Tuesday, May 30, 2006

5.30.06 Jensen: The Four Fundamentalisms

The Four Fundamentalisms

The most important words anyone said to me in the weeks immediately after September 11, 2001, came from my friend James Koplin. While acknowledging the significance of that day, he said, simply: "I was in a profound state of grief about the world before 9/11, and nothing that happened on that day has significantly changed what the world looks like to me."

Because Jim is a bit older and considerably smarter than I, it took me some time to catch up to him, but eventually I recognized his insight. He was warning me that even we lefties -- trained to keep an eye on systems and structures of power rather than obsessing about individual politicians and single events -- were missing the point if we accepted the conventional wisdom that 9/11 "changed everything," as the saying went then. He was right, and today I want to talk about four fundamentalisms loose in the world and the long-term crisis to which they point.

Before we head there, a note on the short-term crisis: I have been involved in U.S. organizing against the so-called "war on terror," which has provided cover for the attempts to expand and deepen U.S. control over the strategically crucial resources of Central Asia and the Middle East, part of a global strategy that the Bush administration openly acknowledges is aimed at unchallengeable U.S domination of the world. For U.S. planners, that "world" includes not only the land and seas -- and, of course, the resources beneath them -- but space above as well. It is our world to arrange and dispose of as they see fit, in support of our "blessed lifestyle." Other nations can have a place in that world as long as they are willing to assume the role that the United States determines appropriate. The vision of U.S. policymakers is of a world very ordered, by them.

This description of U.S. policy is no caricature. Anyone who doubts my summary can simply read the National Security Strategy document released in 2002 and the 2006 update and review post-World War II U.S. history. Read and review, but only if you don't mind waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat of fear. But as scary as these paranoid, power-mad policymakers' delusions may be, Jim was talking about a feeling beyond that fear -- a grief that is much broader and goes much deeper.

Opposing the war-of-the-moment -- and going beyond that to challenge the whole imperial project -- is important. But also important is the work of thinking through the nature of the larger forces that leave us in this grief-stricken position. We need to go beyond Bush. We should recognize the seriousness of the threat that this particular gang of thieves and thugs poses and resist their policies, but not mistake them for the core of the problem.


One way to come to terms with these forces is to understand the United States as a society in the grip of four fundamentalisms. In ascending order of threat, I identify these fundamentalisms as religious, national, economic, and technological. All share some similar characteristics, while each poses a particular threat to sustainable democracy and sustainable life on the planet. Each needs separate analysis and strategies for resistance.

Let's start by defining fundamentalism. The term has a specific meaning in Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote "The Fundamentals"), but I want to use it in a more general fashion to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Such fundamentalism leads to an inclination to want to marginalize, or in some cases eliminate, alternative ways to understand and organize the world. After all, what's the point of engaging in honest dialogue with those who believe in heretical systems that are so clearly wrong or even evil? In this sense, fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris, a delusional overconfidence not only in one's beliefs but in the ability of humans to know much of anything definitively. In the way I use the term, fundamentalism isn't unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of very limited knowledge for wisdom.

The antidote to fundamentalism is humility, that recognition of just how contingent our knowledge about the world is. We need to adopt what sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson calls "an ignorance-based worldview," an approach to world that acknowledges that what we don't know dwarfs what we do know about a complex world. Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in stupidity, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don't know. When properly understood, I think such humility is implicit in traditional/indigenous systems and also ­the key lesson to be taken from the Enlightenment and modern science (a contentious claim, perhaps, given the way in which modern science tends to overreach). The Enlightenment insight, however, is not that human reason can know everything, but that we can give up attempts to know everything and be satisfied with knowing what we can know. That is, we can be content in making it up as we go along, cautiously. One of the tragedies of the modern world is that too few have learned that lesson.

Fundamentalists, no matter what the specific belief system, believe in their ability to know a lot. That is why it can be so easy for fundamentalists to move from one totalizing belief system to another. For example, I have a faculty colleague who shifted from being a dogmatic communist to a dogmatic right-wing evangelical Christian. When people hear of his conversion they often express amazement, though to me it always seemed easy to understand -- he went from one fundamentalism to another. What matters is not so much the content but the shape of the belief system. Such systems should worry us.

