Sunday, September 30, 2007

Human Seasonal Celebration

Severe storms in the Pacific Northwest knocked out power for a time last winter. Having been out of town when this occurred, I returned to the area some days later to find the main roads cleared but the power still down and recovery very much underway and incomplete. I fired up a backup generator, heated the house, and set about the cleanup tasks, discarding spoiled food, cutting up downed trees, filing insurance claims, etc.

During a break in the weather, I took a walk around the neighborhood, inspecting the damage and contemplating the situation. It was then that I began to think about the gathering and giving spirit of this time of year. It probably has its origins far earlier than the various contemporary religious traditions to which it is commonly attributed, and probably played a crucial role in the survival of the human species to the present era.

At this time of year, when the weather often can be harsh, it was almost certainly a cooperative effort just to survive the season. People were together during these trying times much more closely and must have traded supplies as well as physical warmth, huddling together, bundling up in whatever skin blankets, tents, huts, and shelters were available. No doubt this sharing of body heat resulted in significant numbers of pregnancies.

Relief from having survived the harsh season of winter (and no longer having to huddle in such close quarters with others who by that time were no doubt starting to get on each others’ nerves) and the increasing visibility of the resulting pregnancies almost certainly is the foundation for the exuberant fertility festivals of the spring season.

A bountiful harvest, whether by hunter-gatherers, herders, or farmers, was a major factor in whether or not there would be sufficient food to survive the coming winter; hence the harvest celebrations of the autumn season. Plentiful food meant feasts during which, not unlike our kin species in the wild, people indulged, thus packing on fat reserves for the coming harsh season. What wasn’t consumed was preserved as best they knew how, to provide rations through the winter. And so the cycle continued.

Gift giving probably evolved from necessary trade between people pooling their resources during the huddle. Good will in the form of proffered foodstuffs, skin blankets, etc., was reciprocated in kind. Concern also developed on the part of those with more, to assist those who may have been unable to store adequate supplies for their own survival, an early form of a community safety net, helping some in one year and others in the next.

Coming together for survival was also an opportunity for reunion between family and friends who may have traveled separately during the rest of the year. The cheer of the time no doubt stemmed from the joy of these reunions and the comfort and security of being with the group. At night, around the fire, stories would be told, sharing the experiences of the past year, fears, triumphs; no doubt exaggerated with each telling. Many cultures devised proto-religious spiritual embellishments to help explain their experiences.

Tens of thousands of years after those ancient times of continuous survival pressure, many forms of festive seasonal traditions persist in nearly every human culture, having evolved through many twists and turns along with the religious concepts and contexts that came to surround them, to the holidays we know today. Evolution is ceaseless; certainly these traditions continue to change and adjust in light of changing reality and our ever-expanding understanding of the world around us. We are long overdue to shake off the primitive religious baggage we have carried forward to the present. Reality offers more than enough reason to celebrate without the need for a fantastical veneer of spiritual nonsense to dampen our exuberance.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The George W. Bush Memorial: A Monument to Ignorance

The George W. Bush Memorial: A Monument to Ignorance
By Mohammed J. Christiansen
WASHINGTON, DC - September 11, 2101
Today we take a moment out of our busy schedules to pause and remember the terrible events that took place on this day in 2001, a century ago. Few are alive today who still remember that day, whether they were in the area of any of the attacks and witnessed them personally, or lost loved ones, or just watched in horror via the various news media.

Today not only marks the anniversary of those tragedies and the tragic loss of life, but the opening salvo in a U.S. Presidency gone terribly wrong. George W. Bush was ushered into office by a Supreme Court decision after an election resulting in a near tie with Democratic candidate Al Gore, amid strong allegations of election tampering in several states and major counting problems in Florida in particular, where Bush’s brother was governor at the time. His presidency began in what appears to have been one of, if not the most corrupted elections in the history of the United States of America. How exactly he was able to remain in office for a second term has been the subject of much conjecture and accusation ever since.
George W. Bush defined himself as a man of Christian “Faith”. True to form, he immediately began working to weaken the separation of church and state, so vital to a strong democratic society. President Bush used his “faith” in lieu of intelligence and reason in making vital decisions that would affect not only the United States but the world at large, thereby dramatically weakening the standing of the United States among other nations, seriously undermining its moral and political leadership. Lacking in basic intelligence and common sense, he surrounded himself with smarter people; yet failed miserably to heed their advice, or worse, pressured them to alter their advice to conform to his “faith-based” agenda. A few who recognized his intellectual frailty, appealed to his faith to forward their own pernicious agendas; notably his vice president, the aptly named Dick Cheney.

