Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Million dollar idea

I'm gonna start a new online dating service. But instead of all those questions that they ask on eHarmony or all the essays you've gotta write on Match, my service is only going to have 3 questions:

1. How do you know when you are experiencing low blood sugar?

2. What techniques do you use to manage low blood sugar when it occurs?

3. What techniques do you use to prevent low blood sugar from happening in the first place?

I swear to goodness, low blood sugar ruins more human relationships than unfaithfulness, alcoholism, and money problems combined.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Can we talk about the Siddhartha Gautama's attitudes towards women?

So I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's biography of Buddha. I never quite know what to think about Karen Armstrong's work. On the one hand, she's clearly a brilliant writer, she's one of the foremost experts in the world on religion, and she invests massive amounts of time and energy into researching her subjects. But the problem I have when I'm reading her writing is that I don't know where she ends and the facts begin. In my experience, she retells the history of Christianity as if it's all been a bunch of post-modern mystical Unitarians getting together from the beginning -- and I have a hard time believing that's true. It seems to me she does the same thing with "Axial Age" world religions as well -- importing modern values back into the historical narrative -- and not separating out the two.

That being said, I really enjoyed reading Buddha, and was thankful for someone to take me through the entire story in 187 pages. I've studied a lot of Buddhism and done a fair amount of meditation but I've never read the story of the Buddha's life start to finish (Siddhartha back in high school doesn't count).

But what struck me most about the book was the following passage concerning the Buddha's attitudes towards women:

While he was living in the Nigrodha arama, the Buddha was visited by his father's widow, Pajapati Gotami: she was also the Buddha's aunt, and had become his foster-mother after the death of his own mother. Since she was now free, she told her nephew, she wanted to be ordained in the Sangha. The Buddha adamantly refused. There was no question of admitting women to the Order. He would not change his mind, even though Pajapati begged him three times to reconsider and she left his presence very sadly. A few days later, the Buddha set out for Vesali, the capital of the republic of Videha on the northern bank of the Ganges. He often stayed in the arama there, which had a hall with a high-gabled roof. One morning, Ananda was horrified to find Pajapati sobbing on the porch with a crowd of other Sakyan women. She had cut off her hair, put on the yellow robe and had walked all the way from Kapilavatthu. Her feet were swollen, and she was filthy and exhausted. "Gotami," cried Ananda, "What are you doing here in such a state? And why are you crying?" "Because the Blessed One will not have women in the Sangha," Pajapati replied. Ananda was concerned. "Wait here," he said, " I will asked the Tathagata about this."

But the Buddha still refused to consider the matter. This was a serious moment. If he continued to bar women from the Sangha, it meant that he considered that half of the human race was ineligible for enlightenment. But the Dhamma was supposed to be for everybody: for gods, animals, robbers, men of all castes--were women alone to be excluded? Was rebirth as a man the best they could hope for? Ananda tried another tack. "Lord" he asked, "are women capable of becoming 'stream-enterers' and, eventually, Arahants?" "They are Ananda," The Buddha replied. "Then surely it would be a good thing to ordain Pajapati," Ananda pleaded, and reminded his master of her kindness to him after his mother had died. The Buddha reluctantly conceded defeat. Pajapati could enter the Sangha if she accepted eight strict rules. These provisions made it clear that the nuns (bhikkhunis) were an inferior breed. A nun must always stand when in the presence of a male bhikkhu, even one who was young or newly ordained; nuns must always spend the vassa retreat is an arama with male monks, not by themselves; they must receive instruction from a bhikkhu once every fortnight; they could not hold their own ceremonies; a nun who had committed a grave offense must do penance before the monks as well as the bhikkhunis; a nun must request ordination from both the male and the female Sangha; she must never rebuke a bhikkhu, though any monk could rebuke her; nor could she preach to bhikkhus. Pajapati gladly accepted these regulations and was duly ordained, but the Buddha was still uneasy. If women had not been admitted, he told Ananda, the Dhamma would have been practiced for a thousand years; now it would last a mere five hundred years. A tribe with too many women would become vulnerable and be destroyed; similarly, no Sangha with women members could last long. They would fall upon the Order like mildew on a field of rice.

What are we to make of this misogyny? The Buddha had always preached to women as well as to men. Once to had given permission, thousands of women became bhikkhunis, and the Buddha praised their spiritual attainments, said that they could become the equals of the monks, and prophesied that he would not die until he had enough wise monks and nuns, lay men and lay women followers. There seems to be a discrepancy in the texts, and this has led some scholars to conclude that the story of his grudging acceptance of women and the eight regulations was added later and reflects a chauvinism in the Order. By the first century B.C.E., some of the monks certainly blamed women for their own sexual desires, which were impeding them from enlightenment, and regarded women as universal obstacles to spiritual advance. Other scholars argue that the Buddha, enlightened as he was, could not escape the social conditioning of the time, and that he could not imagine a society that was not patriarchal. They point out that despite the Buddha's initial reluctance, the ordination of women was a radical act that, perhaps for the first time, gave women an alternative to domesticity.

