Monday, November 06, 2017

Living a Purposeful Life

Nelson Mandela found his purpose early in life - ending apartheid, or racial segregation, in South Africa - and pursued it with a quiet but unwavering determination. If an aim in life is the only fortune worth finding, as Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde observed, Mandela found his fortune as a young activist in the 1940s and spent it fearlessly yet wisely until he helped banish the evil of apartheid from his beloved land. He lived by his credo of non-violence despite enduring 27 years (1962-1989) of inhuman abuse in prison. When he passed away in 2013 at the age of 95, he was universally recognized as one of the most heroic, magnanimous and conciliatory leader in history.

But the Nelson Mandelas of the world are rare. They epitomize the iconic, purpose-driven life we can only dream about. The sheer magnitude of their achievement seems beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals.

Yet we cannot shirk the responsibility of forging our own purpose in life, our personal pole star to steer us to our destination. Comparison with icons is not the key, having a purpose is. All around us are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We do not find them in the headlines or in the labyrinth of social media, yet their influence shapes us, gives our lives meaning.

And imbue us with a purpose of our own.

I remember my English teacher in the ‘60s. A no-nonsense disciplinarian, his passion in life was to ensure that his students could write correct and coherent English sentences as part of a story. He forgave us if we failed to live up to his expectations but heaven help us if he sensed we were being lazy or indifferent! Facing the wrath of this teacher was one nightmare that kept us awake at night. When he learned that I was applying for admission to an English medium school, he ordered me to show up at his residence for an hour of private English tutoring twice a week after school. The man (this was in Chittagong, Bangladesh) lived in genteel poverty, yet he would not accept any money for his effort. Looking back on the experience half-a-century later, I can see that he not only taught us English but in a subliminal way imparted a more important lesson: if you are driven by a purpose, other things like money, fame and glory will recede in importance. When I made it to the private school, he was as happy for me as my parents were.

Think of the mothers, fathers, teachers, aunts, well-wishers unrelated by blood who helped you find your pole star. One of the most moving passages in literature acknowledges this profound truth. In Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote: “… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

We now live in an age of anxiety and stress in which values like honesty, decency and integrity do not mean much, if at all. The cult of success has consumed us. The lust for lucre, power and fame dominate our thoughts and actions, made worse by the restlessness and discontent of a shallow, digital culture.

In other words, having a purpose in life has never seemed more urgent. The question is: How do we go about it?

Here are three ideas culled from my observation, experience and reflection. 

Value time – A life of purpose is contingent upon one simple truth: Our time on earth is finite. If we want to make a difference, be it in the life of a child or in the establishment of a beneficial institution, we must do it sooner rather than later. The frenetic pace of modern life misleads us into thinking that we will live forever when, in fact, death can claim us in our most unguarded moments. The worst thing we can do is to fritter away time in frivolous pursuits. When we value time, we honor life. The cosmos conspires to help us reach our goals in ways we can never imagine. To respect time is to turn its arrow into the arrow of truth. It is to live purpose in the most tangible of ways.

Practice patience – Just as we must fight for justice, so we must fight for purpose, for purpose can ebb and flow. Without patience, and its integrated ecosystem of passion, perseverance, perspective, tempered by a certain amount of playfulness, purpose can dissolve into despair and disappointment. It’s patience that keeps us on track when facing headwinds. The hunger for instant gratification kills patience. When patience leaves, so does purpose. Patience bridges the gap between what we do and what we value in life. The two most powerful warriors, said Tolstoy, are patience and time.

Be transformed by transcendence – The dictionary defines transcendence as ‘being beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience.’ In plain words, it means to submit to something bigger than ourselves. We cannot be obsessed by ‘I, Me, Mine’ if we are to have a purpose in life. Transcendence can mean serving others with the gift one has been blessed with, to act on the belief that there is more to living than basking in a life of ease and plenty. It is to know that all earthly things are temporal, be it the good life or the hard life, poverty or affluence, power or fame. For some, transcendence can mean raising considerate children, believing in the power of the unseen, being saved by the power of faith in the presence of doubt, infusing each day with grace and gratitude. For others, it can mean eliminating desire for inconsequential things, loving someone unconditionally, or developing the sensitivity “to see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.’ Each of us must define our own purpose consistent with our moral values, work ethic and deepest yearnings. Solipsists can never have a sense of purpose, any more than narcissists and tyrants can have goodwill for others in their hearts.

