Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Advertisements

Where I Stand

December 20, 2016

I’d originally intended to write this piece after Clinton won the election to explain why I couldn’t vote for her. I’m writing it anyway. It’s meant to explain where I stand culturally/politically.

I was born into a mainstream “moderate to conservative” (I put the words in quotes because I think they’re deceptive) Democratic Party household. Eugene McCarthy’s near upset of Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary inspired me to leave the fold. I became what would be described today as an “ultra liberal.” Then, with the election of Richard Nixon, I dropped out psychologically and philosophically, switching my allegiance to the counterculture. The change coincided with my deepening disillusionment with Western civilization and ideas.

In its early days, the counterculture was divided into two fundamental factions: the spiritual hippies and the New Left politicos. The essential difference was that the hippies believed you had to change yourself before you could change the world, while the leftists believed you had to change the world before you could change yourself. I sided with the hippies. By the time I was 20 I completely dismissed mainstream American culture. I saw it as dying. At the same time, the hippie image and philosophy were being diluted and destroyed by the Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll crowd, who were not hippies, but looked like them. I ended up dropping out of the counterculture—dropping out of the drop-outs—and landing on the streets of North Beach, where I continued my search for what is “really real.” It wasn’t exactly a deliberate move, but neither was it an accident. I didn’t find all my answers there, but I did find many. And I came to a solid understanding that America really was in a death spiral, something that’s quite apparent now.

I remained a complete outsider—no home, no job, no ID—until the wild parrots came into my life. By getting involved with two creative projects, the book and the film, and having to present them to the public, I got pulled back into the System. (Both projects happened naturally. They were not calculated.) But I remained essentially a counterculturist disillusioned with the counterculture—not to mention the System. My return coincided with 9/11, so in 2008, I was happy to be seduced by Obama. But he turned out to be more of the same—a so-called centrist Democrat. I vowed then that I would never get fooled again. The only individual I could imagine ever supporting was Bernie Sanders. He was from the edge of the counterculture, its political side, so he felt close enough to where I stood. But I never thought he’d run, and when he announced, I pretty much ignored him. He started saying things that for so long had needed to be said, and I was amazed by how many responded to him. I was riveted throughout his campaign. But the establishment Democrats had no intention of allowing him to succeed.

Since the advent of computers the Empire has become corporate and global in nature. (That’s obvious, yes.) I am adamantly opposed to the Empire, which is indifferent to everything save money and power. Its massiveness has made it the biggest threat to world peace, a healthy environment, and a sane life. Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a supporter of the Empire. She made it clear that she would use military power to keep the Empire in place and thriving. Trump, who is a genuine sociopath (that needs to be understood), is more like a domestic terrorist. He will fail because of his ego. The Global Empire demands an ability to work with others, something he is incapable of doing because of his “disease.” He’s going to cause a great deal of harm to his fellow Americans, but it’s difficult for me to think of Trump as objectively worse simply because he is more of a threat to me personally. If I did, it would make me indifferent to the suffering of those who Clinton would have squashed in her effort to maintain the Empire, which, like America, is also in its death throes. Both Clinton and Trump are devotees of Mammon. They simply had different constituencies supporting them in their quests for power. Mammon has no principles.

My allegiance remains to the counterculture, which needs to revive itself and develop greater maturity. There is no hope for the established institutions of the modern world, which are completely off-base philosophically. I don’t care about economics, politics, or science, all of which now serve as tools for ambitious egotists. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is love. It’s the only thing that has never fallen away from me.

The Problem of the Homeless

February 28, 2016

The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.

For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.

When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.

If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.

Idealism and the Young

February 22, 2016

My teenage years were the 1960s, a tremendously idealistic time. It was quite clear then that war was wrong, racism was wrong, chasing money was wrong, not loving was wrong. But I was always having to listen to older people assure me that someday I’d get real and grow up. I never knew how to respond to that. I didn’t have enough life experience to understand where they were coming from. Now we’re in a time where you have a candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, arousing the idealism of the young, and the young are responding. And you have another set of people denigrating their idealism and telling them to grow up. And this time the denigrators are people my age. I understand who they are, what they are saying, and why they’re saying it. They are not the people of my generation who grew up; they’re the ones who got old.

We live in a particularly materialistic era of a particularly materialistic civilization. A lot of us tend to see ideals as having no real foundation, that they’re just “brain activity” in a fundamentally meaningless universe. But the essence of existence is not material. What it is is beyond language, although we’ve come up with words for it — “spiritual” being one of them, one that has gotten tired from misuse. There is a set of universal ideals that grow out of that essence. Most of them are obvious, but not all. You don’t need to cultivate them for them to exist. They are inherent within us when we are born. In many of us, as we get older, as we compromise ourselves over and over again, those ideals grow dull and remote. Many of us eventually turn against them. We don’t believe in them anymore. And then we call it growing up. But real growing up is something else entirely: It’s understanding how difficult it is to bring our ideals into our practical lives and the patience we need to accomplish that. We can’t ever abandon those ideals. The farther we get from them, the older and grayer and more meaningless our everyday life feels. I’m not really interested in what a lot of folks call pragmatism. To me, it looks more like death.

