On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 2

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? Having discussed general concepts in Part 1, let us now turn to the case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

In wading into the thickets of the sordid Bithika O’Dwyer controversy, I thought it important to deal first with general concepts concerning apostasy, so-called ex-cult support groups, atrocity stories, and the like. (See Part 1.) This is consistent with the approach taken in understanding any complex phenomenon: First understand the nature of the thing, then see how general principles apply to specific cases.

In Part 1, we spent a long time going over the reasons why someone who leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse may nevertheless begin telling over-the-top atrocity stories upon leaving. That is the crux of the confusion faced by many people trying to make sense of the phenomenon, and I daresay we made progress in understanding it, both intellectually and emotionally. Buried within Part 1 is this gem of wisdom from psychologist Sushmitam Rouse which I would like to repeat at the outset of Part 2:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

I also want to repost this passage which I find helpful in navigating the spiritual, psychological, and ethical issues:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

These quotes help set the stage for Part 2.

Part 2: Bithika O’Dwyer

I would like to say at the outset that I wish Ms. O’Dwyer every happiness. That doesn’t prevent me from taking pains to correct the public record where she has acted purposefully to sully or confuse it by posting false and lurid depictions on the Internet.

Please recall from Part 1 that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups.

In the case of Bithika O’Dwyer, we have someone who followed a spiritual path for 35 years, wrote many detailed articles about her positive experiences, and was videoed and photographed participating in activities like singing, sports, fun excursions, etc. She’s an intelligent person and gifted writer who wrote clearly and unmistakably about the benefits of the spiritual life, its many challenges, and how she faced them with the help of her teacher, of whom she spoke glowingly. Her positive accounts during that 35-year period were viewed by her friends along the path as being accurate and commendable. Those positive accounts were written both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.

Yet, upon leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre in 2014, she gravitated towards an Internet based ex-cult support group started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. I have been critical of Mr. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.

When Bithika O’Dwyer became associated with Joe Kracht’s ex-cult support group, she soon began churning out boilerplate anti-cult material which can only be described charitably as absolute bollocks. It simply doesn’t jibe with her own extensive prior accounts, with the accounts of close friends who knew her over a period of decades, with the available evidence, and with scholarly research on the spiritual movement in question. This raises a number of factual, ethical and legal issues which I may deal with elsewhere; but see (for example) this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial.

One of the troubling features of the pop psychology movements of the 1990s (some of which survive today) is the belief that objective truth no longer matters. A person can create a new identity as a victim or survivor, and provided this is done in the context of counselling or a support group, the question of truthfulness is thought by some to be irrelevant. The ultimate indulgence of the Gen X’er is to claim: Whatever I feel emotionally is true. Don’t slow me down with the facts.

In the real world, however, to enjoy the luxury of painting oneself as a victim also requires that one fashion an abuser. The “memory wars” of the 1990s were fought over whether claims of abuse which seemed strange, farfetched, and at odds with reality should nonetheless be taken seriously enough to convict someone in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

The answer, in brief, is no, not without objective evidence. After a great many people were wrongfully accused (and eventually cleared), there emerged a recognition that people claiming to be victims — particularly in a polarized social, political, or legal context — often turn out to be victimizers. This includes former spiritual seekers who tell so-called “apostate atrocity stories” as part of their newfound anti-cult advocacy or return to secular society.

Not everyone who tells a false tale of abuse is an outright liar. The point about abuse-themed books, support groups, and counselling sessions is that they tend to wreak havoc with a person’s sense of identity. People begin to experience life so subjectively that what they feel emotionally becomes what they claim factually. In other words, they confabulate; and within the support group they’re emotionally rewarded for confabulating, because their claims ratify the underlying social and political beliefs being espoused, e.g. that all fathers are abusers, or all purported “cult leaders” are abusers, or all kindergarten teachers are secret Satanists.

In a Salon article and interview, Meredith Maran begins to get at the flavour of this gradual subjectivizing of experience until it becomes false:

“The lie that tore my family apart”
“Interview with Meredith Maran”

What she’s saying is that social cliques and feel-good psychological theories can make liars of us, especially if telling the truth that we were not abused would cause us to lose friends or loved ones who inhabit an abuse-centered universe.

A problem with reliance on emotional reality to the detriment of factual reality is that emotional reality can be extremely unreliable, especially when people are going through a whirlwind of changes in their lives. The causes of their unhappiness are complex, and may include having made poor choices reflecting ethical lapses — yet there can be a controlling figure (such as a counsellor with his or her own agenda) urging them to assign blame for their unhappiness to some external factor or person. This can lead to such stereotyped claims as: I joined a cult and me fanny fell off. Like me on Facebook!

It’s sad to see Ms. O’Dwyer join the ranks of such comic strip characters. Her motives are familiar to me in that I’ve often encountered apostates who feel a strong need for self-justification, and who hope to expunge any guilt associated with having left a respected spiritual movement by trying to make that movement appear outlandish and odious. Of course, many people leave spiritual movements, but most move on without the need to attach excessive blame, which can easily develop into a psychological complex.

My impression is that Joseph Kracht, on whose blog Bithika O’Dwyer’s bizarre “testimonial” appears, acts as a kind of Svengali figure for people (particularly women) with emotional problems who’ve somehow been persuaded that venting on the Internet is a valid form of therapy. It is not.

Most former members of spiritual groups quietly take their leave without much fanfare. A few may have unresolved conflicts about their participation, and may try out different retrospective narratives in order to arrive at a personal interpretation which satisfies them. This type of thing is sometimes done in therapy or a support group; and the reasons most therapists and support groups conduct their activities in true (offline) privacy are manifold: The material which comes up in therapy/support is often highly charged, and is not meant for public consumption. Privacy allows people to experiment with different narratives, including some which may place excessive blame on friends, family, colleagues, or mentors.

In a private therapeutic setting, the situation is manageable, and does not pose legal problems such as libel. But in a public setting, or any setting where anti-cult operatives are trolling for “atrocity stories,” the narratives constructed may undergo radical distortion due to social influence, and may bring participants into conflict with the law.

I doubt Mr. Kracht apprised Ms. O’Dwyer of the full ramifications of joining the “cult wars” — or what little remains of them in a world which is naturally evolving toward pluralism and religious tolerance. Acting wilfully to earn a reputation as someone who betrays former friends and colleagues and posts hate material on the Internet is really not so helpful to one’s C.V. Spiritual people are not the only ones who value loyalty. Secular people and business people also look for consistency and loyalty when considering whether to hire, befriend, or form a lasting relationship with someone who’s recently put themselves “on the market.” How one has treated one’s former friends and colleagues is likely to be an important consideration, and such consideration is reasonable.

By (possibly) following Mr. Kracht’s questionable counsel (whether personal or professional), Ms. O’Dwyer has burned her bridges not only behind her, but also in front of her, limiting rather than expanding her future options. Surely mature people preserve their options.

This is important, so forgive me if I should repeat it: As we move through life, if we are mature and ethical we act loyally toward those we have befriended and who befriended us. Our beliefs may change, but loyalty remains a constant. This is so because our beliefs — and the social groups to which we belong — may often change in the course of a lifetime. In maturity, we recognize that there exist a diversity of beliefs (especially in a spiritual context) about what is right and true, and what practices are beneficial. We move gracefully from social group to social group, from belief to belief, always trying to learn what we can and become better people. Others are doing the same, so there is no reason to demonize them for imagined wrongs.

Likewise, over a lifetime our goals may change. We can move from Goal A to Goal B without having to demolish or annihilate Goal A (and everyone associated with Goal A). To move between goals in a non-destructive manner is the mature, ethical, and psychologically healthy way to do so.

This approach also offers hope that we might one day integrate our spiritual experiences into our daily lives, even if we’re now living closer to the secular world. The anti-cult POV, which typically involves discrediting past spiritual experiences (and the teacher who engendered them), is not psychologically healthy, and doesn’t lead to a well-integrated personality.

When people join anti-cult groups (including Internet based ones like Joe Kracht’s deceptively-named “Abode of Yoga”), they’re inclined to forget these simple truths under the heady influence of social pressure. This includes pressure to unquestioningly accept and act on stereotypes which dehumanize minority faith groups, thus invalidating the ethical obligations that one would normally feel toward one’s fellow human beings.

Indeed, in hate groups a pathological lack of empathy develops towards the targets of the hatred, such that Joe Kracht claims his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.” However, to outside observers (such as potential employers) who have not steeped themselves in anti-cult ideology, the meanness and spitefulness of posting hate material on the Internet is thoroughly apparent — all the more so if the targets of the hatred have a reputation for volunteerism, healthy living, and doing good.

These questions concerning loyalty and ethics tend to be paramount in the minds of people making personnel decisions, because such people are keenly aware that most human relationships (including employment relationships) have a beginning, middle, and end. Trashing one’s former friends and colleagues on the Internet thus suggests a person who is immature and is unable to conclude a relationship in a civilized and responsible manner, without acting vindictively or destructively, and without intentionally causing embarrassment or harm. That’s certainly the impression one gets from Bithika O’Dwyer’s guest column on Joe Kracht’s blog (and the iterations appearing on other venues).

Now, why are anti-cult counsellors typically so obsessed with pushing people over the edge, getting them to publicly recant their faith in a dramatic and finalized manner that would tend to reflect poorly on their good judgement, and to limit their future options? Are such counsellors really acting in the best interests of their clients or protégés? These are questions I hope to tackle in future postings.

In the meantime, let us return to the theme of marriage and divorce introduced at the outset of Part 1. Why would one ex demonize the other? Sometimes to assuage strong guilt feelings, or to relocate blame for the failed relationship. Dr. Lonnie Kliever writes:

[T]here are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

– Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

When one spends years following a spiritual path, it becomes like family. Then, if one chooses to leave or is asked to leave, it may feel like a ripping away. I am perhaps 1% spiritual, but one thing I know about seekers is that they are still human beings, with an emotional self and feelings that run deep. Our emotional selves also have defence mechanisms which kick in when the pain becomes too great. At the most hellish moment of a marital breakup, one partner says to the other: “You don’t love me. You never loved me. And I never loved you. I’ve hated every moment I ever spent with you. I hate you, and all your family and friends. What’s more, you abused our children.” Next comes the ritual burning of photographs, the running of the car off a cliff, and a neatly typed note to the spouse’s employer suggesting termination…

We are all too human, tragically human. And so when we leave a spiritual path, sometimes this slash-and-burn mentality kicks in as a defence. Then too, the world wants us to pay a tithe to be accepted back: “Many members of our church or temple were lured away by this Indian rogue. We all know that meditation is bad for you. We’ll accept you back if you just say you were abused or brainwashed. Then you can get on with the things that really matter, like career and dating…”

Someone who’s sincerely followed a spiritual path for a few years will often have sublime experiences locked in the depths of their heart — experiences they told themselves they would never forget as long as they lived. Then, when the same person leaves that path, you see them try to perform a radical guru-ectomy on themselves. The light they saw, the joy they felt, these things never happened. It’s a defence mechanism, like amnesia. However, amnesia is a purely involuntary ailment. It takes some conscious will to go on the Internet and malign someone.

Conclusions

These are some of the issues surrounding apostates and their accounts. These issues in turn point to functional problems concerning descriptions of spiritual groups which appear in the popular press, and which tend to be disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts. (See also James A. Beckford, “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements.”)

When I say “functional problems,” I mean something different than a simple question of “whom do you believe.” Apostates act in certain fairly predictable ways; the mass media also act in fairly predictable ways. The end result can be a skewing of data leading to false depictions. (For one example, see “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)

In most Western nations, there is a secular sphere and a religious sphere. These two spheres ideally work in harmony, but in our present period there is often war between them. Apostates are typically people who’ve crossed over from the religious sphere to the secular sphere, and now seek to mobilize the secular sphere against the religious sphere. There’s a broad sense in which their reports constitute reports about the enemy during wartime, or characterizations by the secular sphere about what goes on in the religious sphere. Such reports are inherently prone to inaccuracy and bias.

These factors underscore the late Dr. Bryan Wilson’s imperative that “The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.” However, the mass media usually don’t have the time, interest, or resources to conduct such a study, and often can’t even be bothered checking with bonafide religious scholars. Therefore, the view of minority spiritual groups we get from the mass media is often little more than a crude stereotype. This in turn creates problems in society, such as harassment of spiritual groups, or the inability of people with genuine spiritual needs to connect with a group which could benefit them.

When individual apostates publicly hurl false allegations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. As I discuss in “A Question of Forgiveness,” it’s easier to forgive people when their wrong actions have ceased and they show some signs of remorse. Hate the sin, not the sinner is good advice; but when compassion fails, justice-light is sometimes needed to solve a problem which endangers others.

