Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Kernal of Whale Truth: Inspired by Brett's Swallowing Whale

Although it is Jonah and the big fish/whale, and not Brett's whale, it was Brett's inference as to the meaning of being swallowed by a whale that inspired this commentary. (See Brett Lamb's blog post 1/22/12 "The whale has swallowed me".

Brett explains that to have the feeling of being swallowed by the whale is something "akin to fate", though it is not a desire to die nor the pain of mortality. Rather, "It is instead the simple feeling we all have in the deeps of our stomachs that there is something going on that we cannot quite put our fingers on...the truth that no man, woman or child can quite describe or grasp in language alone."

The notion of fate we know as a fixed set of events for the future. The notion of something bigger than ourselves is much less prescribed and can be as simple as a quality of humility--submitting to the ideal of family or a community. It can also be deeper, believing in an ideal that has intelligence and subsequently power to affect our lives in significant if not all-encompassing ways. Whether one believes in a predestined life or more broadly a life in which there is an affecting body of person, state, ideal or supreme being(s)...there is still a notion of something existing inseparable from our life...we are not alone.

The next concept to note is that the intelligence other than ourselves (free-willed or not) is not always known. In fact as decades progress it seems more and more would refer to this intelligence as the unknown. Brett alludes to this as that which we can't put our fingers on, that which we have no words to describe. Though artists and poets may reach for the existential to inspire them, many others may feel that being swallowed by the whale can be disorienting or even scary. Most people want to have control over their lives. To feel that their life is being moved, out of their control, or at least under the varying influence of another, can seem to them like a wild sea creature is eating them whole without a moment to escape. Being swallowed by a whale is not a positive experience.

I offer another perspective. The swallowing whale is a fact of life--being overcome, without warning, by a darkness. We get overwhelmed. We transition into new phases of our life--adjusting to new people, new environments, new and unfamiliar anything-- adjustments that are like having to be born again, finding our way unclear of our path. Some experience depression. Sometimes we simply feel lost. Even the most elevated and positive thinkers can find themselves tested or challenged to prove themselves over darkness and back into light.

Whatever metaphor the swallowing whale serves, I venture to claim the purpose of being swallowed is all the same. The purpose being--to be brought closer to that which you seek. This kind of darkness that is cast upon people means that they were previously in light. Thus, their natural instinct is to find a way out of the darkness and back to the light. Darkness thrusts us in a potential search and discovery process, if we accept the opportunity. Searching can return to us void initially and we can feel hopeless and lost...but eventually the discovery of whatever it is we seek, if we continue looking, emerges, we find our footing and the unknown is less obscure and more understood. So if we feel absorbed by the question of our fate or of the general unknown, the question only begs an answer. We are then engaged in the search for the answer--the answer that will bring us out of the whale. The whale is merely the place we go to search deep within ourselves...even if we don't consciously invite the experience.

Having a different outlook of the purpose of the swallowing whales in our lives...that it actually serves us rather than attacks us...can make for a much different outcome in the experience. Those who feel attacked or absorbed unannounced by something unknown that may be friend or foe are likely to remain stuck in the darkness longer. Take this metaphor: If someone knows there is an exit to a maze they are likely to seek the exit until they find it. If someone does not know there is an exit they most likely won't look for it and thus live in the maze (the darkness of the whale's belly) much longer. Putting whale swallowing experiences in context--varied experiences though they are (some blatantly scarey and disorienting, some more subtly so)-- makes for a different overall life experience. Potentially the difference of having greater peace. Some people live around the challenges of life rather than in conjunction with them. It's all life and each person's life belongs to them in its entirety--whale swallowing experiences and all. Put your finger on that might make all the difference.

The whale has swallowed me…

Yona, Yunos, Lonas… Jonah, and of course our friend the Whale. Then again according to the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, the Quran and the Bible he is of course merely a ‘big fish.’ When did he become a Whale? This question arose the other day when a co-worker was recounting a Halloween were her husband turned his pick up truck into a giant paper mache Whale. It followed me home to where I had been listening to Hugh Laurie's new album ‘Let them Talk.’ Hugh covers an old J.B. Lenoir track titled, of course, ‘The Whale has Swallowed Me.’ The Lyrics are simple, and are what under lie all good blues songs, acting as the perfect source of meditation. Lenoir has given us an interesting metaphor; he sometimes ‘…feels that old whale has swallowed [him to].’

