Today we bring you a special feature by James Cowles, our resident skeptic. You may or may not agree, but you will be forced to think. / J.D.
To a few of you, the following sentence will be like saying “Elvis has left the building”, i.e., old news. But to many others, it will be very much in the vein of “Main bites dog,” i.e., novel to the point of being revolutionary. Anyway, here goes … the European Enlightenment is now officially over. “Over” as in “dead as last week’s oatmeal” or “as passé as disco fever and bell-bottom pants” or “As useless as invitations to Hillary Clinton’s inaugural ball”. (Yeah, I know … too soon … sorry … apologies!) Probably many fewer of you are aware of the likely – not strictly certain, but this is the way to bet – replacement ideology: (some form of) postmodernism. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the operative word in the third sentence (beginning “Anyway, here goes … “) above is officially. In academe, of course, places like Ivy League English and philosophy and the Frankfurt School, the European Enlightenment has been over for some time, supplanted by some species of postmodernism. Rather, what makes the end of the Enlightenment “officially official” is that, for the first time, it has actually determined the outcome of the election, at the level of retail popular politics, of senior executives in the very nations that originated and sustained the Enlightenment, and whose political and constitutional systems would be unimaginable without it. You know … nations like the United States. We (meaning “all such nations”) are now not only post-industrial and post-Christian, both of which have been true for some time, but now, in addition, we are increasingly post-modern, even in terms of our “retail politics”. In the following, I will argue that, insofar as it is possible to talk about the “principles of post-modernism,” these principles undergird and underwrite that might accurately be described as a “para-fascist” ideology deeply inimical to the corresponding principles of the European Enlightenment.
In many ways, making sense of post-modernism is like trying to make sense of an M. C. Escher drawing, most of which are “post-perspectival”. So the following will of necessity be only a superficial, hasty thumbnail sketch of three of the more important parameters that distinguish (what I believe to be) the coming post-Enlightenment / post-modern culture, because the following three were especially crucial to the election of Donald Trump as the Nation’s first post-Enlightenment / post-modern President. These factors also bid fair to be important elements in the burgeoning nationalist movements in Europe led by people like Nigel Farage in the UK, Marine LePen in France, and Viktor Orban in Hungary (whose rhetoric on the necessity of “ethnic homogeneity” eerily echoes similar sentiments by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf). In future columns, I will describe the historical and ideological roots in more detail. But for now …
o The Enlightenment conception of fact as a datum supported and confirmed, usually by multiple independent observers, by actual empirical evidence vs. the post-modern conception “fact” (in quotes) as an expression of what a community needs to be true in order to function
As an example of the latter, there is no evidence whatsoever that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey stood and cheered upon receiving news of the World Trade Center collapsing, nor is there any evidence that Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the Kennedy assassination. Facts – as in “quantifiable data corroborated by empirically derived statistics” – indicate that, contrary to Trump’s assertion, the United States as a whole — local exceptions like Chicago notwithstanding — is experiencing an almost unprecedented period of law-compliance, not lawlessness. Despite being corroborated by no fewer than sixteen agencies in the US intelligence community, Trump persists in manufacturing his own “fact” that Russia was not involved in the “cyber-jimmying” of his recent election to the Presidency. Nor is there any indication – based on actual facts, in the “pre-post-modernist” / Enlightenment sense – that immigrants to the US are exceptionally crime prone, and some evidence indicating the opposite.
What runs as a common thread through all these allegations is that all such assertions involve, basically, articles of faith that Trump supporters, as a community, need to affirm in order to be a community. To be a Trump supporter is to be a member of what is, in all essentials, a fundamentalistreligiouscult. Given the sheer absence of evidence, affirming that thousands of Muslims cheered the fall of the Twin Towers is in no way essentially different from an observant Roman Catholic affirming that, with a duly ordained priest’s Words of Institution, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Both are about equally contrary to empirical experience, are therefore matters of pure faith, yet both are required – “required” as in absolutely sine qua non — for membership in the community. Ditto the Virgin Birth. Ditto the Resurrection. Ditto three million fraudulent votes. Ditto 47% unemployment. Religious sects have actually been practicing most of the principles of post-modernism for several centuries, at least 500 years in the case of Christianity. (More about this in the future, too.) Mass politics in established classical democracies is just now belatedly getting the hang of it.
Furthermore, analogous remarks would apply to all authoritarian political and ideological personality cults centered on, e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, with religious equivalents ranging from the Shabbetai Tzvi in the 17th century to Joseph Smith in the 19th to Aum Shinrikyo in the 20th. (The breathtaking devotion of followers of Chairman Mao to Mao’s Thoughts – the little red book everyone carried during the Cultural Revolution – is in no essential way different from the corresponding devotion of fundamentalist Christians for the text of the [usually King James] Bible.) All require a radical sacrifice of the critical faculty and its replacement with the ostensibly a priori true ideology of the group, as defined by its leader. The differences are so trivial as to be beside the point – and all are the diametric opposite of the valorization of the critical intellect characteristic of the Enlightenment. We may reasonably expect the senior leadership of the Trump organization to declare The Art of the Deal literal holy writ.
o The post-modern conception of morality as an “infinitely fungible” and indefinitely negotiable parameter of a community vs. the Enlightenment conception of human beings as embodying a certain ontology – call it “human nature” — respect for the integrity of which is encoded in universally applicable moral principles
I mean fungible in the sense of “one is just as good as another, depending on the end-in-view, hence interchangeable”. For example, I have owned several houses and pieces of real estate in my life, and while I liked all of them for various reasons, all were “fungible” in the sense of being equally subject to sale or exchange, given the exigencies of the moment. My wife and I liked our house in Wichita, KS, but when we decided to move to Boston so I could go to graduate school, we sold it because the house was less important than the end-in-view (going to grad school). The house / real estate was fungible as a token of exchange.
Trump’s sexual and commercial escapades have conclusively proven just how similarly fungible conservative Christian, especially evangelical, moral codes are. No doubt under many circumstances, self-proclaimed arbiters of public morals like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., would condemn men who grabbed women by their genitals and defrauded middle-aged people out of their savings. But when the end-in-view is renewed access to the Oval Office, their version of Christian morality proved eminently fungible, and they were eager to trade in their morality for political leverage. Evangelical morality turned out to be just a rather more genteel form of harlotry. The only difference turned out to be that evangelical-Christian bordellos displayed a Cross out front.