Bhakti yoga is a very emotional path, and some people can easily be storm-tossed by their emotions of the moment — whether love or hate. Some problems may benefit from more steady reflection leading to insight, rather than simply choosing sides based on friendship or which in-group one hopes to join.

Within ex-cult support groups, codependent relationships may develop, with the women becoming faux victims, and the men becoming their “valiant” protectors. These assumed roles reflect a need to create an artificial world in which the apostate is viewed as an heroic crusader rather than a (possibly failed) spiritual seeker. If the person’s own conscience is telling them they could have acted better, could have been truer, donning the garb of victim or protector may be a salve for the conscience.

Unfortunately, this leads to a state of affairs in which some men will go to the wall defending a story which is absolute bollocks, and which contradicts their own knowledge and experience acquired over many years. Whether in a courtroom trial, or even the type of sleazy Internet show trials conducted by Joe Kracht, truth shouldn’t depend on who’s sleeping with whom.

People who are misled by false accounts often want to be misled for the same reasons that these accounts were formulated in the first place: because some people wrongly feel that they can only build up their own ego by tearing down their former spiritual path.

Those who have returned to worldly life may need a certain type of ego build-up, but this is achieved by doing good things, not by becoming obsessed with “proving” that one’s former path or teacher were “bad.” One doesn’t have to look far to see people who left a spiritual path over 35 years ago, but are still trying to discredit their former teacher in order to feel good about themselves. This type of false ego build-up has turned them into extremely troubled and unhappy individuals. Someone like Bithika O’Dwyer who’s only been at it for 2-3 years might learn from such old profligates that this is not the right way to proceed, and does not lead to either worldly happiness or spiritual happiness. Better to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, and get on with one’s life! Better also to leave all one’s bridges unburned and passable, so that one might freely choose any option in the future.

In the final analysis, to become embroiled in the controversies fomented by apostates is a losing proposition for sincere spiritual seekers. It is like quicksand which constantly draws people in until they’re in over their heads and cannot escape from all the concentrated negativity that apostates generate.

If you’re following the path of love and devotion, then it is your devotion, not somebody else’s devotion (or lack thereof) that will sustain you. You will gain strength by looking to those who are more devoted than you, not less so.

Suppose you have gone to a shop for many years. The shopkeeper has always been nice to you and has given you the things you need. He is very kind, though he does have a few rules about what goes on in his shop. Then you meet someone who tells you the shopkeeper is the very worst! He cheated them, he treated them unkindly, he is simply unbearable. Well, you do not know what transpired between the shopkeeper and that person. But he has always treated you fairly. So there is some sense in remaining loyal to that shopkeeper, based on your own experience.

No spiritual teacher, no matter how good and great, is immune to the proverbial “barking of the dogs” of which Swami Vivekananda spoke. Sri Chinmoy has said:

A real genius is not bound by any convention. A genius is a genius. He has to go forward like an elephant, without paying attention to the barking of the dogs. Swami Vivekananda used to say that when an elephant is on the way to the market to eat bananas, the dogs bark and bark. But the elephant does not pay any attention. He goes to the market and eats the bananas and then he comes back home. The dogs are unable to enjoy the bananas.

– Sri Chinmoy, from A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part 1, Agni Press, 2000

Combating false views prevalent in society is like trying to straighten “a dog’s curly tail” (Vivekananda) — it just curls up again. There will always be people spreading hate material. Sometimes they’re good at demagoguing an issue, and may have more funding and resources than spiritual groups, so their message is easier to hear. They can temporarily drown out the true message offered by sincere spiritual teachers.

Yet, spiritual genius that he was, Sri Chinmoy continued to move forward confidently, offering his precious Darshan to those seekers who approached him with an aspiring consciousness. What is said by critics is largely, ahem… irrelephant.

By studying the writings of apostates or disgruntled former members, we don’t get any enlightenment. For that we need spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation and service.

The more we study doubt, the more we will experience confusion-mind. Doubt does not have the power to dispel itself. Only faith has the power to dispel doubt, just as Light dispels darkness.

There are many tracts criticizing people who study under the guidance of a spiritual master and join in the life of a spiritual community. The authors usually advocate secularism, individualism, rationalism, and a pragmatic view of life. To them God is just a mental hallucination, or a remote deity who deserves no more than Temple on Friday or Church on Sunday.

Yet, when one sincerely meditates with a teacher of Sri Chinmoy’s calibre, one has deep inner experiences which prove their own reality in the fertile field of the aspiring heart. One discovers a living God ever present in the temple of one’s heart, a God who is one’s own highest Self, and therefore one’s constant companion.

This is a discovery rooted in faith, not doubt. And so there comes a time when one closes one’s ears to doubt and criticism, and tries to proceed only through faith, finding this to be a higher teaching. (Perhaps doubt is the kindergarten of the spiritual life, and faith the advanced doctoral work?)

As spiritual seekers, we can learn to value Light more. When we become lovers of Light, this will lead to right views, and such views will eventually transform society, lessening the hatred and intolerance which arise from a wrong understanding.

Those who take the negative approach don’t travel far, and ultimately bring suffering on themselves, if not the entire world. Just look at Judas!

Bithika O’Dwyer (bottom row, left) with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre on a fun excursion to Thetford Forest, 2009

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.

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On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 1

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? What are some factors which can lead to inaccurate accounts, and what effect does this have on society? Wading into the thickets of the Bithika O’Dwyer controversy…

I do want to discuss Bithika O’Dwyer, but it’s neither reasonable nor necessary to reinvent the wheel every time a particular individual goes off the rails. Some people have already discussed the core issues at length here. There’s also a collection of essays and anecdotes called “Dealing With Negativity” which offers further insights.

I want to spend some time going over general concepts before turning to the individual case of Bithika O’Dwyer in Part 2.

Part 1: General Concepts

In a free and open society filled with people who possess inquisitive minds, and hearts seeking after truth, it’s fairly commonplace for people to join and leave spiritual groups. In fact, it happens every day, not unlike marriage and divorce. As in cases of divorce, the breakup can be amicable, respectful, and mature; or it can be acrimonious, spiteful, and marked by childish behaviour. We’ve all probably known a divorced couple each of whom is a decent enough person in themselves, but one of whom makes their former partner out to be the devil incarnate. Yet we know from personal experience (knowing the individuals) that it simply isn’t true.

Scholars of religion have studied this broad phenomenon as it applies to leave-takers from spiritual groups. The stories told by ex-members in this context are sometimes referred to as apostate accounts, atrocity stories, deconversion narratives, or testimonials.

The term “apostate” is likely to come up repeatedly in any discussion of religious movements and their detractors. The term has a generally accepted meaning among religious scholars. That meaning is not, in itself, derogatory. An apostate is someone who, after leaving a religious or spiritual group, actively opposes that group, often by speaking publicly against it. Thus, an apostate differs from an ordinary “leave-taker.” There are thousands of religious or spiritual groups, and people come and go from them every day (usually in non-dramatic fashion). Most leave-takers either quietly rejoin the secular majority, or perhaps join a different spiritual group. Most don’t publicly apostatize.

However, media stories defining how the general public views religious movements are often disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts, which can be inaccurate and may reflect certain motives or biases which have become familiar to scholars of religion. Anti-cult material describing religious movements tends to be constructed almost exclusively from apostate accounts, pointedly omitting accounts by the current faithful describing their own beliefs, practices, and lifestyle. For these reasons, apostate accounts (and questions about their accuracy) have become a major focus in the study of religious movements, even though apostates make up a relatively small percentage of ex-members.

As noted above, the term “apostate” is not by definition derogatory. For example, if we were to define the group Al-Qaeda as a “religious cult” (rather than a paramilitary organization which uses Islam as an excuse to commit terrorist acts), then an apostate from Al-Qaeda who speaks publicly and accurately about Al-Qaeda’s known terrorist activities would presumably be doing something positive and beneficial, warning the public about a genuine danger. But if an ex-Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Hare Krishna devotee claimed those groups are terrorists, we should call that foolish alarmism.

The biblical story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot presents an (obvious) example of apostasy viewed negatively. Jesus was a man of peace who tried to usher in a new era in which ideals of compassion might triumph over greed. When Judas lost faith in Jesus and his teachings, he did not quietly fade away, but targeted Jesus for persecution, taking thirty pieces of silver to identify him to the chief priests, leading ultimately to Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans.

Thus, while the term “apostate” is not necessarily negative, the Judas archetype in Western culture signifies one who betrays a benevolent teacher or teaching due to some self-serving motive. How one views any particular apostate depends on how one views the spiritual teacher or group from which the apostate is a defector, and what precise form his/her apostasy takes. If apostates are sometimes viewed negatively, it may be due to instances in which they’ve cast false slurs on teachers or movements which are essentially benign.

These are not binary concepts. A religious movement may be open to legitimate criticism on some grounds, but apostates may engage in extreme tactics similar to yellow journalism. In a familiar pattern, the site jehovahswitnessblog.com turns out to be an anti Jehovah’s Witness site, and asks such illuminating questions as “Would it be fair to compare Jehovah’s Witnesses to Terrorist Organisations?” (This is accompanied by a graphic of a bearded, turbaned Middle Eastern man holding a bomb with a lit fuse.) “Many say that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult. Do you think it’s a cult? In this section, we’ve housed all the blog posts that show you if it is a cult or not. You might be shocked at what you find.” (Not really.)

Scholars of religion tend to visit a huge number of sites, and the above is more or less the boilerplate approach found on many anti-cult sites started by apostates from a wide variety of faiths. It’s this type of crude demagoguery which can lead to the view that apostates are something less than accurate, unbiased sources of information.

The scientific study of religion is (at least in theory) ethically neutral; but much public discussion about spiritual groups is not scholarly at all (in fact it’s quite emotional!). It often entails making subjective value judgements about particular teachers and faiths, and about those who actively apostatize against them.

The problem of making such judgements fair is in turn complicated by the problem of locating accurate resources, the problem of media bias, the problem of moral relativism, the problem of majority versus minority beliefs and values, and the postmodern problem of settling on objective truth even when accurate resources are available. John Leo, who is often a stickler for facts over emotions, points to

… the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?

— John Leo, “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good”

Among those scholars who approach religious movements with an attitude of tolerance, there’s an awareness that apostates sometimes circulate narratives or “testimonials” which are designed to communicate an “emotional” truth (how they feel about past involvement in a religious movement), rather than a “factual” truth. Where so-called “atrocity stories” told by apostates turn out not to be factual, this contributes greatly to the credibility problem with apostates as a class.

Notwithstanding the high degree of freedom and mobility shown by the populations of most Western nations to try out different spiritual groups (joining and leaving more or less at will), the accounts circulated by apostates often take the form of “captivity narratives.” Such narratives stress the powerlessness of the individual in both matters of joining and leaving a spiritual group. They joined because they were “brainwashed,” stayed because they were “brainwashed,” and only left when someone such as a therapist, anti-cult activist or new romantic interest rode in on a white horse and forcibly “rescued” them from their imprisoned and debilitated state. Scholars of religion tend to question such accounts, and have largely dismissed the brainwashing thesis as a serious explanation.

In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.

Many spiritual groups have a probationary period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.

In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in an ex-cult support group. The captivity narrative often seems contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.

Captivity narratives are retrospective accounts delivered to a new audience which has radically different expectations than the old one. When speaking to a new secular peer group, the apostate may ratify his/her affiliation with that peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking, and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world. Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion:

Conversion and disengagement both represent significant shifts in personal identity and situated meanings. As such, biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones. Retrospective accounts must be understood in this context and interpreted accordingly. For example, ex-members may need to justify their departures by finding fault with, or attributing blame to, their former groups. Presentation of the emergent self after NRM disengagement often requires a defense against a “spoiled identity” in the face of stigmatizing efforts by significant others. To save face, the ex-member is compelled to negotiate a new identity (apostate, whistle-blower, penitent ex-member) that plays to a new audience and is calculated to defend the self. The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions). After all, the newly exited person has a lot to live down from his or her “unsavory” past involvements.

The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion [footnotes omitted]

The scholarly language might throw some readers. What does it mean that “biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones”? It means that a person changes their story to correspond to their new world view, new secular peer group, and newfound interest in (for example) a secular business career.

