only other option for the Sangha was to adopt the approach used by the Catholic Church and some others, totalitarianism. You know, brand the dissenters as heretics and condemn them to hell by excommunication or by sword. Fortunately, the early Sangha decided not to go that route.

Ling notes that this early Buddhist model of democracy,

[As] a prototype social organization of the future . . . [has] so to speak, a large practicality gap . . . The two major reasons against the idea of the whole of contemporary Indian society becoming a universal Buddhist sangha were, first, the existence of powerful monarchies, and second, the unreadiness of the mass of the people for participation in the kind of society envisaged in Buddhist teaching.”

The situation is not much different today. Still, our representatives, and we, the people, could benefit from some reflection on the principles discussed here.

* T. Ling, The Buddha, Great Britain, 1976

** G. De, Democracy in Early Buddhist Sangha, Calcutta, 1955

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Trust in Words

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night about the debt ceiling crisis, and the Republican response. While there may have been some exaggerations in the President’s remarks, none really popped out at me. Perhaps that’s because of my liberal bias. I was pre-disposed to have a generally favorable view of what Obama was going to say. On the other hand, also due to my bias (at least I’m honest about it), and because after more than a few decades observing the American political scene, I have found that those on the right have a tendency to be less truthful, I was ready to play gotcha with John Boehner. And sure enough, he did not disappoint.

Boehner exaggerated when he claimed that last week’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” Act passed the House passed “with bipartisan support.” Now, just a few hours earlier I had been watching “Hardball” with Chris Matthews when this subject came up and I remember an exchange between the host and  Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party supporter, in which it was revealed that only five Democrats voted in favor of the bill. That’s hardly what anyone would call “bipartisan.”

It reminded me of something by Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who is thought to have authored a seminal work of Chinese philosophy named after him. This is from the Burton Watson translation, found in The complete works of Chuang Tzu:

Let me tell you something else I have learned. In all human relations, if the two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust. But if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasant to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world. Where both parties are pleased, there must be some exaggeration of the good points and where both parties are angered, there must be some exaggeration of the bad points. Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.’ If you do that, you will probably come out all right.”

I don’t know what the real solution to our political deadlock is, but politicians speaking with words that can be trusted would be a great beginning.

 

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Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Facebook, Twitter, Phones . . .

Rep. Weiner admits at last that his denials last week were false, apologizes but refuses to resign.

One of America's first political sex scandals involved Alexander Hamilton after it was revealed he had an affair with a married woman.

This is a fine mess he’s gotten himself into. It’s almost chilling to think of that as he was thinking about how he could lie his way out of it, Weiner might have caught a few minutes of news coverage of the Casey Anthony trial where her videotaped lies were played in court.

Two different situations but the same behavior of denial and deception.

Politicians and other celebrities engage in bad behavior partially because of a sense of entitlement that we, addicted to culture, give them. They want more power, more love, more glorification. One of the women who received photos from Weiner stated he needed to know that she wanted him.

Nan Britton wrote the first kiss-and-tell book, in which she claimed to have an affair with Pres. Warren Harding. She was 24. He was 55.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said, “We expect people who govern to be able to govern themselves.” Instead of a sense of entitlement, politicians should be motivated by a sense of responsibility. I think most start out that way, but then they find out it’s easy to take shortcuts. They discover they can get away with stuff. Because they are entitled to. Because they are famous. Because people like them and want them.

We’ve turned politicians into rock stars. Well, the media has. It’s something they’ve sold to us and we’ve been willing buyers.

It’s not a new problem. In the Tao Te Ching it is written,

If you do not glorify great men
Then people will not quarrel
If you do not cherish possessions
Then people will not steal
If you wish to be rid of desire
Then do not look at objects of desire.

If we only glorified the great . . . but most of the people we exalt aren’t even near great.

On the surface, it seems like a form of narcissism. After all, what could be more vane than sending out pictures of yourself to women in that manner. However, I don’t think that’s what is going on here. It’s more like, if I can get this person to like me, glorify me, give more power, then I’ll be happy, or happier.

These obsessions stem from the fact that we look outside of our own lives for happiness. We think happiness can be found in other people, in acquiring money, having sex, being glorified by others.

Tarzan was outraged when reporters accused him of sleeping with this woman while Jane was away.

I think religion is the major cause for this condition. From the very beginning of life we’re told to look to something external for happiness and salvation. This supernatural being will reward us if we are good, punish us if we do bad, but most of all, this being wants us to love him, want him.

We’re conditioned to look outside, counting on friends, lovers, jobs, cars, money and so on to bring us the satisfaction that already exists within, if we would only look there and tap into it.

This is why I believe that Buddhism has a unique message and a real answer for this problem. As far as I am aware, Buddhism and Taoism are the only two major religious philosophies that teach self-power. The rest are all looking to some other-power to save them.

That doesn’t mean that Buddhists are necessarily immune to the syndrome. We certainly do our share of placing certain people on very high pedestals. We need to pull back on the glorification of teachers. If we don’t give them power (beyond what a teacher should reasonably have), then they cannot abuse their power.

The sage leads by opening the mind of people,
And helps them to satisfy their needs
by weakening their attachments
and strengthening their spirit.
The sage helps all people to let go of their desires,
and then, confounds those who think
they possess superior knowledge.

By practicing doing nothing,
Everything is in harmony.

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