What does it mean to feel like a whale has swallowed you? Its’ not found in the obsession of the Captain Ahab. It cannot be categorized under the uniquely Christian disease, of desiring a death made impossible by the resurrection and redemption of Christ (That Kierkegaard describes as the ‘Sickness Unto Death’). It is not even the simple pain of mortality. Our friend the ‘big fish’ is more a kin to fate itself, bearing down on the helpless seafarers of old, and as it bears down on us today. It is short of the pain of mortality it self. It is instead the simple feeling we all have in the deeps of our stomachs that there is something going on that we cannot quite put our fingers on. It is that same emotion C.K. Chesterton indicated to as the motivating factor of all great poets and artists. The truth that no man, woman or child can quite describe or grasp in language alone.

Lenoir most likely would not have known of the translational error that came from the pulpit. He would have perhaps realized that the story came from the Old Testament making it both important to Christians and Jews. It is less likely that he knew of it’s recounting in chapter 37 of the Koran. Here it is a story much a kin to that found in the Old Testament. Jonah flees from the calling of Lord aboard a ship only to be cast into the sea when the ship becomes overtaken by a storm. His lot in life came as lots where drawn by his fellow shipmates seeking to appease their respective gods. In the end he repents and is rescued from the belly of the whale.

Why did he end up trapped in the belly of the great fish? According to the Quran he committed acts worthy of blame. But what did Lenoir do to be worthy of blame? Maybe God knows? But what we can be sure of is that he grew up in the Deep South during a time of racial discrimination. These motivations came to the forefront in later albums he produced in the mid-60’s titled Alabama Blues and Down In Mississippi. And in a performance captured in a Martin Scorsese Blues Documentary these later themes become intertwined with his original classic. You can check the video out on YouTube ( It captures that something, the feeling we cannot describe in words, and it dose it with the images of the fight for civil rights and the bending strings of Lenoir’s guitar.

So when did the ‘big fish’ become a whale? I feel it must have happened sometime shortly after people stopped reading the bible and began to depend once more upon their respective religious elders for divine inspiration. But the whale is a strangely fitting symbol, for those who look past the literal meaning and try to grasp at that deeper kernel of truth. The rest, well they make giant paper mache whales out of trucks.


Friday, January 20, 2012

small-d democrat

small-d democrat
A democrat, that is, a person who holds democratic views; not necessarily someone who is a member of a country's "Democratic Party".

The voter roll at my local polling location has a capital D next to my name, but I may be more of a small-d democrat. I’m not the only one. Not so long ago the President of the United States felt much the same way,

"As a democrat, as a person who believes in democracy -- a Republican democrat, I might add -- as someone who believes that everybody has a right to live in a free society. . . January, 2005, is an extraordinary month." George W. Bush

I was outraged when my fellow small-d democrat lead my nation into a decade long war. I rejoiced when he worked accomplished landmark victories in the fight against AIDs in Africa. And in between I felt rather in different. But recently I have found my self-labeled as capital-D democrat more and more. My support for the current president has forced me to suffer through a great deal of naming calling. From ‘Liberal,’ ‘Progressive,’ to even ‘Socialist’ and ‘Communist’ sometimes all in the same sentence. According to the dictionary those are to word that shouldn’t even appear side by side. And that is the problem. Suddenly my support of a candidate or my party affiliation has become more defining to who I am then my actually beliefs, my actions, or who I actually vote for.  I have awoken to find my self in a society, where no matter your title, you are forced to be either for government or against government.

This is what my Intro to Philosophy professor Schlitz would have classified as a false dichotomy. We are presented with a choice between to respectively exclusive options; either we dismantle the government or allow it to expand with out check. Clearly there are other options. But where do we begin? How about with a question posed by Ezra Klein during the 2010 midterms? Would progressives being willing to sacrifice many of their political gains from Gay rights to the most recent Health Care Reform Act in the face of a new Republican Majority? His answer is critical to defining a small-d democrat and the choices they make about how we should be governed. Even though a individual like my self may strongly support a piece of legislation, it is in the best interest of the legislative process that the majority still commands the power needed to reverse past legislation. In 2010 we saw a Republican/Tea Party take over of congress on the promise or repeal. No such repeal came to be. Although we are left to ask why the new majority chose to focus its new mandate on debt ceilings and endless debates about ‘class warfare’ when it could have clearly have brought repeal to the floor of at least the House? This is because when faced with the threat of filibuster political actors fail to act in accordance to the wishes of the majority and by doing so muddy the waters of political responsibility. As Klein states:

