The Last Crossword – A Play (video)

A fresh take on the subject of crossword puzzles, spirituality, and death (with some talking animals thrown in for good measure)

This is a short play I wrote in 2004, based on Sri Chinmoy’s telling of a traditional story about Ramdas Kathiya Baba. The story, called “I am going Home,” may be read online at Sri Chinmoy Library:

The play was performed in Bali in early 2004, with Devashishu Torpy playing Ramdas Kathiya Baba, and Sahadeva Torpy his crossword-loving disciple Rakhal (a very moving performance!).

Look for Kanan as the cow, Sanjay as the tiger, with special guest appearance by Ketan Tamm as the roving reporter — a character not in the original story, but being more in the nature of a gratuitous anachronism.

The play was performed outdoors, and according to one apocryphal story, when Sanjay made his exit by leaping over a wall (souple et féroce comme un tigre), he thoroughly startled a casual observer! Thank you to everyone who made the play possible, including the videographers.

I re-dedicate this play to Sri Chinmoy on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his Mahasamadhi.

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Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

I find myself running out of words to react to all the tragedies which seem to be hitting us nonstop. The ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico is not only one of physical devastation; it also highlights the deficit in empathy which I feared was coming when I wrote in early January:

A president, aside from his many practical duties, is also like a guardian angel for the nation. If he is kind and just, we feel protected. If he moves gracefully through the world, our nation feels at ease with the world. … At the same time that I feel tremendous gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.

When it is a question of character, intelligence, scholarship, humanity, and empathy, Barack Obama is a rare example of the best in American political leadership. We were lucky and blessed to get him for eight years, and I fear that we shall soon miss him more than we can ever imagine.

While empathy is no substitute for food, water, and medicine, empathy can heal the hearts of those who suffer, and a leader who shows empathy can also inspire a wider empathic response throughout the nation. So it’s part of the greater tragedy that President Trump shows so little true empathy at times of crisis, and instead uses disaster as a means to inflame differences.

When it comes to shootings and bombings, I always feel there are certain universal values which don’t belong exclusively to this religion or that, or this nation or that, or to a particular race or culture. Some truths have been universally arrived at. So I quoted President Obama as saying:

My mother was a deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.

Somehow these universal values are being lost or eclipsed in our society, in the unbridled pursuit of money, sex, and power. Electing a leader whose reputation was built on money, sex, and power was a step backward for this nation, and I hope we will learn from it and seek out leaders who are richer in empathy, spiritual insight, and proximity to the Universal Good. As I wrote last February:

For American democracy to succeed, we need to elect leaders who are above average, even exemplary — those who have education, experience, and a profound vision of what we can achieve in concert with other actors on the world stage. It has become a rubric that Americans typically elect the guy they’d most like to have a beer with, the guy they perceive to be just like them. We should not be afraid to elect leaders who are super smart, compassionate, visionary, and extremely well-qualified to lead us. They may not always make good drinking buddies, but they do make better leaders.

So next time you’re in a voting booth, think of the guy or gal you’d most like to have a beer with, and remember to buy them a beer! Then vote for the better qualified candidate.

We need to improve education in civics so that the average American understands how to choose between candidates, and how not to be swayed by populist appeals. When we elect leaders with no vision and few qualifications, we ultimately pay the price.

How sad that we now have a boorish leader who conned millions of voters into thinking he would protect their interests, when his real world policies entail throwing millions of people off health care, and shoveling yet more money to the richest in society, including his own family.

Do you know the Sam Cooke song “Twistin’ The Night Away”?

Hearing it made me want to post a parody on YouTube contrasting a bunch of rich folks in tuxedos shaking their fannies on the dance floor, while elderly residents of Puerto Rico are dropping dead in rural areas because no planes were sent to drop food, water, and medicine. Maybe all the planes were busy shuttling cabinet members to vacation destinations where they could inspect the gold in Fort Knox, or stock up on designer brands.

Naked injustice sends its own perilous message to the rank and file of America: a message that there is no God and one might just as well take a gun and start shooting random strangers. The mentally ill fall victim to this blackest of visions of an America gone valueless; but even the nominally sane are affected. The era of Trump is an era of every man for himself; an era where compassion is seen as a weakness, and pressing maxumium personal advantage a strength; an era of metaphorically grabbing them by the whatever. This is an America not habitable by decent people. We need to recoil from it, and resist allowing it to spread ad infinitum.

Neither conservatives nor liberals have a lock on values, and somewhere between the extremes lie sensible policies, including revising educational curricula to deal more effectively with the values vacuum. In writing about the congressional baseball shooting last June, I elaborated on some of the problems, and discussed the utility of Peace Studies in forging solutions:

Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

There will always be economic injustices, natural disasters, and crazed shooters (at least for the forseeable future). But we will be better prepared to deal with these problems if we give future generations a grounding in Peace Studies, which can lead to insight, empathy, and self-control of violent impulses.

Even in times of strife, there are always voices of peace in our midst and in the world at large — but we need to listen to them. Their message is not commercial and is not geared to our greed, so it’s harder to hear over loudspeakers which, after 2,000 years, are still blaring the message of Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici.

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

No one else can solve the world’s problems. We need to play some role ourselves, however modest. Sri Chinmoy writes:

There will come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who will bring about this radical change? It will be you – you and your sisters and brothers. You and your oneness-heart will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

The connection between greed and violence is stressed in this interview with the Dalai Lama of Tibet:

So, if we look carefully we can see that there are broad connections between a society which abandons itself to greed, politicians who are for sale to the gun lobby, and a record number of casualties in the latest shooting spree in Las Vegas.

The values we need to combat these problems are, again, universal. They’re found at the core of the world’s religions, and also in many humanistic philosophies. We need to find practical ways of imparting these values to the next generation, as a farmer plants a seed knowing that he may not live to see it fully germinate, but that it will one day be of great benefit. If we do not do it, it will not be done.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Of Further Interest

People Are Good Everywhere
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Art and Hermeneutics Part 2
Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z”

How many Tasmanians does it take to eat the planet Jupiter?

Outback mum becomes YouTube hi-tech maven

In my role as part-time techno nerd and Linux aficionado, I’ve struggled through numerous how-to videos made by lonely guys living in their parents’ basement, cussing up a storm at Microsoft while extolling the preternatural benefits of Water Rat Linux (or whatever distro with a development team of one has lately come down the pike).

Yes, saving the world through Linux how-to videos can be a lonely and thankless occupation — but meet hi-tech whiz kid Philip Adams and his “sinsible” (yet vivacious) mum Diana:

Philip and Diana Adams

Together they’ve become stars of a YouTube channel called OSFirstTimer where mum Diana tries out (and sometimes intentionally destroys) a variety of computer operating systems, goaded on by son Philip, who alternatively guides her, assigns her reasonable tasks, leads her into evil ways, and lands them both in full giggle loop territory.

I stumbled on their antics quite accidentally, being genuinely interested in Remix OS (a.k.a. Android for desktops), and charmed to find their exploration begins with Diana feeding gigantic white parrots on a balcony by the seashore:

The patriarch of the family, Ben, is occasionally roped in, as is little sister Jasmine (or “Jazzy”); but for the most part it’s Philip and Diana who attract viewers with their great chemistry and offbeat approach to matters hi-tech.

Last month I posted a two-part series on “Art and Hermeneutics” which gave me the opportunity to study the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer and learn about the subject from folk already conversant. I therein had occasion to reference musical duets between Stu Goldberg and L. Subramaniam, and between Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar. These duets are dialogical in nature — a word which crops up often in hermeneutics. Dialogue with others can unleash a certain power, beauty, and joy. This is one high falootin’ explanation for why OSFirstTimer videos are so much more engaging than those made by lonely guys in basements. The interplay between Philip and Diana results in a “fusion of horizons,” making the dull subject of computer operating systems seem vibrant and alive.

One of the more intelligent, knowledgeable, and well-spoken YouTube Linux gurus, Joe “Bootsy” Collins (a true Southern gentleman and Linux Mint booster), points out that some purveyors of Linux how-to’s are foul-mouthed and reinforce the notion of tech as a “boys’ club” with high barriers to entry for women. The peripatetic English Bob, however sociable, doesn’t do much to dispel this image with his wallpapers featuring muscle cars or scantily clad Asian women. But OSFirstTimer balances the scales somewhat. The main star is clearly Diana, who’s eminently practical about what works and doesn’t work for her, asserts her preferences with oomph, and is not afraid to choose a pink, flowery wallpaper if the mood strikes her. To their credit, neither Philip nor Diana spend their time vaping or f-bombing (another dig at English Bob).

I’ve quoted Gadamer as saying “If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.” Good advice, but every thesis cries out for its antithesis. Particularly in the world of tech (which some people take so seriously), deconstructionism has its place. Tech companies even offer “bounties” to end users who find creative ways of destroying their products and services. Figuring out how to destroy something can be a good way of learning how to build it better and stronger, an approach also useful when fashioning bear-proof trash bins or squirrel-proof bird feeders:


Fortunately or unfortunately, no one has yet fashioned a Diana-proof OS.

The Internet has proved a mixed blessing — certainly not the Utopia envisioned by early adopters. We’ve become reliant on technology, but there are a thousand-and-one things about operating systems and Net life which are annoying or degrading, so I especially enjoy Philip and Diana’s sojourns into creative destruction, and their live encounters with tech support scammers. Without ever mentioning Turing, they re-enact the Turing Test — or perhaps an old TV commercial starring Ella Fitzgerald:

Is it live or is it Memorex? Surely a meme for our times. Philip is a genius at installing operating systems as virtual machines, so when he and Diana go online, trolling for ways to catch a virus or schmooze with scammers, what ultimately gets destroyed is a virtual install running in VMware, not the real underlying operating system. Still, there’s always the risk that a powerful virus or skilled hacker could get past the virtual machine and attack the host OS. IOW, “Kids, don’t try this at home!”

While OSFirstTimer spends a fair amount of time just fooling around, much can be learned about Net life from creative play, as when Diana falls in love with the BonziBuddy adware, and Philip has to explain that such is vehemently hated in polite Internet society:

Equal opportunity destroyers, Philip and Diana don’t just go after Windows, but also Mac and Linux. In the course of their antics, viewers learn the valuable lesson that searching for free movies is one of the easiest ways to encounter malware and fake antivirus:

While giddy with amusement is their typical state, they become positively hysterical when interacting with “Andrew The Expert,” whom they encounter after getting a fake antivirus warning from visiting a movie site. Is Andrew a real person or a bot? The Turing Test (or Voight-Kampff Test) has not been so rigorously applied since Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, later made into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott.

Questions of sentience and legitimacy are never quite put to rest in the OSFirstTimer video, so let me address these issues with a couple of links:

“Ongoing MacKeeper fraud”
http://www.thesafemac.com/ongoing-mackeeper-fraud/

“PUP Friday: MacKeeper”
https://blog.malwarebytes.com/puppum/2016/08/pup-friday-mackeeper/

It could be that Philip and Diana encountered a human-assisted bot. The bot interacts with their Mac OS and spits out some canned responses, but when it’s stumped by their questions, a real person situated in Kiev (and always named Andrew) may chime in now and then.

Feigning concern about her privacy, Diana eventually agrees to give her “real” e-mail of fairypop@prettymail.net, which sends her and Philip into paroxysms of laughter. We’re helplessly carried along as they gradually morph the tech session into a computer dating scenario. The “bot” explains that dating is out of the question because it’s currently warming a seat in Ukraine.

This is probably the most insane of the OSFirstTimer vids, but definitely one of my favourites, doubling as a non-prescription antidepressant.