We do not have to shine or excel in the worldly sense to live a purposeful life. We simply need to live that kind of a life, a life of modesty and moderation built on a foundation of good work and generous thoughts, a life nurtured by small acts of kindness practiced daily that feed the soul rather than by grandiose projects that, like mirage, remain forever beyond reach.

Friday, September 15, 2017

America, Protect DACA

President Trump’s decision to repeal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program started by ex-President Obama to protect undocumented youth from deportation, has sent a shockwave of fear, despair and uncertainty though the 800,000-strong community of DACA – the Dreamers - and their families in the United States.

In the college where I teach, there are about 100 DACA students, a few of whom I know. They crystallize for me the enormity of the crime the Trump administration has committed in threatening to destroy the dreams of so many young Americans poised to make their mark in life.

Lopez was brought to the U.S. in 2007 when he was 15 years old. His parents from Mexico had no immigration papers but somehow managed to find their way to Santa Barbara. “They worked as hired laborers but we still had a fairly good life,” said Lopez, who hopes to graduate within a year and transfer to UCLA. “But now everything is up in the air. I cannot walk down the street without looking back to see if ICE agents are about to grab me. They know where I live, where I work.”

ICE agents know where he lives because he had to recently renew his registration, a requirement for DACA students every 2 years. His parents returned to Mexico several years ago. He thought of going back himself but they told him not to because life had become unbearably violent in their village in Southern Mexico. “I wouldn’t last a day,” they said.

“The stress is killing me,” said Maria, who will be graduating in a year and nurtures the hope of becoming a dentist. “I come from a mixed family. My parents are undocumented. I am undocumented. I don’t know what will happen if DACA is discontinued. What will I do? Where will I go? This is the only country I know, the country I call home.”

Valdez will graduate next summer and has already applied to several medical schools. He knew all along that Trump would do something like this. Valdez is fed up being fearful, though. “I don’t believe in hiding. Why should I hide or act afraid? I work hard. I contribute to America like other Americans. I am a good person. The way Trump talks, it’s as if Mexicans - and Muslims - are criminals.”

Valdez is disappointed with Americans who cling to Trump despite his un-American acts. “They complain about jobs that Mexicans and others are taking away but they don’t want the dirty jobs we and our parents do. They don’t want to work in restaurants, in the fields, as cleaners, as laborers. What are we supposed to do? Every myth with DACA – that we take away jobs from real Americans, that DACA increases illegal immigration, that repealing DACA will benefit taxpayers and protect communities from criminals – has been proven wrong with solid data.”

When Trump announced the end of the DACA program on September 5, the chancellor of the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District issued a strong statement that “those impacted by this callous and thoughtless decision were brought to the United States as children and have been upstanding members of our communities ever since. They are pursuing an education, working, serving in our armed forces, and contributing to their communities in countless other ways.”
This followed an earlier statement by Eloy Oakley, chancellor of California’s 114-campus, 2.1-million-student-strong community college system that “ending DACA is a heartless and senseless decision that goes against American ideals and basic human decency … In California, we don’t put dreams – or Dreamers – on hold. The California Community Colleges remain committed to serving all students, regardless of immigration status and to providing safe and welcoming environments in which to learn.”

As of today, the Trump administration has been sued for its anti-DACA policy by the University of California and the State of California, along with 15 other states led by New York and Washington. The City of San Jose is the first city to sue the Trump administration over DACA beyond the District of Columbia. Mayor Sam Liccardo said: “DACA recipients include public servants in our own City Hall, providing public safety and other critical services to our community. They all deserve our support and they deserve our nation’s welcome.”