That said, not all fundamentalisms pose the same danger to democracy and sustainability. So, let's go through the four I have identified: religious, national, economic, and technological.


The fundamentalism that attracts the most attention is religious. In the United States, the predominant form is Christian. Elsewhere in the world, Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalisms are attractive to some significant portion of populations, either spread across a diaspora or concentrated in one region, or both. Given all the attention focused on religious fundamentalism, I'll assume everyone has at least a passing acquaintance with the phenomenon and is aware of its threats.

But religious fundamentalism is not necessarily the most serious fundamentalist threat loose in the world today. Certainly much evil has been done in the world in the name of religion, especially the fundamentalist varieties, and we can expect more in the future. But, moving up the list, we also can see clearly the problems posed by national fundamentalism.

Nationalism poses a threat everywhere but should especially concern us in the United States, where the capacity for destruction in the hands of the most powerful state in the history of the world is exacerbated by a pathological hyper-patriotism that tends to suppress internal criticism and leave many unable to hear critique from outside. In other writing (Chapter 3 of Citizens of the Empire) I have outlined in some detail an argument that patriotism is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Here, let me simply point out that because a nation-state is an abstraction (lines on a map, not a naturally occurring object), assertions of patriotism (defined as love of or loyalty to a nation-state) raise a simple question: To what we are pledging our love and loyalty? How is that abstraction made real? I conclude that all the possible answers are indefensible and that instead of pledging allegiance to a nation, we should acknowledge and celebrate our connections to real people in our lives while also declaring a commitment to universal principles, but reject offering commitment to arbitrary political units that in the modern era have been the vehicle for such barbarism and brutality.

That critique applies across the board, but because of our power and peculiar history, a rejection of national fundamentalism is most crucial in the United States. The dominant conception of that history is captured in the phrase "the city upon a hill," the notion that the United States came into the world as the first democracy, a beacon to the world. In addition to setting the example, as soon as it had the capacity to project its power around the world, the United States claimed to be the vehicle for bringing democracy to that world. These are particularly odd claims for a nation that owes its very existence to one of the most successful genocides in recorded history, the near-complete extermination of indigenous peoples to secure the land and resource base for the United States. Odder still when one looks at the U.S. practice of African slavery that propelled the United States into the industrial world, and considers the enduring apartheid system -- once formal and now informal -- that arose from it. And odd-to-the-point-of-bizarre in the context of imperial America's behavior in the world since it emerged as the lone superpower and made central to its foreign policy in the post-WWII era attacks on any challenge in the Third World to U.S. dominance.

While all the empires that have committed great crimes -- the British, French, Belgians, Japanese, Russians and then the Soviets -- have justified their exploitation of others by the alleged benefits it brought to the people being exploited, there is no power so convinced of its own benevolence as the United States. The culture is delusional in its commitment to this mythology, which is why today one can find on the other side of the world peasant farmers with no formal education who understand better the nature of U.S. power than many faculty members at elite U.S. universities. This national fundamentalism rooted in the assumption of the benevolence of U.S. foreign and military policy works to trump critical inquiry. As long as a significant component of the U.S. public -- and virtually the entire elite -- accept this national fundamentalism, the world is at risk.


Economic fundamentalism, synonymous these days with market fundamentalism, presents another grave threat. After fall of the Soviet system, the naturalness of capitalism is now taken to be beyond question. The dominant assumption about corporate capitalism in the United States is not simply that it is the best among competing economic systems, but that it is the only sane and rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world.

In capitalism, (1) property, including capital assets, is owned and controlled by private persons; (2) people sell their labor for money wages, and (3) goods and services are allocated by markets. In contemporary market fundamentalism, also referred to as neoliberalism, it's assumed that most extensive use of markets possible will unleash maximal competition, resulting in the greatest good -- and all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. The reigning ideology of so-called "free trade" seeks to impose this neoliberalism everywhere on the globe. In this fundamentalism, it is an article of faith that the "invisible hand" of the market always provides the preferred result, no matter how awful the consequences may be for real people.

