Steinbeck, moral virtue, and the loss of the American dream ~

Steinbeck, moral virtue, and the loss of the American dream ~

This is the year I lose what little faith I had left in the American Dream. Not ‘the’ American Dream — I’m not sure I’ve believed in that for a long time. All people can’t become president (unless they’re über rich…). Nor can just anyone come to America — especially these days — much less become whatever s/he wants to be.

No, this was the dream that drove America to international acclaim during the 20th century. The dream that birthed so many great poets, inventors, philosophers, scientists and musicians. The dream that flamed bright in Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, César Chávez. The dream of a quality public education that was the right of every American child.

I am trying to come to terms w/ the idea that while we say we care about education, what we do (remember the whole actions speak thing?) is cut funding, deride teachers, slash their pay and benefits. And blame them, in the meantime, for ills that are societal in nature. Witness our current Secretary of Education, and her disinterest in traditional public ed. Despite, for instance, the research that shows (fairly conclusively) that charter schools are NOT as strong, overall, as public schools, and that $$ DO make a difference in quality of education, she & her bosses continue to tout charter schools. Which make PROFITS off of kids. Grr…

John Steinbeck once said (in one of my very favourite books, The Log from the Sea of Cortez)  that American society pays lip service to abstract ‘good’ values like ‘wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility.’ But in reality? The man who forced Americans to confront the realities of the Great Depression argues that we ‘envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities [cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity] has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure.’ We love Jesus in the abstract, he says, but we’d rather be successful than good. Because to be good is to be weak. A ‘value’ we see repeated over & over in the current electoral results.

This is painfully evident today. We see sharing — w/ the poor, w/ other countries, w/ the elderly and people who look different than we do — as a sign of weakness. Those people, I hear over & over. Those loafers. Those non-believers. Those who are not like me. I hear people say ~ I have to work hard. They just want it free. Hence the horrific “health” plan that will leave the elderly, those w/ health conditions, and many many other Americans w/ no hope of health care.

I don’t really know how to draw lines between human hearts. If we all believe in the magic that keeps the world turning, does it matter whether we call it God or Allah? Or science? If our children laugh when tickled, does it matter whether their first words are English, Czech or Spanish?moral virtue

Don’t all parents awaken each morning hoping that their children will grow up happy? That our sons & daughters will find meaningful work, be able to live on the proceeds, and be safe from war and want? If so, why is it we can’t meet there? What is so damn important that we can’t sit down over tea and talk? How the HELL do we expect our children — ALL our children — to become what we dream of w/out benefit of education? I would think even the most diehard no-funding proponent would see that an educated populace is an economic advantage for all of us. Even w/out benefit of their taxes, the educated can work, and support themselves…

We cut education $$ because we would rather give tax breaks to 1% of American taxpayers than fund reading and writing programs that do hundreds of thousands of children good. In my previous state of residence — Oklahoma — we have cut education funding more than ANY other state. And we’re proud of it, most of us. But me? I’m grieving. Mourning for a country that I thought believed in our children. That cherishes them as our future.

I keep poking this wound. Even though I was expecting this outcome, knowing that I’ve agreed w/ Steinbeck on this since I first read him, I am heartsick. I know that there is enormous fear and hatred raging at floodtide throughout the country. And I don’t understand it.

As I drove to get coffee yesterday, I passed houses redolent with the fragrance of old money. Their bricks were all neatly pointed. Nary a shingle curled. Each fence contained its private sanctuary with evenly spaced and level boards. The neighbourhood was so beautiful in the balmy not-quite-summer sunlight that it made you smile in delight. People live here, I thought. In these houses as big as libraries. Within these walls of stone and brick and privilege. But it didn’t make me jealous. It made me deeply aware of how blessed we are. How blessed the owners of those lovely old homes are. How much we have to be thankful for, and how often we feel that offering opportunities — real, tangible, concrete opportunities — to those less fortunate is ‘redistribution of wealth.’