So next time tech is getting you down, hop on over to the OSFirstTimer channel  to see if an outback mum can claw her way through an outlandish OS or unsuspecting tech support scammer. She may succeed or fail, but she’ll definitely entertain you, and you might even learn something.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Tom Price – Leaving on a Jet Plane

A paean to the disgraced HHS Secretary, who was thrown out with the Friday trash.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s health secretary has resigned, after his travel on costly charter flights triggered investigations and angered his boss.

Tom Price’s partial repayment and public regrets couldn’t save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s Cabinet to leave office in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. Price served less than 8 months.

When interviewed about future plans, Price said he expected to be found hanging around airport bars and giving away free high schools.

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The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

Hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism. Plus a journey into the style of “fusion” music which took shape in the 1970s, including a video interview with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

(Alpha version. Please check back for updates.)

In Part 1, I began discussing hermeneutics as a theory of art — not a dry theory, but something helpful and practical. I hope you had fun watching the different videos; and while the emphasis was on fun, the point is that hermeneutics is concerned with helping us understand art, finding ways to overcome the historical and cultural boundaries we may face when trying to comprehend art from another time or culture, or art partaking of such far-flung influences.

To summarize from Part 1: Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

The word “hermeneutics” also comes up in discussions of performance art, and performance artists are sometimes called “hermeneutists.” This might seem puzzling until we learn that in Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. The gods don’t speak directly to human beings, so Hermes acts as their interpreter. This makes Hermes the patron saint of hermeneutics (notwithstanding his lack of quaint parades in third world countries).

According to this line of thought, performance artists are interpreters of the culture in which they live, or perhaps all of human civilization. They’re seen as living messengers (though of what, it’s not always exactly clear).

So how does shamanism enter the picture? (“By the back door,” would be one clever retort.) From a modern secular point of view (which I don’t happen to embrace), shamans might be said to perform incomprehensible rituals which have a theatrical component (like performance artists), and which are intended to transform them and their audience (or participants in the shamanic ritual).

Performance artists are interpreters of culture who perform a kind of intense personal magic which may possess transformative power, provided the audience enters into dialogue (or identifies) with them. Not surprisingly, the performance art community stresses the connection between performer and audience far more than one would find at, say, an exhibition of Victorian upholstery. In some performance art, the distinction between performer and audience arguably disappears. The art is not delivered over a transom by the artist, but is created to a considerable extent by participants. In both performance art and shamanism there may be an element of spectacle. So does all this mean that

performance artist = shaman [???]

Not necessarily. Think of it more as conceptual mapping between two different traditions. Perhaps in a largely secular period and region (such as Western Europe at the start of the twenty-first century), performance art acts as a substitute for certain types of shamanic rituals, without genuinely approximating them, and without necessarily understanding what the original rituals entailed or signified.

As I see it, the shamanic tradition involves performing rituals which have some definite supernatural effect, such as putting the shaman or participants in contact with a supernatural force or entity, an altered state of consciousness, or a healing power (whether conceived of as internal or external). Most modern performance artists, on the other hand, strike me as engaged in a type of secular theatre which may imitate (or perhaps ape) the outer trappings of shamanism, but which neither intends to have (nor succeeeds in having) a supernatural effect. Rather, the effect is social, political, aesthetic, or psychological.

Of course, performance art has its critics and skeptics. A “cutting” satire on the genre is found in The West Wing episode “Gone Quiet”:

Writing in The Guardian on “How performance art took over,” Adrian Searle provides a more serious and balanced perspective, and will get you up-to-speed faster than some wholly credulous authors writing from within the performance art community. Searle opines:

The proliferation of performance in museums has a lot to do with both art itself and the changing role of these institutions, as well as the demands of an audience that wants to feel empowered, engaged and participatory. Today’s spectators demand a role, whether they are inventing their own performances in the gallery … or clamouring to take part in artist-led workshops such as the Hayward Gallery’s ongoing Wide Open School. We want to be active, rather than passive spectators. Perhaps this is merely fashion, but I suspect not. … Private rituals and public acts, catharsis and confrontation are the central strands of art as performance. The work is the beginning of a dialogue, not an end. It is something shared. We are all performers, even when we are playing at being spectators.

Ritual plays an important part in human civilization, human psychology. With the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in faith-based communal rituals, people are looking to artists to provide them with rituals they can join in, but not believe in — or at least, where no particular beliefs are prerequisites for participation.

I’ve had lively discussions with Buddhists who claim that Buddhism is not a religion and requires no beliefs. I won’t recapitulate that argument in full, but some American Buddhists are refugees from strict Christian (or other) upbringings. Their particular style of Buddhism has a lot to do with rebellion, and rejection of beliefs they were force-fed. This is less true of Buddhism as practiced historically in India, China, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet. A distinct feature of some American Buddhism is its connection to American counterculture and rejection of formal requirements, its nonconformist, roll-your-own quality.

So, if there are differences between traditional Buddhism and modern American variants, can there also be differences between the shamanic tradition and the type of shamanism which Western performance art is said to emulate or ape?

Perhaps bad performance art = faux shamanism. There’s a saying in science fiction circles that alien tech is indistinguishable from magic (a variation on Clarke’s Third Law). Likewise, for people who don’t believe in the existence of God, gods, avatars, angels, spirits, or higher consciousness, performance art may be indistinguishable from shamanism, despite their seeming differences.

I think the underyling fallacy is that by imitating the outer form of something, the artist has captured its essence. In the 1986 film Saving Grace, British actor Tom Conti does a superb job of portraying the Pope, but that doesn’t mean he embodies all that the Pope is (or can be) in real life. For that he would probably need years of spiritual training, as well as a sense of calling or vocation.

There’s a darker side to some performance art involving self-harm, cutting, and so forth. This sub-genre creates a public spectacle of blood and pain, and is justified by theories concerning primitive cultures, endorphin production, and whatnot. The mere fact that an act is performed as ritual does not sanctify it. I think this type of performance art tends, whether consciously or unconsciously, to evoke the demonic, and does not have a truly healing spirit.

The extreme nature of some performance art may produce a forced increase in endorphin levels, but this need not indicate that anything spiritual (or even supernatural) is taking place. Also, those performance artists who do try to invoke some form of spirit being strike me as unconcerned with the nature of what they are invoking. With no clear grounding in tradition and no clear moral sense, they may easily become channels for dark and violent spirits. It’s like someone who built their own radio out of spare parts. They’re so eager to tune in anything at all that they may fail to consider the meaning, quality, or purpose of what’s “coming out of the speaker.”


A Saturday Night Live spoof of The Exorcist, with Richard Pryor as Father Karras

This is not to condemn all performance art or minimize its value, but simply to ask tough questions about what it is or claims to be. Those who have rejected (or never studied) rituals of light may be drawn to rituals of darkness. Any intense communal experience, even one involving violence and pain, may be mistaken for the spiritual. Indeed, one of the challenges of our postmodern world is that the meaning tends to slip off words like “spiritual,” so that almost anything might be defined as spiritual according to the experience and predilections of the individual.

Anecdotally, I recall from the mid-1970s a story being circulated about a friend who had once trained as a Christian brother, but had since embraced everything from Eastern philosophy to glam rock. Referring to a formal spiritual event where everyone sat in silence and meditated, another friend telling the story related: “He said that was the highest meditation he’s ever had — but then he also said that about the latest David Bowie concert…”

I’m an arts person, certainly not a political conservative, so my point here is not to rant about peculiar notions found in postmodernity. I’m trying to slowly lay the predicate for understanding how a particular scholar, Dr. Shrinivas Tilak, connects performance art as it exists today with the poet-seer or “kavi” of ancient India, who may be viewed as an authentic shaman within the Vedic tradition.

If performance art sometimes consists of artists imitating shamanic rituals, how would this differ from shamans practicing performance art?

Some time in the late twentieth century, high quality digital recordings of Tibetan Buddhist music began to be available to Western audiences, many of whom knew nothing about Buddhism. Some devotees of the avant-garde listened to Tibetan Buddhist music purely for its aesthetic qualities, largely divorced from any beliefs about Buddhism. Others, such as Phillip Glass, helped popularize interest in Tibetan Buddhist music out of a deeper understanding arising from Buddhist practice. Tibetan Buddhist ensembles began to tour Western nations,

and anyone from New York’s downtown arts scene was surely familiar with them.

One aspect of the New York School, broadly conceived, is the influence of Japan, China, India, and Tibet — not just in art, but in spiritual philosophy and practice. While the performance art scene includes some artists doing their impressions of shamanic rituals, it also includes some shamans whose authentic rituals converge with performance art — in the sense that their art is live, communal, participatory, and transformational.

The Peace Concerts given by Sri Chinmoy fall into this category. They did not include only musical performance, but could also include live painting, poetry recitation, multimedia, and chanting of AUM in which the public was invited to participate. Even within the purely musical portion of the programme, the styles might vary widely from moment to moment — from the traditional to the unmistakably avant-garde, from a Bengali song sung a cappella in a style evoking the depths of India’s hoary past, to a peaceful melody played on Western flute, to an avant-garde piano improvisation with no foothold in melody or harmony, but only a dynamic flow of energy and consciousness.

Can authentic shamans exist today, perhaps in parallel to secular performance artists? This question seems connected to hermeneutics, since it might be resolved by developing a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer. Jeff Clark writes:

The works of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) explain that ‘the modern concepts of science are not adequate to understand people and our experience of art and even communication.’ He developed a philosophical perspective in his work ‘Truth and Method’ and explained a process of philosophical hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a process which helps interpretation and understanding things from someone else’s perspective. It can be applied to situations where we encounter meanings that are not easily understood but require some effort to interpret. He originally applied this to an interpreter and a religious text but in a later essay he describes ‘its (hermeneutics) fundamental significance for our entire understanding of the world and thus for all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself: from inter-human communication to manipulation of society.’

When applying hermeneutics to the human process of interpretation Gadamer talks of a ‘horizon’ as a way to conceptualise understanding. Your horizon is as far as you can see or understand. Both patient and doctor go into a consultation with a horizon and out of this encounter both will leave with their own new horizon. Gadamer describes a horizon as ‘The totality of all that can be realised or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture.’

Gadamer states that: ‘the concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better.’

Understanding happens when our present understanding or horizon is moved to a new understanding or horizon by an encounter. Thus the process of understanding is a ‘fusion of horizons.’

— Jeff Clark from “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons” in The British Journal of General Practice [footnotes omitted]

Since he’s a medical diagnostician, Clark tends to focus on the encounter between doctor and patient from which each ideally emerges with a fusion of horizons. But this concept can also be applied to the encounter between a shaman and those participating in the shamanic ritual; and to the encounter between a performance artist and audience-participants.

The encounter seems to be a shared factor in precipitating the fusion of horizons, whether in the realm of medicine, shamanism, or the arts. As opposed to merely being mildly influenced by something in a controlled way, the Gadamerian concept of an encounter suggests a collision with the other from which one emerges changed, with a genuinely new synthesis of views.

This encounter need not be a literal encounter with a person. In art appreciation, to enhance our understanding and enjoyment we may actively seek out texts or media which will lead us to a profound encounter with an ancient civilization or a contemporary culture foreign to our own. We, in turn, may respond to that civilization or culture by adding something of our own, so that the mutuality implied in the concept of a fusion of horizons is fulfilled. We join the “hermeneutic circle.”

