It Goes Way Back…

The Roman Senate in Session

Lest you think that what is befalling the United States at present is of recent vintage, I urge you to consider the two great parties of the Roman Republic around 130 BC. There were two main political parties, the optimates (“the best ones”) and the populares (“favoring the people”). The former—consisting of members of the senatorial class and large landowners—were united in opposition to the tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his younger brother Caius Sempronius Gracchus. According to Wikipedia:

For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies advocated by the Populares.

How familiar it all seems today! The Republicans, whose entire political platform could be expressed in the phrase “I got mine,” are fearful and apprehensive that the unwashed Democrats and their immigrant allies want a share of their wealth. Like the Optimates, the Republicans are “the best ones,” so whatever they do to hold on to power is quite all right with them.

Yesterday, I ran into an elderly woman at the Farmers Market on Fairfax who was a virulent Trump supporter. She thought that the black and other unwashed Barbarian hordes were after her money. I didn’t bother to try reasoning with her, because she was beyond reason. So I merely insulted her, as did the Afro-American gentleman who was in line with me.

I always thought that the nice thing about having money is being able to spend it in interesting ways. Not necessarily so! At some point, this woman inherited some money, problem from her late husband and decided to build an impregnable fortress around the proceeds against me and my kind.

 

 

Serendipity: Ishmael and Queequeg

The “Cannibal” Queequeg

The “Cannibal” Queequeg

Today, I found myself waiting in the library of Loyola Marymount University for several hours while Martine did her errands. So I went over to the bookstore and bought the Norton Critical Edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and began my third reading of the classic. To my surprise, it didn’t take long into the book before I found the perfect paradigm of the United States in dealing with the rest of the world.

At the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Ishmael can have a place to sleep only if he shares a bed with the harpooner who rents the room. According to the landlord, he is out trying to “sell his head.” Ishmael tries sleeping on a downstairs bench that is too narrow and too short, but finally decides to take a chance. His awakening when the harpooner stumbles in in the middle of the night is a classic:

Lord save me, thinks I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler. But I lay perfectly still, and resolved not to say a word till spoken to. Holding a light in one hand, and that identical New Zealand head in the other, the stranger entered the room, and without looking towards the bed, placed his candle a good way off from me on the floor in one corner, and then began working away at the knotted cords of the large bag I before spoke of as being in the room. I was all eagerness to see his face, but he kept it averted for some time while employed in unlacing the bag’s mouth. This accomplished, however, he turned round—when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man—a whaleman too—who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. [Italics mine] But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. Now, while all these ideas were passing through me like lightning, this harpooneer never noticed me at all. But, after some difficulty having opened his bag, he commenced fumbling in it, and presently pulled out a sort of tomahawk, and a seal-skin wallet with the hair on. Placing these on the old chest in the middle of the room, he then took the New Zealand [shrunken] head—a ghastly thing enough—and crammed it down into the bag. He now took off his hat—a new beaver hat—when I came nigh singing out with fresh surprise. There was no hair on his head—none to speak of at least—nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.

Little by little, Ishmael and Queequeg (for such is his name) warm up to each other. Returning from the famous sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel, Ishmael encounters Queequeg again at the Spouter Inn:

With much interest I sat watching him. Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face—at least to my taste—his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. [Italics mine] Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils. And besides all this, there was a certain lofty bearing about the Pagan, which even his uncouthness could not altogether maim. He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.

As I read this, I thought that Melville was a man who was comfortable in his own skin and who understood the world—understood it far better than those police in Missouri and New York who killed out of fear, understood it far better than George Zimmerman who “stood his ground” because of his fear.

Fear is not only a mind killer, it is also a killer of otherwise innocent black people who are confronted with very limited white people who don’t know how to take them.

 

 

The Republic of Fear

So You Really Think You’re Going to Catch Ebola?

So You Really Think You’re Going to Catch Ebola? I Wouldn’t Bet on It!

The news is all about fear. Fear sells. People keep coming back for more because their fear builds until it warps their decision-making process. The various news channels cannot sell soap unless they put you in a fearful state of mind. One of the reasons I do not watch the news on television—ever—is that I have no wish to be manipulated.

I am going to ask myself several questions just to give you my take on several issues in the news:

  1. Am I afraid of contracting ebola? Not at all. The only thing I might do if I have to fly somewhere while this outbreak lasts is to wear gloves and a surgical face mask during the duration of the flight.
  2. Do I think that ISIS (or ISIL or whatever) will try something in our country? Probably. We are trying to bomb them to pieces and that probably doesn’t sit too well with them, so I expect they’ll try something along the lines of our own domestic terrorists with bombs or other devices. Am I afraid of them? Not particularly. I think they’re enjoying a brief ascendancy in Syria and Iraq before even the Sunnis try to shut them down.
  3. Are My Children Going to Be Shot Dead by Crazed Gunmen? As I don’t have any children, the fear is somewhat remote for me. But are your children going to be shot dead by crazed gunmen? That is a distinct possibility, as we are doing nothing to keep guns out of the hands of homicidal idiots.
  4. Are Weird Storms Going to Level Our Cities and Towns? Oh, you can bet on it. Curiously, most of these storms occur in areas where people disbelieve that we can affect climate change. “Nice, nice, very nice, so many people in the same device.” (Read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to understand the quote.)