Again, as with virtually all things post-modern, as it was with facts, so it is with morality: the needs of the community are paramount, even in terms of right and wrong. The ultimate criterion, with any moral principle, is the principle’s utility for defining and sustaining the community. I find this especially troubling. If the needs of the community – what the community perceives that it needs in order to be a community – is the supreme defining parameter of permissible vs. impermissible conduct, then, if a given Muslim community decides that, in order to be a community, it must practice, say, female genital mutilation or allow husbands to beat their wives (neither of which is a teaching of qur’anic Islam as I understand it) … well … pubescent girls will be mutilated and wives will be beaten.
By contrast, and as James Madison argued in characterizing the Constitution as a guarantee of the rights of the minority, the Enlightenment idea was that even the needs of the community must often be held as secondary to certain human rights at the individual level. So the community’s felt need for segregated schools vs. “equal protection” of the law, the community’s revulsion at certain religious beliefs vs. the individual’s right of “free exercise”, the community’s disagreement with certain unpopular opinions vs. an individual’s right to free speech, etc., etc., etc. (Mr. Spock’s Star Trek maxim that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is pristinely, quintessentially post-modern. That distant rumbling sound you hear is James Madison turning over in his grave!) The post-modernist “needs of the community” criterion basically amounts to underwriting mob rule. What renders this principle acceptable to conservative Christians is that, with Donald Trump in the White House, evangelical Christians may reasonably hope to be the mob. With that change, the moral calculus changes accordingly from one that is recognizably Christian to one that is explicitly post-modern.
The post-modernist idea of the preeminence of the needs of the community is not at the end of the path to, e.g., Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will , but it is headed in that direction. If the post-modernist criterion of the needs of the community is to be the final arbiter of morality, both public and private, then it is not clear — to me, anyway — what stands in the way of a 21st-century version of half-million-strong torchlight parades in Nuremberg, c. 1935.
o The post-modernist conception of science as merely one more “meta-narrative” among many others vs. the Enlightenment conception of science as ascertaining objective truth about the Universe-as-such
This is one we should have — and could have — seen coming, at least those of us who have read, say, the late Jean-Francois Lyotard, who did the most (in, e.g., The Postmodern Condition) to popularize the term, and the late Michel Foucault. In a nutshell, a “meta-narrative” is a “story about stories”, i.e., an overarching story that validates a given culture’s “sub-stories” that, collectively, lend coherence and some kind of unity to a culture. The Christian meta-narrative unified and made rational the political hierarchy of the Middle Ages whereby the liege lord, like God, was at the top of the pyramid. The Christian meta-narrative even rationalized the horror of the Black Death in the middle 1300s: God was punishing the human race for its history of infidelity and immorality. Etc., etc.., etc. Under the umbrella of the Christian meta-narrative, history, politics, and morality — and even deviations from those norms — all made sense.
The Christian meta-narrative gave way in the 1500s to the science meta-narrative — the world as a system governed by natural laws discoverable by reason and empirical investigation, and even useful in improving the physical circumstances of life — that has been dominant ever since, at least up until the advent of the post-modernist world-view. (This is how I conceive the contrast between Lyotard’s conception of discourse-as-story vs. discourse-as-science in Condition.) I say we should have seen this coming because we saw early symptoms, even in the popular culture, of the breakdown of the strictly scientific meta-narrative, followed by its replacement among many people by what can only be termed some form of “magical thinking”. (That, in a nutshell, is a good hip-pocket description of New Age culture. Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan’s widow, had some trenchant comments about magical thinking when she appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time a few years ago, and said that a dismaying number of people are convinced that it is possible to effect change in the world just by sitting down, thinking about it, and “sending out good thoughts”.) Perhaps the most recent example is all the kerfuffle about the implications of the Mayan “Long Count” Calendar predicting a dire alignment of planets and the sun with the center of the Milky Way Galaxy that, for all manner of half-baked and misunderstood pseudo-scientific reasons, portended some kind of apocalyptic, perhaps even physical, upheaval on a cosmic scale. Which never happened, of course. But never mind. People still believe Jesus could return a week from next Thursday … and have been saying so for 2000 years.
The difference is that now the post-modernist critique of meta-narratives, hitherto restricted to academic debates in classrooms and proseminar courses – several of which I have facilitated — has escaped from the magic lamp and become a genie that may render impossible meaningful action to mitigate the exhaustively corroborated reality of climate change, to name perhaps the most obvious example. The rational, “pre-post-modern”, Enlightenment-centric response would be that, you are quite welcome to your New Age superstitions, as long as they don’t leave Miami underwater. But that’s just me, still benighted by being caught in the “pre-post-modern” Enlightenment Weltanschauung. The much more contemporary attitude would seem to be the belief, on the part of Trump and his devotees, that the gradual increase in the mean ambient global temperature, even supposing it to be real, is due to China indiscriminately dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere … which, to fit the data, would have to have been happening since, at the very least, quite early in the 18th century. But there I go again. And that is just one example. If you don’t like that one, pick another. A good alternative might be the imaginary link between vaccinations and autism. But again, the question should be “What does the community need?” Certainly not a belief, however well-grounded, in anthropogenic climate change! As the mandarins of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry often told me back in “The Day”,”There goes Jim again, being too left-brained!”
This is one of those rare occasions when academic philosophy — e.g., Lyotard and Foucault — bids fair to destroy one of the cornerstones of Western civilization: in this case, its characteristic and hard-earned virtuosity with science, and therefore technology. (The last such occasion was Marx / Engels and Marxism.) So, in terms of practical consequences, if a given community — never mind which one — needs to believe that vaccinations cause autism, should that community be allowed to forego vaccinating its kids — who presumably don’t have a choice — thereby penalizing the pro-vaccination community by turning the non-vaccinated kids into tiny biological weapons of mass destruction? Good post-modernist practice, sustained by Lyotard, Foucault, and their arguments of “meta-narrative as instrumentality of oppression,” would presumably argue “Not only ‘Yes’, but ‘Hell yes’.” Thus the slow-motion suicide of Western civilization proceeds apace.