In Wisconsin recently, there are people who said they have no jobs, so why should others? What happened to empathy? If my life is hard, I don’t want everyone to be at my level. Misery really doesn’t love company. Even when I was poor — so poor that I did w/out a telephone, had no TV, lived in a 3-room shotgun apartment cut from 1/4 of an old derelict house in a very bad neighbourhood — I wanted peace and plenty for all. I didn’t begrudge pocket mansions or expensive imported cars. I just wanted every one of my friends to have the opportunity for the same.

And this week, it feels like that hope is a completely dead American dream. And I can’t understand why.

Catching up ~ NaPoWriMo (16)

Catching up ~ NaPoWriMo (16)

Still writing! Luckily (at least it feels that way today) I have a few assignments left. 😏 Day 16’s NaPoWriMo prompt came quickly. Here it is:

Today I challenge you to take your inspiration, like our featured interviewee did in the chapbook she co-authored with Ross Gay, from the act of letter-writing. Your poem can be in the form of a letter to a person, place, or thing, or in the form of a back-and-forth correspondence.

And the poem:

Dear America ~

Please explain to my grandson
Why you will not trust him as he grows.
Why his uncle and his mother are suspect
Those dubious brown people
Why my cousin’s darker grandsons
Carry with them trouble
As dark as their shadows
As dark as white fear.
Dear America
Can you explain
So that we all understand?

We’re still the world…

We’re still the world…

It’s been a hard year, this election year… And it gets harder. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is an election that has set family members against one another. In some cases — I’m thinking of a colleague at a conference last weekend — husband against wife. That, on top of so many almost daily occurrences of police murdering innocent people of colour, on top of Hurricane Matthew, on top of…

It’s all just too much. So I got sick.

Now, please note: I didn’t get sick on purpose. ???? But I do believe that illness has its own reasons, and often you’re sick because of something in your life. In my case? I’m just bloody exhausted & overwhelmed. So I got sick enough (baby flu, for what it’s worth — I’m not dying here, but I’ve been pretty punk) to require long naps & not much more activity than opening a can of soup & reading an e-book (no pages to turn!).

And I stayed off of most social media, preferring to look at the floor plan of a house we’re buying only FOUR BLOCKS (!) from my beloved grandson, or dreaming of a new garden and bird habitat. Or beginning to say goodbye to this life I love, right here in the messed up heartland. The red, red heartland…

The universe, thinking I needed something to leaven my days, sent me this song. And I remembered: remembered how we came together to feed a continent riven by drought, starving to death. Remembered how music became a rallying cry for generousity that saved thousands & thousands of lives. Remembered how it felt when I first heard that mantra ~ we are the world, we are the people…

Because we STILL ARE. All of us — and we need to get back to saving our own lives, together. We need to somehow move beyond the miasma of hate that’s masquerading as a political campaign for so many, and reach out. TAKE CHANCES. Get to know that ‘other.’ You know: ‘the’ African American; ‘the’ Muslim.’ The autistic kid in your kid’s class, or the guy on the spectrum at work.

We need to look around and see PEOPLE, not terrorists or thieves or whatever political BS is trying to separate us.

I’m verrry lucky to have lived over much of the world. So that when other people are able to talk of Muslims hatefully, lumping that vastly diverse group of nationalities & ethnicities together as if Baptist were Catholics, I see Salina from Algiers, who lived across the apartment hall from me. Who taught me how to make mint tea, & was my friend. Or Yousuf, my husband’s friend, who had us over for dinner, and served us lamb on platters of silvered brass, shouting with laughter at bad jokes. Or Soha, whom took her doctorate in TESOL Education at OSU, in her 2nd language. And who is a better person than almost anyone I know: funny, kind, compassionate, a grateful mother, and a dear dear friend.

“Mexicans” to me are my beloved daughter-in-law’s family, who actually are Hispanic Americans, multiple generations of land-grant & Pueblo land owners in New Mexico. They are her mother, who has two Masters. Her grandmother, one of the most devout Catholics I can imagine.