A corresponding tenet of the market fundamentalist view is that the government should not interfere in any of this; the appropriate role of government, we are told, is to stay out of the economy. This is probably the most ridiculous aspect of the ideology, for the obvious reason that it is the government that establishes the rules for the system (currency, contract law, etc.) and decides whether the wealth accumulated under previous sets of rules should be allowed to remain in the hands of those who accumulated it (typically in ways immoral, illegal, or both; we should recall the quip that behind every great fortune is a great crime) or be redistributed. To argue that government should stay out of the economy merely obscures the obvious fact that without the government -- that is, without rules established through some kind of collective action -- there would be no economy. The government can't stay out because it's in from the ground floor, and assertions that government intervention into markets is inherently illegitimate are just silly.

Adding to the absurdity of all this is the hypocrisy of the market fundamentalists, who are quick to call on government to bail them out when things go sour (in recent U.S history, the savings-and-loan and auto industries are the most outrageous examples). And then there's the reality of how some government programs -- most notably the military and space departments -- act as conduits for the transfer of public money to private corporations under the guise of "national defense" and the "exploration of space." And then there's the problem of market failure -- the inability of private markets to provide some goods or provide other goods at the most desirable levels -- of which economists are well aware.

In other words, economic fundamentalism -- the worship of markets combined with steadfast denial about how the system actually operates -- leads to a world in which not only are facts irrelevant to the debate, but people learn to ignore their own experience.

On the facts: There is a widening gap between rich and poor, both worldwide and within most nations. According to U.N. statistics, about a quarter of the world's population lives on less than $1 a day and nearly half live on less than $2. The 2005 U.N. Report on the World Social Situation, aptly titled "The Inequality Predicament," stresses:

"Ignoring inequality in the pursuit of development is perilous. Focusing exclusively on economic growth and income generation as a development strategy is ineffective, as it leads to the accumulation of wealth by a few and deepens the poverty of many; such an approach does not acknowledge the intergenerational transmission of poverty."

That's where the data lead. But I want to highlight the power of this fundamentalism by reminding us of a common acronym: TGIF. Everyone in the United States knows what that means: "Thank God it's Friday." The majority of Americans don't just know what TGIF stands for, they feel it in their bones. That's a way of saying that a majority of Americans do work they generally do not like and do not believe is really worth doing. That's a way of saying that we have an economy in which most people spend at least a third of their lives doing things they don't want to do and don't believe are valuable. We are told this is a way of organizing an economy that is natural.


Religious, national, and economic fundamentalisms are dangerous. They are systems of thought -- or, more accurately, systems of non-thought; as Wes Jackson puts it, "fundamentalism takes over where thought leaves off" -- that are at the core of much of the organized violence in the world today. They are systems that are deployed to constrain real freedom and justify illegitimate authority. But it may turn out that those fundamentalisms are child's play compared with U.S. society's technological fundamentalism.

Most concisely defined, technological fundamentalism is the assumption that the increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Those who question such declarations are often said to be "anti-technology," which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether it's stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly clear. For example, there's the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which gave us the interstate highway system and contributes to global warming. We haven't quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a transportation system based on the car and think through the consequences.

Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of industrial, commercial, and household applications, including in air conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the 1930s -- non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth's surface, and overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression.

But, the technological fundamentalists might argue, we got a handle on that one and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. True enough, but what lessons have been learned? Society didn't react to the news about CFCs by thinking about ways to step back from a world that has become dependent on air conditioning, but instead looked for replacements to keep the air conditioning running. So, the reasonable question is: When will the unintended effects of the CFC replacements become visible? If not the ozone hole, what's next? There's no way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question and sensible to assume the worst.

This technological fundamentalism makes it clear why Jackson's call for an ignorance-based worldview is so important. If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed -- out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology -- I doubt any of us would ever get a good night's sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for some time, most dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Most obviously, there are two places we have gone, with reckless abandon, where we had no business going -- into the atom and into the cell.

On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks we take. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe -- such as fossil fuels and, eventually, heavy metal uranium -- is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene -- the foundational material of life -- takes us to places we have no way to understand.

We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation of how to step back from our most dangerous missteps.


Central to that project is realizing that we have to learn to live with less, which we can accomplish only when we recognize that living with less is crucial not only to ecological survival but long-term human fulfillment. People in the United States live with an abundance of most everything -- except meaning. The people who have the most in material terms seem to spend the most time in therapy, searching for answers to their own alienation. This "blessed lifestyle" -- a term Bush's spokesman used in 2000 to describe the president's view of U.S. affluence -- perhaps is more accurately also seen as a curse.