Well … is there nothing we can do? Is there no longer a place for the values, beliefs, and principles of the European Enlightenment? My answer is “Yes but … ” During the early 1940s, there was also a place for the population of London during the German blitzkrieg: the tunnels and caverns of the London Underground. If we propose to remain a technological civilization, there must be a place — and not just in “science proper,” science in the narrowly technical sense — for the principles of the European Enlightenment. But, at least for a while, that place will not be above ground culturally. The Enlightenment must henceforth be practiced sub rosa, in a clandestine discursive space of intellectual Tube tunnels where it will be safe.
Where might that be? Funny you should ask …
It is quite possible to critique the Enlightenment as at least implicitly biased in terms of race, culture, and class. The Enlightenment, like all things human, suffered from its own imperfections. For example, many of the heirs of the Enlightenment among the American Founders were member of the aristocracy (though even the American aristocracy were little more than upper middle class, compared to their British counterparts), were racists and therefore usually slave owners (Washington, Madison, and Jefferson) or former slave owners (Franklin), and most believed in a form of Euro-centric cultural bias. However, subsequent history shows that the architects of the Enlightenment were these things, not because of the Enlightenment, but despite it, and that their descendants addressed these issues, not by repudiating the principles of the European Enlightenment, but by getting better at practicing those principles. To cite just one example, the ongoing civil rights movement in the United States originates, not from a disavowal of the principles of the Enlightenment, as embodied in the US Constitution, but by implementing those principles more radically and consistently, as with the application of the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. The flaws of the Enlightenment argue for more of the Enlightenment, not less. When practiced with uncompromising consistency, the principles of the Enlightenment are all self-correcting. Rather like science.
Hence the begged question: what can we do to “ride out” the current disillusionment with the principles of (classical!) liberal small-“r”-republican and small-“d”-democratic politics, and the concomitant belief in principles like free inquiry, a secular / religion-neutral public square, respect for rational and evidence-based reasoning, equality before the law, and freedom of expression? The short answer is that the latter-day London Underground I mentioned earlier is us ourselves. (In fact, before you read any farther in this article, I urgently recommend you read David Brooks’ superlative New York Times column on just this issue.)
Acting to preserve the principles of the European Enlightenment in the shelter of our own intellects and moral consciences is a many-splendored undertaking, involving action on several different fronts.
One of the more obvious areas where the Enlightenment project is being challenged today is in the area of science. The post-modern challenge to the Enlightenment incorporates a certain skepticism about science, the scientific method, the epistemological foundations of science, and consequently the utility of science as a means of ascertaining true knowledge about the external world. Post-modernist critiques of science are often written by people – Lyotard, Foucault, et al., come to mind immediately – whose attainments in other fields are undisputed, but whose knowledge of science, and scientific methodology affords them just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One thinks, in particular, of science skepticism based on the belief that ancient myths and belief systems, and contemporary spirituality, are just as revelatory of the Universe as empirical science. So learning involves:
— Familiarizing oneself with contemporary findings in the sciences, especially biology and physics.
This does not mean becoming a biologist or a physicist, but it does involve cultivating a degree of working-knowledge-level familiarity that enables one to penetrate the superficially attractive but shallow façade of contemporary pseudo-sciences like intelligent design, creationism, and the supposed “proofs” in quantum physics of the existence of God.
— Developing a working knowledge, not of particular sciences, but of the scientific method itself, and the role of data and methodology. For example, one often hears it alleged that science requires “just as much faith” as religion. Like many other skeptical arguments, this is just true enough to be dangerously misleading. There is a sense in which science presupposes a certain type of faith, but any attempt to equate the two dies the death of a thousand qualifications, and it is only an unfortunate accident of language that the same word “faith” is used to connote both. Learn and develop an ability to discuss the differences.
— For Americans, one of the most useful elements of learning would be a close and sustained study of how the principles of the European Enlightenment became instantiated, first, in the Declaration of Independence, and later in the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. In particular, pay special attention to both “religion” clauses of the First Amendment about the equality of all religious traditions before the civil law, and how such a principle decisively disposes of arguments to the effect that the United States is a “Christian nation” in any sense but the purely cultural. Such a consideration is especially pertinent in light of the “needs of the community” criterion for truth often prevalent in post-modernist writings.
There are many worthy causes that are dedicated to upholding various aspects of the Enlightenment consensus. The following are suggestions only, intended to give you some idea of where one’s monetary contributions could be expected to maximize “bang for the buck”:
— Scientific organizations like the Keck Telescope Foundation
— One’s university and / or various particular departments therein (e.g., my wife and I contribute to my old Oxford University college, Exeter)
— Organizations dedicated to the defense and preservation of the founding principles of various Enlightenment-grounded values and practices like free speech / press, due process, etc., e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Constitution Center, and the Center for the First Amendment
— One’s local museums, symphony orchestras, and arts organizations as practitioners of First Amendment liberties
I have found that one of the most effective ways of catching the overall “flavor” of the European Enlightenment, and catching it on an intuitive and affective level in a way that transcends words and “logo-centric” discourse, is through music. The music of Enlightenment composers – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Telemann … the pantheon goes on … – is, by turns and often simultaneously, elegant, reasoned, passionate, playful, yet always disciplined in a way that flows out of the music itself rather than being imposed extraneously from without. Listen to the gracefully galloping first movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G. Listen to Franz Josef Haydn’s matchlessly graceful String Quartet in F-Major. (The third movement alone could well serve as a kind of “theme music” for the entire European Enlightenment.) The hallmark of virtually all the music of the Enlightenment is grace and freedom within the bounds of an intrinsic discipline that does not constrict, but rather liberates … in other words, the diametric opposite of the characteristically post-modern hostility toward all forms of discipline as putative instruments of oppression.
Rather than compile a reading list, which would probably stretch for the length of a dozen ‘Zine articles, I will mention a few books, and recommend that those of you who want to do “deep dives” into the history and ideology of the Enlightenment read these books, and then sample the sources, both primary and secondary, in the footnotes and bibliographies.