“Strengthening that crucial relationship between cause (one party got elected) and effect (they passed bills) is not only better from the perspective of assuring action on problems. It's also a road to a better-informed citizenry that knows who to blame, and who to reward, for the condition of the country and the performance of the most recent Congress.” Ezra Klein[1]

And this brings me to an Anonymous article written in 1962. The essence of the article is that in the United States we have what the author refers to as capital-D democracy. This is a system where individuals elect representatives and by such process the minority is forced to accept the edicts of the majority as law.[2] This is placed in stark opposition to what could be called small-d democracy or ‘economic democracy.’ Individuals go into the market place, and by spending their money they receive products and services according to their direct wishes. In essence no matter how large a majority selects Coke over Pepsi those who choose Pepsi still get to drink Pepsi.

This is the fundamental problem that arises with defining some people as small-d democrats and others as ‘Democrats.’ It draws a stark black and white distinction between to conceptions of what it means to adopt a democratic system whether it is economic or political. Our anonymous friend fails to recognize the hidden costs buying a product like Coke. These include economic, health, and social side effects not accounted for in the actual monetary cost of a can or bottle of Coke. It also assumes that people act as static agents, that their desire to be ruled by on individual over another dose not change with over time.  This has been clearly proven wrong on countless occasions like that of the 10’ congressional elections. In essence the two stark conceptions of democracy presented by our anonymous friend represent yet another false dichotomy within American politics.

There is one thing we can be sure of in all of this. That our economic system is best served when individuals are allowed to make economic decisions with as little out side influence as possible. But without the protections generated by the political majority there would be no freedom in the market place. The monopolies once held by Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel proved that unregulated market places do not maximize individual liberty. Nor is it possible to maintain an efficient economic system with out a universal form of currency to insure fair trade of surplus goods and services. A government operated by majority consent is necessary to maintain the market place just as the market place is necessary to maintain the liberties protected by government.

The increasing use of the language of class warfare illustrates this point further. Not so long ago a phrase like ‘class warfare’ went under a more accurate synonym  ‘economic democracy’ during the Roosevelt years. Geoffrey Nurnberg in a 2005 commentary on ‘Fresh Air’ demonstrated this quantitatively by pointing out that the number of occurrences of ‘economic democracy,’ with in the pages of the Times, dropped from hundred and sixty times over the course of the 40’s to less the twenty times in the 90’s.[3] Politicians, it seems in general, have chosen to seek out new and more provocative forums of political rhetoric rather then actually tackle the issue of what a democratic economy should actually look like. This is a fundamental issue for all of us, small d-democrat or not. The Constitution provided for us a system of making decisions and a series of basic protections, check and balances, to restrain government from over stepping its boundaries. It did not, nor did or our founding fathers leave us with a good answer as to how to prevent the wealth of our nation from gathering in the hands of the few. The top one percent of individuals controls 34 percent of the nation’s wealth. The next 19 percent of individuals control over half. That means the other 80 percent are left to get by on less then a quarter of the nations wealth.[4]

This is not democratic. Although as a small d-democrat I have no interest in some socialist redistribution of wealth. I also would not see the top percent of Americans, who have the most to benefit from the American economy, protected and supported by our national infrastructure, health care systems, universities and armed forces be allowed to go with out paying their fair share. The problem is many Democrats and Republicans would. And as someone who refuses to pick a political party or stand idle while our political system grinds to a stand still are simply left to keep living. Keep voting, working, writing, playing, loving, laughing, and refusing to allow other to dictate or limit our choices. We are left to keep democracy alive in our hearts and our personal lives and to confront every cynic who tells us the end of our nation is nigh or that we must chose between anarchy or domination. These are not the choices. The choices are with out limit. We decide what we are and what we will become.



Monday, January 2, 2012

A year passes...

 A year has passed. At midnight, a day a go, we drew a line and celebrated its ending. We dropped a ball. We popped opened a few bottles of varying color and content and toasted the birth of 2012. In that moment we reflected. What was 2011? Time magazine dubbed it the year of the protestor. If we where to flip through the snap shots of a year past we would find some simple truth in this decree. We would find photos from home of rural Tea Party members and urban youths attempting to occupy the minds of Middle America and the offices of Wall Street Respectively.

