Category Archives: Politics

Prayer Against Fascism

Dear Lord, Guiding Spirit, Power beyond and around and within us…
as You know, there is a disease going around
a deep and terrible sickness
it attacks the soul, the mind, and the heart
of individuals, communities, cities, of whole nations
it’s infectious, virulent, easily communicable
spread by word of mouth, by constant exposure to lies
by propaganda’s relentless drumbeat
it feeds on fear, ignorance, and bruised pride
and it makes people do horrible things
sometimes in Your Name

let me not succumb to it

keep my heart open to the Other
keep my mind open to truth and to inquiry
keep my soul free of hatred and fear
grant me the courage to speak out
when I see this disease raise its ugly head
grant me compassion both for its victims
and for those infected by it
keep me free from arrogance and illusions of superiority
grant me humility and acceptance
let me never come to believe
that I have any exclusive answer, any special privilege
or that others are any less worthy than I am in Your sight

Lord, I pray for the humbling of bullies,
of those who abuse their power over others –
I ask for their hearts to be healed,
for the calming of their rage
Grant them empathy and inner peace
Let them find what it means to be human again

Help us to celebrate everything that we are
To fully embrace both our diversity and our unity
To care for each other and your Creation
Let the mighty step down, let the lowly be raised
Help us temper justice with mercy
Help us replace dissension with harmony
Help us overcome this disease, this epidemic we call fascism
with the healing power of love. Amen.

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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…

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.