California will be particularly hard hit if DACA is repealed because it is home more than a quarter of all DACA recipients who contribute significantly not just economically and in community services, but more importantly, as symbols of justice, equality and fair play.

President Trump is determined to dismantle every single policy of his predecessor, domestic and foreign. That’s his definition of success - to be the anti-Obama, damn the consequences. Repealing DACA is only the latest manifestation of this man’s reckless behavior. As Valdez puts it, Trump’s delay to repeal DACA for six months to give Congress a chance to address the issue is a smokescreen that reeks of cruelty and hypocrisy. It is also a way to shift the blame to Congress if, for any reason, the repeal falls through.

Protecting and defending DACA is a moral imperative for fair-minded Americans. It must transcend any consideration framed in economic or productivity terms. More than anything else, we need to protect DACA simply because it is the right thing to do.

During the unjust and immoral Vietnam War, protesters chanted: “Hell, No. We won’t go.” Let our slogan now be: “America, Protect DACA.”

Friday, September 08, 2017

Stop the Genocide Against Rohingya Muslims

In Mayanmar now, history is repeating itself but with a genocidal twist. Rohingya Muslims, considered the world’s most persecuted minority, have lived for 150 years in Myanmar’s far western Rakhine state. Denied citizenship by the military junta since 1982, they have been stateless and without the most basic human rights, thus prey to indiscriminate rape, torture and killing by Buddhist militants and civilians alike.

In recent days, however, eyewitness accounts of mass rape, killing and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims has horrified the world. Families, including newborns, have been slaughtered and burned alive. United Nations officials report that tens of thousands of Rohingya women, children and men are streaming into neighboring Bangladesh after trudging through treacherous ravines and jungles, many falling along the way. Babies are dying in the cradles of their mothers.

Bangladesh, a poor country, is reeling under the burden of providing relief to the 100,000 who have fled Mayanmar in the last 2 weeks alone. This is in addition to the already half-a-million Rohingyas in the Cox’s Bazar district and adjoining villages living in squalid, unhygienic camps. (Growing up in Bangladesh, I visited Cox's Bazar and its adjoining villages in my youth for picnics and idyllic strolls along its unbroken shoreline but now it resonates only with the suffering of Rohingya Muslims.)

For perspective, I called a journalist friend reporting from border posts along the
200-mile Bangladesh-Mayanmar border.

Mamun Abdullah manages a 24-hour News Channel called Independent TV. “Rohingya insurgents were forced to take up arms against the violence on their people,” said Mamun. “On August 25 they attacked some Mayanmar police posts. The government responded with disproportionate military force. That’s when the mass exodus began.”

The critical need of the refugees, said Mamun, is food, pure drinking water, sanitation and shelter. “That’s not available. About 50 Rohingyas with multiple bullet and burn injuries are being treated in Chittagong medical college hospital a hundred miles away. It’s like a drop in the ocean. Several have already died.”

Mamun is skeptical about the possibility of Rohingya Muslims returning to Myanmar. “Repatriation is a pipedream. Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh’s prime minister), has praised Bangladeshis along the border for giving shelter to fleeing Rohingyas but has also said Bangladesh cannot meet the demands of the swelling refugees. It’s true, we just don’t have the facilities or the land.”

“So what’s the way out?”

“There must be international pressure to force Myanmar to stop the genocide. We have not heard anything from United States government. Only the Turkish and Indonesian governments have pledged some help so far.”

It is in the American character to serve the suffering. While it is beyond our power to control the fury of nature, as we saw with Hurricane Harvey and now with Irma, we can unite as decent human beings to do something about the deadly violence being waged against the Rohingya Muslims, and, for that matter, violence anywhere against a minority by a majority, irrespective of race and religion.

Despite the bigotry and divisiveness promoted by president Trump and his cohorts, Americans of all persuasions should contact their elected officials and lawmakers to demand that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace-prize winner and the de facto leader of Myanmar, stop the torture and the killing of Rohingya Muslims. She has not said a word so far, a stance that has been denounced by many governments but unfortunately, not ours. Her silence has only emboldened Myanmar’s militants and security forces in the state-sanctioned genocide of Rohingya Muslims.