What do we make of the phrase “stigmatizing efforts by significant others”? After leaving a spiritual group, the leave-taker may be subjected to pressure from friends, relatives, or a romantic partner to “denounced the cult” in order to be accepted back into worldly life. The leave-taker may leave with good memories of the spiritual group left behind, but subsequently feels pressured to adopt a new identity as an “apostate, whistle-blower, [or] penitent ex-member.” (“Oh, I’m so sorry Mummy and Daddy that I stayed with that awful cult! Won’t you please put me back in your will now?”)

The leave-taker may fall in with other ex-members who have been strongly influenced by anti-cult ideology which portrays spiritual groups as abusive rather than beneficial. Some such ex-members may have received formal deprogramming or exit counselling. They then introduce this ultra-critical-cum-activist view into the ex-cult support group, where it becomes the dominant view reinforced through readings from a closed universe of anti-cult authors who see involvement in a spiritual community solely through the lens of trauma and abuse. This ignores thousands of years of history in which people have explored living in spiritual communities as a joyful way to grow, evolve, and put their cherished beliefs into practice in concert with others.

So, what does it mean that “The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions)”? It means that a typical initiation ritual for someone who joins an ex-cult support group is that they’ll be asked to read highly negative “testimonials” portraying the spiritual group as abusive, and to voice their agreement or even write their own testimonials based on existing models. For the lonely ex-member seeking “support,” this is the price of admission to a new social clique. The testimonial of abuse is a fashion accoutrement donned when visiting an ex-cult support group, and eventually becomes part of the apostate’s permanent wardrobe.

The apostate is eager (perhaps even desperate) to “prove” that she’s no longer a member of a stigmatized group (i.e. no longer a “cult” member), and therefore may act much like a cooperating witness in a government trial, ready to accuse former friends and colleagues in order to escape conviction herself.

The secular majority is not always kindly disposed toward minority adherents, even those now trying to rejoin the secular majority. Hence the need to rehabilitate one’s reputation by talking trash about a group one had previously extolled. This may be done in preparation for marriage or a secular career, or simply to enhance one’s social standing.

In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counselled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

However, Occam’s razor slices thin here. When someone leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse, it’s usually for very conventional (even prosaic) reasons. Spiritual work is challenging but rewarding. There is always a pull to revert to the mean and to lead a life which is most ordinary, requiring relatively little effort, able to be coped with on brain base.

Someone leaves because they lost their spiritual aspiration, interest, or intensity, the figure who originally inspired them is no longer there in the physical to lift them up, they have grown tired, have run into a rough patch in their own nature, or they still have unfulfilled desires and ambitions which take them back to worldly life. (Or a combination of all these factors.)

Then too, a person may have started a spiritual business, but finds it quite challenging to keep it afloat. People can love each other dearly, but working together on a daily basis may bring out personality conflicts; and rather than resolve these conflicts, some people prefer to move on. (See Sri Chinmoy’s story “Why the Disciples Don’t Come” about those who leave due to personality conflicts.)

In one sense it’s reasonable to want to relax after working hard for a number of years. But in the spiritual life, when people relax, their own worst nature may ambush them, so that they lose all the progress they have made, and may for a time become unfit to lead the spiritual life. This is sometimes called a “hostile attack.” Sri Chinmoy writes:

It is not the spiritual life that increases your undivine qualities. On the contrary, the spiritual life wants you to conquer all the undivine forces once and for all so that they cannot come and disturb you. Otherwise, two or three undivine forces you will conquer today because of your intense spiritual aspiration; and then, after a few months, there will be again an attack by some other forces. So, if you know that all the forces are going to attack you either today or tomorrow, then you will be fully prepared. You thought that you had only one enemy. How is it that you now have ten enemies? But this should not make you discouraged. On the contrary, you should be happy that all your enemies, all your weaknesses, are coming forward. Only if they come forward can you conquer them.

How will you do it? It is through your constant inner cry. Do not be disturbed, do not be agitated, do not be depressed, do not surrender to these attacks. You simply should be happy that all your weaknesses are coming to the fore. Otherwise, each one will take its own time and bite you and pinch you. Then you will suffer like anything. So let them all attack you. Your faith in the Supreme — who is my Guru, your Guru, everybody’s Guru — has infinite power to conquer these undivine forces.

You want to go one step ahead and become totally divine. But the moment you enter the spiritual path, all the undivine, hostile forces attack you. Before, you never had doubt, you never had fear, you never thought that anything named jealousy existed on earth. But where did they come from? They did not come from above. No, they were all dormant inside you. The tiger within you had all these undivine qualities. But the tiger did not use all its power. It had only to use a little power, just a small quantity of its power, in order to frighten you. But now that the tiger knows that you are trying to leave its den, the tiger is ready to show you all its capacity. It will muster all its strength. But at that time, you have to be very devoted to your spiritual life, to the divine life within you, and say, “This is a great opportunity to conquer all my enemies all at once.” So you should be courageous and, at the same time, totally surrendered to the Will of the Supreme.

– Sri Chinmoy, from Illumination-World, Agni Press, 1977 [emphasis added]

To stay afloat in the spiritual life, one has to do battle with ignorance. If one becomes lax, then all the old problems may resurface, or even new problems may come. So some people leave because they no longer wish to do battle with their own nature, or for many other conventional, unremarkable reasons.

Now, why do some people disguise these very conventional reasons for leaving by telling an outlandish story of abuse, a so-called “atrocity story”? We’ve already discussed this, but here’s another powerful reason given by psychologist Sushmitam Rouse:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

It could also be said that the lies some people tell about their former spiritual path are like a bandage which they apply to the wound of leaving — leaving something which they actually love, or which their soul loves.

Leaving a spiritual path can be painful, just as divorce can be painful. This leads to a temptation (or even unconscious reaction) to simply throw all the blame on the other person (in the case of divorce) or on the teacher or path (in the case of leaving a spiritual group). But there is great potential for misattribution of cause and effect here. People may become unhappy after leaving a spiritual path which they followed sincerely for decades of their lives. But this doesn’t mean the spiritual path is the cause of their unhappiness. As I write in “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life”:

When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.

I’ve also had occasion to quote from this TIME magazine article:

By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.

— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine

This applies in spades to so-called ex-cult support groups, and I hope regular readers of my blog will forgive me if I once again quote this passage from “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2”:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

Owing to wretched excess in the anti-cult movement, it’s nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in one’s denunciation of a purported “cult leader.” The situation is analogous to that described by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in his 1967 signature piece “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in the monologue, Guthrie is trying to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His strategy is to appear so gung-ho that he would be viewed as undesirable:

I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: Kill. Kill!”

And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy.” Didn’t feel too good about it.

— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”

Those members of anti-cult groups willing to tell over-the-top atrocity stories may receive status elevation within the group (similar to having medals pinned on them). If they can supply bodice-ripping drug store fare, this has the potential to be used in anti-cult publicity campaigns, and may even find its way into a courtroom. The writers know this, and so tend to compete in a “race to the bottom.” It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that these stories are being told for self-serving motives, especially where they diverge significantly from the known facts about a spiritual teacher or group, and are not supported by objective evidence.

We should keep in mind that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups (or in extreme cases, crucifixion).

As I discuss in Part 2, when apostates hurl false accusations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. If the hurlers will not stop, then it may be necessary to invoke lawful due process. See also this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial. The links at the end concern UK libel law as it applies to Facebook, Blogspot, and other social media sites.

This concludes Part 1 covering general concepts. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the particular case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

Michael Howard

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

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Temple-Song-Hearts 1991 Concert

Celebrating International Women’s Day with Music

The contributions made to daily life by women around the world can never be quantified. Some women contribute to their local communities, while others go a step further by spreading their peace and joy to other nations through music.

Such is the case with Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group which first formed in 1987 in the United Kingdom, and has since developed an increasingly international flavour.

As noted in People Are Good Everywhere, governments and political leaders may often fight, yet there is a countervailing force of good within each human heart. Some nations may be historical rivals, yet their people can still share good wishes and be moved by the same art and music, as these are universal constants.

In 1991, Temple-Song-Hearts toured the Soviet Union, which at that time was just dissolving into Russia. The Russian people, often starved for spirituality during the Soviet era, welcomed Temple-Song-Hearts in a spirit of oneness, and delighted in their soulful singing and performances on all-acoustic instruments. This video is part concert footage, part travelogue, with music always the uniting factor:

Temple-Song-Hearts is a group which combines the eternal with the ever-new. Their music radiates a deep sense of truth, while their arrangements are fresh and reflect our contemporary world.

Temple-Song-Hearts exclusively performs the music of Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who wrote thousands of spiritual songs which are prayers to God for peace, harmony, progress, the liberation of the individual soul from suffering, and the liberation of the entire world from the tyranny of ignorance. What more fitting source material for a group which has performed concerts throughout Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the U.S.A.?

The meeting of hearts and minds commingled with love of God often occurs far from politics or the glare of the mass media. It occurs in small halls where people who share a common longing for truth sit quietly for an hour, and take in sounds which are gentle, yet carry a powerful message of world-transformation. Many things flow from this experience: the recognition that deep within we are one, and a time will come when our diversity is not a cause for warfare (hot or cold), but when we will recognize oneness in diversity as the principle which informs us as human beings and divine beings. To quote Sri Chinmoy:

Being a spiritual man, I must say that there is only one religion. You call it Christianity, I call it Hinduism, somebody calls it Judaism and somebody else calls it Islam. But there is only one religion. So when there is one religion, there cannot be nearness or distance. There are many branches of the religion-tree, but there is only one religion, and that religion is God-realisation. The ultimate Goal of all religion is God-realisation.

Religions may fight on the way to the goal, but at the end of the journey they become most intimate friends, and then they feel that they were all the time together on the same journey, only following different paths. True, sincere followers of any religion, either Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism, will never find fault in the truths of other religions. They know that the ultimate Truth exists in each religion. But in the field of practice or manifestation, human thoughts, human ideas, human vibrations can alter the truth. This is at the root of conflict between religions. The moment we go deep within, however, we see that there is no religion, only Truth. India’s greatest political leader, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “Where is religion? To me religion is just Truth.” The word “religion” can cause conflict and fighting. But when we use the word “Truth,” the conflicting parties remain silent.

– Sri Chinmoy, The Spiritual Journey: Oneness in Diversity, Agni Press, 1977

Writing about a Temple-Song-Hearts tour of the South of France in 2005, longtime member Shankara Smith says:

It’s been a fair few years since our group last performed for the public, and I had forgotten what a rewarding experience it is. Since the group gained a new pianist — the excellent Eshana from Serbia — plus a number of other musicians headed up by the multi-talented Utsava of Germany, we have been concentrating on improving the sound of the group.

Montpellier proved to be the ideal place to get together. It is a beautiful and mostly traffic-free old city. We had great fun checking out the local shops, particularly an exquisite chocolate shop (not great for the voice, but wonderful for the spirits!). But most of our time was dutifully spent practising.

On the second evening we performed in a lovely little theatre, to a full house of friends, meditation seekers and the general public. The concert went almost without a hitch, and I felt the spirit of Temple-Song-Hearts was well and truly back with us. I find there is nothing more satisfying than singing your heart out performing Sri Chinmoy’s music; the feeling of joy that comes from these pure, beautiful and prayerful songs. It was a joy we were able to share with our audience, who all seemed to enjoy the concert.

The following day we were off to Marseille. This time we were in a beautiful hall without the bright theatre lights, and it was nice being able to see our audience. The concert went very well, and afterwards some people stayed behind to chat. When a man approached me and said he was a professional pianist, part of me went “Oh no, he will have noticed all our little errors.” But instead of criticism, we received generous praise and I was very touched when he said how moved he had been by the music. This was followed up by a lovely lady saying that the concert had brought tears to her eyes and that “Today God has come as a woman.” I knew that once again Sri Chinmoy’s music had got right to the hearts of its listeners.

Read Shankara’s full report here, or view a gallery of photos from the French tour.

More About Sri Chinmoy’s Music

Sri Chinmoy was born in Bengal, India (now Bangladesh) in 1931, and moved to New York City in 1964, where he lived the better part of his life. Most songs performed by Temple-Song-Hearts are sung in Sri Chinmoy’s native language of Bengali (though it was also his custom to honour each country he visited with a song in that nation’s own language). His songs often include lines of different lengths, as in “Nil Akasher Alor Tari” from the 1991 video:

This can lead to arrangements which are very fresh and dynamic. Here are the lyrics in Bengali and English, courtesy SriChinmoyLibrary.com:

Nil Akasher Alor Tari

Nil akasher alor tari hridaye mor bhase
Kusum kalir mauna bhasha byatha amar nashe
Amai jara dake mago ami tader daki
Moder majhe tomai jena nitya mago rakhi

Translation:

O boat of light in the blue sky,
I see you floating in my heart-river.
I see the flowers that you are carrying.
The fragrance of these flowers
Has destroyed all my sufferings.
Like you, I call those who call me,
I see in you the bond of all-loving,
All-illumining and all-fulfilling unity.