In the 1960s and 70s, the term “fusion” came to be applied to the encounter between Western musicians studying Indian classical music, and Indian musicians interested in jazz. Take for example the piece “Vrindavan”:

It’s primarily an encounter between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. Both are listening intently to each other and communicating across a cultural divide, so that genuine fusion takes place. Within that fusion, each is expanding and contributing to the possibilities inherent in the other’s mode of expression. The result is something both ancient and modern, both Eastern and Western, both acoustic and electric; and in this fusion of horizons there’s a tremendous sense of liberation. Such fusion can be deeply moving and inspiring.

According to Cynthia R. Nielsen of the Villanova University Ethics Program, “Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together.” I think that’s what the musicians are doing in “Vrindavan.” Nielsen is fond of using musical analogies to explain Close Encounters of the Gadamerian Kind. Elsewhere she writes:

When a small jazz group — for example, a trio or a quartet — performs, each musician has an assigned part that contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole. The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a spectrum of chordal textures and colorings as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what ‘connects’ most readily with the audience. When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results. Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group. If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to the pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies and thus adjusts her solo accordingly. That is, as a skilled improviser listening empathetically she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original harmonic progression as if the former harmonies were the only proper way to play the tune; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, ‘way of understanding’ the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. Given her broadened horizon, the pianist’s altered harmonies are not heard as mistakes — if they were, this would be analogous to forcing the other into one’s preconceived grid and thus distorting the other. Rather, a genuine understanding has been achieved through the communal creation of a new harmony analogous to a newly fused-horizon.

— Cythia R. Nielsen, “Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open-ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question” (PDF)

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding the fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires the cooperative skills described by Dr. Nielsen. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

A horizon is not a fixed point, and neither is an expanded “fusion of horizons.” The implication is that there is always more we can discover through encounters with other points of view (and the people who hold them). Thus, while Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics might initially seem dry, he actually helps advance the argument for openness, inclusiveness, and a progressive view of life in which change becomes possible. Nielsen writes that Gadamer’s horizons “are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of reharmonization — that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed and enriched by the other.”

Gadamer can help us understand the fusion of horizons which took place between two major figures in twentieth century art: Picasso and Matisse. They were friends, yet rivals; and while this might initially seem contradictory or imply that no such fusion took place, the contradiction is resolved if we recognize that a fusion of horizons need not entail complete agreement or the abandonment of those aspects of the self which result in uniqueness and dynamic engagement with others.

Some of the best evidence that Picasso experienced a fusion of horizons with Matisse is found in the former’s picture “Claude in the Arms of His Mother”:

While the two faces are clearly stamped with the style of Picasso, the mixture of decorative patterns surrounding them loudly exclaims “Matisse!” Picasso has not lost his Picasso-ness; his encounter with Matisse has simply allowed him to express his own identity more richly.

Picasso is a particularly Gadamerian artist in the sense that great swatches of his career were spent in reflective dialogue with other artists, including the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians. (See “Was Picasso Spiritual?” Part 1 and Part 2.)

A Gadamerian analysis might also be applied to Sri Ramakrishna, the Indian avatar who passed away in 1886, but whose life and teachings formed the harbinger for the coming century in the West, in which the oneness of all religions became an idea seriously propounded, and by some, ernestly lived. Sri Ramakrishna was a natural inheritor of Hindu spiritual practices, but in his quest for truth he also spent time practicing Christianity and Islam, concluding that these too were valid pathways.

Like the Neo-Vedanta philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

In this sense, Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Of course, a fusion of horizons is not embraced by everyone. In the field of religion, fundamentalism still afflicts some sects and causes them to violently reject the doctrine that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all worshipping the same God, and should therefore live in peace and harmony. Less violently expressed is chauvinism in the arts, but it can still be a divisive factor.

Gadamer’s approach is surprisingly congruent with those spiritual philosophies which accept the doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. As described in such philosophies, the purpose of rebirth is not to acquire scientifically objective knowledge, but to gather experience of life in all its contraries. We are (as Sri Chinmoy puts it) writing God’s autobiography, with the infinitude of possibilities that would imply.

Nielsen says: “Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from ‘nearly inexhaustible viewpoints’ (Wachterhauser 1999, 87). This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings…” If so, it may take many rebirths to assimilate such multiple perspectives.

Gadamer can help us make sense of a figure like Sri Chinmoy (if indeed any are like him), who may seem incomprehensible at first because he’s a spiritual teacher, but also an artist, poet, musician, and athlete. We understand such an astonishing polymath in part through openness and dialogue with his surviving works, and with the organizations he founded. We stop clutching our fixed point of view, and try to “disappear” into the music or the artworks, which possess the necessary magic (or yogic science) to teach us how to listen, view, and appreciate.

In his article “The Transformative Art of Sri Chinmoy,” Dr. Shrinivas Tilak tells the story of his own Gadamerian encounter with Sri Chinmoy’s art. He explores the relationship between the traditional poet-seer or “kavi,” and the modern performance artist. What’s especially fascinating is his suggestion that Sri Chinmoy straddles both categories.

Here in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I’ve been laying the groundwork for “Put a Bird on It! Part 3,” where I hope to explore Sri Chinmoy’s art in relation to hermeneutics, shamanism, and performance art, with the help of Dr. Tilak’s article. I know I needed to write these preliminary articles in order to clarify my own thinking. I hope the reader will also find them useful.


Sidebar: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar

Earlier, I cited the piece “Vrindavan” as an example of a fusion of horizons between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. A fitting corollary is this 1978 episode of The South Bank Show featuring British guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and South Indian violinist L. Shankar (the brother of L. Subramaniam):

At around 15:09, McLaughlin discusses how he began to discover spirituality. He describes listening to John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, but not quite being able to grasp it. Still, he entered into a kind of Gadamerian dialogue with it. Having encountered music he didn’t understand, he looked for a text and found a poem on the back cover which gradually helped him zone in on what Coltrane was doing with his new style, which was deeply influenced by spirituality and meditation.

As the spiritual dimension opened up for McLaughlin, this led him to ask a core question shared by both religion and philosophy: “Who am I?” He began studying meditation with Sri Chinmoy, and soon enrolled in Wesleyan University’s Karnatic (South Indian) music program, where he studied with Dr. S. Ramanathan and met violinist L. Shankar. This eventually led to the formation of the group Shakti, whose original name (given by Sri Chinmoy) was Turiyananda Sangit. Some portions of this history are recounted in greater detail by Peter Lavezzoli in his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. But getting back to the South Bank Show

As with Goldberg and Subramaniam, this collaboration between McLaughlin and Shankar shows how listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy can foster a fusion of horizons. Underscored too is the concept of “play” in Gadamer’s philosophical aesthetics. For Gadamer, play is not restricted to the creators of an art work. The viewers, listeners, spectators, or audience-participants are drawn into the play like attendees at a festival or participants in a ritual.

Indian classical music is a far more participatory medium than Western classical music. In Indian classical music, the audience must count along with the musicians in order to understand what they are doing and appreciate the subtleties. After an extended passage of improvisation which plays with musical lines of different lengths, when the musicians and audience finally arrive together on the Sum, this is a deeply shared communal experience.

In “Play, Festival, and Ritual in Gadamer” (PDF), Jean Grondin writes:

The play of art will never be conceptually grasped; we may only participate in it to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by its magic. When we hear a musical work, we are at the same time inextricably invited to sing along and to dance. We cannot avoid an inner humming along, a tapping of fingers or foot, a following along, almost an accompanying “directing.” In any case, we play along when we hear music. The most authentic mode of execution for music is, therefore, to dance along. In just the same manner we recognize ourselves in a poem or painting; we are captivated by a novel or tragedy. It concerns us; it speaks to us. Gadamer’s thesis concerning the concept of play is that this going along with is not external to the work, but belongs to its statement: it is “art” only if there is this addressing. Every experience of art is one of answering to the address of the work.

— Jean Grondin as translated by Lawrence K. Schmidt

One exceptional feature of the duets played by McLaughlin and Shankar is found in the final piece which begins at 22:05 of the video. At 23:35, they break into konnakol, a form of vocal percussion which every student of Karnatic music learns as an aid to timing and rhythm. Because McLaughlin (raised on blues and jazz) has studied Indian music, and Shankar (raised on Indian music) has studied jazz, their play together reaches the level of genuine fusion of horizons.

Dedication: I offer this post as a birthday tribute to Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). A very happy 86th birthday to the master!


Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips)

Everything from Sri Chinmoy to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Suzuki Beane, The Thin Man, Carry On Teacher, and Herman’s Hermits

Today I’ll be musing about art and hermeneutics, hopefully in a fun way that’s not too dry. I’ve been working on Part 3 of my Put a Bird on It! series, about the art of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

In one sense, Sri Chinmoy’s art is the essence of simplicity; but the arts community (and especially art critics) sometimes prefer it when art is analyzed intellectually and placed in historical context.

By the same token, Sri Chinmoy is in one sense completely unique. Yet, people who have a hard time understanding his art may benefit from viewing his bird drawings in relation to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and his abstract paintings in relation to the New York School (which got underway in the 1940s, but continued to evolve through the 70s and 80s).

The late Paul Jenkins studied meditation and spiritual philosophy with Sri Chinmoy. Jenkins’s style of painting combining meditation and movement was certainly influenced by Sri Chinmoy. This is broadly characteristic of those New York School painters, poets, and composers who studied Eastern philosophy and incorporated it into their work.

In beavering away at Part 3, I collided with the topic of hermeneutics — much as a bull collides with crockery (not to mix animal metaphors). When I hear the word “hermeneutics” I think “egghead,” “Ph.D.,” and “above my pay grade.”

Hermeneutics, simply defined, is “the art and discipline of interpretation.” In art criticism, hermeneutics is not so much a single theory as a way of approaching art. This approach stresses entering into dialogue, striving to understand a work rather than standing coldly aloof from it and making iconoclastic pronouncements. See “Gadamer’s Aesthetics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — an article which I find challenging but informative. (“You see, the phenomenological reconstruction is connected to the cognitive dimension, and the cognitive dimension is connected to the hermeneutical aesthetics. Now hear the word of the Lord.”)

The art we seek to understand may be from another time or have different cultural roots, so in entering into friendly dialogue with it, we may discover the limits of our own knowledge. Hermeneutics is concerned with how we know what we think we know and what cultural assumptions we bring to the table. The dialogue between a spectator and a work of art may occur over a great historical and cultural distance. We can try to see a cave painting through the eyes of its creator, or we can view it through the lens of modernity; or we can look at it both ways — moving backwards and forwards in time to have a more fulfilling and illumining experience (no TARDIS required).

These different views from different cultural and historical perspectives are sometimes called “horizons.” When we delve deep into a work of art, seeing it from different perspectives (both ours and other people’s), the net resulting view is sometimes called a “fusion of horizons.”

Another step in developing a fusion of horizons entails moving between different levels. We might understand some things about a painting by examining the brush strokes in detail, and other things by taking in the canvas as a whole. (Reductionism vs. holism, if you will.)

Brush strokes from an acrylic painting by Sri Chinmoy. Video by Kedar Misani.

The same painting blown up and used as a stage backdrop for a concert in Switzerland. Photo by Apaguha Vesely.

One might say that hermeneutics has two different but complementary functions: One is to help ensure that people’s interpretations of art are not merely whimsical, anecdotal, or based on personal or cultural bias. This a limiting function. The other is to foster a depthful connection with art based on dialogue, ideally leading to a fusion of horizons which comprises understanding. This is an expansive function. Still, hermeneutics is not a science; Gadamer said in a 1978 lecture that it’s a gift, like rhetoric, and that one of its components is empathy.