— From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun
Barzun’s book can serve admirably as a kind of Baedecker guide-book to the European Enlightenment, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. Its bibliography is exhaustive and a comprehensive reading of it would be exhausting.
In terms of the Enlightenment roots of the US Constitution and of American constitutionalism, there are none better than:
— America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale
— The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction also by Amar
The latter is especially useful in terms of assessing how the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment affected the interpretation of the Constitution “proper” and the Bill of Rights
— The Invisible Constitution (Inalienable Rights) by Prof. Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law
A very instructive, but eminently readable, treatment of 10th Amendment un-enumerated rights
— On Reading the Constitution also by Prof. Tribe
Very useful “how-to” book on how to read – and not read – the Constitution
— Desperately Seeking Certainty: The Misguided Quest for Constitutional Foundations by Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry
The most sheerly entertaining book on constitutional theory – three words I never thought to find in the same sentence – I have ever read, in which interpretation theory is developed in parallel with a recipe for latkes. Please. Just read it.
— The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
For my money, the masterpiece of them all in terms of the Enlightenment, especially English / Scottish Enlightenment, roots of the American Revolution and Constitution
— A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz, Pioneer McDonald Professor of Baptist Heritage, Theology, and Ethics at Carey Theological College and Profess at Regent College in Vancouver, BC
For sheer clarity of exposition of an intrinsically murky subject, Prof. Grenz’s book cannot be beaten. The last few chapters are written from a conservative evangelical standpoint, from which those not like-minded may demur, but that does not alter the clarity of the preceding text.
— Basically, anything by Prof. Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School
But choose your text carefully. Habermas is widely – and justly — regarded as the greatest European philosopher since Immanuel Kant, and his texts are about as dense and impenetrable as those of his intellectual predecessor. Habermas is a voice in the wilderness in terms of his withering critiques of post-modernism, especially those written by his Frankfurt School Colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Good luck with this! When I first encountered the Frankfurt School, I had a full head of hair and weighed 50 pounds less.
People who defend the Enlightenment project have to be much more assertive, often aggressively so. This is an unaccustomed stance, because, up until approximately the middle of the 20th century, this consensus was essentially unchallenged. The Enlightenment premises of modernism seemed inscribed into reality like the value of pi. But now we have to learn to:
— Defend the value of science and the integrity of the scientific method by learning – to cite a few of the more pertinent examples – what the theory of evolution through natural selection really says (Hint: it does not say “humans came from monkeys” or that “evolution is random”)
— The United States is a “Christian nation” only in a purely cultural sense, not as a matter of law
— Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem is a double-edged sword: it cuts both ways. Asserting, as globally true, that verbal and written texts are subject to endless interpretation is itself an example of an attempt to “universalize” a text, and therefore – according to Goedel’s Theorem – render the text contradictory. Like any other universe of discourse, post-modern ideology is valid – at most – only locally, not as a universal principle.
Karl Marx began The Communist Manifesto with the statement “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”. My equivalent is “A spectre is haunting the West – the spectre of post-modernist nihilism”. Once contained within the biosafety-level-4 laboratories of English and philosophy departments of the academic world, the virus of post-modernism has escaped into the political ecosystem, with results that are most evident in the election of Donald Trump in the US – the first completely post-modern American President — but that are also afflicting the European nations that nurtured the Enlightenment and the constitutional socio-political order it engendered. (What a stinging historical irony that the nation that produced Adolf Hitler is also the same nation whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the modern-day Leonidas defending the Thermopylae of the West against the assault of the post-modern Persians.) If the heritage of the Enlightenment is to be preserved, along with the constitutional, latitudinarian, rights-centric socio-political order it engendered, it will be up to the beneficiaries of that order – us – to do so. No one else will. No one else can.
James R. Cowles
Jean-Francois Lyotard … Bracha L. Ettinger … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic
Michel Foucault … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Collatz fractal … Originator unknown … Public domain
“Metanarrative” quote … David Bentley Hart … Public domain
Franklin Graham … “Cornstalker” … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Jerry Falwell, Jr. … Liberty University … Public domain
Escher waterfall … M. C. Escher … Fair use
“The Milkmaid” … Johannes Vermeer … Public domain
“Flat earth” engraving … Camille Flammarion … Public domain
“Vitruvian Man” … Leonardo DaVinci … Public domain
William Herschel’s telescope … Artist unknown … Public domain
Johann Gutenberg reviewing a press proof … Artist unknown … Public domain
Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Jurgen Habermas … Wolfram Hake … CC-BY-SA-3.0
The environmental challenges are complex, an understatement I know.
Big Ag pollutes our waterways and groundwater, air and soil. Some wetlands, rivers and their tributaries can no longer sustain life. Much pastureland is befouled with pesticides, animal waste, phosphates and nitrates and other toxic residue from unsustainable farming practices.
Sudan Relief Fund, World Food Program, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Fund, Buddhist Global Relief, the World Food Program and many other organizations are working to mitigate widespread hunger, which is a problem of economic injustice as well as environmental degradation and environmental injustice.
Drought and resulting famine are devastating the Sudan, the West Upper Nile and Yemen.
In many areas of the world, access to potable water is sorely lacking.
Lack of access to clean water is exacerbated by a want of toilets for some 4.2 billion people, which has a huge impact on public health. The result of poor hygiene and sanitation is Dysentery, Typhoid, Cholera, Hepatitis A and death-dealing Diarrhea. More people die of diarrhea in Third World counties than of AIDs.
Our problems are pressing and complex and are made the more difficult as we struggle under a cloud of skepticism and division and the discouraging weight of a Doomsday Clock that was moved forward in January to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight in response to Trump’s election. That’s the closest we’ve been to midnight since 1953.
Access to potable water may be the most pressing of our challenges.
“The world runs on water. Clean, reliable water supplies are vital for industry, agriculture, and energy production. Every community and ecosystem on Earth depends on water for sanitation, hygiene, and daily survival.
“Yet the world’s water systems face formidable threats. More than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025. Increasing pollution degrades freshwater and coastal aquatic ecosystems. And climate change is poised to shift precipitation patterns and speed glacial melt, altering water supplies and intensifying floods and drought.” World Resources Institute
The good news is that there are many working conscientiously to raise awareness and funds. Some of our readers and contributors are among them. There are good people offering time and expertise, sometimes putting their own lives and livelihoods in danger.