We should also call upon our government to demand that the Myanmar government give Rohingya Muslims citizenship in a country where they have lived for centuries, and to accord them the same dignity, safety and security that the Buddhist majority enjoy. A concerted effort must also be made to provide humanitarian aid to the refugees streaming into Bangladesh and to sponsor a resolution in the UN Security Council to immediately stop the genocide of Rohingya Muslims.

Some media links:

Monday, August 28, 2017

Malcolm X, the Hajj and White Supremacy

This is the season of the pilgrimage for Muslims around the world. Over 2 million Muslims - about 15,000 of them Muslim-Americans - have gathered in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, to perform the Hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime religious obligation for believers who can afford to do so physically, mentally and financially.

In April of 1964, Malcolm X, who had recently embraced Islam and taken the name Malik
El-Shabazz, performed the Hajj. It was a cathartic experience for him, one that has relevance to the events in Charlottesville earlier this month and our response to the violence and racism of the neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klansmen and the White Supremacists.

Because of his traumatic, near-deadly childhood experiences, Malcolm X came to regard the entire white race as exclusively evil and black separatism the only answer to white oppression.

But the Hajj changed all that. In powerful, heartfelt words - as told to Alex Haley, the author of Roots - he summarized his feelings: “Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and such overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham and all the other Prophets of Holy scriptures … There were tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black skinned Africans. But we were all practicing the same rituals, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.”

With the flexing of power by white supremacists in Charlottesville and their tacit endorsement by President Trump through his policies and toxic Tweets, it has become easy for some of us to speak of whites in monolithic terms. As a Muslim-American, I am particularly sensitive to this because we too are often painted with a broad brush for the terrorist acts of a few. As I see it, there is no difference between James Alex Fields, Jr., the 20-year-old neo-Nazi who drove his car into the counter-rally protesters in Charlottesville, killing 1 person and injuring 19, and Younes Abouyyaqoub, the 22-year-old ISIS-inspired terrorist who drove his van into a crowd in Barcelona, Spain, killing 15 people and injuring dozens more.

Their ideology is the same: homicidal hatred for the Other.

Most whites disapprove of white supremacists and are at the forefront in the fight against racism and bigotry. In the many protest rallies I attended against president Trump’s policies, over 90% were whites. It was a reflection of their genuine conviction that treating others badly because of faith and color and race was morally wrong.

To make progress, it is instructive to ask what contributes to the feeling of supremacy, or a superiority complex, and how we can curb it. It may surprise us to learn that a superiority complex afflicts many of us even as we condemn its most visible practitioners, like the ones we saw in Charlottesville.

In its most extreme and visible form, a superiority complex arises from the color of one’s skin, the fanatical conviction in one’s faith, or the race one belongs to. But in its insidious forms, it can also arise from wealth, power, beauty, lineage, social status, knowledge and education. I know of religious chauvinism that afflicts some of my fellow Muslim Americans (“my religion is superior to yours;” “I have a monopoly on Truth that you can never have,” etc.) but I have also come across Americans of all persuasions who look down on others because of the expertise they have in a certain field or the power they possess to dominate other lives. They demand respect but are incapable of respecting others and are unable to deal with anything other than their version of the truth.

They have many laudatory characteristics but humility is not one of them.

If this seems uncomfortably familiar, it is because many of us carry one form of superiority complex or another, however much we may deny it. In that sense, Malcolm X was among the lucky ones. The scales fell from his eyes only when he was performing something as momentous as the Hajj. He realized that a blanket denunciation of whites was a form of superiority complex, the very thing he had spent most of his life condemning.

But what about the rest of us? This is where the tragic spectacle we saw in Charlottesville comes in. While unequivocally condemning the neo-Nazis and the White supremacists, we can also use their tiki-torch terror to look within ourselves to see if we harbor similar, albeit latent, habits. We cannot fight racism and bigotry if we practice them ourselves in subtler forms.