Another feature of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is the idea that both artist and spectator are involved in a form of play which brings people together in the manner of a festival. To understand a work of art is not to come away with a crib sheet summarizing its salient points, but rather to lose oneself in it (along with other spectators, perhaps from different times) and to be transformed by it. But this doesn’t signify an end to the game, since further revelations are always possible.

We may encounter references to the “hermeneutic circle.” In hermeneutics, we try to understand one thing by means of other things, much as Plato and Aristotle did. Even a simple English sentence can contain a number of symbols which need to be interpreted in relation to each other, and in relation to the world of physical things and abstract concepts. That’s why it’s so hard to teach computers to understand natural language. Take the following sentence:

Time flew by, and John felt sad that the beautiful butterfly disappeared into the sunset.

An infant computer might ask: *Is time a butterfly? What is sadness? Why did John feel sad? What makes a butterfly beautiful? How could it disappear?* In Star Trek lore, when Commander Data creates an offspring named “Lal” (which can mean “beloved” in Hindi), the child Lal asks similar questions:

These questions cannot be answered all in a day. When we immerse ourselves in a major work of art rich in symbolism, personal expression, cultural significance, and historical allusion, we are drawn into a hermeneutic circle which may be unique to that work of art, or to works of that genre. As we enter into dialogue with it, we ourselves may become part of the hermeneutic circle.

From a spiritual point of view, we might say that hermeneutics is related to our limitations as human beings. Most of us lack use of our third eye or ajna which sees things at a glance, and most of us do not have our heart centre or anahata open so that we can instantly identify with a thing. Therefore, like a blind man (or infant computer) we have to begin by building up a picture of the thing piece by piece. We don’t initially know what an ankle bone is, but as in the song “Dry Bones” (embedded earlier), we gradually figure out that “ankle bone connected to the shin bone” and “shin bone connected to the knee bone,” etc. (Perhaps Ezekiel was the first physical anthropologist!)

Comparing the piece-by-piece operation of the mind with the identification power of the spiritual heart (anahata), Sri Chinmoy writes:

When we say that the mind is not good, that the heart is better, we are speaking of the physical mind which does not allow us to expand ourselves. It always says, “One at a time, little by little, piece by piece.” The mind seems to go very fast, but you have to know that the mind thinks of only one thing at a time. It does not want to embrace existence as a whole.

The mind sees things part by part. If Infinity appears before the mind, the mind will take a part out of the whole and say, “This is the truth.” It will take a portion of the Vast rather than accept the Vast in its own way. It will try to scrutinise Infinity itself to see if there is any imperfection in it. But the heart will not do that. As soon as the heart sees the Vast, it will run to it like a child runs to embrace his mother or father.

— Sri Chinmoy, from Mind-Confusion and Heart-Illumination, Part 1, Agni Press, 1974.

As a spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy taught the “path of the heart,” so it follows that his art would be heart-centred rather than mind-centred. This can pose a stumbling block for viewers and critics unwilling or unable to shift gears to a heart-centred mode of art appreciation.

Some art presents a kind of historical or stylistic puzzle which we have to carefully piece together. Such art appeals to critics who are inured to what can sometimes be a dry intellectual exercise — a rattling of bones. Other art (especially Asian art and spiritual art) may be more simple and direct, and appeals to our sense of intuition and identification. To quote the master:

This kind of art may get short shrift from Western critics due to underlying bias in the art world.

Hermeneutics actually helps us understand why such bias can occur. If a work of art tends to draw us into its own hermeneutic circle — its symbols, time period, cultural influences, and charismatic proponents (e.g. Andy Warhol) — then certain styles of art may give rise to particular communities or social cliques — some more glamorous than others. Critics who specialize in medieval and Renaissance art may be of quite different temperament and lifestyle than those who specialize in Pop art. Even in the same city, there can be an “uptown” and “downtown” arts scene.

People can be passionate about art and culture to the point of open warfare, as with the Mods and Rockers in mid-1960s Britain:

When asked whether he was a Mod or Rocker, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr replied that he was a Mocker.

Painters and sculptors rarely come to blows, though Alec Guinness and Michael Gough nearly do so in a famous scene from The Horse’s Mouth:

(My kitchen sometimes says “Mother earth and her dead.”) Anyway, let’s have fun by entering into dialogue with this short “Suzuki Beane” TV pilot made in 1962:

Since it was produced about fifty-five years ago, depending on our age and cultural experience, we may have a hard time making sense of it. We get that it’s cute and satirical, but we may not be quite sure which elements are satire and which are direct reportage. Did some people (the Beats or “beatniks”) really talk and act that way? Still, without catching every reference we probably sense the struggle between a free spirit who values expressiveness, and ossified structures which tend to penalize it.

When invited to visit her friend’s dancing class on East 64th Street, little Suzuki explains that her parents Hugh and Marcia don’t believe in anything above 14th Street. Even in 1962, some folks living in Montana or Taipei might not grok that below 14th Street signifies Greenwich Village, an area homesteaded by Beat poets, artists, and musicians; while East 64th Street is part of the Upper East Side, an area with a quite different socio-economic feel. So what would people make of this charming cultural artifact, stumbling on it a thousand years hence? Would its essential spirit still shine through?

If we go back another fifteen years, we can unearth Song of the Thin Man, which, like most good detective yarns, treats the viewer to a tour of different strata of society. (See also this post about the Costa-Gavras film Z.) Nick Charles is a private detective and regular guy who’s married to a society dame named Nora. Along with their fox terrier Asta, they solve murder mysteries together. In Song of the Thin Man they find themselves immersed in the subculture of jazz musicians from the period. Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn, perhaps best remembered for shooting a Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove, gives Nick and Nora a virtuoso earful of the musician’s slang known as “rebop”:

The farther away we get in time and cultural distance, the harder it is for us to know whether jazz musicians in the forties really spoke that way, or what percentage of this lingo is being served up as satire. There may even be a racial (or racist) component. Are some of these white actors poking fun at black musicians, who are notably absent from the film? The piano player seems to be riffing on Fats Waller.

When we first hear a Shakespeare play performed, we may not grasp the subtleties of language, and may miss the jokes (some of which turn out to be rather ribald). For the latter reason, Shakespeare texts used in primary schools are often expurgated.

British humour — from Carry On films to Monty Python — often depends on the collision between high culture and low culture, or in this scene from Carry On Teacher, between Shakespeare and inner city youth:

Whether or not he ever saw it, I think Gadamer would have enjoyed this clip, because it is dialogical in nature and underscores a point he made in a 1978 lecture:

[A] work is something that is detached from its maker; even the craftsman is not sovereign over against his fabrications. The consumer of it: he can use it and abuse it; he can treat it correctly; he can destroy it quickly.

Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it, entered into its hermeneutic circle, and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Gadamer says:

If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.

This doesn’t mean we have to like every work, agree with the artist’s intentions, or how he or she realized them. But hermeneutics does stress such concepts as listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy. Gadamer also says something very striking which he does not, perhaps, fully explain:

[T]he ideal of real, natural and not deformed hermeneutics is to disappear.

Though he does not use such mystical language, I would guess he means that to become one with a work of art is to experience it directly, its essential nature, not filtered through one’s own conceptions or collection of experiences, but as it naturally exists. The inspiration behind a work of art struck the original artist, and it can strike us too. At that moment, we are egoless and have no opinions. We simply experience the essence of the thing. This is the ideal way to experience Sri Chinmoy’s art.

These are just some random musings which would hopefully get you thinking about the process by which we understand art, and concepts like cultural distance and developing a “fusion of horizons” constituting unified understanding or gnosis. At least, if you later read Part 3 of Put a Bird on It! and encounter the word “hermeneutics,” it won’t come as a total shock to you. Who said hermeneutics can’t be fun? I can easily picture housewives across America holding hermeneutics-themed Tupperware parties, and dancing to the music of Herman’s Hermits:

(Well, at least now you know something about the Big H.)

In Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I hope to tackle the connection between hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism, and how this relates to the art, music, and poetry of Sri Chinmoy. Stay tuned.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


List of Videos

Should you have any trouble viewing the short clips embedded in this post, you can view them individually on the sites (DailyMotion, YouTube, Vimeo) where they reside:

Delta Rhythm Boys – Dry Bones
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xtfh7

Objet D’Art (Doctor Who)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxlxt

Star Trek TNG – Lal
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZRgNWPnX1o&rel=0

Mods, Rockers and Moral Panics
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r61ks18Bd7I&rel=0

Painters and Sculptors (The Horse’s Mouth)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxniz

Suzuki Beane
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P909e3DznY8&rel=0

Rebop! (Song of the Thin Man)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxpod

Shakespeare in the Classroom (Carry On Teacher)
https://vimeo.com/230925223

Herman’s Hermits – What a Wonderful World
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNwE02gBBXI&rel=0

Some links may go bad over time, but I’ll try and keep them current.

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Are transcripts of Trump speeches accurate?

Beware the cleanup of politicians’ speeches, as vital clues may be lost in translation.

I’m not so compulsive as to keep a notebook on the subject, but I’ve often heard a politician make a speech and later checked the transcript only to find that their remarks had been cleaned up after the fact.

Why should this matter? As a student of literature (and an amateur playwright), I know full well that the manner in which a character uses language (including any corruptions or malapropisms) tells us a lot about their background and influences. Those of us who spend years learning the craft of writing (and thinking) are keenly aware when someone mispronounces “nuclear” as “nucular,” or says “phenomena” (plural) when the case is singular. We cringe when we hear “squash” (which you might do to a bug) when what is really meant is “quash” (which you might do to a subpoena). We are not ideally snobs about it, but we tend to view how someone uses language as a vital clue about how they think.

I remember back in the 1980s hearing Rep. Helen Bentley making a one-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. She seemed quite disinterested, reading rather woodenly from something her staff had given her. It was supposed to be about a crucial issue concerning the Gulf Coast, but when she got to the nub of it she mistakenly said “golf course,” which I thought was a hoot. But of course, she got the standard “permission to revise and extend her remarks,” so the Congressional Record probably says “Gulf Coast,” nicely masking her absent-mindedness.

Bringing this into the Trump era, for better or worse I heard Trump’s speech on August 14 in which he was forced (seemingly at gunpoint) to denounce “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremists [sic] and other hate groups.” “Supremists” is at best a corruption, and at worst simply not a word. But in the transcript printed by The New York Times, he magically becomes grammatical!

There are a million worse injustices, so I won’t dwell on it; but this is an easy-to-check example of a wider phenomenon. The Times online version has a 1-minute video excerpt along with the longer transcript, so it only takes half a mo to compare the two and see how “supremist” has been corrected to “supremacist.”

I favour accurate transcripts of politicians’ speeches which capture the flavour of the original, including any nods to illiteracy, since these are clues as to how seriously we should regard the politician in question. 😉

Helen Delich Bentley, who in her senior years as a congresswoman had trouble distinguishing between the Gulf Coast and the golf course, being perhaps more familiar with latter than the former.

Donald John Trump, who on occasion may rail against “white supremists,” while at other times appearing to defend them.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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What Donald Trump could learn from the Blues Brothers

(UPDATED!) Recent events in Charlottesville raise the old question of whether life should be taken seriously. Sometimes it’s so painful and sad that it has to be taken seriously; but paradoxically, this calls forth the opposite thesis: that life is cosmically funny and can’t be taken seriously. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein, writing about his character Jubal Harshaw, said:

He had long ago made a pact with himself to postulate a Created Universe on even-numbered days, a tail-swallowing eternal-and-uncreated Universe on odd-numbered days — since each hypothesis, while equally paradoxical, neatly avoided the paradoxes of the other — with, of course, a day off each leap year for sheer solipsist debauchery.