Let's return to CFCs and air-conditioning. To someone who lives in Texas, with its miserable heat half the year, it's reasonable to ask: If not air-conditioning, then what? One possible reasonable response is, of course, to vacate Texas, a strategy I ponder often. More realistic: The "cracker house," a term from Florida and Georgia to describe houses built before air-conditioning that utilize shade, cross-ventilation, and various building techniques to create a livable space even in the summer in the deep South. Of course, even with all that, there are times when it's hot in a cracker house -- so hot that one doesn't want to do much of anything but drink iced tea and sit on the porch. That raises a question: What's so bad about sitting on the porch drinking iced tea instead of sitting inside in an air-conditioned house?

A world that steps back from high-energy/high-technology answers to all questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope without such "solutions" can help create and solidify human bonds. In this sense, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished relationships and the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the information those practices carry. So, stepping back from this fundamentalism is not simply sacrifice but an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy amusement for a different set of rewards.

Articulating this is important in a world in which people have come to believe the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology. To miss the way in which turning from the high-energy/high-technology can improve our lives, then, supports the techno-fundamentalists, such as this writer in the Wired magazine:

"Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were unappealing to most people. They called for tightening belts and curbing appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain. They rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favor of returning to a simpler way of life. No wonder the movement got so little traction. Asking people in the world's wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naïve at best."

Naïve, perhaps, but not as naïve as the belief that unsustainable systems can be sustained indefinitely. With that writer's limited vision -- which is what passes for vision in this culture -- it's not surprising that he advocates economic and technological fundamentalist solutions:

"With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism's concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future."

In other words: Let's ignore our experience and throw the dice. Let's take naiveté to new heights. Let's forget all we should have learned.


So far, it appears my criticism has been of the fundamentalist versions of religion, nation, capitalism, and high-technology. But the problem goes deeper than the most exaggerated versions of these systems. If there is to be a livable future, religion as we know it, the nation-state, capitalism, and what we think of as advanced technology will have to give way to new ways of understanding the world and organizing ourselves. We still have to find ways to struggle with the mystery of the world through ritual and art; organize ourselves politically; produce and distribute goods and services; and create the tools we need to do all these things. But the existing systems have proven inadequate to the task. On each front, we need major conceptual revolutions.

I don't pretend to have answers, nor should anyone else. We are at the beginning of a long process of redefining what it means to be human in relation to others and to the non-human world. We are still formulating questions. Some find this a depressing situation, but we could just as well see it as a time that opens incredible opportunities for creativity. To live in unsettled times -- especially times in which it's not difficult to imagine life as we know it becoming increasingly untenable -- is both frightening and exhilarating. In that sense, my friend's acknowledgement of profound grief need not scare us but instead can be a place from which we see clearly and gather the strength to move forward.

What is that path? Tracking the four fundamentalisms, we can see some turns we need to make.

Technologically: We need to stop talking about progress in terms that reflexively glorify faster and more powerful devices, and instead adopt a standard for judging progress based on the real effects on humans and the wider world of which we are a part.

Economically: We need to stop talking about growth in terms of more production and adopt a standard for economic growth and development based on meeting human needs.

Nationally: We need to stop talking about national security and the national interest -- code words for serving the goals of the powerful -- and focus on people's interests in being secure in the basics: food, shelter, education, and communal solidarity.

Religiously: We need to stop trying to pin down God. We can understand God as simply the name we give to that which is beyond our ability to understand, and recognize that the attempt to create rules for how to know God is always a failed project.

I want to end by reinforcing the ultimate importance of that recognition: Most of the world is complex beyond our ability to comprehend. It's not that there's nothing we can know through our rational faculties, but that it's essential we recognize the limits of those faculties. We need to reject the fundamentalist streak in all of us, religious or secular, whatever our political affiliation.

We need to stop mistaking cleverness for wisdom. We need to embrace our limits -- our ignorance -- in the hopes that we can stop being so stupid.

When we do that we are coming to terms with the kind of animals we are, in all our glory and all our limitations. That embrace of our limitations is an embrace of a larger world of which we are a part, more glorious than most of us ever experience.

When we do that -- if we can find our way clear to do that -- I think we make possible love in this world. Not an idealized love, but a real love that recognizes the joy that is possible and the grief that is inevitable.