In his farewell sermon 1400 years ago delivered during the Hajj, Prophet Muhammad said: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab. Also, a white has no superiority over a black and a black has any superiority over white, except by piety and good action.”

In his own way, Malcolm X was saying the same thing when he experienced his pilgrimage epiphany. By cleansing ourselves of any trace of superiority, we can turn the ugliness of Charlottesville into something beneficial for America.

Monday, August 14, 2017

In Thoreau Country: A Perspective on Today's America

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Ever since I read Walden over two decades ago, I sometimes dreamed that I was transported back in time by a century and a half to sit on that second chair one evening and have some heart-to-heart with Henry David Thoreau.
“Do you think I am leading a life of quiet desperation?” I might begin. Or perhaps something lighter: “How are those beans coming along?” Or maybe inquire after the health of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. How about the fate of farmers mortgaging their souls to the devil, that is, to bankers, for the false privilege of “owning” their homes?
There would be much to talk about as the moon rose over the pines and its reflection gave the Walden Pond an ethereal glow.
I found the possibility of dialogue across time elusive, so this summer – August 2017 - I decided to do the next best thing. I flew from San Jose to Boston with only one goal in mind, to see Walden Pond and feel Thoreau’s presence.

I boarded a Commuter Rail from Porter Square in the city of Monmouth in Massachusetts for Concord, the fabled town where Thoreau was born and in which he spent a significant part of his life reflecting on the human inclination for both savagery and nobility.
The train journey took me through the lush summer vegetation typical of summer in the Eastern United States. The green, a shade fresher than the green in Western U.S., reminded me of the green in Bangladesh where I was born.
After about an hour, I found myself in Concord. I looked out from the station and tried to imagine what Thoreau might have seen and felt. Oh, well, there was Starbucks as well as several auto workshops, a general store, an optometry shop, a bank.

I began the walk from Concord to Walden Pond, a distance of about a mile and a half. Thoreau would walk this path to and from his cabin for an evening meal at the home of his mother and brother and keep up with current events. He lived in the cabin for 2 years, 2 months 2 days, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. How many miles did he walk in all? Thousands. No wonder he looks so fit in the only two photographs we have of him.

The walk took me by immaculate lawns and quaint homes with ancient trees spreading their ample shadows across grass and streets. It made the hot trek tolerable. Reminders of Thoreau were everywhere, from the Thoreau streets and lanes to markers pointing out where slaves hid a few years before the Civil War began, and some of whom Thoreau helped escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

The neighborhood was lily-white, so I was heartened to see a sign on a lawn that said “Black Lives Matter.” Thoreau, among the original abolitionists, would have smiled.
And then suddenly I was on hallowed ground. I was at the bank of the Walden Pond. Through the trees I could see the whole pond and its graceful finite shoreline enclosing infinite stories and memories.  

Walden Pond was not so much a pond as it was a poem, a magical, mathematical pi rather than a mere positive integer. People of all ages were sunbathing and swimming, about two hundred of them, with lifeguards sounding out solemn instructions from their high perch from time to time.

I swam in the waters of the Walden Pond. Opened my eyes underwater after a few laps and found the water as green as the vegetation around. A snapping turtle came by to check out the humans and unimpressed, turned back and disappeared in the dark deep waters. The water seemed cold at places and warm at others. Two enterprising tourists were rowing on a canoe, going further than any swimmer dared to venture.

In the winter of 1846, after the pond froze solid so that he could walk on it, Thoreau began to survey the pond. The instruments were unwieldy and heavy but Thoreau was undeterred. The "angle intersection survey" included the pond's perimeter, almost 2,900 feet. As described in the brilliant biography of "Henry David Thoreau, a Life" by Laura Dassow Walls, "with ax and ice chisel, he cut well over a hundred individual holes through the ice to lower the plumb line into the water ... Thoreau used the tools of science and engineering to create a remarkable work of art, a working survey that accurately mapped Walden Pond to the inch: length, breadth and depth ... it was 102 feet at the deepest point ..." This is how Thoreau summarized his work: "The line of greatest breadth intersects the line of greatest length at the point of greatest depth." The line is remarkable for the symbolism it contains for truth and purpose and life. In the incomparable prose of Thoreau: "It is the heart in man - It is the sun in the system ... Draw lines through the length & breadth of the aggregate of a man's particular daily experiences and volumes of life into his coves and inlets - and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character."