No mortal words can add to this call to the infinite, this call to all-fulfilling unity. Needless to say, this unity of peoples, unity of spirits, can never be achieved by force. It dawns gradually as each person gains insight, develops spiritual vision, and longs in their heart to join in the festival of light which is carried on ceaselessly in the inner world.

Sri Chinmoy playing the Indian esraj, a bowed string instrument with a sound similar to the better-known sarangi. Photo by Abakash.

Personnel on the 1991 Tour

– Santoshi Hodgson
– Abi Timberlake
– Kate Hirons
– Dipika Smith
– Sudhira Hay
– Sangvad Keaney
– Udasina Hansford
– Shankara Smith
– Bithika O’Dwyer
– Rachel Merry
– Sahana Gero

Bithika O’Dwyer from the 1991 video

Bithika O’Dwyer with the World Harmony Run, 2009

Bithika O’Dwyer with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre, 2009 (bottom row, left)

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Temple-Song-Hearts Tour Europe
Temple-Song-Hearts web site (by the most excellent Sumangali Morhall)
Temple-Song-Hearts on CD Baby

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Women’s History Month: Student-Teacher Decorum

Using scenes from the film Term of Trial to explore the topic of student-teacher relations…

Term of Trial is a 1962 film directed by Peter Glenville, starring Laurence Olivier and Sarah Miles. It explores the complex dynamics which develop between a teacher (Olivier) and the young student (Miles) he’s tutoring. Here are some scenes:

(Any problems with the embedded video, view directly on Vimeo here.)

Some questions for discussion:

– According to the film, what is the ideal form of student-teacher decorum, or is this question left open?

– What are the responsibilities of the student and teacher to ensure that no misunderstandings develop?

– One sociological theory is that reality is socially constructed. How does this apply to a situation involving disputed events? Expand, amplify.

– Can perceptions about decorum be influenced by pre-existing stereotypes about race, nationality, religion, gender, and age? Give examples where stereotypes about a teacher or student might influence how events are interpreted.

– A perceived breach of decorum may lead to judgments about the people involved, or even legal consequences. One set of moral and ethical values may clash with another. How are we to know who’s right?

– In daily social interactions, we constantly give each other cues which reinforce shared ethical systems without explicitly stating values. Cite examples of this in the film or in real life.

– Is the case made that society’s values differ from those of one or both of the film’s protagonists? Are any clues given about society’s values?

– When people develop hardened positions on issues and events, how likely are those positions to change in real life?

– Are social, legal, and educational institutions highly flexible in their responses to individual incidents, or is there a tendency for certain machinery to automatically kick in? Explain.

– In the mainstream media, many stories are couched in terms of victim and victimizer. Can you think of any examples?

– Once the roles of victim and victimizer have been clearly defined, do they ever change? Does this happen frequently or rarely?

– Are societal institutions better or worse than individuals at judging the truth about particular events? Justify your answer.

– In the film, what are Shirley Taylor’s motivations for accusing Graham Weir?

– Reconcile these two statements: 1. A victim should always be believed. 2. A person is innocent until proven guilty.

– In the film, why does Graham Weir (or the school where he taught) not sue Shirley Taylor for defamation of character? Is it out of kindness? Would such a suit be justified under UK law, and stand a good chance of succeeding?

– How does the modern Internet era affect the underlying issues? Suppose Shirley Taylor only made her accusations on Blogspot or Facebook? Would she still be liable under UK law?

Michael Howard

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

Suggested Reading

My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father
False Salon Story: What was said at the time
Define defamation of character
Mother faces paying £20,000 damages over Facebook ‘libel’
High Court Grants Judgement for libel defamation on Facebook
Internet platforms can assume the role of publisher and become liable for defamation
BBC Webwise – Social media and libel
Exposing libel myths surrounding Twitter and other social media
Canada: Facebook Defamation Case Awards Significant Damages

* * *

Trump’s new acronym VOICE: What could it stand for?

Top 15 alternative interpretations

Last night Donald Trump unleashed a new acronym on the American people. Given the tone of his campaign, it could easily stand for Victims of Insensitive Comments Etc. (or Voices Opposing Idiotic Campaign Excess). But here are a few more possibilities:

– Vinegar on Ichthyosaurs Creates Eczema
– Vast Organs in Cathedrals Excite
– Voodoo Often Implies Cuckoo Economics
– Vampy Ocelots Invade Cranial Ellipsis
– Vegetarians Oppose Illiterate Cauliflower Excrement
– Victims of Itinerant Cats Emote
– Vapid Orangutans in Casserole Extravaganza!
– Voyeuristic Ox Implicates Chafing Envoys
– Vagrants Organize Inspired Calamari Exhibition
– Virgins Operate in Communist Elevators
– Vladimir Orders Internet Café’s Espresso
– Vituperative Oligarch Imbibes Calcified Eclairs
– Vague on Issues Candidate Excels

Note: According to Mr. Trump, VOICE stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. Is it just me, or does this make no sense? Is it a crime when immigrants get engaged? Maybe sometimes they shouldn’t, but isn’t that a victimless crime?

Lucy and Ricky Ricardo: the only victims were TV viewers

Lucy and Ricky Ricardo: the only victims were TV viewers

Sidebar: Trump administration accused of trademark infringement

Dear President Trump:

My name is Equis Culpepper. I am head of the local chapter of VOICE, or Victims of Itinerant Cats Emote. Here in Elksbreath, Montana we have a lot of feral cats wandering around, causing no end of trouble. And once a week we get together to talk about the emotional problems created by these cats, and how we are victimized by their caterwauling and other nocturnal escapades.

There are branches of VOICE in 83 townships across America, and our organization’s name was trademarked in 1953. So if you’re planning to start your own victims’ organization, please be advised that the name VOICE is already taken! If you do not cease and desist from use of that name, we shall be forced to file an action for trademark infringement.

Respectfully,

Equis Culpepper
D.D.S., M.R.C.V.S., B.V.M.

 

Dear Mr. Culpepper:

President Trump has asked me to look into your trademark claim, and it appears to be valid. I hope you know that being Attorney General, I could easily kick your butt in court. But I’m very busy rolling back Voting Rights legislation, and a rose by any other name…

After consulting with me, President Trump has agreed to change the name of his new initiative to DRIP, or Dirty Rotten Immigrants Project.

I hope this settles the matter. If you want anyone lynched, please let me know.

Your truly,

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III
Attorney General of the United States


Michael Howard

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

The Spiritual Retreat

Over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation (and at other times as well), some people go on a spiritual retreat. What is the value of a spiritual retreat, and how can we make good use of our time? What are some things to be done and not done?

C.S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote in his science fiction novel Perelandra:

Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. There is a chattering part of the mind which continues, until it is corrected, to chatter on even in the holiest places.

Yet, a place which has been consecrated for the purpose of silence and contemplation may be of some help in quietening the mind.

This short video offers a few pointers on mastering the unique opportunities and challenges afforded by the spiritual retreat:

Returning again to C.S. Lewis and Perelandra, we are further instructed:

Be confident, small immortals. You are not the only voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come.

Perhaps the video is most useful for showing us what things not to bring on a spiritual retreat. Since a portable video player is probably one of them, maybe it’s best to write them down on a piece of paper, and leave that at home as well.

THINGS NOT TO BRING ON A SPIRITUAL RETREAT

– squeaky shoes
– The Killing DVD
– Wallander DVD
– Kit Kat bars
– potted goose meat
– vodka & tonic
– gin & tonic
– etc.
– etc.

No need to make the list too long, as that too might become a distraction.

We could read the list again, but here the wisdom of C.S. Lewis comes to our rescue:

Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity — like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

C.S. Lewis quotes from Perelandra on Goodreads.com
Rev. Season 2 on Amazon.com

Note: If the embedded video doesn’t play, watch directly on YouTube here.

A Trump Joke for UK Readers

donald-trump-queen-elizabeth-ii-funny

Queen Elizabeth II: Must I luncheon with that horrible man Donald Trump?

Private Secretary: I’m afraid, Your Majesty, that if he comes to England it may be inevitable.

Queen Elizabeth II: Humph!!! Well, I may luncheon with him, but I shan’t serve him tea.

Private Secretary: But Your Majesty, without the ‘T’ you would only be luncheoning with a Rump!

Michael Howard

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

* * *

In Praise of a Free Press and an Open Society

Restoring sanity to the recent furor over fake news (UPDATED!)

Readers of my blog know that I’m occasionally critical of certain media outlets and figures, notably:

– tabloid TV
– Internet publications which use shock headlines as clickbait
– publishers, literary agents, and agencies which profiteer off false stories pandering to populist prejudices
– commercial bloggers like Edwin Lyngar who are rabidly and offensively anti-religious, but who nonetheless insist on doing hatchet jobs on spiritual figures.

Now, in criticizing the above, I usually focus on particular stories which are either horribly biased, or which genuinely rise to the level of fake news. In fact, in two of my posts on the subject, I quoted from Caitlin Dewey’s series in the Washington Post on “What was fake on the Internet this week.” Ms. Dewey writes:

[W]here a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.

Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

— Caitlin Dewey, “What was fake on the Internet this week,” The Washington Post

From her thoughtful analysis, it’s clear that there are definite criteria for identifying what is fake news and what (by contrast) may be completely genuine news which is disliked by an incoming administration — not because it’s fake, but because it’s true. When politicians go on a blitzkrieg of falsehood, it behooves the news media to up their truth-squading activities. (See Maragret Sullivan in The New York Times here.)

Media analysis yields few binaries, so there is perhaps a gray area where extremely poor reporting may somewhat resemble fake news. Also, in advocacy journalism the facts are slanted to make the case the writer wants to make, yet there is usually some underlying factual basis, however thin.

Her Blooming Cheek…

Let me shift gears for a moment and explain why I’m writing about this. Over the course of history, a perfectly valid form of expression may be undermined by later developments in language. A classic example is the presence in some 18th and 19th century literature of lines like these:

And now, as gazing o’er the glassy stream,
She saw her blooming cheek’s reflected beam,
Her tresses brighter than the morning sky,
And the mild radiance of her sparkling eye,

— Sir William Jones, from “The Palace of Fortune”

Or these:

A fair one next stepped forth to view
More fully form’d; more high the hue
That glow’d upon her blooming cheek,
Which seem’d more ripen’d age to speak;

— Mrs. Henry Rolls, from “The Banquet of Spring”

Or these:

The sun himself loses his countenance
Before her blooming cheek…

— Christian Dietrich Grabbe, from Cinderella (Aschenbrödel)

This last would surely strike any modern Briton as a reference to Kellyanne Conway!

Many more references could be unearthed, including one from Mr. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. However, developments in cockney English (e.g., “Of all the blooming cheek!”) have rendered such lines vaguely comical in retrospect, and reciting them in a cockney accent only adds to this perception.

With the equally comical (yet terrifying) entrance of Donald Trump onto the world stage, my previous articles discussing “fake news” are thrown into some disarray by the latter’s mongrelization of the term as an epithet for any news report (however factual) he simply doesn’t like.

He may have short fingers, but those fingers now obsessively clasp a huge megaphone from which he blasts mind-numbing alternative facts aggrandizing his own accomplishments, coupled with wholesale attacks on “the media” for not being able to sufficiently camouflage their well-earned dislike of him.

Bully Pulpit

The phrase “bully pulpit” was originally coined by President Theodore Roosevelt:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bully pulpit means “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” It was first used by TR, explaining his view of the presidency, in this quotation: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” The word “bully” itself was an adjective in the vernacular of the time meaning “first-rate,” somewhat equivalent to the recent use of the word “awesome.” The term “bully pulpit” is still used today to describe the president’s power to influence the public.

“Did You Know? TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt”

So it originally meant that the presidency is an awesome soapbox. Some Americans might be surprised to learn that it did not signify “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. Synonyms: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, intimidator.” (So sayeth Google of the bully.)

Unfortunately, Donald Trump uses the presidency in the manner of a bully, intimidating those members of the press who dare to ask him tough questions (sometimes even simple questions) about his policies and actions. After viewing a particularly bizarre presser held by Mr. Trump on February 16, 2017 — an event described by some as a Festivus airing of grievances — a shocked John Dean said: “I’ve never seen a more classless president.” Dean, of course, served as White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon.