Why I’m Voting For Aaron Peskin

October 6, 2015

This post will be of interest primarily to people who live in San Francisco. But it should interest anyone who loves the city. I wrote it for a booklet called San Francisco Lost and Found, which was put together by David Talbot (author of Season of the Witch among other books and founder of Salon.com) to aid Aaron’s campaign. This is a slightly edited version.

I arrived in North Beach in late 1973. One of my aims at the time was to escape what I saw as the horror of everyday American life: wake up, go to work, stop to shop, watch TV. It was a magical time—magical because people didn’t care too much about money. North Beach and Telegraph Hill were very different places from what they are today. North Beach was legendary as the West Coast home of the Beats, but it had continued on past its beat days to become a home for all kinds of people: artists, seekers, as well as those who simply had no idea what to do with their lives and couldn’t see where else to go. It didn’t cost much to live here then. There were a lot of SRO hotels, and even apartments were cheap. I was so broke and at such a crossroads that I couldn’t afford even a cheap hotel room. I lived on the street—not what we think of nowadays as a homeless person, but as a street person. I usually had somewhere to sleep—a rooftop hut, a storage room, a rooftop tent—but I didn’t have my own home. I was able to live that way because I was surrounded by folks who, even if they didn’t understand, were tolerant of other people’s unusual trips.

It was a unique time. People hung out on the streets more, and I made real friends there. It was possible to get into conversations that changed you—not just some opinion you held, but the direction your life was heading. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, money started talking again and nearly everyone listened. The interesting people, the ones whose lives were not devoted to having big careers, could not afford the new regime. One by one, I watched my friends leave town. I managed to hang on, but the neighborhood’s magic was leaving with those who couldn’t afford it anymore. Since then, the encroachment of careerism and the obsession with wealth have grown stronger and stronger, while those who oppose it have become fewer and fewer. I’ve lived through both periods. No one will ever be able to convince me that this is the better time. Friends meet on Facebook, not on the street. And oddly, their online conversations never seem to carry over to their face-to-face meetings. (What’s that all about?)

Many supporters of Aaron’s opponent talk about turning San Francisco into a “world class city,” something I find remarkably obtuse. For years, San Francisco was a world class city without compare. In the 1980s I was constantly meeting people from all over the world who had come here looking for the remains of the counterculture—both beat and hippie. It was clear that these people felt hope for humanity because of the experiments that took place here in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This didn’t happen in the same way anywhere else. That is “world class.”

One of the last places you’ll ever find anyone with an interest in what I’m describing here is within the halls of power. But San Francisco is different in that there have been a handful of politicians who have had some experience with what is generally referred to as “bohemia.” One of those politicians is Aaron Peskin. He has other constituencies—I’m not suggesting that he’s the artists’ candidate—but he’s perfectly comfortable socially with the neighborhood’s artists, misfits, and seekers. Good lord, the man speaks Hindi, Nepali, and Hebrew! He has an intelligence, sensibility, and integrity that I trust. And his interest has always been in the community, not in the corporate offices. (Everyone says that about their favorite candidates, but it’s seldom true. In Aaron’s case, it is true.)

I’ll always be grateful to Aaron for one thing in particular. In 2007 the wild parrot flock was having a serious problem with people feeding them in a public park. They’d become so tame that some of the feeders were nabbing them and taking them home as pets. I went through a tremendous amount of anxiety over this. I knew that the parrots valued their freedom above all else. It was beginning to look as though the book and film about them had been a huge mistake. I had to stop the feedings. But how? Talking to the feeders didn’t do any good. The only solution appeared to be a law. I didn’t have to go through any great contortions to get Aaron, my district supervisor, to understand the problem. He saw that the freedom of the wild ones was more important than the desires of a few of his constituents who didn’t have the best interests of the parrots at heart. So he sponsored an ordinance that effectively put an end to the public feedings. He took a tremendous amount of crap for doing so, but he knew what was right and he did it. I have no confidence—no confidence at all—that my current representative would understand. (For details on the ordinance and what brought it about, go to http://www.markbittner.net/writings/feeding_ordinance1.html)

Since money and the inevitable, attendant corruption have become the dominant forces in San Francisco, I’ve seen a lot of “one step forward and two steps back.” District 3 has always been the heart of San Francisco. As I see it, if Aaron doesn’t win this election it will be the final nail in San Francisco’s coffin. Everything I came here for will be gone forever. San Francisco will be just another city. So, we really do need him. He understands how the government works. He also understands that not everybody wants to live a conventional life. Americans like to talk about freedom. One of the greatest freedoms, I think, is to be allowed to seek a way of life outside convention. It’s hard to go there when all the machinery within the society insists on homogenization. I’m not suggesting that San Francisco go back to the way it was before. To create something fresh and vital you always have to dig into the present moment. But I want the regression to stop and for San Francisco to become a spiritually stimulating place to live again. Electing Aaron would be a good place to begin.