The debauchery might not be such a good idea, but there’s something to be said for taking life as seriously as you can, with occasional time out to laugh at its absurdities. As I’ve noted elsewhere, humour is helpful for relieving outrage fatigue.

There’s also some weird variation on George Santayana going on here, like “Those who fail to study the Blues Brothers are doomed to repeat them.” The Nazis and anti-Nazis who clashed in Charlottesville over the weekend could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by simply watching this clip:

That said, how hard would it be for Donald Trump to say “I hate Charlottesville Nazis” or “I disavow myself from Charlottesville Nazis”? Why can’t he bring himself to do it? Why does he have such a tin ear at moments when the nation is outraged or grieving, and needs words well spoken and deeply felt by a wise leader to calm the waters? Sadly, Donald Trump is not wise or well-spoken, does not seem to feel deeply about issues affecting millions of Americans, and his EPA is more likely to poison the waters than to calm them. In a recent op-ed, Michael Winship called him “emotionally challenged and empathy-free.”

In between teeing off and praising the Veterans Tapdance Administration, Trump woodenly delivered an equivocal statement on Saturday — a statement that pleased no one except Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Charlottesville Nazis.

Adding to the weekend’s insanity was the kickoff of Anthony Scaramucci’s rehab tour — far, far too soon in my opinion. It’s like the guy who just vomited on your shoes calling you up the very next night and asking you to a French restaurant where they serve frogs’ legs in cream sauce. Let me at least forget the smell of your vomit before you once again try to ingratiate yourself. (Channeling Trevor Noah here.)

Ah, the times we live in! If Scaramucci felt even an ounce of genuine contrition, he would have taken a long vacation from public life, and spent the time cleaning outhouses or performing other works of public benefit. Instead, we’re treated to 15 minutes of his ugly mug on This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

It is to weep — or laugh.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Note: I’m using “Charlottesville Nazis” as a catch-all term here. Word is, most of the Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville came from out of town. Charlottesville has a reputation as a liberal college town with a diverse population and a welcoming atmosphere.


UPDATE: CNN analysis of Trump’s latest (August 15) statement about Charlottesville, where he aggressively defends the alt-right. At 10:55 in the video, Van Jones breaks down in tears thinking of his Jewish godmother.

In comparison to Trump’s tin ear, former President Obama tweeted this sentiment drawn from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk To Freedom:

The full quote is:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela

This reminds me of another of Mandela’s sayings, which Sri Chinmoy set to music:

I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.

One of the problems with Trump’s claim of moral equivalency between the two sides in Charlottesville is that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis seem very comfortable with a world where there’s slavery, fascism, and open carry of firearms, while the counter-demonstrators generally favour more freedom and less guns. They also managed not to commit vehicular womanslaughter.

Of Further Interest

Gratitude to President Obama
Thought of the Day: People Are Good
People Are Good Everywhere

* * *

Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge

Boning up on essential skills for coping with nuclear Armageddon

With the recent dramatic lack of brinksmanship by the Donald, people of Guam have needed a refresher course on what to do in case of nuclear attack. But have government brochures really provided adequate information?

The following video offers a quick drill on essential aspects of civil defense, with multiple choice questions designed to test your knowledge. Example:

How do you protect yourself from fallout?

A. Hide in the basement until it goes away.
B. Wear protective rubber underwear, and simply brush yourself off at the end of the day.
C. Run naked through a field of sorghum.

After viewing the video, you should at least be able to answer this question: What is the most practical thing you can do in the event of a total thermonuclear war?

Sidebar: Guam facts

Guam is not a state, but a U.S. protectorate. As such, it sends one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The current delegate is Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, but according to tourists she’s not the only Bordallo in Guam. More Guam facts from The Colbert Report: Better Know a Protectorate. More Mystery Science Theater 3000: Rocket Attack U.S.A. on YouTube.

* * *

Doctor Who: Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred Interview (rare)

Here’s a very entertaining interview with Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred of Doctor Who fame (the classic period). Baker’s at his best here, given enough room to expand upon his tallish stories, but not overstepping the bounds of good taste. Sophie counterbalances him nicely with some lovely stories of her own, as they appear together on a pledge drive for Maryland Public Television broadcast in 1990.

I suppose the reason I wanted to post this now is that with the Trump administration occupying so much of the communications bandwidth in American life, we forget that actors and artists express themselves so much more gracefully. The president and his spokespeople regularly abuse the English language (arrivederci Scaramucci), so it makes a nice change of pace to listen to people who can put together sentences with intelligence, grace, and wit.

Tom Baker is especially good at spinning yarns with an improvisatory air, but occasionally landing on a serious point. Still, the atmosphere is light, and the paper plates stuck hastily to the studio walls in fond emulation of the old TARDIS set help ensure that we’re never far from a giggle.

You get an hour’s worth here, but I may post the final 15 minutes elsewhere. In those final minutes, when asked to deliver a soliloquy on the need to support public television, Baker goes over the top in reviling non-contributors as “parasites,” repeating and embellishing with a vengeance previously reserved only for Daleks! This is amusing in light of the fact that abolishing funding for public TV is one of the Trump administration’s avowed policy objectives. 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Anthony Scaramucci: First Day Report Card

Comparing Scaramucci to departing Sean Spicer on criteria like the Hostage Video Factor, Sphincter Rating, Comic Potential, Effusiveness, and Hair Helmetry…

Up and down this nation of joy, this nation of plenty, there is visible mourning going on. Whether on park benches in the humblest of burgs, or the gold and cocaine flecked halls of Hollywood production studios, comedians of various ranks and strata are crying into their sleeves, donning black fedoras, and dolefully humming the tune from Chopin’s Funeral March. Spicey is gone.

The incoming Anthony Scaramucci had a good first day by (admittedly low) Trump administration standards. No post press conference surgery was required to remove foot from mouth. He did not offend Holocaust victims or misrepresent easily checkable facts in an obvious way. While fencing with reporters, he maintained something passing for a sense of humor, and did not become peevish or petulant. He did not hand late night comedians material on a silver platter as his predecessor did; instead they’ll have to dig for it.

This brings us to the first of our comparison criteria: the hair helmet. I have to admit right off the bat that Anthony Scaramucci has a better hair helmet than Sean Spicer. For those unfamiliar with this fashion staple, here are a few examples beginning in the 1950s:

Ex. 1: The classic hair helmet sported by Lloyd Bridges in the 1950 sci-fi extravaganza Rocketship X-M

Ex. 2: The modern variant embraced by Anthony Scaramucci

Ex. 3: The hair helmet worn by Eddie Munster in The Munsters

Ex. 4: The Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri hair helmet from The Sopranos. (The addition of “wings” does not actually result in flight.)

Ex. 5: Leona “Pistachios” Helmsley was one of the helmet’s few female proponents.

Ex. 6: Barack Obama experimented briefly with the hair helmet, but found it too unwieldy.

Having a hair helmet held in place by a combination of Dippity-Do and Plaster of Paris is clearly an advantage for any incoming communications wonk (or even Chief of Staff), so we have to give Scaramucci the edge here. But how will he fare on the Hostage Video Factor? This is defined as the extent to which a spokesperson for the president looks like they’ve had a gun put to their head and been forced to mouth words praising their captors for their kindness and good treatment, while all the while their eyelids are blinking in Morse code: “HELP ME! I DON’T WANT TO BE SAYING THIS. THEY MADE ME!”

Spicer was, of course, a passed master at this. Armed with a flotilla of alternative facts and a hornet’s nest of moxie, he would grit his teeth and try to defend the indefensible, but you could often tell his heart wasn’t in it. In his waning days, he would fall back on the boilerplate response that “The president’s tweet speaks for itself,” which was really his way of saying “The president’s tweet was so insane, counterfactual, and off-the-wall that I won’t even bother trying to defend it.” By contrast, Anthony Scaramucci is a slick salesman. He rates no better than zero on the Hostage Video Factor because he actually enjoys retailing Donald Trump as World’s Greatest Statesman to a gullible public.

This brings us logically to the Effusiveness Factor. Sean Spicer was rarely effusive in his defense of Trump, but rather adopted the manner of a grim Republican institutionalist. To Spicer, Donald Trump was the latest product churned out bearing the Republican brand, and therefore had to be defended for the sake of the party. Picture a customer service rep who tries to tell people complaining about a mail-order pain reduction gizmo which actually electrocutes them that “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” That’s Sean Spicer, but to his credit he did it mechanically and joylessly, with little effusiveness and quite a bit of bumbling.

On the other hand, Anthony Scaramucci is the guy who tells you: “What you’re feeling isn’t really lethal electricity coursing through your veins, it’s joy. I love this product, I love this brand, I love Donald Trump, I love the team. I love Junior Mints, they’re so refreshing!” (Then he blows you a kiss.)

Scaramucci’s “love” for Donald Trump is love for a product successfully marketed using discreditable techniques — a product which may be hazardous to your healthcare and comes with a long list of side effects, such as burgeoning cynicism that American democracy can really work, that it won’t crash-and-burn while aping reality TV.

Love is a profound spiritual emotion. When it’s wasted on things undeserving of love, this tends to cheapen life and discourse. Despite his riches, Scaramucci (or “The Mooch” as he’s known on The Street) is a cheap money man on the make for political power. He’s so childishly enamored of that power, it comes naturally to him to make gushingly absurd, over-the-top statements deifying the object of his affections (whom he previously scorned). The Mooch is by nature a fawning flatterer of This Year’s Princeling, ready to trumpet tiny hands as gargantuan mitts, and to rewrite history favouring the Monarch.

When it comes to Comic Potential, Sean Spicer rates a perfect 10 for reasons that have become all too obvious. (If anyone’s memory is flagging, just look to the Beeb’s “Best Sean Spicer memes and ‘facts’.”) Spicer was the teacher you loved to sass because you knew how easy it was to rile him, and it was worth being sent to detention just to see him throw one of his hissy fits. “Don’t you dare shake your head at me, young lady!”

Whereas, Scaramucci — despite his monolithic hair helmet and effusive praise of All Things Trump — only rates about a 3 for Comic Potential. He’s a skilled manipulator who knows how to inoculate his presentations with dashes of humor so that they don’t seem quite so outlandish; and like a good knuckleballer, he knows how to change speeds and mix in different kinds of junk to keep reporters off-stride. Though he doesn’t hail from Hollywood (but rather Wall Street), he epitomizes the maxim that “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

One might liken Scaramucci’s use of Trump to the old Wall Street pump-and-dump scheme. Right now the Mooch is pumping Trump like a biomed stock that just went public, but it’s easy to picture him dumping Trump, timing the moment to a nicety so as to position himself as one of the rubes who was fooled by the gaudy patter, rather than one of its purveyors. “Oh how it pains my heart to have to say this,” Scaramucci might opine at some future date (next Sunday A.D.?), “but it appears the man I believed in so deeply secretly colluded with the Russians. I want to prove to you that I’m honest in the worst way. So even after the impeachment, as a patriotic American I plan to stay on and help our great new president develop the trust of the American people, which he so richly deserves…”

This brings us to the Repulsiveness Factor. Sean Spicer was frequently irritating, but never repulsive. People sometimes felt a little sorry for him because, through whatever vicissitudes of life, he became the guy whose job it was to put lipstick on a pig day after day. You could feel sorry for Spicey the way you felt sorry for Rhoda Morgenstern because her job was dressing department store dummies.