Mr. Bush was not well read, preferring instead to spend time on his Texas ranch land, “clearing brush”, chain saw in hand. On the international front, his interactions with other world leaders were often juvenile; his ability to distinguish friend from potential foe, dubious at best. Cheney was widely recognized as the intelligence behind his administration; though that intelligence was seldom applied in the best interests of the United States or its people. The incompetence and ineptitude of this administration as a whole is legendary still today.
George W. Bush was often referred to deservedly disrespectfully as “W” (to differentiate him from the prior president and his father, George H. W. Bush), or as “Dubya”, pronouncing the “W” with an imitated Texas accent, or as George Shrub, or George Bush “the lesser”.

Following the events of September 11th, 2001, when it was determined that a radical Islamic group operating under the name Al Qaida was responsible, its leader, Osama bin Laden, once supported by covert US operations in Afghanistan, but since recognized as a terrorist enemy of the west, was identified as the prime target for a response. An Islamic extremist group known as the Taliban was oppressively ruling Afghanistan at the time and, not surprisingly, refused to extradite bin Laden. After token negotiations in the United Nations, a well-intentioned, if largely ineffective international diplomatic organization, the decision was made to declare war on Afghanistan and remove the Taliban from power, paving the way, ostensibly at least, to capturing or killing bin Laden. This initial incursion was carried off relatively smoothly by a “coalition” consisting primarily of US forces but with some token international support. The Taliban was effectively neutralized, and a puppet government installed. Residual Taliban continued to pose a threat, trying to reconstitute their opressive rule. US and multinational forces would remain in theater for years in an effort to combat these extremist forces and maintain some semblance of civil order.

Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding out in rugged territory straddling the border between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, controlled not by either country, but by tribal forces ensconced there. Bush appealed to the then leader of Pakistan, President, General Pervez Musharraf and hastily forged an alliance in which Pakistani forces were enlisted to try and corral bin Laden and possibly capture him. Pakistan, immersed in a territorial dispute with neighboring India that saw both experimenting with nuclear weapons, now found itself in an important negotiating position with the US and was quick to cooperate or at least present the appearance of cooperation in order that it might gain some leverage. It wasn't until years later, under the administration of Barack Obama, the first US president of African descent, who followed George W. Bush in office, when US forces finally caught up with bin Laden in living in relative comfort inside Pakistan; a confrontation that resulted in his death.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush, after pressuring the intelligence community to produce what later was exposed as pathetic “evidence” that Saddam Hussein in nearby Iraq had been tangentially involved in the terrorist attacks against the US and was producing so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), ostensibly in preparation for a full-on attack on the United States and/or its interests abroad; the same Saddam Hussein against whom an earlier president, Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush had fought a war and prevailed but failed to “finish the job” and remove him from power, presented that “evidence” to the United Nations through one Colin Powell, who up to that point had been widely viewed as a man of great personal integrity by most of the American public and much of the world for that matter. After deliberations and under great pressure from the Bush administration, the UN eventually issued resolutions making demands of Hussein. Ultimately, this was used as pretext for a war in Iraq, carried off by another “coalition” consisting again predominantly of US forces, with grudging token support from other nations.

Hussein, while certainly no angel, was not the perpetrator of the September 11th attacks and by all accounts, was not in any way involved in them, directly or indirectly. Though he was removed from power and eventually tried in a hastily reconstituted Iraqi court, ostensibly of, by, and on behalf of Iraqis, convicted, and hanged for his crimes against Iraq, Hussein, through his certainly destructive program of cash “reward” payments made to the families of suicide bombers killing innocent civilians in Israel, was only a relatively minor player in the global terrorism threat on which was founded Bush’s new doctrine of preemptive action. The Iraq war, primarily a realization of the personal agendas of Bush and his Vice President Cheney, was a tremendous drain on the US national budget and cost thousands of American lives – more in fact than the September 11th attack, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, most of whom were probably innocent civilians.

