Category Archives: Politics

Sympathy for the Devil: New Verses

While listening to a local musician play “Sympathy for the Devil” recently, it occured to me that the time had come to add some new verses… so here you go:

The golden calf is all grown up
I’m the bull that rules your souls
I make you rampage over Creation
For the silliest of goals
I’ve set up frauds
In the name of God
And you follow them – now don’t you find that odd?
Pleased to meet you…

I set up shop in Washington
Got one in Tel Aviv
I relish Gaza’s sufferings
Made a hell that they can’t leave
Made a deal with a chump
By the name of Trump
On God’s own Church we’ll take a dump
Pleased to meet you…

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POWER, PAIN, AND PSYCHOPATHY

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in their annual “Joke Show” – and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is :

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Bush and Cheney tortured.”
“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”
“Sorry, that information is classified – and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior, and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)
This sordid history was resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as CIA Director – but let’s go a little deeper.
Part of the debate about torture was whether or not it was even a good way of getting information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.
Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.
Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, even in the face of contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?
Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?
Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at the photos from Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. These people weren’t just doing a job…
They were having fun.
There’s a word for that. That word is sadism.
(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition – wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)
There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation…”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence, and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?
Try reading the headlines through such a lens, and then you tell me.
PS. For more information on studies about torture and interrogation, see this recent article from Scientific American magazine: “We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work”

Why must we wait

Why must we wait
Until our bloodstreams merge
On sidewalks and pavements
In hallways and classrooms
In the streets of pulverized cities
To see that all thse streams are the same

Why can we only flow together
Into puddles and gutters
Spattered across walls
Soaked into clothing
Filling up bathtubs
Circling the drains of tiled rooms

Why must we be shattered
Before we can be swept up together
Why must we decay
In the unmarked mass grave
Before we can greet the sun
As fields of flowers

America (Updated)

(It occurred to me at one point that the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” could use some kind of revision – an updating, if you will. You may have wondered what happened to that pair of idealistic Midwestern lovers, who took a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh to New York City… and the existential crisis that was just starting to form in the young man’s mind.

That whole story would be a good basis for a novel… but I had something more specific in mind. So, with all due respect and apologies to Mr. Simon…)

So we became lovers, we married our fortunes together
We took that Greyhound to NYC
Bought a house in Connecticut
Raised some kids, baked some pies
And that was our life in America…

“Kathy,” I said – we were at some convention in Pittsburgh –
“Our life has been such a dream so far…
“But inside I’m still just a poor kid from Saginaw
“There must be more to America…”

So we got back on the bus, went all sorts of places
Big cities, small towns, everywhere in between
Slowly we started to notice that something was missing…

“Hey man, got a cigarette, I’m six months laid off from the factory”
“I smoked my last one two decades ago”
But he thanked me anyway – I read Time Magazine
How the Dow rose over some increased yields

“Kathy,” I said – but she said, “Paul, just shut up and listen –
“You know what’s wrong here and so do I
“Count all the limos on the New Jersey Turnpike
“The rich ones are taking America
“Stealing the hopes of America
“Trying to kill the dream of America…”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: WAITING FOR THE NEXT SHOE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler fled the United States on January 19, and has spent the last couple of months volunteering with a small refugee assistance group in Serbia.)

My time in Serbia is just about up – by the time you read these words I will be in Tuzla, Bosnia, getting ready to go back to Germany and resume some creative projects I was working on there. My experience here has been wonderful, traumatic, eye-opening, and heartbreaking. I hope I get a chance to return, or maybe even proceed further “upriver,” tracing the refugees’ path farther back, into Greece, Romania or maybe even Turkey.

But in the meantime… can I get something off my chest?

Remember Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR? You may recall how the omnipresent “telescreens” would periodically blare out news of some victory or other, followed by a breathless pronouncement along the lines of, “This brings the war within measurable distance of its end!”

(If you haven’t read NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR yet, please stop what you are doing now and go read it. You will understand what is happening now much better. Trust me on this.)

Well, all these little leaks and suggestions and rumors and possibilities that keep showing up in my newsfeeds these days are starting to sound very much like Orwell’s tantalizing telescreen, except now the message is more like “The end of the Trump Nightmare is in sight!” Indictments and impeachment resolutions are just around the corner! Mueller is about to make an earth-shattering announcement!

It’s driving me nuts, I tell you.

It’s not surprising, of course. There is probably nothing, not even the final season of GAME OF THRONES, that engenders greater feelings of anticipation than the idea of Trump and his crew being cast out of power. And so of course anything that suggests the coming breaking of dawn will garner retweets and sharings.

But this anticipation is itself dangerous. It can distract us from continuing to apply the necessary daily pressure on our elected officials. It can give us a sense of false hope that, when let down often enough, exhausts us and leads to frustration and despair.  And it can be used as bait.

At the same time, we are held in thrall by similarly phrased intimations of Apocalypse from a dozen different directions. When will the other shoe drop, and where? North Korea? Iran? Venezuela? All three at once?

So I am trying my best to ignore the “Sources say…” and “According to some…” stories. I am trying to focus on the immediate tragedies and successes in whose reality I can have some confidence.

Until I see the full-page photo of Donald Trump being led out of the White House in handcuffs.

Then I might start thinking more seriously about return tickets.

 

Throwdown in Jerusalem (A Modest Proposal)

The combination briar patch and powder keg that is sometimes called “the Holy Land” is chock-full of contentious and seemingly irresolvable issues. One of the thorniest involves the area of Jerusalem called the Temple Mount, which houses some of the holiest sites of both Judaism and Islam. It is also revered by Christians, especially those of the apocalyptic variety, since the restoration of the ancient Jewish Temple is an important part of their eschatological timeline, and the desired site is presently physically occupied by a mosque.

I won’t even try to recount the whole history here – there are plenty of sources you can find for that. Suffice it to say that recent events have once more brought the tenuous and sensitive question of ownership to the fore.

Oh, and one more thing: I think I may have a solution to this conundrum.

It’s simple enough, if you accept my premise, which is that if the Almighty has an opinion on this matter – and the disputing parties all agree that He does – then we should be able to ask Him about it.

There is a precedent for the sort of thing I have in mind. Back in the Old Testament, in 1 Kings 18 in fact, there’s a great story about the prophet Elijah and his throwdown with the priests of Baal. Elijah suggests that they set up ritual sacrifices to their respective gods, and see what happens – the idea being that the real deity will cause his sacrifice to be devoured  in flame.

Baal’s guys try their best, but nothing happens – and Elijah has some fun talking smack at them all the while. Then he not only sets up his sacrifice, he has it doused thoroughly with water (so the story says) – but Yahweh blows it all sky-high anyway.

So here’s my idea. Let’s get some hardcore representatives of the three faiths involved – an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, a radical Islamic imam, and a fundamentalist pro-Israel Christian preacher like, say, James Hagee – to set up some old-school sacrifices, and then beseech the Almighty to let His Will be known.

And then we see what happens… with this caveat: if nothing happens at all, then the parties agree that this will be interpreted as a clear sign from The Creator that we should all start acting like grownups and learn how to share.

Now here’s the main point, and my challenge: I do not belive that ANYBODY – Muslim, Jewish, or Christian – actually has the faith, or the confidence in their position, to put their claim to such a test. They might talk a good game, and trot out historical and scriptural evidence to back themselves up, but they don’t really believe their own rhetoric.

Maybe I’m wrong. We’ll see. Continue reading