But for those who see through his charm and feelgood manner, Anthony Scaramucci is not a sympathetic figure. When we hear him claim that Donald Trump has “good karma,” we instinctively want to throw up. Obviously, Trump has bad karma for acting like a creep in myriad areas of life, up to and including an election campaign which he won through dirty tricks and low rhetoric, ultimately becoming the poster boy for the Ugly American. Indeed, writing in the Guardian, comedian Frankie Boyle refers to Trump as “a man so obnoxious that karma may see him reincarnated as himself.”

Seriously, between Scaramucci and Trump, you could make the world’s biggest fluffernutter, with Ivanka supplying the white bread (using peroxide as needed, if Kellyanne hasn’t bogarted it all).

Though Sean Spicer’s college nickname was “Sean Sphincter,” to me Anthony Scaramucci moves in wider circles. 😉

Regardless of political persuasion, one thing we can probably all agree on: When it comes to Donald Trump’s new wartime consigliere, there’s a lot to unpack — especially above the scalp.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Is Scaramucci Trump’s Mini-Me? Let’s consult The Daily Show

* * *

Two AHCA Memes: Mystery Meat and Dead Parrot

Everybody knows what the AHCA is: the American Health Care Act — but nobody knows what’s in it. That’s because like the famed “Her Majesty” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, it “changes from day to day.” Which AHCA are we discussing, the one that kicks 23 million people off their health care, the one that kicks 30 million people off their health care, or some as yet undisclosed variant whose spores are still being nourished in the bowels of White Male Senate reality?

Getting hooked up with the AHCA is like dealing with one of those Internet firms that changes its terms of service with each passing morn. Sure, you read the terms and conditions when you first signed up, but since then there have been 57 policy updates, and you barely blink an eye when you learn that you’ve agreed (by not opting out before last Tuesday) to turn over your first-born child, or have any legal dispute resolved in the jurisdiction of Tanginiqua.

The AHCA is mystery meat. What is mystery meat? Imagine you’re sitting in the school cafeteria, munching on some orangey-green, vaguely pastalike concoction in which bits of something meatlike surface now and then. Having been run through both the Deflavourizer and the Blandifier, this concoction as a whole cannot be identified by taste, no less its constituent ingredients. So you’re left to guess about the meat. It could be hog testicles and chicken bladders mixed with hyrdrolyzed plant protein, or it could be Stewie — that fat kid who was sent to detention Never To Return.

The AHCA is, thankfully, moribund — a fancy word for “almost dead.” Yet, Senate leader Mitch McConnell (a.k.a. “Mitch The Rooster”) continues to pretend that it lives on. This calls forth the famed dead parrot meme from the Monty Python sketch:

MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt: Leader McConnell, is the AHCA dead?

McConnell: Why no, it’s only pining. Pining for the fjords. Beautiful plumage, the American Health Care Act.

We can only hope, in the argot of Monty Python, that this is an ex-health care bill.

BREAKING NEWS: Donald Trump has just appointed Phil Niekro as the head of the Knuckleball Integrity Council. Mr. Niekro’s job will be to ensure that no knuckleballers load up the ball with vaseline, or use a concealed nail file to scratch it up so that it moves erratically.

In the same news dump, the Trump administration announced the appointment of Roger Delgado to head up the Doctor Who Regeneration Board. Also known as “The Master,” Delgado’s job will be to ensure that all future Doctor Who regenerations go as smoothly as possible.

Both Niekro and Delgado are expected to perform admirably, notwithstanding their decease.

* * *

British MPs Need Stronger Passwords

Hi-tech help for a hung Parliament…

The recent cyber-attack on their e-mail accounts has underscored the need for Members of Parliament to use proper passwords. The practice, popular among MPs, of using short, suggestive phrases has led to appalling breaches — not to be confused with appalling britches (also a problem), but never-you-mind.

The simple fact is, passwords like “HungInHertfordshire”,”TorySlut”, “HotCladding”, and “Slave2May” are far too easy to guess, leading to massive insecurity. And believe you me, Mr and Mrs Britain, massive insecurity is something we don’t need more of down Westminster way.

The time-honoured tradition for creating strong, nay unbreakable passwords is to combine a common phrase with a series of numbers, the name of a fruit or vegetable, some random punctuation, topping it off with another phrase. Hence, an ideal password would be:

supercalifragilisticexpialidocious9713206pineapple?!@#*THE-EMPIRE-STRIKES-BACK!

Easy to remember, but hard for hackers to crack! Please don’t use that one, though, as it’s my own personal password. I’m proud to say that in years of continuous use on the Internet, no one’s ever broken it. 😉

Sidebar: British Officials Respond To Cyber-Attack

According to the Guardian, international trade secretary Liam Fox (whose e-mail password is “ChickenCoop”) told ITV News the attack was a “warning to everyone we need more security and better passwords. You wouldn’t leave your door open at night”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (whose password is “AloneAndNaked”) was quizzed about the cyber-attack between sets at the Glastonbury Festival. Said Corbyn, “I think [this] indicates just how vulnerable we are to cyber-attacks and our cyber-security”. He proceeded to punctuate his remarks with a rousing rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes”, flanked by a blushing security guard.

Nellis Prawntree, the Shadow Minister for Looking Into Things That Other People Find Uninteresting (whose password is uninteresting), assured the public that a new algorithm is being developed to create strong passwords which are also suggestive enough to appeal to tastes of British MPs. A supercomputer is working on the problem, and after months of programming has produced the following:

eatmyshorts0800369celery*#@!?I-PROMISE-I-WON’T-RUN-IN-YOUR-CONSTITUENCY

Jeremy Corbyn fans at Glastonbury 2017 (Photoshopped)

Of Further Interest:

The Guardian interviews Lord Buckethead at Glastonbury
A Trump Joke for UK Readers
Greenspan Bobblehead Shocks Nervous Britons – UPDATE

This post is a work of parody. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

The Congressional Baseball Shooting, Big Murders, and Little Murders

There’s been no shortage of sad news lately. In “Terrorism Has No Religion,” I wrote about the tragic Manchester bombing. This was quickly followed by the London Bridge attack, and the (accidental) fire in a West London apartment tower yesterday — the same day as a shooting targeting members of Congress who were out for baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. Late in the same day, yet another deadly shooting at a San Francisco UPS facility.

I have in mind to talk mostly about the baseball shooting, making two main point: first, that some facts aren’t being faced which need to be faced; second, that some solutions exist which aren’t being discussed. Finally, since I’m a film buff, in contrast to all these Big Murders I want to talk about Little Murders, a film written by Jules Feiffer capturing that peculiar American proclivity for taking lethal potshots at one’s neighbors.

Regarding the baseball shooting, the most commonly expressed sentiments are:

  • Thoughts and prayers for the victims
  • The shooter was a lone nut.
  • If anything’s to blame, it’s overheated rhetoric.

What’s pointedly omitted is any discussion that however utterly wrong and misguided, the shooter may have been responding to actual policies, not just overheated rhetoric. Of course, that doesn’t make it right.

Causation is not justification, so in investigating a phenomenon we shouldn’t be afraid to look for causation wherever it may lie. The difficulty is that immediately after the baseball shooting, the Washington beltway — including elected officials of both parties as well as the mainstream media — closed ranks and indulged in a collective Kumbaya moment. “Sure we argue about politics,” they said, “But who could possibly take politics so seriously that they would want to commit violence over it?”

Not I, to be sure. I’m an avowed peace-lover. But some people, yes. People who are subject to policies which can be like death sentences for them, and who lack the tools or insights which would help them diffuse their anger at such unjust policies.

Was the French Revolution nuts in its bloodthirstiness? Maybe so, but this was aggravated by wretched excess on the part of the French aristocracy, who evinced a shocking indifference to the travails of their subjects.

Now, to foreshadow my discussion of Little Murders: it’s a black comedy which includes quirky characters drawn from New York City life, like an ultra-liberal minister who claims that “Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful.” The reason this is comical to gritty New Yorkers is that a kick in the head is hurtful regardless of how you feel about it, even if there’s no social media or 24-hour cable news to orchestrate opinion (and there wasn’t in 1971 when the film was released). You feel a kick in the head — that’s how you know it’s hurtful.

Let’s look at two mostly Republican policies which might have felt like kicks in the head to James Hodgkinson, the unemployed, mentally ill senior who began taking potshots at members of Congress, lobbyists, staffers, and Capitol Police — or to people like him.

First, there’s the American Health Care Act, which (if eventually enacted) would result in about 24 million Americans losing their health care. The Republican House passed it, then attended a victory party in the White House Rose Garden, with plenty of back-slapping and guzzling of Bud Light. (A tad ostentatious, don’t you think?)

This policy would certainly be a death sentence (or a sentence to bankruptcy and homelessness) for many Americans who rely on government-assisted health care for their very survival. Some of these may be diabetics who require daily shots of insulin (as my father did). But the cry of Republican House members was (metaphorically speaking): Let them inject cake.

Second, there’s the overturning by Donald Trump of “an Obama administration gun regulation that prevented certain individuals with mental health conditions from buying firearms.” That regulation affected “individuals who are unable to work because of severe mental impairment and can’t manage their own Social Security financial benefits.” Overturning the regulation means putting more guns in the hands of mentally ill people — just what we need.

We’re talking policy, not politics here. Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

So, these are two examples of policies which strongly affect people’s lives, regardless of any accompanying rhetoric. Overheated rhetoric is, no doubt, an aggravating factor in senseless acts of violence, but what’s driving some Americans (literally) nuts is government policy on issues like health care and gun safety.

Why did mainstream media miss this in the wake of the baseball shooting? Because many mainstream media figures aren’t directly affected by the policies in question. They’re well-paid, have good quality health insurance through their employers, and tend to live in safe neighborhoods where gun violence is not an issue — often the same neighborhoods (e.g. Alexandria) as politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Media people may argue politics left and right, but they’re often above the fray because they’re economically shielded from bad government policies.

I repeat for emphasis that causation is not justification. Nothing justifies the baseball shooting or any of the other senseless shootings that have become a grim daily feature of American life. But when looking at causation, we need to honestly face the fact that some Americans are being driven over the edge of sanity by policies which are insane. Like the proverbial kick in the head, these policies are felt directly and not swathed in abstraction.

God bless USA Today‘s Heidi Przbyla (and may the Lord send her some vowels real soon), but one reason she can’t comprehend what pushes someone like James Hodgkinson over the edge is that she lives in safety amidst the politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Her salary and benefits effectively insulate her from cuts to Medicaid, and guns in the hands of the mentally ill.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on Ms. Przbyla. She’s a perfectly nice person who takes liberal positions which I generally support. She happens to be a good anecdotal example because she lives in Alexandria and evinces the typically “shocked” reaction of people who argue politics for a living, but don’t live or die according to what policies the government enacts.

Unlike Heidi Przbyla, the people with cancer who show up at town halls and are mad as hell about losing their health care are fighting for their lives — literally. In spite of that I encourage them to remain non-violent, because taking potshots at politicians solves nothing and is morally reprehensible.

The shock of some politicians and media figures in the wake of the baseball shooting is expressed in the form of incredulity that the shooter could no longer see the targets as fellow human beings. He so objectified and depersonalized them that their lives meant nothing to him. But compare this with the real world effects of Republican policies concerning health care and guns. Is there a similar objectification and depersonalization which permits lawmakers to act with no empathy for the chronically ill and impoverished, and no empathy for the victims of gun violence? Does the sound of lobbyist dollars rubbing together deafen them to the cries of those affected by their policies? I’m reminded of a quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The struggle to be a true human being is the struggle to overcome tendencies in our society toward objectification and depersonalization. This moral duty does not fall solely on individual citizens, but also government institutions. When such institutions fail to respect the humanity of citizens, we should not be shocked to find that some citizens lose the ability to see the humanity of government officials. This is the underlying psychological reality behind the social media response to the baseball shooting that “what goes around comes around.” When you take away people’s health care and put guns in the hands of the mentally ill as public policies, some people at the grassroots level are going to go apesh*t. This effect is wholly undesirable, but not wholly unexpected.