While this is true, there is a difficulty for women that should not be glossed over. In the Buddha's mind, women may well have been inseparable from the "lust" that made enlightenment an impossibility. It did not occur to him to take his wife with him, as some of the renouncers did, when he left home to begin his quest. He simply assumed that she could not be the partner in his liberation. But this was not because he found sexuality disgusting, like the Christian Fathers of the Church, but because he was attached to his wife. The scriptures contain a passage which, scholars agree, is almost certainly a monkish interpolation. "Lord, how are we to treat women?" Ananda asked the Buddha in the last days of his life. "Do not look at them, Ananda." "If we do not see them, how should we treat them?" "Do no speak to them Ananda." "And if we have to speak to them? "Mindfulness must be observed Ananda." The Buddha may not have personally subscribed to this full-blown misogyny, but it is possible that these words reflect a residual unease that he could not overcome.

--Karen Armstrong, Buddha, p. 151-154 [Armstrong uses the Pali spellings rather than the Sanskrit than many are used to seeing in writings about Buddhism.]
I want to make a few caveats before sharing my thoughts on this passage. To begin with there are a couple things we don't know. 1.) We don't know if Karen Armstrong got this section correct (that's a caveat we make with any author). 2.) We don't know if the various original authors of the sacred texts got the story correct (or if this was added later by overzealous and chauvinistic monks perhaps). Furthermore, it does seem that despite his initial reluctance, the Buddha did break important new ground. I imagine 2500 years ago it was a pretty tough sell to tell folks that women and men were equal (at least a tough sell to the men who benefited from patriarchy).

But here's what I want to say: IF this passage is a correct reflection of Siddhartha Gautama's views on women, it means that he never attained enlightenment. (As Chris Rock would say, Yeah, I said it!) Indeed it calls into question the entire concept of enlightenment -- because if the Buddha wasn't enlightened then who is? Buddhists are not simply claiming that Siddhartha Gautama was a great teacher who was ahead of his time. They are not claiming that he was a really swell guy who broke new ground. They are claiming that he attained enlightenment -- that he broke through to a timeless, universal, truth that transformed his whole being. But if this supposed enlightenment also retained a hatred of women, or a preference for patriarchy, or however you want to say it -- then by definition it's not timeless, universal, or true. It's not fucking enlightenment if you still discriminate against women.

Let's put an even finer point on it. There has never been a female Dalai Lama. Monks sitting in meditation for their whole lives, have never figured out what any six year old can tell you -- that women are just as good as men. By definition then, no Dalai Lama has attained enlightenment. The whole things starts to unravel at that point. If meditation can't teach you what a few hours of actual human experience can teach you -- then why place an emphasis on meditation?

Furthermore, those who brought the dharma to the U.S. aren't enlightened. Notorious alcoholic womanizer Chogyam Trungpa wasn't enlightened. I'm not saying he wasn't smart or charming -- I'm just saying you have to actually live your transformed self not just talk about it. His dharma heir Osel Tenzin sure as fuck wasn't enlightened.

Look, I love meditation and yoga and the whole nine. But it seems to me that the whole enlightenment industry, pales by comparison to the wisdom of actually living an ordinary modern life of experience.

In the end, Buddha the book and Buddha the man just felt terribly sad to me. I know Buddha claimed that by seeking nothingness he could experience a universal love for all of humanity. But I wonder if for most people it's not the reverse -- that through a particular love we experience a universal timeless love.

Update #1: Descartes' Error is often read as an indictment of Western rationalism (indeed, it's a very effective indictment of the rational tradition). But it seems to me that Descartes' Error is an equally effective indictment of Buddhism and Buddhism's denigration of the body, emotion, and the created world.

Modification on Lakoff -- the emergence of the "alcoholic parent model" in politics

So George Lakoff argues that there are two primary metaphors that orient how people think about politics -- the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. I've talked about this at length on this blog. But watching the political debate in the U.S. right now -- I don't think those two models precisely capture what's going on.