After swimming to my heart’s content, went to check out the Thoreau Center, selling all things Thoreau: books, pictures, mugs, candies, maple syrup, posters. Next to the souvenir shop was the replica of Thoreau’s cabin – a 10’ x 15’ house with a single bed and a large window that looked out on the Walden Woods - and a statue. 

An array of solar panels brought dignity to the parking lot. Sight of the sun’s energy being harnessed would undoubtedly have pleased the Bard of Walden. Thoreau wanted to live deliberately, that is, to live honestly with the full awareness of the consequences of his actions. For this original, singular act of courage, defiance and integrity, we remember him to this day with gratitude and humility. He pointed us all toward a better way, that a person is indeed “rich in proportion the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

On the walk back from Walden to the town, that is, Concord, I thought of the events roiling America these days. Donald Trump has emboldened racists and hate-spinners, turning America the Beautiful into America the Ugly. Thoreau would have walked the 550 miles from Concord, Massachusetts to Charlottesville, Virginia, to oppose the neo-Nazis, the Supremacists and the KKKs defiling the American ideal. On July 23, 1846, He spent a night in jail in Concord for refusing to pay a poll tax, fearing that the money could be used to pay for the Mexican-American War he opposed. How gladly he would have spent nights, if not years, in a jail if that’s what it took to free American from the shackles of the hate-mongers and the internal terrorists on the rise in Trump’s America!
“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” asked a prescient Thoreau. Global warming is the undeniable reliability of our times but Thoreau saw it coming way before anyone else. He saw it but we don’t for one simple fact: We choose not to live deliberately. That includes both the affirmers and the deniers of global warming.

Raise your hand if you think of yourself as a modern-day Thoreau, if you can live deliberately as Thoreau did, even if only for a year in the wilderness by summoning the willpower to resist the digital seduction, if you can fight for justice and equality even while raising beans and being nourished by solitude.
What, no hands? None at all?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Out with Selfies, In with Wonder

You can also read it in the Mercury News 

At the Montgomery Hill Observatory of Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, there is a public stargazing night on the first Friday of every month. It is here that a decade ago I first saw Saturn through the observatory’s 7” refractor telescope. I will never forget that magical moment. The “Lord of the Rings” planet 750 million miles or so away from the earth seemed so inviting that I wanted to reach out and touch it.
With Jupiter and Saturn gracing the night sky now, I decided to visit the observatory after a hiatus to renew my acquaintance with the two planets.

About fifty of us gathered at the observatory recently to take in the beauty of the starry sky. The line was long for the domed building that housed the telescope focused on Saturn.
What I witnessed, however, was unexpected and, frankly, shocking.
Most of the “stargazers” spent more time taking selfies than looking at the planet. Parents held their babies close to the telescope and snapped photos as the unnatural light of their smartphones lit up the dark interior of the building. They photographed the telescope’s view of Saturn, experimenting until the image was to their satisfaction.
What I found incongruous was that everyone acted as if this was normal, that unless Saturn was captured in the circuitry of their hi-tech gadgets, the physical experience of observing the ringed planet through a telescope wasn’t worth much.
It was the same with Jupiter in the adjacent roll-off roof building. Jove and his moons took a backseat to the selfies, to the document-by-camera excitement that gripped so many of the visitors. A remark I overheard put the selfies in perspective. A man turned to his spouse and said, “It’s already on Facebook and Instagram.”
The standalone selfie was apparently not worth much by itself, unless authenticated by social media and “liked.”
I managed to see Saturn, its ring tilted at a steeper angle than when I saw it last, magical and awe-inspiring as always. But the flash and whirr of the cameras seemed so pervasive that afterwards, when I looked up with unaided eyes outside, I half-expected to see the image of a partially-eaten translucent silver apple dominating the night sky.
The selfie syndrome is everywhere, not just at public events and tourist spots but in parks, woods, shores, malls, stadiums, restaurants, museums, even at graveyards and funerals!
How is it that we have so casually surrendered substance to shadow, real to virtual? Why are we so in thrall to our devices 24×7?
One reason is that smart gadgets and social media allow us to unleash our very human instinct for self-expression to a degree unprecedented in history.
But pushed to extreme, self-expression can devolve into narcissism. In particular, in the presence of the sublime and the transcendent, self-expression through selfies, rather than engaging through the senses, can be foolish and short-sighted. It is like ignoring the eternal for the ephemeral.
How to subdue this abnormal selfie craving? One way would be to renew our acquaintance with nature.
“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth at the dawn of the 19th century when the poet felt that people had lost their connection to nature because of their growing attachment to materialism. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours/…/For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”
Next time we go to the woods, the shore or the observatory, let’s leave behind the devices with the flickering screens so we can experience with our five senses the music of songbirds, the lullaby of surf, and the pageantry of stars and planets.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two Centuries Later, We Need Thoreau More Than Ever