We need to work peacefully toward a more compassionate society where people are fully valued across the spectrum. We need to believe in human dignity, respect people’s basic needs for food and medicine, and shape our government institutions so that they no longer appear as impersonal bureaucracies run for the benefit of corporations, lobbyists, and an economic elite. We need to make them fully responsive to the needs of all the people.

My take on James Hodgkinson is that at some point he hit his head up against a phenomenon known as “repressive tolerance.” At its simplest, repressive tolerance means that you can protest, write letters, carry signs, and talk till you’re blue in the face — but there are times in history when the table is run by the big money boys, who’ll let you blow off steam but won’t let you make substantive changes. Now, in truth, change does happen, but so slowly that it often appears as if nothing is happening at all, or as if the clock is being turned back, not forward. In his farewell address, President Barack Obama said:

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

This might be augmented by a quote from Max Weber that:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes.

This begins to get at the weaknesses of our education in civics. We teach people to believe that they can make change happen, but we don’t equip them to deal with failure, or the ineffable slowness of change, or its herky-jerky motion.

From emerging accounts it appears that James Hodgkinson had many flaws (aside from being a homicidal maniac). One of them was the inability to accept failure with equanimity. This points to broader spiritual issues.

Often, political people believe only in politics; but politics is limited in what it can achieve. Peace of mind can only come from spiritual practice. If we have even an iota of peace of mind, then the problems of the world will not seem so heavy and unmanageable.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

If the NBC report is any indicator, it seems that meditation is a technique which fosters learning, or creates conditions which make learning possible in spite of stress factors in the broader environment.

Peace Studies teaches us the value of Peace Studies! It’s a resource or tool in our toolkit that we didn’t know we had. As we realize its value, some form of Peace Studies will ideally be incorporated into school curricula at every level, and used to help solve particular problems like school violence.

With each new generation we have the potential to increase knowledge and wisdom. Children who grow up in schools where meditation and Peace Studies are part of the learning experience may also turn out to be better at handling stress and conflict in adult life.

Would this have made a difference in the life of James Hodgkinson? Would he still have become a crazed shooter? No one knows. But with better anger management tools at his disposal, his anger might never have metastasized into full-blown psychosis. Had he possessed an iota of peace and insight, he might have been able to laugh at his own failure to produce any tangible change through his political activities. In silence or “quiet time,” he might have gotten the insight that we are all part of the same human family, even if we sometimes quarrel.

Such insights are rare and precious. If we know of methods to share them, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do so, within reason. (I am not advocating aggressive proselytizing.)

The average cable TV service provides nearly 200 channels; but perhaps none of them offer any insight into living peaceably with one’s fellow human beings. Cable news channels run 24 hours a day, but do they have even 5 minutes of quiet time? We think of silence as awkward, something to be filled; but silence can be rich and fulfilling, a vehicle for growth.

The objections to this line of thought are built right into the NBC story. When interviewed, athletic director Barry O’Driscoll confessed his initial reaction:

I thought it was a joke. I thought this is hippie stuff that didn’t work in the 70s, so how’s it gonna work now?

But when the kids started meditating and stopped fighting, O’Driscoll become an ardent supporter of the program. Sharing quiet time became the new normal.

This lets me segue into a discussion of Little Murders. Although it’s a black comedy, one of its underlying themes is the normalization of inexplicable acts of random violence. That’s a perennial theme in areas of modern urban sprawl where no one really knows anyone else, and everyone double or triple-locks their doors:

***SPOILERS*** The film starts out as an offbeat New York romantic comedy, but after the female lead is killed by random gun violence, it turns into more of an exploration of the bizarre coping strategies adopted by surviving family members.

Though a commercial flop, Little Murders enjoys a dedicated fan base. It marked Alan Arkin’s directorial debut, and Arkin also plays the mercurial Lieutenant Practice, a police detective having a nervous breakdown due to 345 unsolved homicides with no motive, no clues, and nothing in common. It’s a bravura performance by Arkin at his wackiest. Donald Sutherland famously plays a counterculture minister with ultra-liberal views who manages to enrage everyone at the outlandish wedding ceremony he performs. Lou Jacobi also delivers an outstanding monologue as an eccentric judge haunted by his impoverished upbringing on the Lower East Side.

At the end of the film (SPOILER CLIP BELOW), the family is sitting around, depressed as usual, when widower Alfred (Elliott Gould) returns home with a newly purchased rifle. Slowly, the male members of the family gather round, becoming enthused about the rifle as an icon of power, liberation, and emotional catharsis. They no longer fight against the popular tide of random violence, but for the first time revel in it, throwing open the steel shutters, poking holes in the glass of the living room window, and egging each other on to take potshots at random passersby:

In the wake of this bonding ritual they become cheerful, giddy, and garrulous around the dinner table. In the film’s closing moments, the matriarch of the family exclaims: “Oh, you don’t know how good it is to hear my family laughing again! You know, for a while there I was really worried.”

Conclusion

It seems we’re faced with two very different possible futures: one which normalizes random acts of violence, and another which normalizes peace and insight. I would rather live in a world filled with peace and insight, where anger has less of a chance to metastasize into full-blown violence.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Thought of the Day: People Are Good
World Harmony Curriculum


Sidebar: Jo Cox

As it happens, the day I’m posting this is the one-year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. She was a British MP who campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union. Before entering Parliament in 2015, she had previously worked for Oxfam.

She was shot and stabbed to death by Thomas Mair, a white supremacist with ties to far right organizations. Mair was pro-Brexit and apparently viewed Cox as a collaborator and a traitor to white people.

In the argot of social media, Mair (now sentenced to life in prison) is an RWNJ or right-wing nut job, just as James Hodgkinson (killed in the shootout) was an LWNJ or left-wing nut job.

On the day she was murdered, Jo’s husband Brendan issued this statement:

Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo. Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous. Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.

According to The Independent, “More than 100,000 events will be held around the country to celebrate the life of Jo Cox on the one year anniversary of her death.” That huge number could almost be a typo, but I hope and pray it’s accurate.

Jo Cox

See also “Jo Cox, the Brexit Vote, and the Politics of Murder” in the New Yorker.

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Trump: Preview to Paris Accord Announcement (humor)

I think Trump’s announcement might go something like this…

Donald Trump: I’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news for all you liberals who believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Global Warming is that I’m pulling out of the Paris Accord. The good news is that to soften the blow, I’m doing my Maurice Chevalier impression:

Donald Trump [singing]: Thank heaven for leetle girls, for leetle girls get bigger every day! Thank heaven for leetle girls, they grow up in the most delightful way!

Donald Trump: Continuing on with my medley of Parisian hits, here’s one of my favorites, and I hope it’s one of yours:

Donald Trump [singing]: I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris, I love Paris, but climate change is no threat at all.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, Mr. President! If I shoved a hot poker up your shorts, would you answer a question on Russia?

Donald Trump: I don’t want to get into a whole covfefe about Russia. The lawyers are handling that.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, some people are saying that “covfefe” is a fake word. But yesterday Sean Spicer told reporters that you and a small group of people know exactly what it means. Mr. President, what’s a covfefe?

Donald Trump: Covfefe is a Cartman toe word, like on South Park. On a hot day, it can refer to the weather. In a Chinese restaurant, it can refer to the kung pao chicken. In a Miss Universe contest…

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, in pulling out of the Paris Accord, aren’t you afraid of causing a covfefe on a global scale?

Donald Trump: There’s a lot scientists still don’t know. In the meantime, I’m more concerned about causing a covfefe here at home. With the coal miners. They voted for me, and I promised to look out for their interests. That’s why we’re building a wall, to keep out the covfefe.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, in the budget reconciliation, Congress only approved funding for some steel wool and a Keep Out sign. How effective is that likely to be?

Donald Trump: That was the 2017 budget. In 2018, there will be bigly appropriations for the wall, beautiful appropriations. Meanwhile, I’ll be negotiating with Mexico to get them to reimburse us for the wall. Otherwise, they’ll have a huge covfefe on their hands.

Andrea Mitchell: What do you say to those who claim that by reneging on the climate deal, America is renouncing its leadership in the world?

Donald Trump: I believe very firmly in American leadership. When it comes to climate change, America is at the front of the bus, while Europe, Asia, and Africa are at the back of the bus. Because we’re at the front of the bus, we’re in a position to get off first, because the bus is headed in the wrong direction.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, in the course of reaching your decision on the Paris Accord, did you have occasion to study the conclusions reached by climatologists?

Donald Trump: Skin has nothing to do with it! Besides, I don’t have time to do a lot of heavy reading — I delegate. My staff put some information about climate change on flash cards, and I distinctly remember that climate change = Fake News.

Andrea Mitchell: Thank you, Mr. President. I’m sure we can all breathe easier knowing that you reached an informed decision.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Maurice Chevalier sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”:

The Twilight Zone TOS: “Midnight Sun” clip with new music by Captain January:

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Terrorism Has No Religion

I’ve been sadly and silently following developments in Manchester after the tragic suicide bombing. Today I saw an interview with Saima Alvi, Vice-Chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre. She made the point — calmly and eloquently — that terrorism has no religion.

This reminded me of Barack Obama, who knew the power of words and steadfastly refused to connect the words “terrorism” and “Islam.” Terrorists have nothing to do with Islam; they merely appropriate words and symbols from that religion of peace in order to justify their heinous acts.

Mrs. Alvi was interviewed by Sky News in the bright sunshine of St. Ann’s Square on May 25. She went on to talk about her 16-year-old daughter. She said her daughter wears a hijab (head scarf), and when her daughter came home yesterday she said everyone had been staring at her. She asked, “Why were they staring at me, Mummy?” Mrs. Alvi explained that her daughter is naïve and didn’t understand how the suicide bombing had increased tensions. “But what’s that got to do with me?” her daughter asked, genuinely puzzled.

There’s a point of insight here. To me (a white, non-Muslim American), a person who would blow up dozens of innocent strangers, many of them children, is a different species — almost non-human. I find it incomprehensible. So do most British Muslims. Like the 16-year-old girl being stared at because she wears a head scarf, most British Muslims consider terrorists to be a different species having nothing to do with them. Terrorists disguise themselves as Muslims, but they are not, for they have no regard for human life.

I wish it were that simple. The concept of radicalisation complicates matters. Terrorist ideology tries to take the kernel of something noble in human nature and twist it to the bad.

As a student of world religion, I would say that at the core of Islam is strong faith and ecstatic love for Allah and his prophet Muhammad, plus a rich culture and set of ethical guidelines. Terrorist ideology corrupts these things by mixing in an element of violent fanaticism.

I understand the concept behind the British government’s Prevent programme. I can also see its flaws. Some people who implement Prevent don’t really understand the nature of religious experience in general, nor Islam in particular. They tend to view a burgeoning interest in religion as something dangerous, a symptom of radicalisation.

In truth, it’s quite natural that many young people (including Muslims) will have conversion experiences which make them more religious, deeply religious. That in itself is a good thing, not bad. What’s needed is a clearer understanding that genuine religious feeling can be corrupted by bad ideas.