Specifically, over the last 8 years, I would argue that Republicans no longer adhere to a strict father model, rather, they adhere to an alcoholic father model. In a strict father model the father is still expected to demonstrate responsibility, honesty, morality, and discipline. But the Republicans have really abandoned that in favor of a strategy of covering for the alcoholic father at all costs. And it's not just Bush -- we're seeing the alcoholic father model show up in connection with support for Sarah Palin too. The bigger the lie the louder the cheers. The bigger the gaffe, the more they blame others. The worse the candidate, the more they proclaim that they identify with him/her.

For the most part, Democrats continue to follow the nurturant parent model of governance -- promoting empathy and care for others. But I wonder if some of the blue dog Democrats like Harold Ford, are following an alcoholic father model too -- the worse the Republicans behave, the more they lie and destroy our country, the more the alcoholic father model Dems urge bipartisanship and cooperation (trying to make everything appear normal even when it isn't).

A quick note to Dems -- if my theory is true, then it is also true that you cannot bargain with someone who adheres to an "alcoholic parent model" of governance. There can be no bipartisanship with the other side if the other side is pathological and won't take responsibility for their actions. All you can do is take the keys out of their hands, hide the checkbook and the wallet, and move forward without them.

Stuff white people like -- stealing the life savings of millions of people

One of the interesting things about the current financial industry meltdown (and really the last seven years in general) is to witness how totally fucking corrupt white people are. I'm not talking just any white people -- I'm talking respectable, Ivy League educated, head of their class, happy to go to their college reunion white people. Totally. Fucking. Corrupt. They will steal your grandma's life savings the moment no one is watching -- and go home to their families like nothing happened. It's really quite something when you think about it.

Update #1. A commenter pointed out that perhaps I had maybe over generalized a bit by blaming white people entirely for the financial industry meltdown. But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe I understated things. White people seem particularly skilled at the art of stealing a whole investment bank or robbing a whole country in the middle of the night (and getting away with it -- that's the crazy part!). Hell they stole THREE WHOLE CONTINENTS in the 16th century so I guess stealing the life savings of millions of Americans and THEN grabbing $1 trillion from the U.S. Treasury is just "par for the course" as they say.

Bush tries to use the Shock Doctrine one last time

So Congress this week is being pressured to rush through a $1 trillion dollar Wall Street rescue package -- with no strings attached. Funny, I don't remember Congress rushing through a $1 trillion dollar rescue package after Katrina?

I read the NY Times account of the meeting between the Bush Administration and members of Congress. Henry Paulson and the Treasury Department apparently showed all these charts and graphs and said that if Congress didn't act immediately -- we're potentially 24 hours away from a complete collapse of our financial system.

And I thought to myself, where I have heard that before? Recent accounts of meetings between Dick Cheney and members of Congress during the run up to the Iraq War show that Cheney produced all these charts and graphs saying Saddam was close to having a suitcase nuke and that the case against Iraq WAS EVEN WORSE!TM than the public knew. And of course, as it turns out, Cheney was just flat out lying.

The rapid push for a $1 trillion Wall Street rescue is pure Shock Doctrine. The plans already existed, then the pretext happens, then the plans are rushed through without debate under the cover of darkness. The audacity is that in this case, Wall Street is really trying to steal $1 trillion dollars from the U.S. Treasury during the dying days of a despotic government -- before the Republicans are run out of town. It would be, perhaps, the greatest theft of public money in the history of the world.

So I have a modest proposal. It appears that politically, it will be difficult to completely block some sort of bill from passing. So I say pass the bill, but with the following requirements.

1. Any company that accepts the bailout or sells asset to the government -- their entire executive team and their entire board has to pay back to the U.S. government every penny in personal earnings or stock they've made over the last 7 years.

2. Any company that accepts the bailout or sells assets to the government -- has to pay back any tax breaks they've received over the last 8 years. And;

3. Finally, the CEO of any company that accepts the bailout or sells assets to the government will agree to serve life in prison, waive all appeals, and report to prison immediately. Look, if you rob a liquor store you should go to jail right? So what do we do with all the white collar criminals on Wall Street who stole the life savings of thousands of Americans -- send them all to jail for life.

We meet those three conditions, I'm fine with the bailout.

Update #1: As always, Glenn Greenwald completely nails it. So does Ian Welsh. As does Paul Krugman.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Some tunes

I'm loving this song right now (Airborne Toxic Event, "Sometime Around Midnight"). I've found it's impossible to turn this song up too loud (well it's literally impossible to turn it up too loud because of some Youtube setting -- but even if Youtube wasn't trying to keep a brother down it'd be impossible to turn it up too loud because it completely rocks). Yeah, it's a little dark:

(And there seems to be a traffic jam over at Youtube right now so have some patience with getting it to load.)