It is my dream to live in that world, to live in that love.

There is much work to be done if we want that world. There is enormous struggle that can't be avoided. When we allow ourselves to face it, we will realize that ahead of us there is suffering beyond description, as well as potential for transcending that suffering.

There is grief and joy.

And there is nothing to do but face it.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

Monday, May 22, 2006

5.22.06 Moyers: Pass the Bread

Pass the Bread
by Bill Moyers
Text of Baccalaureate Address
Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
May 20, 2006

I will make this brief because I know you have much to do between now and your farewell to Hamilton tomorrow, and that you are eager to get out and enjoy this perfect day in this glorious weather that somehow never gets mentioned in your promotional and recruitment literature.

One of my closest friends and colleagues, David Bate, graduated in 1938, and patriot that he is, headed right for the U.S. Navy where he served throughout World War II. David's father graduated from Hamilton in 1908 and two of his children continued the tradition. I asked David what he learned at Hamilton and he told me Hamilton is where you discover that being smart has nothing to do with being warm and dry...Just kidding! Thank you for inviting Judith and me to share this occasion with you. Fifty years ago both of us turned the same corner you are turning today and left college for the great beyond. Looking back across half a century I wish our speaker at the time had said something really useful--something that would have better prepared us for what lay ahead. I wish he had said: "Don't Go."

So I have been thinking seriously about what I might say to you in this Baccalaureate service. Frankly, I'm not sure anyone from my generation should be saying anything to your generation except, "We're sorry. We're really sorry for the mess you're inheriting. We are sorry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We're sorry for the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics. Our imperiled democracy. We're sorry for the sprawl and our addiction to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up."

You're going to have your hands full, frankly. I don't need to tell you of the gloomy scenarios being written for your time. Three books on my desk right now question whether human beings will even survive the 21st century. Just listen to their titles: The Long Emergency: Surviving the Convergence Catastrophe; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; The Winds of Change: Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations.

These are just three of the recent books that make the apocalypse prophesied in the Bible...the Revelations of St. John...look like child's play. I won't summarize them for you except to say that they spell out Doomsday scenarios for global catastrophe. There's another recent book called The Revenge of Gaia that could well have been subtitled, "The Earth Strikes Back," because the author, James Lovelock, says human consumption, our obsession with technology, and our habit of "playing God" are stripping bare nature's assets until the Earth's only consolation will be to take us down with her. Before this century is over, he writes, "Billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be kept in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable." So there you have it: The future of the race, to be joined in a final and fatal march of the penguins.

Of course that's not the only scenario. You can Google your way to a lot of optimistic possibilities. For one, the digital revolution that will transform how we do business and live our lives, including active intelligent wireless devices that in just a short time could link every aspect of our physical world and even human brains, creating hundreds of thousands of small-scale business opportunities. There are medical breakthroughs that will conquer many ills and extend longevity. Economic changes will lift hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty in the next 25 years, dwarfing anything that's come along in the previous 100 years. These are possible scenarios, too. But I'm a journalist, not a prophet. I can't say which of these scenarios will prove true. You won't be bored, that's for sure. I just wish I were going to be around to see what you do with the peril and the promise.

Since I won't be around, I want to take this opportunity to say a thing or two that have nothing to do with my professional work as a journalist. What I have to say today is very personal. Here it is:

If the world confuses you a little, it confuses me a lot. When I graduated fifty years ago I thought I had the answers. But life is where you get your answers questioned, and the odds are that you can look forward to being even more perplexed fifty years from now than you are at this very moment. If your parents level with you, truly speak their hearts, I suspect they would tell you life confuses them, too, and that it rarely turns out the way you thought it would.

I find I am alternatively afraid, cantankerous, bewildered, often hostile, sometimes gracious, and battered by a hundred new sensations every day. I can be filled with a pessimism as gloomy as the depth of the middle ages, yet deep within me I'm possessed of a hope that simply won't quit. A friend on Wall Street said one day that he was optimistic about the market, and I asked him, "Then why do you look so worried?" He replied, "Because I'm not sure my optimism is justified." Neither am I. So I vacillate between the determination to act, to change things, and the desire to retreat into the snuggeries of self, family and friends.