At least once a year, I quote the Bene Gesserit litany from Frank Herbert‘s Dune on the subject of fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

So before you switch on Faux News, you might want to think twice. Don’t believe what various pundits and experts try to tell you. Occasionally they tell the truth, but only on the sixth Friday of every month. Even the newspaper can discombobulate you. Be skeptical. Be very skeptical. People make lots of money by trying to lie to you. Don’t let them get away with it.

Practice living fearlessly. I went to Peru on my lonesome and spent three weeks traveling among people who did not speak the same language as me or think the way I think. It’s good practice, actually.

 

Confronting Demons

Confronting Your Fear When It Matters Most

Perhaps the Demons Are Not Real

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is a detailed discussion of how a dying person should be guided past the “wrathful deities” that are images of his fear to the desired annihilation of the self in Nirvana. There is a state between death and either rebirth or liberation from the circle of endless rebirths.

Here is a description of one of these demons, named Heruda:

O, Child of Buddha Nature, listen without distraction. Although the intermediate state of the peaceful deities did previously arise within you, you did not recognize it. So now you have wandered, [through the succession of pathways,] to here. Now, on the eighth day, the assembly of wrathful blood-drinking deities will arise. Recognize them and do not be distracted! O, Child of Buddha Nature, he who is called the Great Glorious Buddha Heruka will [now] arise, vividly manifesting before you from within your own brain. His body, blazing in a mass of light, is dark brown in colour, having three heads, six arms and four legs, which are [firmly] set apart. His right face is white, the left red and the central face dark brown. His nine eyes are fixed in a fearsome wrathful gaze, his eyebrows are quivering like lightning, his fangs are bared and gleaming, and he is laughing loudly, uttering the sounds of Alala and Haha, and Shoo oo—like whistles, in loud piercing cries. The golden-auburn hair of his head blazes and rears upward, sun and moon-discs, black serpents, and dry skulls adorn each of his heads, and black snakes and fresh skulls form a garland around his body. In his six hands he holds, on the right in the first hand, a wheel, in the middle one, an axe, and in the last hand a sword and to the left, in his first hand, he holds a bell, in the middle one, a ploughshare and in the last a skull. The female consort Buddhakrodhesvari is embracing his body, her right hand clasped around his neck and her left offering a skull-cup filled with blood to his mouth. Amidst loud pounding palatal sounds of ‘Thuk-chom’, and an [echoing] roar like the reverberation of thunder, the fire of pristine cognition blazes from the fiery indestructible pores of their bodies, and thus they stand together, [with one leg] extended and [the other] drawn in on a throne supported by garudas.

Do not be afraid! Do not be terrified! And do not be awed! Recognize this to be the buddhabody of your own intrinsic awareness. These are your own meditational deities, so do not be terrified. This, in reality, is the transcendent lord Vairocana and his consort, so do not be afraid. Recognition and liberation will occur simultaneously!

It is difficult for us to recognize what appears to be a wrathful demon as a manifestation of ourselves. By exhibiting fear in this critical Bardo state (as the Tibetans call it) will tie you to this life and the inevitable defeat of rebirth. Perhaps in our culture, we do not see rebirth as a negative: Rather, we typically frighten ourselves with demons and exhibit fear.

Whereas in our culture it is death and the pathways to it that terrify us, the Tibetans see death as a teachable moment—the last chance for non-returning to a world characterized by misery.

As I write this, Martine and I have just returned from a nearby hospice in which a longtime friend is confronting pancreatic cancer and trying to prepare his mind for—what? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that fear on that last approach is an ever-present danger. May we all be spared from this fear as we make our way out of this world and into—what?

Frank Herbert in his book Dune included this Bene Gesserit mantra which I think of often when confronting my own demons:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

There is great wisdom in these lines.

We Have Nothing to Fear But …

Someone Needs to Tell This to the Tea Party

Someone Needs to Tell This to the Tea Party

Conservatives are people who are addicted to fear. They fear for the “sanctity” of marriage. They fear what else homosexuals might be planning to discomfit them and their way of life. They fear that liberals are coming to take away their guns. They fear their children will grow up hating their values. They fear that poor people will vote in large numbers to bump them out of office. They fear America will be inundated by immigrants from Third World countries. They fear for the Purity of Essence of their Precious Bodily Fluids.

I take my cue from a great Republican President by the name of Calvin Coolidge. At one point, he said, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” I often think of that saying when I am twisting and turning in bed at night because I fear that something will happen.

If you should ever find yourself in Plymouth, Vermont, as I did on one day in 2005. You should visit the Coolidge homestead, which is run by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. You will find the former President buried in the local cemetery without an ostentatious monument slathered with grandiose sentiments. You will see the humble home in which he was born and the village where he grew to maturity. And finally, you will see a Republican who could be admired by future generations—as the present crop of Republicans will most certainly not be.

A subsequent President, FDR, told us during his first inaugural address that we had nothing to fear but fear itself:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

Is the United States going to be paralyzed by the fear of elderly white people who think they are the last generation that supports the values that made this country great? Or will change continue to take place—as it always has and always will—leading to a world that is different, better in some ways and worse in others?