I read the full debate on Prevent from 01 February 2017 in the House of Commons, which shows a surprising degree of accord among both Conservative and Labour MPs that the Prevent programme leads to alienation and mistrust. The hope is that some less draconian, less Big Brother-ish means can be found to address extremist influence, without imposing a statutory duty on teachers and other professionals to inform on children who show vague signs of what is subjectively perceived as radicalisation.

A programme like Prevent (or something better) will meet with greater acceptance if it can develop further insight into the nature of religious experience, and the type of conversion experiences which many young Muslims are bound to have. The goal should be to support the authentic practice of strong religious faith, but to separate out (through critical discussion) the bad ideas which terrorists bring in. This is a more subtle approach which does not suspect or denigrate Muslim religion, but which tries to counter the spread of bad ideas which are not at their core Muslim religious ideas, but merely terrorist political ideas.

Terrorism is constantly in the news — on loop both literally and figuratively — so it cannot help being discussed. By all means outlaw terrorism, but not discussion of it. In the aforementioned debate, Hon. Lucy Allan said:

The Government naturally have a duty to protect the public, and they are seeking to discharge that duty through the Prevent strategy. We all want to see extremism tackled, and the intention of Prevent is, in theory, to stop young people being drawn into terrorism and to protect them from extremist views that might render them more susceptible to radicalisation. We get into more difficult territory, however, when we start to tackle belief, ideas and the expression of political and religious views. The whole issue then becomes a great deal more complicated. We could find ourselves in a situation in which the Government decide which views are too extreme and debate can be shut down, so that issues that are better discussed and challenged openly are driven underground.

That is all before anyone has even done anything. Prevent is operating in a pre-crime space, which sounds positively Orwellian. That is at the heart of some of the concerns being expressed about the Prevent duty. Our schools need to be places where young people can discuss any issue at all and develop the ability to see extremist ideologies for what they are. We need to help young people develop the resilience to challenge those ideologies, and if we expose them to only the views that the Government find acceptable, we deny them the opportunity to challenge alternative views and fail to equip them with the ability to think critically and learn how to exercise judgment.

Of the many problems with Prevent, I would like to focus on one in particular: that strong religious faith may be mistaken for (or conflated with) “pre-radicalisation” or “pre-crime.”

As I will shortly discuss, it is not uncommon for a young person to have a conversion experience which takes the form of a personal encounter with a loving God. No matter what his or her religious background (and this also happens to those raised as atheists), such an experience is certainly to be valued and treasured. It is often an ecstatic experience.

I think that genuine spiritual ecstasy can have a radicalising effect on young minds, if it is not accompanied by wisdom in philosophy. Peace Studies should be part of Prevent or similar programmes. Peace Studies is a universal course of study which can help anyone — whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic, or what-have-you — to live in peace and harmony with his or her neighbours, and with the world at large. This is what God wants of us, for all of us to live in peace. Most secular thinkers also favour peace.

Wars are a dreadful abomination and corruption. They should be eliminated, and one day they will be eliminated. But if human nature has not yet been perfected to the extent that it can completely eliminate wars, then let the wars be confined to conflict between combatants in war zones. To intentionally target civilian non-combatants — whether this is done by terrorist groups or government forces — is utterly wrong.

My point to those fulfilling statutory duties under Prevent is this: Don’t look on strong religious faith as something bad or dangerous. Look on it as something which, for many young people, is a natural process of awakening which may manifest as conversion, or as intensification of a faith which had previously lain dormant. (See this article in the Guardian for more about religious conversion via psychologist William James.)

One possible scenario for a Muslim youth is that he or she will grow up wanting to be as much like other (non-Muslim) children as possible. So, he or she may not place much emphasis on faith. But at some point in young adulthood, he/she may undergo conversion to a more active form of faith, including regular prayer, religious garb, and more meticulous observance of dietary restrictions. These changes may be precipitated or intensified by a religious experience of the type catalogued by William James — the kind of religious experience which is a common thread among many different religions. At the core of this experience may be awareness of a personal, loving God, and a sense of ecstatic union.

Faith is not the problem, religion is not the problem, ecstatic love for Allah is not the problem; the problem comes when young people whose faith is not yet mature and tempered by wisdom in philosophy or Peace Studies are told by terrorist recruiters that their faith justifies the killing of people of a different faith, or no faith at all.

I’m not wild about the government telling people how to think about religion; but to the extent this is done, it should at least be based on a more subtle understanding. I realize there are bound to be problems when government tries to distinguish between “authentic” religious ideas and terrorist political ideas. But once government has gotten into that messy business, it needs all the help it can get to sort the tangle.

In the same debate in which Hon. Lucy Allan voiced incisive criticism of Prevent, Hon. Byron Davies stuck up for the programme:

The importance of the Prevent strategy was made clear in the other place in 2016. I draw attention to Channel, which is one part of the broader Prevent agenda. It is an intensive, one-to-one mentoring programme that challenges violent views through the de-programming and rewiring of an individual.

This view, in which the human being is seen as a kind of robot which — when it malfunctions by adopting ideas considered undesirable — is in need of de-programming or rewiring, reflects a certain secular, scientific, or technocratic mindset which is largely hostile to religion. Members of many minority sects have suffered at the hands of those who felt justified in trying to “de-program” them of religious beliefs which posed no danger, and which were sincerely arrived at by the practitioners themselves.

De-programming as a proposed solution to the problem of radicalisation evokes the Orwellian world of IngSoc, and is characteristic of what’s already problematic about Prevent in its present form. The same arguments used in the past to justify aggressive de-programming of non-violent religious minorities are now resurfacing to justify aspects of Prevent: namely, that the attacks on freedom of thought and freedom of belief are justified under the broad rubric of “safeguarding the vulnerable” — that is, a “duty of care” argument.

Duty of care is clear when a school teacher knows that a child is being beaten or sexually abused, or is becoming addicted to heroin; it is far less clear when a child is merely suspected of having become more deeply religious — which in some cases is all that’s happened.

If the teacher’s own beliefs are Christian or Secular Humanist, the teacher may read into a child’s newfound or intensified love for Islam something sinister and dangerous which is not actually present. While it’s true that some terrorists claim to be motivated by religion, most religious practitioners — even those of deep faith and orthodox belief — are not terrorists. It is therefore inappropriate (to say the least) to treat people whose only “crime” is deep religious faith as if they were terrorists-in-training.

Some may say that since I am not Muslim, it is the height of folly for me to weigh in on these matters. But as a student of peace and a person of faith, I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned in life. I am not a government bureaucrat or any kind of authority figure; I’m simply sharing my personal view in a time of trouble. And my view is this: Love God, be passionate in your love of God, be ecstatic in your love of God, be certain in your faith; but don’t let anyone tell you that God wants you to kill or maim other human beings in the name of faith; for this is a terrible corruption and not at all what God wants of us. No one is more anti-Muslim than the terrorist.

There’s a famous novel by American writer J.D. Salinger called Catcher in the Rye. One passage goes: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

If your religious conversion or spiritual awakening is genuine, lasting, and true, then it should make you want to live humbly for a cause, not die blowing up your fellow human beings. You can have strong, ecstatic faith, yet also balance that with a mature understanding, so that you recognize the presence of God in all humanity and would never consider killing others of a different faith, nor would you try by force to convert them to your own beliefs. This principle applies not just to Muslims, but also to would be Crusaders.

The goal of programmes like Prevent should never be to discourage strong faith or religious study, but to help young people temper their faith with wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace. I feel that wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace are fully consistent with Islam. So there need be no conflict provided we view things in a proper perspective. We need to develop the insight that faith is not bad, religion is not bad, only the problem comes when people bring in bad ideas, mixing them with the good.

You can have the most delicious sweetmeats which are absolutely delightful and made from the purest ingredients — but if someone mixes in arsenic then what was good becomes completely bad and poisonous. Pure love of God is good, but if someone mixes in the idea that out of devotion to God we have to kill dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people, then this kind of philosophy is Satan’s philosophy, not God’s philosophy.

I don’t claim to have the answer. Solutions to society’s problems will come from many different quarters. As a sympathetic observer, I do think it’s possible for someone to be British to the core, Muslim to the core, deeply religious, yet 100% against terrorism. For some people, this is the ideal.

There are also geopolitical causes of terrorism, as well as problems with our definitions of terrorism. Some people look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feel that Western nations are the terrorists, dropping bombs on innocent civilians. So we can say there is a vicious cycle: War leads to terrorism and terrorism leads to war.

There’s an important distinction between causation and justification. Terrorism is never justified. But in looking for the root causes of domestic terrorism, we are not wrong to see foreign wars as an aggravating factor. This fact should not become a political football or part of the emotional “blame game.” Nor does this fact automatically lead to the conclusion that Western nations should play no role whatsoever in overseas conflicts. But Western nations must tread carefully, lest they be drawn into a conflict which they cannot solve, and where their use of military force only adds to senseless loss of life, or leads to abuses such as torture.

The problems of war and terrorism are intractable; that’s why we need Peace Studies to help us find long-term solutions to the cycle of violence. So much effort goes into planning for war, budgeting for war, gearing up for war, studying for war. If we put even half as much effort into Peace Studies, gradually we could sow the seeds of peace, and eventually these seeds would germinate.

Peace is not easy to arrive at. This is exactly why the field of Peace Studies has arisen. In order to achieve something difficult, we need to study the problem and begin visualizing the means by which we can solve it. If we just look quickly and say “Peace is too difficult, let us return to war” then we can never solve the problem. So let us devote ample resources to the problem of achieving peace, just as we have already devoted massive resources to the continued waging of war. If we never develop the vision and imagination needed to achieve peace, then we will continue to suffer the twin tragedies of war and terrorism.

Returning to the topic of Prevent: Any insights into the Muslim religious experience will be fairly useless without a human connection based on honesty and trust. Where government programmes have had success, it’s probably due to individuals who made that human connection and were able to act as teachers, mentors, or positive role models. Where government bureaucrats and behavioural psychologists devise leaflets to be covertly directed at the Muslim population en masse, I doubt this has a good effect.

The spirit in which a thing is done makes all the difference. Broadly speaking, counter-terrorism comes under the heading of social control. The notion of fighting terrorism by practising behaviour modification on British Muslims, pressuring them to conform to mainstream views, seems ill-fated because it smacks of inauthenticity, fails to address individual concerns, and may lack an underlying sense of warmth and caring. At its worst, the subtle message of Prevent is “Tone it down or be singled out for counselling” — but such counselling may be culturally insensitive and lead to further alienation.

According to Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, “The government’s counter-radicalisation policy is trying to channel thought, speech and ideas into a fairly narrow concept of what’s acceptable, and everything else is becoming potentially ‘pre-criminal’.”

Insight, compassion, and caring need to be practised on an individual level to effect positive change. There must be concern for the person, rather than the desired social control outcome, e.g. “I’m here to make sure you don’t become a terrorist.” I think approaching people with that thinly veiled social control agenda is an instant turn-off. But if you’re a good teacher, mentor, role model, or simply friend, you can help someone make good choices — not by manipulating them, but by just being there for them — showing them that Britain is a beautiful place to be a Muslim, and it doesn’t involve hating anyone or bombing anything.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Heritage Radio AM – Manchester

While researching this article, I checked out the BMHC website and learned that they also run a radio station. I was really curious what a Muslim radio station in Manchester would sound like. I only listened for about an hour, but found it quite interesting:

http://tunein.com/radio/Heritage-Radio-AM-s272597/

As a student of world religion and world music, I enjoyed the mix of music, prayers, and adverts. (“Remember, if it’s plumbing, it will be available at Cheetham Plumbing!”)

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