Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

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

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gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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Of Further Interest

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

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What Donald Trump could learn from the Blues Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is to weep — or laugh.

Michael Howard

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

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


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

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

The full quote is:

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

Nelson Mandela

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

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

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

Of Further Interest

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

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Anthony Scaramucci: First Day Report Card

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

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

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

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

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

Ex. 2: The modern variant embraced by Anthony Scaramucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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


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

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

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

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

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

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