This month our core team and guest writers have chosen to focus largely on water, but they also address the need to respect science (Naomi Baltuck) and the need to acknowledge that war is a danger to the environment in general as well as a cause of human hunger. (Michael Dickel). If the Syrian Civil War were to stop right this second, one wonders how long – how many years, perhaps decades – it would take to make that country’s land farmable again.
Michael Watson, Carolyn O’Connell and Joe Hesch touch their experiences of farms before industrial farming. Priscilla Galasso, John Anstie, Paul Brooks, Marieta Maglas and Rob Cullen speak to us of water. Corina Ravenscraft and Sonja Benskin Mesher remind us of the element of greed – as does John – and Sonja points to gratitude. Enough is truly enough. Charlie Martin’s poems are poignant, making us think about how sad it would be if we lost it all. Liliana Negoi brings a quiet and practical appreciation of nature. Phillip Stevens paints the earth in all her delicacy and need for tender husbandry.
Thanks to our core team members for stellar, thoughtful work as always: John Anstie, Michael Watson and Michael Dickel, Priscilla Galasso and Corina Ravenscraft, Charles Martin, Liliana Negoi, Naomi Baltuck and Joe Hesch.
Welcome back to Paul Brooks, Phillip Stephens and Sonja Benskin Mesher and a warm welcome to Marieta Maglas and Rob Cullen, new to our pages.
We hope this issue will give you pleasure even as it provokes you. Leave your likes and comments behind. As readers you are as import to the The BeZine project, values and goals as are our contributors. Your commentary is welcome and encourages our writers. As always, we offer the work of emerging, mid-career and polished pros, all talented and all with ideas and ideals worth reading and thinking about.
In the spirit of peace, love (respect) and community
and on behalf of The Bardo Group Beguines, Jamie Dedes, Founding and Managing Editor
Photo credit: A Mongolian Gazelle, victim of drought, Gobi Desert 2009 courtesy of Mark Heard under CC BY 2.0
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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Notice from founders Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carion ~
Dear Friends of 100 Thousand Poets for Change,
It is that time of year again when we begin to sign up organizers and events for the next Global 100 Thousand Poets for Change Day–September 30, 2017. Please let me know if you will be organizing in your town.
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100 Thousand Poets for Change
The BeZine will host a 100,000 Poets for Change virtual event. Poets are welcome to contribute from anywhere in the world and we encourage disabled poets to participate, especially those who are homebound. Michael Dickel (Meta / Phor(e) / Play) takes the lead.
Deadline for the June issue is tomorrow (June 10th) at midnight PST.
THE BeZINE submissions for the June 2017 issues (theme: Environmental Justice/Climate Change: Farming and Access to Water) should be in by June 10th latest. Publication date is June 15th. Poetry, essays, fiction and creative nonfiction, art and photography, music (videos), and whatever lends itself to online presentation is welcome for consideration. Please check out a few issues first and the Intro./Mission Statement and Submission Guidelines. No demographic restrictions.
The theme for the July issue is Prison Culture, Restorative Justice. The deadline is July 10th at midnight PST. Terri Stewart (Beguine Again) takes the lead.
So…does the unicorn exist now or ever? Perhaps whatever we can imagine with the mind does exist.
Long before the pearly white unicorn of European lore, a one-horned, magical animal was said to roam the Eastern world: the Asian unicorn. First mentioned in written stories around 2700 BC, this unicorn is described as a creature of great power and wisdom. Always benevolent, it avoids fighting at all costs and walks so softly it will not crush a blade of grass. And no one but the very pure of heart should ever see it.
Due to technical problems, this issue didn’t get distributed to those who subscribe by email. J.D.
“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” —George Orwell
This is an extraordinary time; a time when post-truth culture is thriving in Russia, China, America, Australia, Britian, India, Japan and Turkey. This political climate is founded and furthered by appeals to emotion and on conclusions based on ignorance of and resistance to hard science and well-documented history. A perhaps unprecedented level of bombast replaces common sense, honesty and sincere promise creating a climate that rests on disinformation, intimidation and divide-and-conquer as its primary weapons of control. This all combines to undermine rule of law, free speech and free media. We have administrations evolving in the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 where diplomacy and statesmanship have devolved into manipulative spins calculated to influence the gullible and solidify the power of would-be autharitarians.
With the mixed blessing of social networking citizens seem unable – or perhaps unwilling – to distinguish lies from truth and fact from fallacy. President Obama is described as “obsessed” with this problem (hyperreality) and the mixed ecosystem of professional journalism and social network reportage in which “everything is true and nothing is true.”
“In an age where there’s so much active misinformation, and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, where some over-zealousness on the part of a US official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect…If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” —Barak Obama
We’ve decided this month to address the challenges that face our countries and the world. We’ve addressed these in essay and poetry, sometimes head-on and sometimes by a thread. Though perspectives and solutions may differ to some degree, there is clear agreement that the concerns are real as is the need to “resist.”
A last note: Thanks to Michael Dickel for further technical refinements to make this zine more accessible and readily readable. Thanks also to the members of our core team, to our guest contributors and to our readers for continued support, encouragement and the pleasures of our shared values.
In the spirit of peace, love and community
and on behalf of The Bardo Group Bequines, —Jamie Dedes, Founding and Managing Editor
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ” ― George Orwell
For this issue of The BeZine
Click HERE to read the entire magazine by scrolling (includes the intro above) and
To learn more about our guests contributors, please link HERE.
In December 2015 world events led to a spontaneous eleventh hour special section – Waging the Peace – in The BeZine.. This seems a propitious moment to bring to the fore once again those ideas, ideals and experiences shared by Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill, Rev. Ben Meyers, Father Daniel Sormani, C.S. Sp., Sophia Ali-Khan, Israeli-American poet Michael Dickel, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. Thanks to all of them and to Carla Prater, the assistant director of Buddhist Global Relief for their contributions to this collection and their assistance. The links to the features in Waging Peace are included below the following introduction.