Or a nurse who stayed with my husband when he was in the hospital, who  was putting herself through nursing school. Or dear sweet Fannie, a professor at the university where my son & DIL teach, who came from Mexico to study math education, and stayed to teach and marry.

These ‘others’ are US, America. They are my friends, my family. They are the people I visit with on FB & Twitter, the people I ask for recommendations on LinkedIn. “They” are not ‘them.’ Each of the people in the world has a name. Had a mother, a father. A place of birth. A story that began with a birth. How have we forgotten that???

So today? Please — listen to the swell of the music. And remember: WE ~ each of us, every one of us ~ are the world. And we need to get busy. We need to be saving our own lives, folks. And let me tell you: hate will not do it.

What we need is a lot more love. More compassion. And a lot more music. Otherwise? We’re going to be very sick. For a very long time ~

 

belief, truth, and evidence ~

belief, truth, and evidence ~

I’m good at believing. The White Queen’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ is nothing to me. I believe in world peace. In faeries (really). In other universes. In public education. And a few more things I forget. Daily.

There was, at one time, a national movement, inspired by the sainted Edward Murrow: This I Believe. It asked Americans to submit a short essay on what each one believed. These ranged from a quilt made from old saris, to helping the homeless, to getting together w/ sisters. I absolutely believe that each of these is important.

My father believed in the government. Although a Southern Democrat, he believed strongly in the implicit goodness of the American government. When Nixon was in power, and Watergate was breaking, my father refused to hear anything against the man. I remember a yelling, food-throwing dinner (yup: a regular food fight, at least on my side of the table), w/ Daddy yelling & pounding the table and me hollering back at him. I know I flung my food at him in utter frustration. I don’t think he threw it back. But he certainly was mad enough to, and thumping the table hard enough it might have just flown my way! My mother was crying, my sisters were bawling, even the cook (this was overseas, in a villa on a Thai soi long ago…) was whimpering in fear.

Not me & Daddy. Each of us was certain we were right, and if we just yelled a little louder the other would finally LISTEN. So we kept fighting. Need I say that neither of us was arguing from even a FEW scraps of evidence, but rather from beliefs & individual (in my case limited) experiences? Sometimes the ways I am like my father can we say bull-headed? opinionated? weird sense of humour? unnerve even me. I don’t know how we’d do today, in this contentious political danse macabre. I hope we’d be able to talk more reasonably, citing…well, evidence.

Believing and truthIn a related (but not clearly so) incident recently, I was told on a FB thread, by a friend of a family member, that I was not welcome. That I didn’t ‘belong’ in the conversation. I had cited a Snopes link to refute a lie about the upcoming election that my family member & friends were determined to believe. My family member praised the woman who insulted me, and applauded her friend’s patriotism. This, she crowed, was about AMERICA. And Snopes (which always disagrees with untruths) was a leftist conspiracy; didn’t I KNOW that???

So, I must be about something other than truth & America, apparently.  And I’m obviously crazy because I don’t ‘believe’ that belief makes something true. It just means you think it’s true — in fact, that’s exactly what belief does mean. But again: believing that aliens are the reason my cat sheds doesn’t mean that’s true. No matter how much I believe it. There’s just noooo evidence. Even if your belief system derives from your spiritual tradition(s): I don’t believe what you believe, most likely. So no, I won’t accept that as ‘evidence.’ Any more than these folks who booted me off their FB belief wall would accept the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The same family member who sees me as an interloper armed w/ liberal conspiracies also deleted one of my sister’s posts, for the same reason: it gave solid evidence that a claim being made was, at best, erroneous. I’d call it a malicious lie, but then, I’m not really a particularly good person. Just a hard-headed Buddhist realist.

Both of these incidents remind me that I often offend folks. I’m unabashedly liberal. Beyond liberal, apparently: maybe a flaming crazy progressive. Each separate encounter alerted me that folks often aren’t the least interested in hearing both sides of a story. My son — the one who sent me the difficult essay discussed in a previous post — has reminded me that liberals used to be better than the kind of people who delete posts on their wall that disagreed w/ their own politics. And we didn’t smear folks, either, or accuse them of treachery.