So I want to clarify that while I’m occasionally critical of some media outlets, I don’t consider the media to be my enemy, nor the enemy of the American people as Mr. Trump recently tweeted:

trump_tweet_enemy_people_revised

He has sullied the waters by creating a caricature of the position opposing fake news so carefully carved out by Caitlin Dewey and others who have investigated the phenomenon of fake news, and who understand its subtleties.

Fake news does exist, and is developed primarily on sites which specialize in fake news, and on partisan blogs. It’s often spread via Facebook or Twitter. But the mainstream media generally try to avoid fake news. While one can question the accuracy, objectivity, and completeness of the view one gets from mainstream media, most mainstream journalists do try to separate fact from fiction, and don’t knowingly concoct fake stories. There are exceptions of course, but when caught, reporters engaging in outright fraud (e.g. Jason Blair) tend to be fired or forced to resign.

Even tabloid or “yellow” journalism, however bad, is usually based on actual sources. The sources may be unreliable, and the facts not carefully checked, but there’s usually a distinction between poor quality journalism and outright fakery.

So why does Mr. Trump keep repeating “Fake news, fake news” like a mantra? This is an example of preemptive framing. The Trump administration is itself one of the main purveyors of fake news (or at least false facts) in the present period. Attempting to massively discredit the press is a preemptive technique for replacing real facts with “alternative facts,” such as that Mr. Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of people voting illegally, or that there was a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky (the fictional “Bowling Green massacre” referenced by Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway — she of the “blooming cheek”).

I believe very firmly in a free press and an open society. I also condemn perversions of the English language of the sort discussed in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which is required reading in the post-truth era of Trump, along with Orwell’s 1984. (See also NPR’s “With ‘Fake News,’ Trump Moves From Alternative Facts To Alternative Language,” and WAPO’s “‘Fake news’ has now lost all meaning.”)

The Fourth Estate

A free press will often get things wrong, and in a free press it’s rarely possible to enforce a high standard of scrupulosity. News is, moreover, a business. Commercial considerations threaten the quality and accuracy of news in any number of ways. The 24-hour news cycle tends to produce a great deal of “infotainment” of limited value, but “limited value” is not “no value.”

Mainstream media are open to careful, reasoned criticism on many counts, but this does not negate their role as a “fourth estate” — an unofficial but important check on governmental power and abuse. Attempting to discredit the media wholesale is a tactic of tyrants, and it seems more than coincidental that Mr. Trump’s most acidic tongue-lashings (or tweet-lashings) of the press come at a time when his administration is facing increased criticism for alleged Russia ties, and when he’s issuing harsh authoritarian policies by fiat. (And no, Virginia, a fiat is not a blooming car!)

It would be something of a cliché to cite the 1976 film All The President’s Men to illustrate the vital role the press can play in unmasking government abuses. Perhaps less well-known to present day audiences is the 1969 film Z, whose unusual one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “he is alive” — was banned (as graffiti) when a right-wing dictatorship took control of that nation in 1967. If you’re curious why, these two SPOILER clips comprising the end of the film may elucidate:


Though Z is only partly about the role of journalists in ferreting out government abuse, you would observe that when the military junta takes control, it’s quick to ban a free press. (Read Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous review of the film here.)

Power Center

The mainstream media is (among other things) a power center. In a mostly free society, government officials learn to get along with that power center, however uncomfortable such power-sharing arrangements may be. Rachel Maddow recently aired a clip of President Kennedy giving an interview in December 1962, shortly after the Bay of Pigs incident, for which he had taken a major shellacking in the press. Rather than lashing out vindictively, his response was gracious, reasoned, philosophical, and respectful of the role which the media can play in highlighting an administration’s failures:

This is not a democrat vs. republican issue. Fifty-four years later, Sen. John McCain — the paradigmatic Cold Warrior himself — stressed the same points with equal or greater vigour in a February 2017 interview on Meet The Press.

By contrast, Richard Nixon is heard on the infamous White House Tapes to say: “Never forget the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.” He drilled it into his underlings in a manner no less totalitarian than we might expect to find in communist China at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, people have a right to adopt any philosophy or creed that they may choose, but when the government imposes it through brute force or bullying, that’s quite a different matter. This point was driven home by the character Toby Ziegler in an episode of The West Wing titled “Isaac and Ishmael”:

There’s nothing wrong with a religion whose laws say a man’s got to wear a beard or cover his head or wear a collar. It’s when violation of these laws becomes a crime against the State and not your parents that we’re talking about lack of choice.

— Toby Ziegler

The Mainstream Media: Not All Sweetness and Light

The mainstream media are subject to their own lapses and even abuses, but this doesn’t make them “the enemy.” Three problems which I cover in greater detail elsewhere are that mainstream media:

– Usually have difficulty making sense of the spiritual landscape;
– Sometimes engage in calculated smear campaigns;
– Often indulge in false balance, treating both sides of an argument as equal, even where the facts don’t support it.

In “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Resources” I write:

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media. Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

According to media critic Ken Sanes: “The fake landscape Truman [of The Truman Show] lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.”

In a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests who want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

In “Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign” I write:

Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable? The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.

When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.

Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” — Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.

If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.

[We should reject] the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance.

The mechanics of the smear campaign are remarkably similar regardless of the different ethnic, political, religious, or gender preference groups being targeted.

The glut of cheaply produced infotainment tends to cheapen the nature of reality itself, or at least how reality is perceived (as a series of shopworn memes). Just as a cardinal rule of commercial television is to keep the viewer glued to his or her set until the next commercial, the net effect of the pervasive secular media space is to keep people ensconced in a materialist world view where science, politics and business are the ruling factors, and the pursuit of pleasure is the primary leisure activity.

Does anything else exist? Yes, there are (and always have been) spiritual alternatives. But these alternatives become harder to see, hear or reify when we are thoroughly ensconced in the secular media space.

The American media space is governed by market principles like supply and demand. There is, quite simply, a market for material smearing spiritual teachers and groups, just as there was once a market for virulent anti-Catholic material in the mid-nineteenth century. … Personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt.

And in “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities” I write:

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

“No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day. The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.”

[Read the full article for more quotes about false balance from Katrina vanden Heuvel, Margaret Sullivan, James Fallows, and The Economist.]

Some journalists blindly trust social media sites without recognizing that such sites are often cesspools of false and hateful depictions of religious and ethnic minorities. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (i.e. hoaxes or fake news) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with.

The practice of creating false balance by giving equal weight to disreputable sources yields particularly destructive results when some of the claims are of an extreme and libelous nature, tending to overshadow any positive view.

When general assignment reporters on deadline cut-and-paste material from the Internet, they often produce this type of result about minority spiritual figures: “Somebody said he did this, somebody said he did that… We don’t know. [[shrug]] NEXT!” Assembly-line journalism with no sense of responsibility and no truth value.

When reports which are a confused hodgepodge of unevaluated claims are published by the media, this leads to a confused, frightened, and angry public.

The problem when journalists fail to identify hate material as such, and include it along with more reputable material under cover of “balance,” is that such hate material can easily spur a moral panic in which the targets of the hatred are irreparably harmed — if not physically, then emotionally and psychologically. The Society of Professional Journalists lists several pillars of journalism ethics, one of which is to minimize harm.

Checks and Balances

Clearly, my complaints about mainstream media are manifold. Because we have (for now) a free press, I am able to lodge them. I would add that one can watch cable news for weeks on end and never see a story critical of the pharmaceutical industry, because that industry is a huge sponsor of cable news channels. Media consolidation means that the range of viewpoints one gets from mainstream media tends to be much narrower than the actual diversity of viewpoints which exist. These are all serious problems.

Despite such problems, mainstream media remain an important component in the system of checks and balances which helps keep our nation from descending into outright tyranny. Just as government reports need to be examined critically, so do media reports. Through insight, we can gradually come to recognize different types of bias we may encounter in different types of media. There are also alternative media with which we can supplement our diet of news. These too have their problems, but they are mostly different ones not discussed here.

While there is no such thing as an immaculate perception, by interpolating between different sources of information available to us, we can often get a close approximation of the truth. This is only possible in an open society, and the notion of a free press implies considerable leeway for reporters, editors and publishers to make mistakes. That’s the distill from landmark Supreme Court decisions such as New York Times v. Sullivan. There, Justice Brennan’s 1964 opinion hearkened back to a 1925 opinion by Justice Brandeis stating:

Those who won our independence believed … that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

— Justice Louis Brandeis, concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-376

In Sullivan, Justice Brennan quotes James Madison as saying: “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” Brennan then continues:

In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields, the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

— Justice William Brennan, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254

#ImWithKaty

Some of the problems with mainstream media are institutional or corporate in nature. The individual journalists hired are often intelligent, hard-working, decent, principled people who are committed to doing the best job of reporting the facts that they can within the existing structure.

Donald Trump’s bullying of individual reporters such as MSNBC’s Katy Tur (and others since) is one of the reasons I characterize the press’s dislike for him as well-earned. Katy Tur is a person of intelligence and grace. Yet after she was publicly targeted by Trump at one of his 2016 campaign rallies, she needed Secret Service protection to make it safely to her car. Bully pulpit indeed.

I myself can be a harsh critic of the media, but you have to understand the context: I am one, lone, non-commercial blogger who often sticks up for the rights of spiritual minorities. Compared to any mainstream outlet, my readership is small and non-threatening. Even if I shout, few members of the mainstream media will hear me or heed me. I will never be president, but if I were then I would certainly tone down my (occasional) rhetoric and not use a (virtual) megaphone as Mr. Trump does. As I’m fond of saying, sharp criticism should thrust up.

In 2015, I produced a short documentary (or mashup) on the topic of media smear campaigns:

But my thesis was not that every negative story is a smear. Rather, we can identify a smear campaign by certain indicia, such as lack of corroboration and use of unreliable sources who all inhabit the same echo chamber.

The bête noire of the video is a character from an old Colombo episode, played by William Shatner of Star Trek fame. He’s the epitome of the muckraking reporter intent on going for the jugular. But I would never suggest that all reporters are like him. As I state in the video: “Some people have high ethical standards, and won’t plant a false story in the media or participate in a smear campaign.”

The video presents a contrarian view of mainstream media, but such a view is helpful when we consider the power of mainstream media to shape our world. I end with a quote from cultural historian Todd Gitlin, who opines: “People have especially become aware that there’s developed a blur between entertainment and news. There’s no cavalry to come and rescue you, because the cavalry is also watching television.”

Of course, the politicians are also watching television. Most people are watching television, including the people who produce, write for, and appear on television. So there’s a hall of mirrors effect. How can we blame any particular person or media outlet for what is really a top level phenomenon? This all tends to confirm Marshall McLuhan’s central thesis about media, which is that they shape our perceptions and relations in ways which we do not control, and usually fail to understand.

Conclusion

In the era of Trump, I want to be clearer than ever that despite problems with mainstream media, their existence is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Though they are ripe for reasoned criticism, they are also worthy of staunch protection.

The average American rarely has access to high government officials. Reporters asking tough questions of the president are really standing in for the public, seeking answers where the public has a right to know and need to know.

When the present administration tries to turn the public against the press, this represents an authoritarian power grab, usurping the rightful function of the press, and implying that people should get their information solely from government officials, or from handpicked media friendly to the administration and not challenging its views. That is a prescription for tyranny.

I fear it is only a matter of time before Trump’s insane tweets identifying the media as “the enemy of the American People” lead to violence against reporters or news outlets. If Mr. Trump cannot be taught the social graces or the responsibilities of high office, someone should at least take away his smartphone. 😉

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

Of Further Interest

“Donald Trump and the Enemies of the American People” in The New Yorker
“‘Enemies of the people’: Trump remark echoes history’s worst tyrants” on BBC.com
“Donald Trump Had The Most Extraordinary Press Conference Of His Life, Clearing A High Bar” on huffingtonpost.co.uk
“Daily News” as sung by Tom Paxton (YouTube) — a 1964 satire on right-wing populist media which still resonates today.

* * *

Remembering Teddy Roosevelt in the Era of Trump

Though Donald Trump is arguably the most unhinged president in modern history, Theodore Roosevelt is often recalled as a “picturesque” or “exaggerated” personality. This larger than life quality was lampooned in the 1944 film Aresenic and Old Lace, considered one of the great screwball comedies.

It’s centered around a husband-to-be (played by British expat Cary Grant) whose crazy relatives temporarily sabotage his nuptial plans. His brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and goes around leading imaginary charges, digging the Panama Canal, and preparing graves for yellow fever victims in the family cellar. Between trumpet blasts and cries of “Chaaaaaarge!,” he sprinkles his conversation with liberal helpings of the word “bully” (a period colloquialism similar to “fab” or “awesome”).