Rabbi SteinBerg-Caudill (the Interfaith Rabbi) is a Jewish teacher who espouses a Jewish Spirituality and Universalist teaching for the future brotherhood of all people. When I contacted him about this effort he reminded me of what surely should be foremost in our minds and hearts:
“The Hebrew word for PEACE – שלום – does not imply a lack of strife. It implies instead WHOLENESS, COMPLETION. If one is in a state of peace, he can still be whole in a time of chaos.”
“I understand and often share the ‘urge of urgency’ over the peacefulness of peace. But this I also know: We live at the intersection of action and reflection.”
Father Sormani, a Spiritan priest who has lived and worked in Algeria and Dubai and is now teaching theology at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, asks What Have We Done that People Can Pick-up Weapons and Kill. Father Dan says:
“We have become our own worst enemy. Whenever we separate the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’, whenever we accept blind generalizations and cease to see a unique individual before us, whenever we forget we are all victims of carefully orchestrated deceit and deception for wealth and power, the force of darkness wins. Bullets will never win this struggle, only the heart and mind will.”
Lest you missed Sofia Ali-Khan‘s letter, Dear Non-Muslim Allies, which made the rounds on Facebook and was also picked up by some mainstream media, we’ve included it here.
We’ve also included a video recitation of Tunisian poet Anis Chouchéne‘s profoundly moving poem against racism and fanaticism. Chouchène speaks directly to radical Islam … but I think you’ll agree that he ultimately speaks to the fear in all of us.
“Peace we keep an eye on/while it packs its bags/to abandon our lands, little by little …”
Chouchène concludes as Father Dan does, that we must be able to see the individual.
Michael Dickel‘s poem Mosquitoes (excerpt from his chapbook,War Surrounds Us – Is a Rose Press 2015), is featured. The poem starts out with Israelis and Palestinians crossing the artificial lines that divide to offer one another condolences on the deaths of their children. This is a favored poem of mine, especially so because when I initiated The Bardo Group (now The Bardo Group Beguines) in 2011, I had in mind virtual crossing of boarders through the arts. (Our mission statement is HERE.) Michael’s poem demonstrates how we are manipulated by the propaganda machine.
We’ve included a short video presentation on the seven steps to peace developed by peace activist, Rabbi Marc Gopin. Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC).
The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition, an author and teacher. He is the founder of Buddhist Global Relief. With permission, we offer the 2015 talk he gave at the New Year’s Interfaith Prayer Service, Chuang Yen Monastery. Bhikkhu Bodhi says:
“Real peace is not simply the absence of violent conflict but a state of harmony: harmony between people; harmony between humanity and nature; and harmony within ourselves. Without harmony, the seeds of conflict and violence will always be ready to sprout.“
Bhikku Bodhi goes on to analyze the obstacles to achieving world peace, the prerequisites of peace, and the means to realizing these goals.
On behalf of The Bardo Group Beguines and in the spirit of love and community,
Founding and Managing Editor of The BeZine.
Tomorrow we begin a new month and a month without sharing something of Gretchen Del Rio’s would just not be a good month. Gretchen Del Rio dedicated this painting to the Native American flautist Carlos Nakai. If you’ve never encountered his work, you’ve really missed something. The esteem in which he is held is well earned.
I am dedicating this painting to honor the healing flute music of Carlos Nakai. When I was 3 years old a groundbreaking surgery was performed on my left hand and ring finger to remove a bone tumor. The innovative operation was very successful but not much hope was given that I would ever use my ring finger again. I was just so fortunate that the finger was saved. So when I was about 6 years old and I wished to learn to play the flute I was repeatedly discouraged and told that it would be impossible for me to learn because of my stunted and immobile finger. Since I kept pleading to try, a teacher was found and a silver flute supplied. I practiced and practiced and by the time I was 10 I won a music contest playing the flute that everyone said that I…
“The chamber choir, for which I sing, along with two other local choirs (Stannington Mixed and Thurgoland Community Choir) and the talented Inyerface Arts musicians and soloists, are performing John Rutter’s Requiem as the core of a concert on Saturday, 27th May at the magnificent Victoria Hall in Sheffield. It would be very much appreciated it if you were able to share this amongst your friends, who might enjoy an amazing choral experience … Thank you.” John Anstie (My Poetry Library), is a singer, musician, poet and a member of The BeZine core team.
…the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland)
One of the most famous poems “about” poetry, Marianne Moore‘s poem, “Poetry.” It famously begins with
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
However, she goes on in the very next lines to say
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in it after all, a place for the genuine.
There is much that is genuine in this April issue of The BeZine, which celebrates Poetry Month globally with our celebration of interNational Poetry Month. We are proud to present a wide variety of poets and poetry from all over the world. We have 45 posts of poetry (many with more than one poem), an essay, and one short story. This issue of The BeZine is an anthology!
Over the years, questions of poetry’s health, suggestions of its “death,” and concerns over who, if anybody, might be reading it, continue to swirl around in various articles, essays, and round tables. While many of the debates one might encounter in this bubbling broth come from a perspective of poetry’s decline, it seems to me that the reasons that such questions arise come from two primary sources.
One is an anxiety about how society values what we do, as poets or readers of poetry. It seems that the writers from this vein often worry that, in fact, society does not value poetry—as recorded in statistics about readership or as suggested by some other perceived decline in attention to it. The other vein, in my view, is a more healthy concern with what poetry is and what we are doing when we “do” poetry (read, write, critique).
This past year, a lot of words spilled onto the screen and page regarding Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize—is a song writer a poet? Of course, poetry comes from song, so a song writer is a poet. Is poetry still song, then, or has it gone “beyond”? These articles and essays seem to flow from both of the sources I’ve suggested: anxiety and reflection. If our modest zine is any indication, poetry thrives throughout the world.
While the anxieties and reflections continue—and they are not new, witness the 1919 date of Marianne Moore’s poem—poets continue to write, and readers continue to read. You are reading this, so you are evidence of readers who have an interest in poetry. Whether there are more or fewer readers in any year or decade might fluctuate, or the methods of measuring them might change. However, as there are poets, there are those who read poetry. And listen to it—as in spoken word and slam.