If we turned our minds eye, instead, towards the wider world we would see images of dark faced Arabs taking to streets to overthrow aging dictatorships both communist and colonial in nature; People who not quite like ourselves sought not economic equality or individual dignity but instead basic human rights. They called for Freedom from police brutality, Freedom of expression, Freedom to realize their own individual destinies.

We find this in photographs of hundreds, then thousands, then millions of protestors carrying green banners pouring into the streets of Cairo. We find it in grainy still images smuggled out of Syria of innocent protestors being cut down by pro-government forces. But what is even more striking are the images we don’t see. There are no photographs of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in the streets of rural Tunisia. Although many of us may still recall the Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burning himself to death in Saigon in 1963.[1] Some will recall it as members of a generation who lived through and witnessed the end of the Vietnam War. Others still younger, who have lived through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will recall it as the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 album. A few members of that former generation are still alive, and together many of us have bared witness to photographs of the ‘final’ American convoy pouring out of Iraq and back into Kuwait.

‘Final’ is the key word here. Those of the former generation still recall the final moments of the war in Vietnam. Helicopters lifting hundreds then thousands of American diplomatic personal and Vietnamese refugees from the rooftops of Saigon and depositing them upon U.S. Naval vessels. Helicopters being pushed off of carriers to make room for an endless stream of refugees and hundreds more huddled on the rooftops of Saigon awaiting a rescue that would not come. The Pairs Peace Accord had been signed in 1973. American troops had all but left the country. Two year later Saigon was falling. For two years the war continued on without America’s direct presence on the ground. Now we slip quietly from Iraq. Leaving behind thousands of American contractors and many others in the heart of Baghdad. I dare not draw any comparison between these to starkly different wars, but we must wonder now about what images will pour from the city of Baghdad in the years to come.

All ready there are images, mostly unseen by Americans, of Buddhist monks committing the heretical act of self-immolation in Tibet. Protestors. Soldiers. Refugees. Human beings. As the Dalai Lama points out there is so much courage to be found in these images, even in those actions of a desperate few that we find so deplorable. His holiness captures the question we must all ask now, in a recent interview with the BBC.

“There is courage - very strong courage. But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilize your wisdom… Many Tibetans sacrifice their lives. Nobody knows how many people killed and tortured - I mean death through torture. Nobody knows. But a lot of people suffer…”

But how much effect?[2] In 1966 the images of burning monks and nuns in the City of Saigon made the front pages of newspapers like The Morning Record.[3] They protested war profiteering on the part of the US. The effect may have been the end of US military involvement. It was not the end of war itself for the Vietnamese or for humanity as a whole. It did not bring an end to Communism. That nine lettered word, that in Ginsberg’s account, was “used by inferior magicians with the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold…”[4]

So what has ended? Where, when, how, why did it end? Where do we draw the line? Is the death of Mohamed Bouazizi the end of a human life or the birth of a thousand protestors?  What can we make of our own consciousness of the year that has come to pass? John Gardner defines consciousness as ‘the state in which not all atoms are equal. In corpses, entropy has won. The brain and the toenails have equal say.’ In such no two images are equal. And in the end the government’s of old and the protestors of tomorrow may have equal say yet.

My mind wonders back to my old college haunts and the classrooms where I first read about the Ship of Theseus. A thought experiment as old as recorded history, where we imagine a wooden sailing ship where each piece of timber is slowly replaced over time in till no scrap of the original vestal remains. Does it remain the same ship? Is two thousand and eleven the same year if we remove the images of protestors from across the globe? Yet what would we replace them with? Images like that of the ‘Vancouver kissing couple?’ A photograph that almost all members of western society have viewed and determined now to be an orchestrated and not truly authentic event. A volume could be written on that photo alone…

In the end we must simply remember that Theseus’s Ship is still no matter what Theseus’s Ship. Just as 2011 is still, in the consciousness of many, the year of the protestor no matter what time does to erase the images and memory of their courage and resolve. It’s that pivotal fact of ownership that makes a year, a life, a consciousness what it is. We define a year not by when it ends but by what parts of it we hold on to and what parts we let go.

So a year passes and we hold on to what we can and we let go of what we must…

[4] Ginsberg, Wichita Vortex Sutra II

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