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film "Arsenic and Old Lace"

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film “Arsenic and Old Lace”

A more sympathetic portrait is painted in the PBS production Simple Gifts, about which I have written more here. This clip is a short vignette based on a page from the actual diary of an 11-year-old Teddy Roosevelt:

It is charming in its own right, but does little to dispel the sense that Roosevelt was the product of extraordinary privilege. (The truth is more complicated. His early life was marred by illness and tragedy.)

Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, Richard Norton Smith describes him in ways that may seem eerily familiar to a 2017 audience:

Certainly Roosevelt brought to the White House a child’s need to control events, coupled with a carnival barker’s ability to call attention to himself. His self-dramatizing flair found expression through the agitation of foreign rebellions, the cult of the Teddy Bear, TR’s famed “Bully Pulpit,” which converted the presidency from an administrative to an exhortatory office, and an exuberant family life tailor-made for the emerging mass media of the day.

Between obstacle races and pillow fights, lunch with Buffalo Bill, nightly “romps” and helpings of Norse mythology, every day in the Roosevelt White House was filled with violently pursued enthusiasms. It was Roosevelt’s madcap daughter Alice who, when not sliding down banisters or shocking traditionalists by smoking cigarettes and betting on horse races, complained that her father wished to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.

— Richard Norton Smith, “Roosevelt Family Values,” Chicago Tribune

While some portrayals focus on TR’s eccentricities, this clip from a History Channel documentary strikes me as a more balanced picture:

Though he possessed an extravagance of style, he was genuinely concerned with the plight of laborers such as coal miners, and his so-called “Square Deal” was actually a precursor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Thus, while he shares with Donald Trump the effect of “sucking all the air out of a room,” history remembers TR as a fundamentally good president who (paradoxically) was both Republican by party, but progressive in many of his policies. His legacy includes welfare legislation, regulation mitigating the most devastating effects of industrial capitalism, the breakup of huge corporate monopolies, food safety regulation, and conservation of America’s wilderness.

According to the National Park Service, “Theodore Roosevelt is often considered the ‘conservationist president.’ [His conservation legacy] is found in the 230 million acres of public lands he helped establish during his presidency.”

He was bold in the area of foreign affairs. If TR’s policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” DT’s policy is to “speak loudly and carry a sack of alternative facts.”

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Though his look and manner may strike us as archaic a hundred-odd years later, he’s actually considered the first modern U.S. president, bringing an unprecedented level of energy and charisma to the office.

teddy-roosevelt-with-teddy-bearInterviewed for the documentary, historian Douglas Brinkley says:

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is with us every time you turn on a faucet and take a sip of water that’s not contaminated. It’s with you every time you cook a hamburger on a grill and know you’re not going to die from it. [Editor’s note: Not quickly, anyway.] It’s with you every time you want to take a hike up through the Sierra Nevada mountains or go for a swim in the Great Lakes.

Can President Trump amass such a legacy which redounds to the benefit of millions of Americans? Only time will tell. The fear among political analysts is that he has promised working people a lamentation of swans, but is delivering up a travesty of Goldman Sachs executives.

Does Trump care about America’s unspoiled wilderness as Roosevelt did? His orders to revive the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines answer with a resounding “no.”

If TR is remembered fondly by history, it’s because his eccentric manner was joined to numerous good works, and because his nature encompassed an air of jollity — even teddy bear cuteness.

By contrast, Trump’s first month in office has been marked by gruffness, rudeness, combativeness, and grim humourlessness. If few good works follow, it may not go well for him in the annals of history.

TR was a voracious reader, and the author of literally dozens of books. Mr. Trump is reportedly “not a big reader,” and while he’s published books such as The Art of the Deal, they’re typically co-written, perhaps extensively ghosted. When extemporizing, Mr. Trump does not give the impression of one who cares about ideas or language in the manner of an intellectual. (This is my entry in the Understatement of the Century contest.)

It’s hard to imagine him as an ebullient and precocious boy in the TR style. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere near a teddy bear, though Trump teddy bears in baggy suits, clutching piles of green folding money, are shamelessly marketed to rubes.

In fact, it’s really hard to imagine him as president. If I were marketing a Trump-related tchotchke, it would probably be a button saying “Somebody slap me.” (And with my luck, somebody would.)

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from vermontteddybear.com. Vomitorium not included.

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from vermontteddybear.com. Vomitorium not included.

History tells us that we must let Reagan be Reagan, and Trump be Trump. But Teddy Roosevelt Donald Trump certainly is not.

To learn more about TR in historical and political context, read this article by Fordham University professor Kirsten Swinth.

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

Joke of the Day

In response to a claim by former House Speaker John Boehner that Trump “kind of reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, another guy who saw himself larger than life,” commenter Kim Hamilton wrote: “Trump’s very much like Teddy Roosevelt — they’re both currently brain dead.”

Of Further Interest

“What we in 2012 can learn from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912” on CNN.com
Arsenic and Old Lace on DailyMotion

* * *

People Are Good Everywhere

In Thought of the Day: People Are Good, I talked about the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart and often expresses itself in loving kindness. I included some folk music videos, and peace quotes from Sri Chinmoy.

I would like to add that people are good everywhere. Sometimes they get bad leaders. We should not hate entire nations simply because they are, during a certain period, in the grips of a regime which acts badly or contrary to our own ideals and interests. In each nation there are some good people. Their instinct is to join together with other good people around the world in a spirit of peace and oneness. This is the spirit which informs the Peace Run:

Democracy is an excellent system, but it is not a perfect system. It can be manipulated. Sometimes democracy results in the election of leaders who are essentially the lowest common denominator, and therefore not very fit to lead.

For American demcocracy 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.

In spite of having survived for nearly two hundred and fifty years, American democracy is not impervious to all the harms that might conceivably be wrought upon it. We need to respect its fragility, for there is always the possibility that the next shock will be one too many.

America is great not because of its tremendous power, but because it is at root a good-hearted nation with a dynamic spirit, a nation that wants to help not only itself, but also other nations. Why do we still remember John F. Kennedy after fifty years? Not simply because of his tragic death, but because at a time when drifting into war was the easiest option, he navigated a careful path to peace; and also because he had a hero-heart — the kind of heart which is able to empathize with others’ sufferings and look for solutions which lift people up.

Strength is necessary to succeed, but strength must be tempered by compassion. In the realm of governance, this means that a strong capitalist economy must be tempered with programs of social welfare. This was the insight underlying the New Deal ushered in by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Today, we accept wholeheartedly the principle that old people should not be left to die in the gutter, but should receive Social Security payments to help them cope with the rigours of old age.

Several decades after FDR, President Barack Obama tried to make America more competitive with other Western nations by greatly increasing the number of people covered by health care. Like any bold step forward, his efforts met with some resistance, and there are still problems to be ironed out. But he had the vision and insight that this was a most significant way to improve the lives of millions of people. His vision was not wrong, for it was based on a deep goodness, and a quality of loving kindness which he learned from his mother, and from books on the world’s religions which she gave him to read.

People are good everywhere, but in times of trouble it’s not always enough to keep that goodness locked in our hearts like a secret. There are many ways we can express that goodness to the people around us, and send that goodness dynamically echoing through the universe. One simple way is to make choices rooted in loving kindness, and to support leaders who possess the kind of insight which is unselfish, and is tempered by concern for the poor and downtrodden.

There are three kinds of American leaders: those who want to lead the world through America’s military might, those who want to lead the world through America’s vision-height, and those who want merely to make America great with little concern for the rest of the world.

Those with the highest vision know that life on planet Earth is deeply interdependent. Therefore they do not eschew or belittle the United Nations, for they know that even if the United Nations is imperfect, it represents the first and best effort on a global scale to deal with global problems.

If we are good-hearted people, we need to seek out leaders who understand the global issues that will face us in this and coming centuries. We need leaders with vision-height who know that American leadership cannot be a Pax Americana, but must be based on high ideals and good examples set.

Each nation aspires to leadership, and each has something to contribute. Therefore, a spirit of braggadocio is a negative indicator in would-be leaders. It is right and proper that each nation should consider itself the best and greatest in its own way. Still, for world peace to dawn, each nation — even the mightiest — must be humble enough to bow to other nations. When each nation bows to others and all bow to God, then we will see the spirit of loving kindness fully ripen. In that ripening of loving kindness, which is a quality of the spiritual heart, there lies humanity’s greatest hope.

people-are-good-sri-chinmoy-peace-run-2

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

Of Further Interest

The United Nations as a Spiritual Institution by A. Walter Dorn
Spirituality at the United Nations by Donald F. Keys
peacerun.org

* * *

Donald Trump: Latest Parody Pic

Viewing the pic and discussing some Photoshop techniques

donald-trump-twelve-days-of-trumpster-by-michael-howard

Donald Trump – The Twelve Days of Trumpster

I’ve been slaving away in Photoshop to bring you a new Donald Trump parody pic, this one combining the Big Brother and Twelve Days of Christmas themes. I’ve already posted the lyrics here, but the new pic adds something special. In the argot of the song, it boasts a:

Big Brother head,
Big groping hands,
And an eagle in an Aryan meme.

If you’re sick of seeing alt-right depictions of Donald Trump as Norse God and Emperor of Europe, this parody may give you a chuckle. (“Look to the sleigh / See the Donaldus — Oy veh!”)

Regular readers of my blog know that I sometimes get obsessed with Photoshop, which is actually a good way to get stuff done. Despite its comic intent, this piece demonstrates some useful Photoshop techniques.

If you’re just getting started with Photoshop, one of the best things you can do is just look — look carefully at the elements which make a good composition. Here you can look at the lines which draw the viewer’s attention toward the center of the picture. In your mind’s eye, draw a line from the cat’s hindmost paw to the standing reindeer’s top antler. This is the main line unifying the different figures.

Note also the contrast between the saturated colours in the body of Trump, and the outsized head which “pops” because it’s grayscale. Also note how some areas of the composition are crowded with detail, while others give a much needed sense of space.

If you want to create montages in Photoshop, it’s good to work your way through the exercises in Photoshop tutorials so that you’re fluent with the techniques. One book that really helped me a lot was The Photoshop Wow! Book, which includes beautiful and artistic examples that make you really want to learn the techniques.

Once you have some technique under your belt, get creative with layers, masking, and blending modes. Always ask “What if?” and don’t be afraid to experiment. When making changes, save your work frequently.

When you get into a groove with Photoshop, you’ll find that amazing things happen! A strong technical foundation means you can use your intuition to lead you in a good direction, without having to think everything through.

Is the central figure standing or sitting? Well… both! The standing figure seems to be wearing a blue tie, but as your eyes follow the tie down, it seems to culminate in a belt buckle worn by the sitting figure. The Christmas wreath has two red bows hanging down, and these look as though they’re draped on the knees of the sitting figure.

Effects like these can be achieved using layers, layer masks, and blending modes like Overlay and Luminosity. Sometimes you may like an effect but find that it’s too extreme or that you only want it to appear in part of an image. You can reduce the opacity of a layer, or add a layer mask and paint on it with white or black paint to “brush in” the effect exactly where you want it.

Before starting work in Photoshop, I spent a long time collecting a “morgue” of Donald Trump and Christmas images, not really knowing what I would end up using. Eventually, viewing the collected images, some ideas began to take shape in my mind. Then I started doing rough drafts in Photoshop — refining the basic composition, then taking things to the next level with outrageous layer effects.

I hope these ideas inspire you to explore your own creativity using Photoshop or similar image-editing software.

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

Defringe Your Cat

Some people declaw or even neuter their cat. If you’re a Photoshopper, you want to be sure and defringe your cat. In the best of possible worlds, I would like to have done a better job removing the green fringe from around the outline of the cat. But at some point you have to consider a work finished. After all, this one isn’t destined for the Sistine Chapel!

Trump vs. Australian PM (parody)

How the deal went down between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull

The “blunt” or “frank” exchange of telephonic views between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull has become the stuff of legend. From limited transcripts, we can only imagine what went down.

Scene I

[Phone prep with Kellyanne Conway. Donald Trump is seated in Conway’s second floor office at the White House.]

Conway: Now Donnie, remember that man we talked about yesterday? The one who lives all the way over in the antipodes?

Trump: We don’t need his antipodes. We can make better antipodes right here in the U.S.A. Beautiful antipodes.

Conway: Yes, well be that as it may, it’s time for you to call him now.

Trump: Another foreign leader? I’ve been on the phone with these losers all day long. Can’t I take a nap or watch TV?

Conway: You remember what we agreed: Work time before nap time or TV time. Just one more call today, then you can do whatever you want.