The Greek Debt

June 17, 2015
In Hydra 1969

In Hydra in 1969 with Dougal, Janice, Nikos, and unknown.

In 1969, a few months after graduating from high school, I flew to Europe, where I spent several months exploring by thumb and by train. Of all the countries I traveled through, my favorite by far was Greece. It was a beautiful land with its own distinct culture. The old Mediterranean peasant world still had a strong presence, which made a big impression on me. The Greeks in general were extraordinarily friendly, openly curious about people from other countries, and generous. One day, at an outdoor market I asked a farmer if I could buy an orange. He seemed puzzled and asked, “One kilo?” “No, one orange,” I said. He frowned and shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to sell me just one orange. He gave it to me. One of the special aspects of Greece, especially Crete, was the sense of timelessness—by which I mean I had little awareness of being in a particular historical era. Visually, everything was distinct. As Henry Miller said of Crete in The Colossus of Maroussi, “You see everything in its uniqueness—a man sitting under a tree: a donkey climbing a path near a mountain: a ship in a harbor in a sea of turquoise: a table on a terrace beneath a cloud.” I’d already begun my lifelong loathing of modernity—the tawdry commercialism, superficial relationships, the hustle—and I loved Greece for the slow pace of life and its beauty. Living life was more important than business. (It’s pitiful that people who believe life should be beautiful are regarded now as romantics. It’s a symptom of how lost we’ve become.)

In 2007 I returned to Greece to do research for my book Street Song. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same, but the degree of change was startling. Everything that I loved about Greece was gone. It had lost that special sense of timelessness. Greece had become a resort for wealthy northern Europeans and Americans. And the Greeks themselves had become sullen. All they wanted was your money. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what had happened: globalization. Greece was now just an outpost on the international corporate circuit. One day I tried to talk to a Greek about it, and he blew me off. He was gruff and uncommunicative. I finally did talk to a Greek about it,  a man who owned a laundromat and spoke English. He agreed with me—very passionately—that something had gone very wrong in Greece. All anybody did was work and work, and they were all unhappy about it. They all believed that they had no choice. Much of their work consisted in serving the fat Germans who lounged about on the beaches and treated them like serfs.

There is a lot of anger directed at Greece in the Western World because of the new government’s threat to default on its debt. A tremendous amount of pressure is being put on them to stay the course of austerity and to open the doors wider to those who have no interest in Greece other than to rape and pillage. I, for one, hope they can resist. If it means default, then bless them. The insane, pointless workaholism of the Germans and Americans goes against the character of the Greeks—against the character of human beings, really. We are not designed to live this way and we’re heading for a nervous breakdown.

America, Germany, and England as well as some other countries have declared to the rest of the world that globalization is the only way to go, that every country must be part of it or it won’t survive. No one is given a choice. The global economy is very clearly a great evil to me. It’s tawdry and shallow. We’ve gone far beyond any level of comfort that we actually need, and yet we’re still not satisfied. Our levels of anger and frustration grow continually because materialism can never satisfy. Something is going to bring the whole thing down one day. I think of the bankers as drug dealers. They try to get you hooked and then send in their enforcers if you don’t pay up. It’s probably too much to hope that a default by Greece would begin the unraveling, but it would be most appropriate if it did. The Western World’s enshrinement of rationality and logic began in Greece, and it is rationality and logic that have led us to the horrific level of materialism that we live by today. If Greece can begin the process of the collapse of that system—which must collapse for the world to survive—it will be one of those beautifully ironic moments that history sometimes serves up.

The Right to Slaughter

May 13, 2015

Many people, I would guess most people, roll their eyes when they hear the term “animal rights.” People see rights as something arbitrary that are bestowed upon us by the government. You vote for your rights. Animals can’t vote, so it’s stupid to say they have any rights. This is an incredibly superficial view of existence, yet pervasive. But the truth is that rights are not arbitrary; they are inherent. In any intelligent, healthy system, it is not the government’s role to bestow rights, but to see that they are protected.