You can also read the article here.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, two hundred years ago today. Why is remembering and honoring Thoreau important? Because America needs him now more than ever. With president Trump waging a relentless war against the environment, Thoreau’s essays, books and the way he lived offer a focus to the resistance movement rippling across America.

“Civil Disobedience,” his 1849 essay and blueprint for radical reform that inspired the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, should be required reading in these difficult times, if only for a new generation of Americans to become acquainted with Thoreau’s ability to speak truth to power for achievable results.

When we read in “Civil Disobedience” that, “There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived,” we in the resistance movement against our current U.S. president are inspired to continue. 

What calamity has Trump wrought so far regarding the environment?

Here’s a partial list:
·        Appointed Scott Pruitt, a bona fide climate change denier, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
·        Proposed a budget that will cut EPA funding by nearly a third, with climate and clean energy programs taking the biggest hits.
·        Opened up federal lands and water for drilling.
·        Instructed the interior department to review dozens of national monuments to see if they can be scrapped to allow access for oil and gas drilling.
·        Lifted a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and is reviewing a ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast.
·        Has also called for drilling in the Arctic national refuge in Alaska.
·        Demanded rapid approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil-carrying pipelines that will violate the rights of Native Americans and expose the environment to potential oil-leaks.

But these pale before the most serious damage Trump has set in motion on the environment and on America’s standing in the world: His declaration on June 1 that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The agreement was reached in 2015 between 195 countries and took effect in November 2016. The goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main reason for global warming, that raises sea levels and unleashes major droughts. Trump, clueless or indifferent to the unimaginable security threat of climate change, has called man-made global warming a hoax. At the recently-concluded G-20 summit in Germany, leaders of 19 of the 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord. Trump was alone in abandoning it.

Thoreau is relevant today because we continue to confirm and learn from his observations. He taught us that treating the environment with respect not only made economic sense, it made even more sense as a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

He was prescient about the concentration of power and America’s shrinking role in the world that could result from misguided policies or policies driven by considerations of commerce alone: “If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.”

Thoreau’s work is also helping scientists monitor global warming, more than 160 years after the publication of his timeless Walden. In that, he was the first climatologist. Thoreau began keeping meticulous notes in 1851 about when and where plants flowered in Concord. By comparing these historical data with the data of the flowering species now, scientists were able to conclude that spring was arriving earlier now than in Thoreau’s time, a direct consequence of global warming.

There are, fortunately, many Thoreauvians among our leaders who have rejected Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and are determined to forge ahead with sustainable and innovative environmental policies.

California governor Jerry Brown, who will be hosting a global summit on climate change in San Francisco in September, released a video message to tens of thousands attending the Global Citizen Festival in Hamburg, site of the G-20 summit. In it he told listeners, “President Trump doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act. It’s time to join together.”