I wonder if any of us in this great, disputatious, over-analyzed, over-televised and under-tenderized country know what the deuce we're talking about, myself included. All my illusions are up for grabs, and I find myself re-assessing many of the assumptions that served me comfortable much of my life.

Earlier this week I heard on the radio a discussion in New York City about the new Disney Broadway production of Tarzan, the jungle hero so popular when I was growing up. I remember as a kid almost dislocating my tonsils trying to recreate his unearthly sound, swinging on a great vine in a graceful arc toward the rescue of his distressed mate, Jane, hollering bloody murder all the time. So what have we learned since? That Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weismuller, who played Tarzan in the movies, never made that noise. It was a recording of three men, one a baritone, one a tenor, and one a hog caller from Arkansas--all yelling to the top of their lungs. This world is hard on believers.

As a young man I was drawn to politics. I took part in two national campaigns, served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and have covered politics ever since. But I understand now what Thomas Jefferson meant back in 1789 when he wrote: "I am not a Federalist because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men, whether in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or anything else. If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." Of course we know there'll be no parties in Heaven. No Democrats, no Republicans, no liberals, no conservatives, no libertarians or socialists. Just us Baptists.

The hardest struggle of all is to reconcile life's polar realities. I love books, Beethoven, and chocolate brownies. Yet how do I justify my pleasure in these in a world where millions are illiterate, the music never plays, and children go hungry through the night? How do I live sanely in a world so unsafe for so many?

I don't know what they taught you here at Hamilton about all this, but I trust you are not leaving here without thinking about how you will respond to the dissonance in our culture, the rivalry between beauty and bestiality in the world, and the conflicts in your own soul. All of us have to choose sides on this journey. But the question is not so much who we are going to fight against as it is which side of our own nature will we nurture: The side that can grow weary and even cynical and believe that everything is futile, or the side that for all the vulgarity, brutality, and cruelty, yearns to affirm, connect and signify. Albert Camus got it right: There is beauty in the world as well as humiliation, "And we have to strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaithful...in the presence of one or the other.

That's really what brings me here this afternoon. I did put myself in your place, and asked what I'd want a stranger from another generation to tell me if I had to sit through his speech. Well, I'd want to hear the truth: The truth is, life's a tough act, the world's a hard place, and along the way you will meet a fair share of fools, knaves and clowns--even act the fool yourself from time to time when your guard is down or you've had too much wine. I'd like to be told that I will experience separation, loss and betrayal, that I'll wonder at times where have all the flowers gone.

I would want to be told that while life includes a lot of luck, life is more than luck. It is sacrifice, study, and work; appointments kept, deadlines met, promises honored. I'd like to be told that it's okay to love your country right or wrong, but it's not right to be silent when your country is wrong. And I would like to be encouraged not to give up on the American experience. To remember that the same culture which produced the Ku Klux Klan, Tom DeLay and Abu Ghraib, also brought forth the Peace Corps, Martin Luther King and Hamilton College.

And I would like to be told that there is more to this life than I can see, earn, or learn in my time. That beyond the day-to-day spectacle are cosmic mysteries we don't understand. That in the meantime--and the meantime is where we live--we infinitesimal particles of creation carry on the miracle of loving, laughing and being here now, by giving, sharing and growing now.

Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. I read it a long time ago and it's stayed with me. There was a man named Shalom Aleicheim. He was one of the accursed of the Earth. Every misfortune imaginable befell him. He lost his wife, his children neglected him, his house burned down, his job disappeared--everything he touched turned to dust. Yet through all this Shalom kept returning good for evil everywhere he could until he died. When the angels heard he was arriving at Heaven's gate, they hurried down to greet him. Even the Lord was there, so great was this man's fame for goodness. It was the custom in Heaven that every newcomer was interrogated by the prosecuting angel, to assure that all trespasses on Earth had been atoned. But when Shalom reached those gates, the prosecuting angel arose, and for the first time in the memory of Heaven, said, "There are no charges." Then the angel for the defense arose and rehearsed all the hardships this man had endured and recounted how in all the difficult circumstances of his life he had remained true to himself and returned good for evil.

When the angel was finished, the Lord said, "Not since Job himself have we heard of a life such as this one." And then, turning to Shalom, he said, "Ask, and it shall be given to you."