What rights do animals have? For starters, they have the right to live out the laws of their being. That should be plainly obvious. And we human beings have an obligation, a duty, to not get in the way of that. We must create our civilization in such a way that it makes it possible for the animals to do what they do. I’m sure some oaf will be thinking, “Well, we have the right to live out the laws of our being, too. If the animals get in our way, that’s their problem.” But we are a different kind of animal. We have the capacity for huge amounts of free will. We also have the capacity to destroy all life on this planet. That’s not living out the laws of our being. That’s just being greedy and blind. We don’t know anything about the laws of our being. We can’t when all we care about is money.

The preceding diatribe is inspired by the fact that the Army Corp of Engineers has just been given permission by both the Fish and Wildlife Service and a federal judge to begin the slaughter of tens of thousands of cormorants in a nesting colony on East Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River. I’ve been to East Sand Island and have seen that colony. Thousands of pelicans and terns congregate there as well. The slaughter has been approved supposedly to help keep the salmon from going extinct. But that’s bullshit. What they’re really doing is trying to protect the fishing industry. They want to kill the birds so that humans can eat the fish instead of the birds. We don’t actually need the fish, but the cormorants do. And they have the right to them. That’s how nature works. And if the salmon are endangered, it’s not because of cormorants. It’s because of us, through our dams and overfishing. The Army Corp of Engineers, which thought up the plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which approved it, the federal judge who approved it, and Wildlife Services, who are to carry it out, are all killers in the pay of Mammon. I don’t believe for an instant that there is any environmental concern here whatsoever. And even if there is, it’s incredibly hubristic to think that we know what to do. We’re terrible when it comes to helping nature. All we know is how to exploit it. I, for one, can never give whole-hearted allegiance to a system that does these things.

Look Out!

May 10, 2015

Around 1978 I heard about a book that had just come out called Looking Out for Number One. I was appalled. The title was completely at odds with what had been going on throughout the 60s and early 70s, and it sounded evil to my ears. I still think of that book as the beginning of the change in this culture’s psychology, one we’re still living out. Reagan became president a couple of years later, and he advanced this idea of looking out for number one, and it has been growing as a national belief ever since. The author of the book was a libertarian, and we see libertarianism gaining more and more traction.

I think that “selfish” is what is really meant nowadays when we say “conservative.” So-called conservatives insist that it’s a virtue, that you’re supposed to look out for your country, your family, and yourself before anything else. People who don’t share this idea are viewed with suspicion. But looking out for number one is not a virtue. It’s a biological view of morality—instinctive, unthinking. And people who follow it are quite capable of turning against their country, their mate, or their children whenever it serves their self-interest. Selfish people don’t care about anybody else, by definition. Selfishness gradually undermines any system that embraces it. We’re seeing that happen in this country now. The general atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile and argumentative, less neighborly. There are movements in certain states to secede from the union. People live in isolation from one another in general. Here in San Francisco, for example, people seldom see the inside of other people’s homes. Some people point to social media as an example of the continuance of community, but I don’t think so. It’s superficial community, if it’s community at all. The culture has lost its memory of what real community feels like. I’ve lived in a few and I’ve always liked them. The only one I’m in right now is the South End Rowing Club, my swim club. It’s the one place I actually enjoying being. It’s not a fancy fitness club. It’s all volunteer, and you can feel it. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts.

So if looking out for number one is wrong, what’s right? I read once that we should look out for the well-being of everything that lives, not excluding ourselves. I think that makes good sense.

Not My Way

March 3, 2015

For several days I’ve wanted to post something about Netanyahu. But I’ve been unable to get past contemptuous feelings and obscene phrases, which are not my way. So I gave up.

A Word on Terrorism

February 2, 2015

I care about language. I don’t like to see it abused or misused. I don’t like what has happened to the word “awesome,” for instance. The word has lost its meaning. You have to go hunting for some other word to take its place. Recently I was trying to compose something that touched upon the shootings in Paris and I found myself deliberately avoiding the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” They’ve become propaganda terms, used in the same way that “communism” and “communist” were once used: They’re intended to stop all debate. Which of us isn’t against terrorism? A common line of reasoning is “I don’t care why they’re doing it. There’s never any justification for terrorism.” If you say, “No, there’s never any justification, but there are reasons it happens,” the subtlety goes right past them. You’re dead in the water. You’ve become a “terrorist sympathizer.” It should be pointed out that, contrary to the way the media uses the word, terrorism is not a philosophy. It’s a tactic. And it’s a tactic that the United States Government is not above using. The military described the opening days of its assault on Bagdad as employing a strategy known as “Shock and Awe,” which did kill many civilians along with military targets. What is Shock and Awe if not the very definition of terror? And we decapitate our enemies, too, but from a distance with remote-controlled missiles. How is that any less barbaric? So I avoid using the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” You end up playing some ideologue’s game when you do.

Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I’m free to say what I wanted to say in my original post. Next time.