Bush invoked and far exceeded constitutional wartime powers to expand the power of the Executive branch, much to the detriment of the strength of the Constitution and of the United States’ form of constitutional democracy itself. During his tenure, he installed members of the Supreme Court, including a Chief Justice, tipping the balance from a progressive and rationally minded court to one with strong Christian “conservative” leanings. The damage to the American way of life resulting from this change alone is still being tallied. Wherever he had the opportunity, Bush used his religious beliefs as an excuse to undo decades of progress in civil rights and freedoms, medical research, and other areas. The Bush administration regularly interfered with the due course of scientific research, and pressured various governmental agencies to alter their reports away from reality in support of his beliefs. He and his administration effectively vandalized the United States of America, its government and its constitution, undermining the very foundations of what had been the greatest national experiment in the history of human society. The republican party suffered as well, allowing its right-wing religious constituency to influence run amok, fielding more than a few rank idiots as vice presidential and presidential candidates, and generally showing itself to be misaligned with the interests of the nation at large. Not that the democrats had it right either, but they were at least not so inflexible and dogmatic.

It is not, however, merely the ignorance of this failed president that makes his uncharacteristically modest if well maintained memorial a monument to ignorance; nor is it just the crimes and misdoings of his administration. It is the ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry of the religious multitudes, Christian and Muslim in particular, so focused on their myths and dogma. It is the ignorance of a huge portion of the American public, religious and otherwise, so complacent in the supposed checks and balances designed to protect against just such a criminal administration as to somehow overlook the fact that with the republican-dominated congress and hand picked Supreme Court, the administration in its first term had nearly completely dismantled those very safeguards and twisted the knife in the wound during the early part of its second. Only midway through his second term did the American public finally dislodge the republican congressional majority, and then only by the narrowest of margins.

American citizens’ direct and continual involvement in the public discourse, not merely in the electoral process, an essential ingredient of the American System, had been abdicated by the citizenry at large, probably beginning with the growth of the broadcast media into the position of dominant source of public information, effectively turning the great democratic conversation into a one-way presentation, excluding the input of the citizenry at large. Direct citizen involvement, the safeguard of first and last resort, was critical to the healthy pursuit of American Democracy. This involvement had already almost completely evaporated by the time of the George W. Bush Administration; yet this alarming situation was hardly even recognized by the public at large, lured into complacency by a media and political status quo that had by then been reduced to little more than a marketing campaign, selling politicians much the way of any other product: clothing, hygiene products, food.

Ignorant Americans stood by and watched their very way of life systematically undermined by a presidential administration reminiscent of nothing so much as the early days of the Third Reich, but in America, where such things were not supposed to happen. This was the administration that the founding fathers feared. This was the administration against which the various safeguards were installed in the first place, all those many years ago. Yet Ignorant Americans stood by and let it happen.

Ignorant Muslims world wide said nothing when extremists from among their ranks perpetrated horrible crimes against humanity, usually aimed deliberately at innocent civilians including children, under the aegis of the dogma of their supposedly peaceful religion.

Ignorant Christians the world over, but in the United States in particular, reveled in the delusion that events were unfolding that looked eerily similar to events they’d been brainwashed to expect leading up to the “second coming” of their imagined messiah.

None of these prophesied events came to pass of course. After years of brutal and bloody war, reasonable minds began to emerge, publishing in traditional media such as books, and new electronic media such as the Internet, the first global electronic information network, an omnidirectional medium in which everyone could participate worldwide. Eventually, the jumpstarted conversation resumed, this time with input not only from within the United States, but worldwide, from all sides of the issues. Eventually, reason reasserted itself, leading in time to a more rational and more peaceful public discourse and society as a whole began to heal.

On this hundredth anniversary of the tragedy that served as the trigger for this sad chain of events, it is for all the citizens of the Planet Earth to remember and study this and other atrocities throughout our history; to recognize in ourselves the tendency toward, and actively and aggressively work to prevent another one; to combat the forces of dogma wherever they may show their faces; to teach our children the time-tested methods of critical thinking, analysis, and introspection, and the imperative to apply them; to work for the strength of our society for the benefit of all the inhabitants of this tiny blue planet we call home.
Mohammed Judas Christiansen is Managing editor of the Jerusalem Global News System. His commentaries are featured regularly in this forum.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Scientology Faces Criminal Charges

"BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — A Belgian prosecutor on Tuesday recommended that the U.S.-based Church of Scientology stand trial for fraud and extortion, following a 10-year investigation that concluded the group should be labeled a criminal organization."
The German government considers Scientology a commercial enterprise that takes advantage of vulnerable people.


Perhaps Germany should also take them to court. Why stop with Scientology? Perhaps they should take all the 'commercial enterprises taking advantage of vulnerable people' to court. There are many such enterprises far more well established than Scientology that collectively have done far more harm throughout the millennia.