Monday, December 29, 2008

An Insoluble Conflict and an "Impossible" Answer

My grandfather predicted World War III for the Middle East, to commence in 1987. That was back in the early 70’s. He was a war correspondent and newspaper editor, back in the old country, having covered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 as a cub reporter (the anarchist Gavrilo Principe fired at the royal carriage from 100 feet, with a Baby Browning, an impossible shot. That one bullet killed both the Archduke and his Duchess). It appears that Deszo baci (in Hungarian, baci is a term of respect for an older man, pronounced just like it is in Italian, where it means kiss) was wrong when it would start. Maybe 2009 would be a better prediction.

Because – make no mistake about it – just like in Planet of the Apes, we could blow it all up. It would be a sad ending for so much enlightened striving for what is great, beautiful, and possible. Against a nuclear war, global warming is mild in comparison. Paradoxically, a nuclear war would probably end the threat of global warming, both by creating the famous “nuclear winter,” and also by ending most industrial production, and certainly a lot of consumer demand.

The Gaza Strip is a rectangle about 7 miles wide by 30 miles long. Within those borders live 1.5 million people. On Google Earth, it’s a huge city, and looks a lot like the South Bronx, before the boom of the 90’s. But you can get out of the South Bronx, and you can’t get out of the Gaza Strip. It’s not just the fault of the Israeli state, if one has to ascribe fault at this point in the essay. The Egyptians have the other border sewed up tight, too. It’s like a sausage that’s being cooked and that will eventually burst, like the best Hungarian sausages.

According to a Jewish friend, the Palestinians are “an irrelevancy,” which is a cold-hearted comment I don’t quite understand. Don’t the Jewish sages say, whosoever saves one, saves the whole world? And isn’t there a special place reserved in Israel for the gentiles who heroically saved Jews during the Holocaust? Are the Palestinians any different? I mean, can’t one Palestinian save another one and save the whole world?

No, and here’s the first principle: every person is of equal value. That concept begins the discussion. If the human race were wiped out except for a tribe of Hottentots, those Hottentots would eventually populate the world, and they would have their own Beethoven, Shakespeare and Einstein. So we must reject any ideology that says that any people are special. Isn’t that self-evident? So, we must bring the curtain down on religious beliefs that say the contrary – Orthodox Judaism, right-wing fundamentalist Christianity, and radical Islam. The claims of specialness in religions are atavistic. The idea that I have a moral ground to reject you, because you do not believe as I do, or because you were not baptized, circumcised, or adopted in my special way must go.

Religious differences are not religious. Hateful right-wing racists, or the hateful actions of the State of Israel, or the fatwas of an Imam who sanctions the killing of unbelievers, are not religious. Religion means reconnection – spirituality in the best sense, the sense of being part of a web that includes all living creatures, and holds all that lives as sacred. The actions against global warming may seem to be about people and property, but they are more properly wider than that – because a catastrophic warming would so do much to wreck the delicate ecosystems that make the earth so beautiful. It would not be right to call Israel “the Jewish State,” because while it may be true on one level, it’s false on another. Many Jews are praying for peace to break out, and are doing everything possible to promote understanding. Just as the continual refrain during the Bush years from foreign peoples was that we love Americans, but not your government, so it is with Israel. We must distinguish the actions of the State of Israel from the beautiful spirituality of Judaism.

Is it true that the Palestinians are an irrelevancy, because world oil prices are down, so the industrial giants don’t really care about the potential that a Middle East conflict has to raise oil prices in the near term? Maybe for geopolitical considerations, they are, but not from human considerations. Remember the value of the Hottentots; we must take care not to diminish any human being

So, let’s turn away from any religion which promotes differences. Maybe we should all become Anglican, or Unitarian Universalist. Bring everyone into the tent, and then abolish the tent. We must agree on the definition of a human being, and honor that, in a way reminiscent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And use our know-how to resolve problems of food scarcity, lack of access to water and health care, and surmounting the population bubble of about 9 billion later this century, before the human race can adjust its numbers peacefully to sustainable levels.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Climactic Moment

How not to begin an essay: in the heart of a paradox that only a motivated reader wants to read. This will only draw you in if you want it to.

We sit in the torture cell. The quintessence of the solitary, the alone, the desperate. Why? Because there’s no help there. Whoever is the torturer – whether it’s Jack Bauer (you would have to be the bad guy), renegade government agents, Saddam, Pinochet – it’s down to a test of wills, and to you. Can you measure up? Can you handle it?

This might be an essentially male preoccupation – measuring up against the ultimate test: another male who wants to destroy you, physically and mentally: a battle of the wills. James Bond often faces torturers and prevails; so did John McCain. When I was in elementary school, I had a close friend, Jonathan Silverman, who had a slightly younger brother, David. They would often play torturer and victim, with one affixing a naked light bulb to the bottom of the upper bunk bed and beginning the interrogation. Their dad, a World War II veteran, talked often of the Japs and what they did to prisoners.

Now you are in the room. All the cards have been dealt. It’s time to play your hand – what you have inside, what resiliency and strength you can count on. Where does that strength come from? Is it from memories, rigorous exercise, willpower?

The climactic moment – the time of testing – is a central metaphor in American life. Nothing seems to matter as much as measuring up when the time comes. Gary Cooper in High Noon is just the first example that comes to mind. But let’s step away from that moment from the time of testing. Is it true that life gets summed up in climactic moments?

There can be no true preparation for a moment that doesn’t set all other moments as equal to it. Here’s the paradoxical statement I talked about. As opposed to the idea that nothing counts until the climactic moment, it seems to me that all moments count equally, and what you bring to one moment you bring to all, even to climactic moment.

If there is truly no future and no past, if time is really an illusion, then striving shrinks to the moment of the present. The intense giving of the self to the moment is all. It prepares the way for all other moments, even the climactic moment of testing.

Can there be beautiful and timeless moments, without the whole fabric of reality being beautiful and timeless? No; it must be that we are just not seeing the beauty; it flashes and shines, winking in and out, like stars passing behind a satellite. But the fabric draws together, the more we give ourselves to the moment.

It must be possible to build velocity, so that the moments blend together and one becomes airborne in the light of the moment.

So, the time for bullshit must be over; that is, the time to resist giving in to the moment. The time to resist being the best one can be, giving and striving to the utmost, relaxed, but not in control.

Preparation and anticipation become part of the climactic moment. Just as they do before a sports contest, sex, or the SAT’s -- the waiting, conditioning, imagining, careful planning make the climactic moment stretch out to encompass the moments before. Like the top of a mountain, it’s impossible to really conceive of it without the rest of the mountain being there.

So, sitting in the torture cell, I am the sum of all of my giving to the moment, all of my truthfulness. The torturer folds up his chair. I have remembered who I am.