Brandi Carlile's, "The Story" also makes a nice companion to the video above.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

There is no middle to tack to

I want to make 5 related points about framing.

1.) You can't understand the Sarah Palin pick without understanding the work of George Lakoff. George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley who has done pioneering work on framing. Lakoff argues that there are two primary frames that guide how people think about politics -- the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. Republicans tend to be guided by the strict father model of the family and of governance and Democrats tend to be guided by the nurturant parent model.

But here's the important point -- there is no such thing as a "moderate frame. From Lakoff's new book, The Political Mind:
There are no moderates -- that is, there is no moderate worldview, no one set of ideas that characterizes a "center" or "moderation." People who are called "moderates" use conservative thought in some issue areas and progressive thought in others without falling on any linear left-to right scale. Indeed, many so-called moderates have no moderation at all and are quite passionate about both their conservative and their progressive views.
People who are called "moderates" or "centrists" by the traditional media are actually known as biconceptualists -- they use strict father frames (conservative) to understand some issue areas and nurturant parent frames (progressive) to understand other issue areas.

As a result, "tacking to the center" as so many politicians try to do -- is actually political suicide. By tacking to the center -- diluting or watering down your frame -- you turn off your frame, without ever turning on another frame. As Lakoff said, there is no one "centrist" frame to turn on. People either respond to conservative or progressive frames (everyone has both) -- but they are mutually exclusive -- you can't activate them both at the same time (when activated, the one frame quite literally turns off the neural networks in the brain of the other frame).

Part of Karl Rove's genius is that he understands Lakoff. In 2000 and 2004, George Bush didn't tack to the center. Rather, he activated his base through aggressively promoting a conservative frame. There is no middle to tack to -- so the key to winning elections is to activate more of your base than the other side.

The selection of Dick Cheney -- who supported cop killer bullets, and opposed programs like Head Start -- was all about activating the conservative base. So too, selecting gun-toting, choice- opposing, polar-bear hating Sarah Palin is all about activating the conservative base.

2.) George Lakoff has got to be the loneliest fucking guy on the planet. He writes books for Democrats but Democrats (or at least Democratic consultants), don't ever seem to read them. Republicans (either intuitively or through rigorous study, I don't know) seem to understand and act on Lakoff's principles -- much to their benefit.

3.) If you believe that Lakoff is correct (and the evidence is pretty strong that he is) then Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice than Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate. Look I get all of the problems with Bill Clinton hanging around trying to steal the show and I get that Hillary Clinton seems to activate the Republican base as well. But if elections really are just a numbers game of who can better mobilize their base (because there is no "centrist" frame to activate -- but you'll still pick up many independents by sticking with your original frame) then Hillary Clinton does a better job of activating the Democratic base than Joe Biden.

4.) I believe most Americans see a political campaign as a metaphor for war. How you treat your political opponent is subconsciously understood to stand in for how you would treat an adversary during war-time. So when John Kerry brags, "Bring it on!" during the primaries and then sits with his thumb up his ass during the general election as the Swift Boat thugs are savaging his military record -- the general public comes to understand that if attacked by a foreign adversary, John Kerry would likewise sit around humiliated and doing nothing.

5.) Postmodernism is absolutely fucking killing the Democratic Party. Said differently, liberals who go out of their way to try to see the relative merits of every possible position are killing progressives who are actually trying to prevent the evil Republican mutherfuckers from taking over the world.

On three four separate occasions during the past year, I've heard liberals talk about their desire to find a way to love Dick Cheney. As I've said before, Dick Cheney is a murderous thug. If self- identified liberals would spend less time working on their own inner peace and more time working to put Cheney in jail, the world would be a better place.

I was trying to understand why both Gore and Kerry ran these ridiculous "100% positive" campaigns -- where they refused to criticize their opponent (an opponent I might add, who was mercilessly mocking them for their own refusal to fight back). I've heard both Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo and Chris Matthews say that the reasoning behind the decision to run a "positive campaign" was because inside-the-beltway Democratic consultants believe that that is how you run a political campaign. More specifically, the reasoning goes -- if you ask focus groups a generic question about whether they like negative ads they will tell you that they don't. [Then evil-Charlie Brown head Chris Matthews will shout, "But negative ads work in real life!!!"]

But the more I think about it, the more I think that the "focus groups told them to" answer is too pat. Democratic consultants are smart enough to see that negative ads work in the real world -- that's not difficult to demonstrate. No I think that what's going on is that Democrats, particularly well educated members of the Democratic political establishment really do love postmodernism. They really do want to honor the relative merits of lots of different viewpoints -- even ones they disagree with. They really do want to transcend partisanship and find a higher synthesis. Which would be great if more than 15% of the population also reasoned as they do. It just seems bizarre to me to see Gore and Kerry run these post-partisan feel good campaigns when 85% of the population is thoroughly partisan.