Trump: I’m fresh out of openers. Can’t I just grab him by the–

Conway: Now Donnie, we talked about that. I want you to be very nice to Mr. Turnbull. Turn on the charm. Speak to him in his own language.

Trump: What language does he speak?

Conway: English, after a fashion.

Trump: After a fashion, after a fashion. Even Melania speaks English after a fashion.

Conway: I’m sure you have a lot in common. Just try to get to know him better. Throw in a reference that will make him feel at home.

Trump: What should I say?

Conway: Something homey and Australian to impress him.

Trump: You’re always filling me full of these foreign words like Kristallnacht and borscht to use with foreign leaders. They don’t seem so impressed.

Conway: Well maybe if you used the right words with the right leaders you’d get better results. The Japanese Prime Minister didn’t know much about borscht, and calling him “Honest Abe” didn’t help matters. Nor did Angela Merkel take your reference to “bad hombres.”

Trump: So what million dollar word do you have for me today?

Conway [thinking]: Try didgeridoo. Work it into the conversation somehow. That’ll show him you’re familiar with Australian culture.

Trump [grabbing phone]: Hello? Hello?

Conway: Wait, Mr. President. We need to go downstairs to the Oval Office and call in the boys.

Scene II

[The Oval Office. Kellyanne Conway shepherds Donald Trump to the chair behind his massive oaken desk and gets him settled. He requests Bosco.

Soon she lets out a sharp whistle, and Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon come trotting in. They arrange themselves haphazardly on the opposite side of the desk and begin staring at the floor, avoiding eye contact.]

Trump: So, how’s my convoy coming?

Bannon: Mr. President, your idea of having the Supreme Court finalists head up a truck convoy driving all the way to D.C. is a stroke of genius. But I’m afraid the nominees just aren’t going for it, Sir.

Trump: Nominees? They’re contestants plain and simple. Don’t they know about ratings? Don’t they care about putting on a show? If they flop, I’m the one who gets schlonged.

Flynn: Yes Sir, but I’m afraid some of them have been spoiled by going to Harvard Law School and, you know, sitting on the bench in black robes and all that formality.

Trump: Convoy! Convoy! Everybody loves a convoy. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger loves a convoy. The black robes are fine, they’re beautiful. But can’t we have trucks too?

Flynn: I’m afraid, Sir, that it’s just too late to arrange it. For the last mile of the drive, I have gotten a motorcycle escort for Judge Gorsuch. The Secret Service would not okay the fog machine.

Conway: We need to get this call done. It’s the last call of the day and the timing is tricky.

Trump: Okay, okay, stop Doug Henning me.

Conway: Perhaps you mean mother henning, Sir.

Trump: Doug Henning. Doesn’t anybody remember Doug Henning? Now he really knew how to put on a show. He once sawed Johnny Carson in half. I think it was his last show.

Bannon: Try and settle down, Mr. President.

Conway [to group]: Well, I’ll leave you now.

Conway [whispering to Trump]: Remember what we talked about!

[Conway exits. Phone rings.]

Trump: Hello? Hello?

Turnbull: This is Malcolm Turnbull speaking.

Trump: My didgeridoo is bigger than yours!

Turnbull: Let’s talk it over, mate. I’ve got an esky in the boot.

Trump: Wha…?

Turnbull: Seriously mate, why don’t you pop over, change into your trackie dacks, and we can head over to Macca’s for some wings.

Trump: Translation, I need translation. Huge translation!

Turnbull: I’ve got some lovely prezzies for you, chummy. All arranged with your noble predecessor and ready to ship. Just have a Captain Cook at this snapchat, which I’m sending to you… NOW!

Trump: Pictures. There are pictures on my phone. Pictures of people. Foreign people. Is this legal?

Turnbull: Abso-bloody-lutely! This is Stralia, mate. It’s legal as alligator pear salad.

Trump: Stralia. Now is that a country or a continent?

[Flynn and Bannon shift nervously in their seats.]

Turnbull: It’s both. Look mate, I don’t have time for a geography lesson. I just called to–

Trump: This Stralia, how’s the waterboarding up there?

Turnbull: Not much waterboarding, but plenty of surfboarding. Pop over and I’ll lend you my budgie smugglers. Surf’s up at Lake Burley Griffin. Though you are a bit of a salad dodger.

Trump: I like the surf ‘n’ turf at Bobby Van’s restaurant. Somebody gave me Harry Caray’s Restaurant Cookbook. He’s the leader in surf ‘n’ turf. But I don’t have time to cook. I said to Kellyanne (isn’t she beautiful?), why can’t we create a cabinet position for executive surf ‘n’ turf? It would be cheaper than ordering out. If we eliminate two positions at the State Department, we can have a surf ‘n’ turf guy and still come out ahead of the game. But the bureaucracy! You wouldn’t believe all the red tape that goes into fish.

Turnbull [puzzled]: What kind of fish?

Trump: ANY fish! It could be lobster, red snapper, even a nice piece of halibut comes with so much red tape. Red tape like you wouldn’t believe. The reason I got a huge majority of votes is because people are sick of red tape. Everywhere I go, they ask me: “Can’t we just enjoy surf ‘n’ turf without all the red tape?” That’s where I got the idea. From the restaurants. They have their twofer nights, so I said to Congress: “For every regulation you create, you have to eliminate two more.” I’ve declared war on red tape. We’re bombing the hell out of red tape!

Turnbull: Good on ya, mate. Now if we could just have a decent convo on the subject of–

Trump: I love Austria. I love the people and the rivers. You and I may be different races, but we’re both rooting for the same values. All Americans are rooting for these values. I want us to be friends. I want you to root with me and for me, just like the American people are doing. I’m a huge fan of Austria, and I’ll be rooting for you too. We’ll be rooting together. It’ll be a better way of life. Cry me a river and I’ll cry a river over you. Not actual crying and not an actual river. But good trade. FAIR trade.

Turnbull: That’d be beaut. Do you yanks have any potato scallops? If you do, send ’em on down, because our take-away shops are really hurting from the shortage.

Trump [to Bannon]: Steve, do we have any potato scallops? Check the fridge.

Bannon: We have a few, but not enough to supply Australia. I suggest you leave this issue to the trade delegates.

Trump: Delegates shmelegates! I’m trying to do a deal here. I’ve got the man on the phone and he wants potato scallops. Can’t we find some?

Flynn: We’ll make it a priority, Mr. President. I think there may be some military surplus scallops…

Trump: Okay, but remove all military markings and change the last date of sale to two years from now.

Trump [returning to phone call]: You want scallops? I’ll get you scallops. I’ll get you anything you want. Because you’re a friend. A good friend.

Turnbull: Looking forward to it. Now about this refugee thing negotiated by your worthy predecessor. Are we on, or is it a daggy deal?

Trump: Did someone say the R Word? I hope no one said the R Word. Because that would be very sad if someone said the R Word. I spoke to four world leaders, terrific world leaders today, and none of them said the R Word.

Turnbull: Mr. President, I only said, uh, that word, because there’s business between our two nations which demands it.

Trump: There’s no business like show business, and no business that demands the R Word. No one says the R Word. I was elected by billions and billions of people. Even Carl Sagan voted for me. He’s just one of the dead people who voted for me, even though Hillary tried to get them all to vote for her. So if I say we don’t use the R Word, we don’t use the R Word.

Turnbull: Mr. President, I won’t use the R Word again, I promise. But your worthy predecessor–

Trump: I hope you’re not about to use the O Word. Because I like the O Word even less than I like the R Word.

Turnbull: No Sir, well let’s just say that there was a Mr. Embalmer who had certain dealings with our nation of–

Trump: Austria?

Turnbull [flustered]: Yes, as you say, this Mr. Embalmer had certain dealings with Austria which were left undone. And I, as the, er, Prime Minister of Austria–

Trump: I’m hanging up now. Don’t try sending me any illegal immigrants, either. I wouldn’t mind a kangaroo to play with. It’s lonely in the White House. Melania left me.

Turnbull: Sorry ’bout the missus, mate. I’ll send you a kelpie. Kangas are off limits.

Trump: On behalf of the American people I may accept one kelpie, but only with extreme vetting. I won’t have thousands of djangos eating our fine Boston babies.

Turnbull: No worries, mate. Call me in the arvo. I’ve got to ring off now. I’m giving the Aussie salute to a herd of bush flies.

Trump: I will be checking that kelpie VERY CAREFULLY!

Turnbull: Whatever, mate. Auf wiedersehen!

Trump: Do svidaniya!

Trump [hangs up phone and begins barking orders]: Turn on Fox! Throw another reporter on the barbie! Bring me my Katy Tur doll! And a fresh supply of pins!

Bannon: Get Kellyanne. See what he needs. Tell Sean to issue a statement. Something like “The two leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and blah-blah-blah.”

Trump: Convoy! Convoy!

Flynn: No convoy today, Mr. President. Motorcycle. Mo-tor-cy-cle.

Trump: American motorcycle?

Bannon: It’s a Harley Hog, Mr. President. Made in America by Americuhns. It’s got thrush pipes, hooker headers, ape hangers, and is a pig on roller skates. You can’t get any more American than that.

Trump [smiling vapidly]: Let’s make America great again.

[Just then Kellyanne Conway bursts in, all panicky.]

Conway: Mr. President, I’m afraid I have bad news. No motorcycle. On short notice, all we could get was a Holden Ute.

The Holden Ute, an Australian engineering MAH-vel

The Holden Ute, an Australian engineering MAH-vel

* * *

Further Thoughts

What constitutes torture? Before being so glib about waterboarding, I suggest Donald Trump watch the following video 857 times, then see how he feels about torture:

I’m Not Jealous Dept.

Ben Pobjie on Crikey.com
Lee Zachariah on Junkee.com

Crash Course in Aussie Slang

esky – ice cooler
boot – trunk (of a vehicle)
trackie dacks – track pants
Macca’s – McDonald’s
prezzies – presents
Captain Cook – look
alligator pear – avocado
budgie smugglers – tight fitting swimwear
salad dodger – overweight person
convo – conversation
daggy – not trendy or cool
kelpie – Australian sheep dog
kanga – kangaroo
arvo – afternoon
Aussie salute – swatting flies

django – not Aussie slang, but may refer to a European jazz musician. So when Trump evokes the “dingo ate my baby” meme, he seems to fear that Boston babies will be devoured by the Hot Club De France. And what better reason to issue a travel ban?

Soul mates in fly-swatting
Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull immersed in selfie bliss

Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull: immersed in selfie bliss

President Obama was legendary for his fly-swatting prowess. Prime Minister Turnbull may not have actually nailed one, but gives the “Aussie salute” numerous times while being grilled by the press over his tête-à-tête with Donald Trump. Someone should post a YouTube from account “Flyswatting News.” It should intercut footage of Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull swatting flies, punctuated by the guy from the newsstand in A Few Good Men saying “No flies on you.” The one vid I won’t bother to create, and it would probably get a million hits. Sad! 😉

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull: a couple on the rocks

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull: a couple on the rocks

More fallout from the Aussie potato scallop famine

“Llama Farma” writes:

This is an outrage! Yesterday, I was forced to endure 3 dim sims of spurious composition and a chicko roll with no confirmed chicken content, all on account of the potato scallop shortage. This isn’t pre-1900’s Ireland, people, this is modern day Australia and it’s not good enough. I demand a Royal Commission!

No fries in the Ausland, darlin' / It's a sign of the times...

No fries in the Ausland, darlin’ / It’s a sign of the times…

Disclaimer: This work of parody sometimes goes for laughs on serious subjects. Concerning questions about the treatment of some refugees by the Australian government, see this article in Britain’s Independent.

Michael Howard

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

Margaret and Gillian Series

Three recoloured photographs from my archives

Margaret and Gillian 1

Margaret and Gillian 1

Margaret and Gillian 2

Margaret and Gillian 2

Margaret and Gillian 3

Margaret and Gillian 3

I did these quite a few years ago, using Painter 5, Photoshop 5, and Paint Alchemy. It was nice to be reminded of them by an old friend — the husband of Margaret and father of Gillian, who also took the original photos.

The Twelve Days of Trumpster

Hilarious song parody toasting Donald Trump’s first days in office

donald-trump-twelve-days-of-trumpster-by-michael-howard

My personal blog is very, very rarely about politics. I usually try to stay a million miles away from that subject, but in these troubling times I can’t always help expressing my opinions. In “People Are Good,” I counselled gentleness and loving kindness in response to the problems of the day. But I sometimes favour humour too. (Why is humour helpful? Because it relieves outrage fatigue.)