In explaining his motivation to move into the cabin he built by his own labor on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, and where he would spend the next two years, Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Whether or not it is clear to us, future generations of Americans will judge us by what we did to overturn Trump’s policies and the steps we took to address the threat of climate change. Will they indict us for having made a Faustian bargain, as many republicans have, passing our days like the living dead, or will they be grateful for having used our constitutional rights to front the fundamental challenge of our time, the physical well-being of the one and only planet we call home?

The Bard of Walden is waiting, watching, listening.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Americans Confront a Dangerous Crossroads on Independence Day

On the 241st anniversary of America's independence, we find ourselves at a crossroads unlike any other in our history.

Two words sum up the danger that confront us at this crossroads: Donald Trump.

Since he became the president a mere six months ago, a dark curtain has descended on America. We regress with every policy and tweet he hatches in the darkness of his heart and unleashes on the world. The bar for decency, civility and respect for the rule of law sinks lower and lower with every passing day.

Everyone on the planet, including (I am sure) the few dozen or so inhabitants of Internet-enabled Pitcairn Islands, Britain’s smallest colony in the South Pacific populated by the descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty in 1789, have read president Trump’s vicious and misogynistic tweets directed against Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, co-hosts of MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ TV program.

What has stretched the patience of even some of our fellow-Americans willing to give Trump a chance was the bald-faced lie and below-the-belt hit in the president’s tweet: “… how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with psycho Joe, came … to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

It turns out that Mika and Joe did no such thing, as clarified in an article they co-wrote for the Washington Post. Their conclusion: “Donald Trump is not well.”

It also emerged that the president is a blackmailer as well. White House officials have been calling the two hosts for weeks, apparently to kill an unfavorable story the National Enquirer - a tabloid dedicated to sensationalism - was about to run on them. “They said if you call the president up and apologize for your coverage, then he will to pick up the phone and basically spike the story.” (Enquirer owner David Pecker is a dedicated Trump chum.)

The two hosts refused to fold. The Enquirer ran the story as “Morning Joe Sleazy Cheating Scandal,” which turned out to be another damn lie as well.

Trump’s obsession with women, his boast of grabbing women’s private parts, his
past-ownership of the country’s first in-casino strip club called ‘Scores’ when he built the Trump Taj Mahal in 1990, suggest that misogyny runs deep in this man’s vein. Women matter to him only to the extent that they can be quantified as sex objects. If they turn out to be smart, independent and strong-willed, on the other hand, this unprincipled man feels threatened and is compelled to expose his virulent misogyny.

If this were only a character flaw of the rogue president, the damage could perhaps be contained, but it is not. It is the same flaw that is at the root of some of his policies: expansion of the Global Gag Rule that restricts women’s access to comprehensive health care, his elimination of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, his sabotaging of law against gender discrimination in education.

It is the same mindset that is at work in his crude attempt to replace Obamacare with the cruel Senate Health care plan (dubbed “Relief for the Rich Act” by Warren Buffet) that, if it becomes law, will throw 15 million Americans off Medicaid that covers 40 percent of America’s children and essentially leave 22 million Americans without health care over the next decade. It will take about $700 billion from the poor and the middle class and transfer it to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts.

It’s the same mindset that made Trump withdraw for the Paris Climate accord. This will significantly weaken global warming that threatens our very survival. Trump, of course, regards global warming a hoax. It is the same mindset that propels this president to wage a relentless war against the media, as his latest crude video tweet against CNN demonstrates.

We now have a president who revels in his misogyny, who sends current of excitement through his support base because many of these men also look at women as sex objects too, who feel threatened by professional, smart, high-achieving women who will kowtow to no one. Trump speaks to their insecurity, which is why it is so difficult to reason with them.

There was always a toxic subculture of misogyny in America. President Trump has brought this to the surface. He coarsens our culture on a daily basis by attacking our values with his vile instinct and boorish behavior.

With his dangerous policies and roguish rants, Trump tarnishes the image of the United States every day and in every possible way. That is why it is important that on this 4th of July in the year 2017, all of us, irrespective of party, faith and color, resolve to legally, intelligently and vigorously continue our resistance until this scourge is forced from office.