Billy Collins opens his essay, The Vehicle of Language, suggesting that a problem with the reception of poetry is how poetry is taught:
For any teacher of poetry with the slightest interest in reducing the often high-pitched level of student anxiety, one step would be to substitute for the nagging and ultimately pointless question, “What does this poem mean?” the more manageable question “Where does this poem go?” Tracking the ways a poem moves from beginning to end puts the emphasis on the poem’s tendency to travel imaginatively and thus to carry the reader in the vehicle of its language.
In principle, I agree that the emphasis should be on where poetry goes, how it plays with language—not on decoding “meaning.” The same approach could be applied to the concerns expressed about poetry. The concerns need not be about where poetry is as measured against expectations of its current quality, akin to the “meaning” anxiety of its teaching.
Although some express an anxiety about the “quality” of online poetry or spoken word or even “today’s” written word, we would do well to reflect instead on where poetry is going, for us as readers and writers—where we as writers of it want to go with our poetry, and where we as readers of it want poetry to go to be most satisfying.
Poetry invites us to take an imaginative journey: from the flatness of practical language into the rhythms and sound systems of poetic speech. (Billy Collins, The Vehicle of Language)
It is our hope that you will read the poetry here with an appreciation for poetry’s “place for the genuine,” and find satisfaction in the depth and breadth presented here. Whether or not you will have “a perfect contempt for it” as you read, we leave up to you…
—Michael Dickel Contributing Editor
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Celebrating interNational Poetry Month
To Read this issue of The BeZine
Click HERE to read the entire magazine by scrolling, or
You can read each piece individually by clicking the links below.
To learn more about our guests contributors, please link HERE.
“That some of those labelled as enemies have crossed the lines to offer condolences at the mourning tents; that the mourning families spoke to each other as parents and cried on each others’ shoulders; that we cried for the children who died on both sides of the divide; that the war began anyway; that hope must still remain with those who cross borders, ignore false lines and divisions; that children should be allowed to live; that we must cry for all children who die”
Note: We did this interview some years ago. I’m posting it today so that readers who don’t know Michael may learn a bit about him. At some point tomorrow, we’ll hit the publish button for the April issue of The BeZine, dedicated to poetry. Michael is the lead editor for this issue. / J.D.
Jerusalem, Summer 2014:Michael Dickel and his family including Moshe (3 years when the interview was conducted, now 6) and Naomi (1 year at the time of the interview, now 4) hear the air raid sirens, find safety in shelters, and don’t find relief during vacation travels. In a country smaller than New Jersey, there is no escaping the grumbling wars that encircle. So Michael did what writers and poets do. He bore witness. He picked up his pen and recorded thoughts, feelings, sounds, fears, colors, events and concerns in poetry. The result is his third collection of poems, a chapbook, War Surrounds Us.
While some use poetry to galvanize war, Michael’s poetry is a cry for peace. He watched the provocations between Israel and Hamas that resulted in war in 2014 and he illustrates the insanity.
And the retaliation Continues, reptilian and cold, retaliation the perpetrator of all massacres.
Though the poems change their pacing and structure, they present a cohesive logical and emotional flow, one that takes you blood and bone into the heart of Michael’s experience as a human being, a poet, a Jew, a father and husband. He touches the humanity in all of us with his record of the tension between summer outings and death tolls, life as usual and the omnipresence of war. Both thumbs up on this one. Bravo, Michael.
– Jamie Dedes
MY INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DICKEL:
Jamie: Putting together a poetry collection and ordering the work in a way that enhances the meaning and clarity of poems included is not easy. One of the first things to strike me about the collection as a whole is how it flows, so well in fact that it reads almost like one long poem. I found that quality contributed to the work’s readability. How did you work out the order? Was it consciously ordered or did it arise organically out of the experience of the war?
Michael: I’m very gratified that you noticed this about my book. I hadn’t thought of it quite in that sense, of being one poem, but I like that it reads that way. The sense of a book holding together, a collection of poems having some coherence, is important to me. I don’t think my first book achieved this very well, although it has some flow poem to poem. The whole is not focused, though. My second book has a sense of motion and narrative, from the Midwest where I grew up to arriving and living in Israel, and now being part of the Mid-East. However, War Surrounds Us, my third book, finally has a sense of focus that the other two did not.
Unfortunately, I probably can’t take too much credit for that coherence. Even more unfortunate, a real war raged in Gaza, with rockets also hitting the Jerusalem area, not that far from where I live. As we know now, thousands died, most apparently civilians, many children. Just across the border to the Northeast, diagonally opposite of Gaza, a much larger scale conflict burned and still burns through Syria—with even larger death tolls and even more atrocities over a longer time. These wars had, and still have, a huge impact on me and my family.
During last summer, the summer of 2014, this reality of war surrounding us had all of my attention. And it came out in my writing as obsession with the war, my family, the dissonance between living everyday life and the reality of death and destruction a missile’s throw away. So the topic filled my poems those months, as it did my thoughts. And the poems emerged as events unfolded over time, so a sort of narrative wove into them—not a plot, mind you, not exactly, anyway.
This gives a chronological structure to the book. However, not all of the poems appear in the order I wrote them. I did move some around, seeing connections in a theme or image—if it did not jar the sense of the underlying chronology of the war. Some of the events in our life could move around, and I did move some poems to places where I thought they fit better. I also revised the poems, reading from beginning to end several times, trying to smooth out the flow. A few of the poems I actually wrote or started before this phase of the ongoing conflict broke out—but where they also fit into a pattern, I included them. In the end, I moved and revised intuitively, following my own sense of flow and connection. I’m glad that it seems to have worked for you, as a reader, too.
Jamie: What is the place of the poet and poetry in war? Can poetry, art and literature move us to peace? How and why?
Michael: This is a difficult question. Historically, one place of poets was to call the soldiers to war, to rile them up and denounce the enemy. There is a famous poem from the Hebrew Scriptures. Balaam is called by Balak to curse Jacob and his army. The story sets a talking donkey who sees an angel with a sword and other obstacles in his way, but long story short, he arrives and raises his voice. He is the poet who is supposed to curse the enemy. Instead, he begins, “How beautiful your tents, O Jacob…” and recites a poem that is now part of the Jewish liturgy. This is not necessarily a peace poem, but it shows words and their power to curse of bless. I think the place of the poet is to bless and, rather than curse, to witness with clear sight.