And therein lies a lesson for Obama. Look, he's absolutely brilliant, the most beautiful and gifted politician in a generation. His rope-a-dope strategy won him a seat in the Senate and it was enough to beat Hillary Clinton too. As a black man in America -- it's an open question as to whether the traditional media would allow him to show anger without instantly leaping up to label him "an angry black man." When he throws elbows he's very effective -- and his poll numbers jump accordingly. John McCain is so thoroughly unqualified to be president that just sitting back and waiting for McCain to self-destruct might be enough. But I can't help but notice a strong undercurrent of Democrats who wish our guy (or even the larger Democratic team) would hit a little harder, a little more consistently -- that we wish we didn't have to just take it on faith that when the moment comes to deliver the knock-out blow that Obama will choose partisanship and winning.

Update #1: Lakoff has a great piece on the Palin nomination over at the Huffington Post.

Update #2: Sure enough, George Lakoff is the loneliest fucking guy on the planet. From his new post on the way the Obama campaign is framing the debate:
Throughout the nomination campaign, I was struck by how well the Obama campaign was being run, especially how sophisticated the framing was. I was heartened that my five books on the subject might have had a real effect. But recently I have begun to wonder. It looks like, in certain respects, the Obama campaign is making some of the same mistakes of the Hillary campaign and the Kerry and Gore campaigns.
Full article here.

Update #3: Is Anne Lamott the one who started this virulent "we have to love Dick Cheney" meme? Look I love Bird by Bird, but it seems bizarre to allow our love ethic to silence our justice ethic. Our love for everyone on the planet demands that we act on our justice ethic by putting murderous thugs like Cheney in jail. I'm happy for anyone to work on loving Dick Cheney after he is in prison but it seems to me that it puts the cart before the horse to grant him pardon before he has been prosecuted for his crimes.

So seriously, how would it work?

John McCain has declared (to Rick Warren during his interview at Saddleback church) that "life begins at the moment of conception." John McCain followed that up by letting James Dobson and the theocratic wing of the Republican party pick his Vice Presidential nominee. It stands to reason then that, if elected, McCain would also let Dobson pick his Supreme Court nominees as well.

So let's play it out... There are already 5 votes on the Supreme Court (with the addition of Roberts and Alito) to overturn Roe (and Roe is based on Griswold which holds a fundamental right to the privacy of your own body). If McCain/Palin were to be elected, James Dobson gets to nominate 2 to 3 additional justices to the Supreme Court -- creating a theocratic super-majority.

If you believe, as McCain and Palin do -- that a fertilized egg is a human being and that abortion should be illegal in all cases including rape and incest -- then presumably you would want to use the coercive power of the state to force those 1.2 million women each year in the U.S., who would otherwise obtain an abortion, to instead give birth against their will. So how exactly does that work? First off, you can forget about responsible birth control (as you know, taking several birth control pills at once can serve as an abortifacient). But the ramifications go far beyond that. The abortion pill itself is really easy to hide and transport. Does the McCain/Palin government hire a network of secret police to monitor doctors? How do you know which women are pregnant? Does that mean that all women need to be under police/military surveillance as long as they are capable of reproduction? How do you know pregnant women are not harming the unborn child? Are pregnant women (read: "poor pregnant women") rounded up and detained in state run "birthing camps" so that the state can be sure that the baby is carried to term? What about travel? Republican-controlled states already have made it illegal for minors to cross state lines for an abortion. Will U.S. Customs Officers inspect women who want to travel to another country to make sure they aren't pregnant and leaving for the purposes of an abortion?

Is it really so unreasonable to think that McCain/Palin might want to institutionalize and operationalize their often-stated values?

How soon after McCain/Palin are sworn in, does the United States begin to look like a sci fi horror movie -- the patriarchal dystopia that many feared but never really believed could actually happen here? How soon after McCain/Palin are given the oath of office are hundreds of thousands of women (and their partners) applying for political asylum in Australia and Europe in order to not be subjected to state-sponsored control of their own bodies?

New McCain bumper stickers

Just announced! new bumper stickers from the McCain campaign:

McCain/Palin: Undoing Seward's Folly

McCain/Palin: Putting Country First (if by "Country" you mean the "Country of Alaska.")

McCain/Palin: Who says A Handmaid's Tale has to be a work of fiction?

McCain/Palin: All we are saying is give theocracy a chance.

McCain/Palin: Fuck your 401(k), vote for the crackers.