We do, these days. And I’m guilty of it just like the people I decry. But I’m NOT guilty of refusing to look at solid evidence. I’ve changed my opinion(s) on so many things I can’t begin to enumerate them all. Suffice to say that if you can come up w/ strong evidentiary support, I’ll listen. Because like the Venn diagram demonstrates, the intersection of truth & belief is knowledge. Which — for a lifelong learner, a person as nerdy as they come — is better than gold or chocolate. However, tell me it’s your ‘opinion’ & you’re entitled to it, & I’ll discount it. While that’s true — you’re certainly entitled to believe what you want — if you consistently buttress yourself in a safe hidey hole free from troubling contradictions of your careful beliefs, you’re not worth talking with about anything important.

I know this is a character flaw — one I struggle mightily with. And I wish someone could tell me: why I have to work so hard against hate? Because I HATE (list follows):

  • intolerance (my own included)
  • child abuse
  • animal abuse
  • hypocrisy
  • greed (especially when it wears the sanctimonious mask of ‘helping others’)
  • sanctimoniousness (see above)
  • people (and political figures — who don’t seem to always be human) who say they’re being ‘responsible,’ but it always seems to be at the expense of other people, not $$
  • placing more importance on profit than people
  • mean people
  • bad coffee, bad tea
  • ugly gardens

And sooo much more! ????

But ironically, I believe in the government, too. Like Daddy did. Also like Daddy, I believe we can help people help themselves — create jobs (remember the WPA?) and folks can pay taxes. But somehow, when I hear people talking, I don’t hear true belief. I hear a chorus of sea gulls in Finding Nemo: mine mine mine mine mine… And that’s not something I ever want to believe in. Any more than I want to delete folks’ posts.

I confess, though: I’ve pruned my social media to reflect less politics & more science. Fewer political action groups and more poetry. My battered heart can’t bear the ugliness that this election has brought roiling up from some dark pit within America. I can’t handle when people I care about — on even the smallest level — refuse to consider verifiable, independent facts. You know: evidence? That stuff that exists outside of you & your belief system(s): science, for instance. It doesn’t matter if you believe you can fly. Jump off the roof, & you’ll fall. It’s called gravity (even if it is only a theory). And gravity (like Zika virus, like whooping cough & total eclipses of the sun) don’t care whether you ‘believe’ in them or not.

So I apologise if I offend people I care about, but I’m learning to be myself. Even at this ripe old age. I’m learning to juggle what I believe with… well, what I believe. Social justice w/ compassion & tolerance, even for those who deny both those things to me & others. Belief with evidence. Truth with… well, truth with truth. Because surely that’s enough.

I’m getting better, though: I’m learning not to throw food. And actually? I think my Dad would be proud of me. I really do.

anger, ‘out-groups’, and Buddhism ~

anger, ‘out-groups’, and Buddhism ~

When I was a very young woman, I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Really. It was during the 70s, and the Neo-Nazi party was demonstrating (or trying to) in Skokie, IL. There was a huge outcry, because (you probably don’t know this) more than 1/2 of Skokie’s population was Jewish. In addition, a large number of the Jews who did live in Skokie were Holocaust survivors. In other words? A tragically incendiary situation.

I was a journalist for years. And as a radical liberal — if there is such a thing! — I defend freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. They are building blocks to a liberal democracy. So I sent money to a financially strapped ACLU; liberals weren’t happy to see ‘their’ organisation defend Nazis, and there weren’t many donations coming in. My friends were horrified.

But I remembered someone had told me, in a class I had once on ethics in media, that freedom of speech wasn’t about defending the things we agree with. It’s about making sure that even the things we HATE are also given the right to air. Even things that make us crazy angry.

I still believe that.