From the highest point of view, I wish that Donald Trump would succeed as president, that he would be touched by the light of compassion and humility, and that he would become a good and noble leader. But I can’t help observing that he got elected by being a show-off and a bully, and so far does not seem keen to change his stripes.

What good may come of his term in office I cannot say, but I can comment on what I’ve seen so far:

The Twelve Days of Trumpster

1
On the first day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
A leader in an ethics quandary.

2
On the second day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

3
On the third day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

4
On the fourth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

5
On the fifth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

6
On the sixth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

7
On the seventh day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

8
On the eighth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

9
On the ninth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

10
On the tenth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Waterboarding hello,
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

11
On the eleventh day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Travel ban for Muslims,
Waterboarding hello,
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

12
On the twelfth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Twelve freaking tweetstorms,
Travel ban for Muslims,
Waterboarding hello,
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

You can catch the tune and general spirit from any of these YouTubes. The piano version (deep blue thumbnail) makes a good karaoke. If that’s not enough, see the sidebar for even more versions.


Note: “The Twelve Days of Trumpster” has a long and storied history and admits of many regional variations. In Greenland, for example, it is not unusual to hear reference to such gifts as:

Twelve lobbyists leeching
Eleven seniors swooning
Ten golfers golfing
Nine frackers fracking

Our neighbours to the south, on the other hand, may sing of:

Pissed-off Mexicanos
Stupid bloody gringos
Take your wall and shove it
Trumpster is El Cuco

I, however, prefer the original (more genteel) version passed down through the ages. (The “three French hoons” mentioned in the Australian version are totally off the menu.)

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Other versions of the carol

It’s not easy to find good versions, as most people mistakenly think this is a children’s song, and that children have no taste. (In truth, when properly cooked they taste delicious!) Be that as it may, here are some other versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which I genuinely like:


I hope you’ve enjoyed our little trip to the antipodes! Next year: “Dashing Through The Bush…”

* * *

Thought of the Day: People Are Good

The Doomsday Clock may be advancing, but there is still infinite good in the human heart, and peace remains a strong countervailing force.

In such a polarized period of our nation’s history (if not world history), it’s easy to lose sight of the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart. That goodness often expresses itself in loving kindness, and in this sense there is no disagreement between those who explicitly believe in God, and those who are secular humanists. Both camps can agree that there is something noble at the core of human existence. Some will call it a human quality, others will say it is a divine quality. But loving kindness is one of the things we most urgently need right now. We need not agree on its ultimate source.

As I approach the evening of my life, I find that I remember many things which others have forgotten. I remember them not by accident, but because they were things which helped me build a sense of meaning in my life, and so I treasured those things and kept them in my heart.

With the turning of the generations, and the nature of a market-driven economy, many valuable things are seemingly thrown out, or at least no longer publicized, so that they become for all intent and purposes invisible. They still have tremendous inherent power, but that power is untapped by a later generation which either does not know of them, or does not identify with them.

So it was when it came to me write on the topic of “People Are Good.” I immediately thought of this song by The Roches which had moved me to tears 25 years ago and still does so to this day:

Now, some might think of The Roches as the epitome of Eastern liberal folk-singing types. But in this song they seem to channel the same feeling that one might find in churches across America. “Everyone Is Good” is like a universal folk mass gently proselytizing on behalf of the religion of loving kindness.

This invitation to practice loving kindness applies equally to people of all political persuasions. Yet, at a time when many gentle people of conscience are concerned about the direction in which our nation is headed, I can’t help thinking that these lines apply especially to Donald Trump: “Wouldn’t it be something to be loving and kind/ Forgive yourself for everything having once been blind.”

Activists on the left are not always known for their gentleness, so those lines apply to them too. About two years ago, I commented on how the name “Madonna” has come to mean different things to different people. To some it signifies the mother of Jesus, to others the folk stylings of Joan Baez, while the Googlebot is convinced that anyone who types in “Madonna” must be looking for the brassy pop idol, who recently dropped the f-bomb in her speech at the Women’s March on Washington.

I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s version of words from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for righteous anger at injustice, and I am no stranger to that emotion — to feeling it and expressing it on my blog. But I also try to be informed by a healing spirit, and an awareness that the deepest truth about human nature is that people are good.

For me, that awareness has to struggle against the many sad things I’ve seen, beginning in childhood. For me, a powerful ally in the struggle to see the good in people has always been Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who writes:

When we open our heart to the entire world, we are not safe. The evil and destructive qualities of the world can enter into us and utilise us for their own purposes. They can do so precisely because our love, which is our strength, is very limited; our joy, which is our strength, is very limited; our peace, which is our strength, is very limited. All that we have, we have in very limited measure. But at the same time we have to have confidence in ourselves. Although we are not now measureless and infinite, a day will dawn when we will be measureless, infinite and transcendental. How? By going to the Source, to God.

Even though the ignorant world can destroy the lotus in us, that does not mean that we shall have no faith in humanity in general. India’s greatest spiritual politician, Mahatma Gandhi, said something very striking. He said not to lose faith in humanity. We have to take humanity as an ocean. There are a few drops in the ocean that may be dirty, but the entire ocean is not dirty. According to him, we must not judge humanity by the limited experiences we usually get when we associate ourselves with limited persons around us. We have to be careful, but at the same time we have to have faith in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity, then we are doomed, for humanity is an actual limb of our body.

Since we are spiritual seekers, we have to have more faith than an ordinary human being has. We have to have faith even in unaspiring persons although we are not going to try right now to transform their nature. Why? Because we do not have the necessary capacity, or because it is not God’s Will. Even if we do not have the necessary capacity, God can give us the capacity. He can make us strong so that we can help humanity. But that is not God’s Will. God’s Will is for us to help those who are already awakened to some extent, those who are aspiring or who want to aspire, but not those who are fast asleep. God does not want to push them. To them God says, “Sleep, My child, sleep.” But to those who are already awakened and who want to run, God says, “Have faith in My creation which is humanity and have faith in yourself, for it is you who are ultimately going to represent Me on earth.” We have to have faith in ourselves in order to realise and fulfil God. We have to have faith in God because it is He who has inspired us and awakened us and who is going to fulfil us in His own Way.

If God wants you, open your eyes, close your ears and run. We have to be fully awakened and alert; we have to stop living in the world of sleep before we can find God. We must look all around, not to see the ugliness of the world, but to see the creation in its purest form with our purest eyes. Open your eyes. We must sleep no longer! We must look at the world with the purity that we have and see the purity in God’s creation.

Close your ears. Why have we to close our ears? Because there are things we may hear that will bother and disturb us, such as criticism, jealousy, flattery and praise. When somebody criticises us, how should we regard him? We should think of him as a dog barking right in front of us. If a dog barks right in front of us and we pay attention to it, the dog will not stop barking and annoying us. Then we will have difficulty in reaching our destined goal. We have to take criticism in the same way. People criticise us in every way. They say, “He is useless. He spends all his time meditating and he does not help society the way society needs help.” But what does society want? Society itself does not even know. Nobody can tell us what to do with our life. When we are ready for God, when we are awakened and have opened our eyes, God wants us. At that time we don’t have to pay attention to anybody’s criticism. We have to know that what we are doing is best. It is best even for those who are criticising us, because a day will come when they will give up their ignorance and be inspired to follow us.

— Sri Chinmoy, from A Hundred Years From Now, Agni Press, 1974

Pop culture is disposable culture, so if we view the world solely through the eyes of pop culture, it will be an ever-changing kaleidoscope with no clear vision. Spiritual wisdom is enduring, lasting. It gradually reveals a vast panorama of truth, the truth of how things really are and how everything fits together. This truth does not last for five minutes, or five hours, or five days, but is an eternal truth.

Let us meditate on these wise words: “What does society want? Society itself does not even know.” Society knows that it is dissatisfied, but it does not have a clear vision on how to proceed. Therefore, we need to go on the hero’s journey and bring back wisdom which will eventually help transform society.

The political struggle to build a more compassionate society will be far more successful if it is able to embody these deeper spiritual truths. To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself:

Interviewer: What is the purpose of your Peace Concert?

Sri Chinmoy: There is only one purpose: I try to be of service to mankind. When thousands of people gather together, I feel that we are working together. I am not the only one who serves. The people who come to listen to my music or to join me in praying are also doing something most significant. We are all trying to bring about world peace. It is teamwork.

Interviewer: So, everybody resonates peace together?

Sri Chinmoy: We are all working together. It is not that I am going to give peace to others — far from it! We shall work together. We are all in a boat sailing together towards the destination, which we call the Golden Shore.

Interviewer: What can somebody who comes to the concert expect to experience?

Sri Chinmoy: It is my prayer that they will get inspiration in abundant measure. Then, the following morning, they will be inspired to do something better in their life. My sole purpose in giving these Peace Concerts is to be of inspiration to others.

Interviewer: Why have you chosen in this lifetime to be a teacher and leader of peace?

Sri Chinmoy: I have not chosen to be a leader and I never declare myself a teacher of peace. I am a student of peace. I have been telling the whole world that I am a student of peace. I go everywhere to learn, and while I am learning, people feel that I am giving something. In the process of learning, we feel that the teacher and student give something to each other. While the student is learning, the teacher also learns something from the student.

Interviewer: What would you like everyone to know about himself or herself?

Sri Chinmoy: That they embody God, they embody Truth, they embody Light. Each individual should feel that he or she embodies God: God’s Divinity, God’s Eternity, God’s Immortality.

— from Edge Magazine, “The Joy of Inner Peace with Sri Chinmoy”

Some will say there is no bridge between the political and the spiritual, that they are at daggers drawn. But Sri Chinmoy clearly identifies that in the person of Mahatma Gandhi, the political and the spiritual were united by a deeper vision. Gandhian principles of non-violence came to inform many successful political movements which achieved lasting change. Therefore, let us not doubt that spiritual wisdom can be a powerful force for guiding and inspiring political change. Spiritual wisdom can bring a certain gentleness and loving kindness without which political movements fail to reach the hearts of those whose help is needed in order to achieve change.

Lasting political change is founded on peace, proceeds through peace, and eventually manifests peace as a flower coming into bloom. This coming to fruition of peace requires not only dedication, but patience. We can cultivate such patience if we are secure in the knowledge that the general trend over time is toward peace. As Sri Chinmoy says in one of his peace songs:

No matter what the world thinks,
Our world, soon, very soon,
Will be flooded with peace.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of far-reaching vision. In this promise of a world flooded with peace, perhaps “soon” means soon in cosmic time — maybe not next week or next month. Still, many people following diverse paths share a sense that peace is definitely dawning, even if gradually, in fits and starts. We may observe many conflicts flaring up, yet Sri Chinmoy finds much hope in the fact that we have avoided a Third World War. In the aforementioned interview, he says:

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is a growing peace on the planet?

Sri Chinmoy: Definitely, definitely! Over the years, I have observed that peace is growing. I have been here in the Western world for 36 years. Previously I saw dozens of times that peace was only talk. We were only talking and talking about peace. Now people are praying to have peace in the depths of their heart. Talking has now given way to experience. In many parts of the world, people are experiencing peace. So the world has made tremendous improvement! Of course, we cannot say that in today’s world there is no conflict, there is no fight, there is no confusion. There is conflict, but in comparison, it is less.

Previously we were afraid that there would be a Third World War. Now, we do not foresee that possibility. The First World War destroyed us and the Second World war destroyed us, but we do not see any possibility of a Third World War. There is mutual compromise, and this is a sign that people want peace. Otherwise there could have been a Third World War by this time.

Yet, even as I write word comes to me that the so-called “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight:

The great scientists who administer the Doomsday Clock make serious points in their analysis which should not be discounted lightly. But I think their training does not incline them to factor in God’s Compassion. I do not believe God will allow this world to be utterly destroyed. I agree with Sri Chinmoy that the trend is toward peace, even if that fragile peace is often threatened by rambunctious leaders.

We can take comfort in his words at a time of fear and uncertainty, for he was truly a man of vision whose peace studies led him far beyond what most of us have seen or experienced. To learn from such a man of peace is well, good, and proper, for peace is not something we can always get from dry books, or from a crowd chanting noisy slogans. Peace is something which may be transmitted in silence from one who embodies peace to one who is crying for peace.

There are those who feel that change must always be extremely loud. According to them, silence has no power. Yet Sri Chinmoy writes:

Silence Speaks

Silence is not silent.

Silence speaks.

It speaks most eloquently.

Silence is not still.

Silence leads.

It leads most perfectly.

— Sri Chinmoy

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Silence Liberates!
Africa-Vision Songs

sri-chinmoy-a-hundred-years-from-now