The old man raised his eyes and said, "Well, if I could start every day with a hot buttered roll..." And at that the Lord and all the angels wept, at the preciousness of what he was asking for, at the beauty of simple things : a buttered roll, a clean bed, a beautiful summer day, someone to love and be loved by. These supply joy and meaning on this earthly journey.

So I brought this with me. It's an ordinary breakfast roll, perhaps one like Shalom asked for. I brought it because it drives home the last thing I want to say to you. Bread is the great re-enforcer of the reality principle. Bread is life. But if you're like me you have a thousand and more times repeated the ordinary experience of eating bread without a thought for the process that brings it to your table. The reality is physical: I need this bread to live. But the reality is also social: I need others to provide the bread. I depend for bread on hundreds of people I don't know and will never meet. If they fail me, I go hungry. If I offer them nothing of value in exchange for their loaf, I betray them. The people who grow the wheat, process and store the grain, and transport it from farm to city; who bake it, package it, and market it--these people and I are bound together in an intricate reciprocal bargain. We exchange value.

This reciprocity sustains us. If you doubt it, look around you. Hamilton College was raised here by people before your time, people you'll never know, who were nonetheless thinking of you before you were born. You have received what they built and bequeathed, and in your time you will give something back. That's the deal. On and on it goes, from generation to generation.

Civilization sustains and supports us. The core of its value is bread. But bread is its great metaphor. All my life I've prayed the Lord's Prayer, and I've never prayed, "Give me this day my daily bread." It is always, "Give us this day our daily bread." Bread and life are shared realities. They do not happen in isolation. Civilization is an unnatural act. We have to make it happen, you and I, together with all the other strangers. And because we and strangers have to agree on the difference between a horse thief and a horse trader, the distinction is ethical. Without it, a society becomes a war against all, and a market for the wolves becomes a slaughter for the lambs. My generation hasn't done the best job at honoring this ethical bargain, and our failure explains the mess we're handing over to you. You may be our last chance to get it right. So good luck, Godspeed, enjoy these last few hours together, and don't forget to pass the bread.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

5.13.06 Almond: Condoleezza Rice at Boston College? I Quit

Condoleezza Rice at Boston College? I Quit

By Steve Almond

An open letter to William P. Leahy, SJ, president of Boston College.

Dear Father Leahy,
I am writing to resign my post as an adjunct professor of English at Boston College.

I am doing so -- after five years at BC, and with tremendous regret -- as a direct result of your decision to invite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be the commencement speaker at this year's graduation.

Many members of the faculty and student body already have voiced their objection to the invitation, arguing that Rice's actions as secretary of state are inconsistent with the broader humanistic values of the university and the Catholic and Jesuit traditions from which those values derive.

But I am not writing this letter simply because of an objection to the war against Iraq. My concern is more fundamental. Simply put, Rice is a liar.

She has lied to the American people knowingly, repeatedly, often extravagantly over the past five years, in an effort to justify a pathologically misguided foreign policy.

The public record of her deceits is extensive. During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, she made 29 false or misleading public statements concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda, according to a congressional investigation by the House Committee on Government Reform.

To cite one example:

In an effort to build the case for war, then-National Security Adviser Rice repeatedly asserted that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapon, and specifically seeking uranium in Africa.

In July of 2003, after these claims were disproved, Rice said: ''Now if there were doubts about the underlying intelligence . . . those doubts were not communicated to the president, the vice president, or to me."

Rice's own deputy, Stephen Hadley, later admitted that the CIA had sent her a memo eight months earlier warning against the use of this claim.

In the three years since the war began, Rice has continued to misrepresent or simply ignore the truth about our deadly adventure in Iraq.

Like the president whom she serves so faithfully, she refuses to recognize her errors or the tragic consequences of those errors to the young soldiers and civilians dying in Iraq. She is a diplomat whose central allegiance is not to the democratic cause of this nation, but absolute power.

This is the woman to whom you will be bestowing an honorary degree, along with the privilege of addressing the graduating class of 2006.

It is this last notion I find most reprehensible: that Boston College would entrust to Rice the role of moral exemplar.

To be clear: I am not questioning her intellectual gifts or academic accomplishments. Nor her potentially inspiring role as a powerful woman of color.

But these are not the factors by which a commencement speaker should be judged. It is the content of one's character that matters here -- the reverence for truth and knowledge that Boston College purports to champion.