However, it’s just not that simple anymore. There are, of course, limits to free speech: you can’t yell fire, as we know. And you can’t incite riot. And yet… Surely this political season, we have seen many ‘leaders’ fomenting hate: saying that entire groups of people should be deported, even (possibly) executed, if ‘necessary.’ We have seen jokes made (in verrry poor taste) about guns and various candidates, followed w/ ‘wink/nudge’ that ostensibly excuses the ‘joke.’

We’ve seen people with, ostensibly, the same political goals make accusations without any basis. Families (once safe from mud-slinging) are fair game, and spouses are attacked w/ impunity. A man’s father has been impugned as an accomplice to murder, a woman’s husband’s affairs alleged to be ‘her own fault.’ Debates have disintegrated into finger shaking and eye-rolling.

And it’s not just ‘them.’ It’s all of us. We’re all angry.

Yesterday, my younger son sent me a link to an article I’m posting here. It talks about ‘in-groups’ & ‘out-groups,’ & how we range ourselves against the ‘out-groups’ of our choosing. It’s not a new (or even overly recent) article: Scott Alexander, the author, posted it back in 2014, almost exactly 2 years ago. But it’s never been more relevant. For the next week or so, I’ll be referring to it more than once. Alexander so neatly articulates the tension these days: liberals are just as apt to forget freedom of speech as someone from the ‘other’ side.

As a Buddhist, I know about ‘attachment.’ Upādāna (it literally means ‘fuel’) is the fire that arises when we cling fiercely to a longing, a wish for things to be different. Maybe it’s a desire for $$, or freedom from pain. In my case? It’s a visceral ache for justice for all: equity (which is NOT the same as equal treatment, per se: equity is levelling the playing field — quite different). I want that kind of ideal fairness to EVERYONE. And so those who work towards that goal are my ‘in-group.’ If you’re not working for equity? You’re in my ‘out-group.’ And I’m almost certainly angry about it.

Equity also means that you can’t be a racist, or a homophobe. You can’t be a misogynist, or indifferent to your own privileges, racial or class or gender derived. I don’t think I’m any of those. But as Scott Alexander notes, I get no ‘virtue points’ for being ‘tolerant’ of differences like race, gender, class, religion. Unfortunately, I also get no virtue points for being tolerant of my out-groups(s), because I’m not. Instead, I’m angry. Almost all the time.

I”m leaving this here for now. Next blog? More on trying to live a Buddhist life of non-clinging while remaining socially engaged, and activist.

Race, Buddhism, & broken hearts ~

Race, Buddhism, & broken hearts ~

In my hometown, many of us — I hope thousands of us — are grieving. We’re grieving for a murdered father of four. For a man returning from a music appreciation class, who had car trouble. Who was shot FOR NO GOOD REASON (although that’s not the story the accused cop is telling, of course), after he was tased.

Did mention he was tased FIRST? Oh: and he was black. That’s the REAL important fact these days…

I’m linking to two other pieces — one the heart-breaking post of a teacher at Mr. Crutcher’s daughter’s school. Please read it. Imagine how to explain that this little girl’s daddy won’t be coming home because a cop killed him. If you can, imagine the faces of the black children to whom the teacher is speaking: sons & daughters of black men. Black boys who will grow up to be big black guys who may look scary. And tell me it’s going to be fine. Because I don’t believe it.Buddhism and grief

The 2nd piece is one I wrote, for my other blog — a more Buddhist one — at Beliefnet. In it, I spent more time than my breaking heart will allow today exploring what happened. And how it’s part of a tragic historical trajectory. America is not interested in justice, when it comes to black men. It’s more afraid of them than for them.

The Buddhist in me has no idea what to do. I’m writing and writing and writing more, wondering how to help. I’m tackling family who believe that an unarmed man is a threat. I’m railing at a system where black is the wrong colour, at least in any tense situation. I’m caught in a kind of death spiral of anger & pain and more anger, and rage that this keeps happening.

And I don’t have a clue — not a single Buddhist text — to help me figure out. All I can do is breathe in, breathe out. Breathe through the heartbreak and anger. And try, HARD, to remember that the pain I feel is not a drop compared to the tsunami of sorrow Terence Crutcher’s four children feel…