Rice does not personify these values; she repudiates them. Whatever inspiring rhetoric she might present to the graduating class, her actions as a citizen and politician tell a different story.

Honestly, Father Leahy, what lessons do you expect her to impart to impressionable seniors?

That hard work in the corporate sector might gain them a spot on the board of Chevron? That they, too, might someday have an oil tanker named after them? That it is acceptable to lie to the American people for political gain?

Given the widespread objection to inviting Rice, I would like to think you will rescind the offer. But that is clearly not going to happen.

Like the administration in Washington, you appear too proud to admit to your mistake. Instead, you will mouth a bunch of platitudes, all of which boil down to: You don't want to lose face.

In this sense, you leave me no choice.

I cannot, in good conscience, exhort my students to pursue truth and knowledge, then collect a paycheck from an institution that displays such flagrant disregard for both.

I would like to apologize to my students and prospective students. I would also urge them to investigate the words and actions of Rice, and to exercise their own First Amendment rights at her speech.

Steve Almond is the author of the story collections ''The Evil B. B. Chow" and ''My Life in Heavy Metal."

Friday, May 05, 2006

5.5.06 Thomas: Where Are All the Leaders of Faith?

Thursday, May 4, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Where Are All the Leaders of Faith?
by Helen Thomas

Where are the activist priests and ministers who took strong stands during the Vietnam War and hit the streets with their protests?

Three years into the war against Iraq, the silence of the clergy is deafening, despite U.S. abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and a reported American policy of shipping detainees to secret prisons abroad where, presumably, they can be tortured.

There are U.S. chaplains of many faiths serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, ministering to the men and women in uniform and reaching out to local religious leaders in both countries.

But here at home, the clergy seems to be in the same boat as the news media and most members of Congress: they are victims of the post-Sept. 11 syndrome that equates any criticism of U.S. policy with lack of patriotism.

The clergy are not alone. There is a disquieting public acceptance of the status quo. Although the Iraq war has a role in President Bush's declining standing in public opinion polls, rising gas prices may be having a bigger impact on his popularity.

During the Vietnam War, the clergy were vocal leaders of the peace movement and they picked up and marched.

I was reminded of that bygone era -- a time when everyone got involved -- with the passing last month of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a Presbyterian minister who served as chaplain at Yale University and pastor at Riverside Church in New York.

He was a follower of civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a liberal, to put it mildly.

Coffin went on the dangerous Freedom rides in the South in the 1960s and worked for human rights of African Americans. He became famous for his protests against the Vietnam War and later espoused the causes of gay rights and anti-nuclear proliferation. He hailed from a wealthy family, attended Ivy League schools, and served in World War II. Before attending a theological seminary, he worked for the CIA.

But he will be most remembered for his moral courage.

The Nation magazine -- which counted Coffin as a contributor -- quoted Coffin as saying he had the "sense of fulfillment from being in the right fight."

Writer and artist Robert Shetterly, Coffin's good friend, wrote on CommonDreams.org a eulogy of Coffin based on his long association with the minister, dating back to an anti-Vietnam War rally at Yale in 1968.

He recalled that Coffin had written in his latest book "Credo," a 2004 collection of his writings, that "the war against Iraq is as disastrous as it is unnecessary; perhaps in terms of its wisdom, purpose and motives, the worst war in American history. Our military men and women were not called to defend America, but rather to attack Iraq. They were not called to die for America, but rather to kill for their country. What more unpatriotic thing could we have asked of our sons and daughters?"

Shetterly's perception of Coffin was that he was not self-righteous and that he had doubts about his own convictions at times. He also wrote that Coffin made mistakes but learned from them.

Shetterly said Coffin "spent his life trying to atone for having followed military orders in 1945, putting 3,000 white Russians who fought against the Stalin communist regime, on a train from Germany to Moscow "and sure execution."

Some of Coffin's quotes are memorable.

After Sept. 11, he said the U.S. government should have vowed "to see justice done, but by force of law only, not by the law of force." He also said that "the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love."

Lest I have selected Coffin's only intellectual qualities, Shetterly also describes his human side and said that he liked "a good drink. A good joke. A good song. A moral act. A worthy laugh."

Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and a member of the White House press corps.