There is a long history of poet as witness and observer. Czeslaw Milosz in The Witness of Poetry and Carolyn Forché, following him, in her books Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness and Poetry of Witness, which goes back to the 16th Century, argue that the poet’s role is to observe and bear witness to the world—to the darkness, the atrocities, genocide, war… Forché quotes Bertolt Brecht: “In these dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.” I think that is what we do as poets. That’s what I hope that War Surrounds Us does at its best, albeit as much a witnessing of my own family and context as of the Other. Then, as feminist theory has taught me, the personal is political, the political personal.
Can art and literature move us to peace? I don’t know. I hope it can move us to see more clearly, to feel more acutely, and to embrace our humanity and the humanity of others. Perhaps that will move us toward peace. There is so much to do, and it is as the rabbinic wisdom says about healing creation: it may not be ours to see the work completed, but that does not free us from the responsibility to do the work. As poets, we make a contribution. I hope the songs about the dark times will also be blessings for us all.
Jamie: Tell us about your life as a poet. When did you start and how did you pursue the path? How do you carve out time for it in a life that includes work, children and community responsibilities. You live on a kibbutz, I think.
Michael: Well, starting at the end, no, I don’t live on a kibbutz, I live in Jerusalem (the pre-1967 side of the Green Line). I do teach English at a college that was started by the Kibbutz Movement as a teacher’s college in the 1960s, now Kibbutzim College of Education, Arts and Technology. That appears in my email signature and confuses some people outside of Israel, who think I teach as part of living at a kibbutz. I’m actually more like adjunct faculty, but no one at the college works directly for a kibbutz as far as I know, and the college is open to anybody who qualifies.
While I only have a short day, from when the kids of my current family go to pre-school until I pick them up, I also usually only teach part-time. Some semesters I teach full-time or even more, but usually not. And, many of my courses in the past couple of years have been online, meeting only a few times during the semester. This helps.
My wife works full-time in high tech, which allows us to survive on my irregular, adjunct pay. She also has some flexibility, which allows her to usually be free to pick up the kids as needed around my teaching schedule, and we have on occasion hired someone to help with the kids so I could teach, not so much for my writing. But that has allowed writing time on other days.
Mostly, I write during those few hours when the kids are at pre-school, after the kids have gone to bed, or even later, after my wife has also gone to bed. If I’m working on a deadline or a large project, such as some of the freelance work I do for film production companies, I write after my wife gets home from work even if the kids are still awake. Usually, though, I write when I find time, and I find time when I don’t have other obligations.
Perhaps of relevance to this book, the writing took over. I was late in getting papers back to students and delayed other obligations and deadlines, even canceling a couple of other projects—although it was not just the writing, but the whole experience of the war, dealing with it and wanting to be very present with my children. As the poems relate, we went to the Galilee, in the North, for a month, a vacation we have taken before. Last summer, though, it had extra urgency because of the war. Unfortunately, during an outing picking apples in the Golan Heights, we heard artillery across the border in Syria, and that’s when I wrote the title poem of the book, “War Surrounds Us.”
The summer before, on that same month-long getaway, I wrote a lot of flash fiction, which makes up most of my next book, which should come out by the end of the year (The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden came out December 2016, rather than 2015). I wrote during both summers when the kids were napping or after their bedtime, mostly. The place we stay in, a friend’s house (he travels every summer), has a lovely courtyard, and after the children went to bed, Aviva and I would sit out in it, usually with a glass of wine. She would read or work online and I would write on my laptop into the night. It was lovely and romantic.
I have to say that I almost don’t remember a time when I didn’t write poetry or stories. I recall trying to stop on a few occasions, either to work in some other aspect of my life, or when I did a different kind of writing, such as for my dissertation (which devolved into creative writing for more than half of it). But really, going back into my early years, I wrote stories or poems of some sort—influenced I suppose by A. A. Milne, Sol Silverstein, Kenneth Grahame and, later, Mark Twain and even Shakespeare. I had books of Roman and Greek myths, the Lambs’ bowdlerized Shakespeare for children, and some Arthurian tales as a child, not to mention shelves of Golden Books. Later, I read Madeleine L’Engle and a lot of science fiction. And everything I read made me also want to write.
I owe the earliest of my poems that I can remember to exercises from grade school teachers, one in 3rd grade, maybe 4th, the other in 6th grade. However, I’m sure that I wrote stories and possibly “poems” earlier. My first sense that I could become a poet arrived via a junior high school teacher, who encouraged me to submit some poetry to a school contest. I tied for first place.
So, I started writing forever ago. By the time of the junior high contest, I had read e e cummings, Emily Dickinson, some Whitman. By 9th grade, I discovered the Beats through a recording of Ginsberg reading “Kaddish” and other poems. Hearing him read the poems, then reading them myself, changed everything.
Alongside this development, one of my brothers brought Dylan records home that I listened to. All three of my brothers, with my parents’ tacit approval, played folk music and protest music in the form of songs of Woody Guthrie; The Weavers; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; in addition to Dylan. These influenced both my writing and my world view. The same year that I came across Ginsberg’s work, I was involved in anti-war activity in my high school. That spring, four students were shot at Kent State. In another way, that changed everything, too.
Writing, activism, and politics, for me have always been interwoven. I also heard that year about “The Woman’s Movement,” which today we call Feminism. Later, much later, I would read and take to heart the idea of the personal being political, the body being political. I think my poems, even the most personal, always have a political and theoretical lens. And the most philosophical or political or theoretical, also have a personal lens. I don’t think that we can help but do that, but I try to be aware of the various lenses, of using their different foci deliberately as part of my craft. I’m not sure that is the current trend, and much of my work doesn’t fit well in spoken word or slam settings (some of it fits). However, this is my poetry and poetics—and they arise from a specific cultural context, the complexity of which I could not begin to convey in less than a lifetime of writing.
My development from those awakening moments looked like this: I read. I wrote. I shared my work with other people who wrote. Sometimes I talked with others about writing. My first degree in college was in psychology, not English, because I naively thought that psych would help me understand the human condition and that English would “ruin” – suppress – my writing voice. However, I took a lot of literature courses and my study abroad term focused entirely on literature.
After college, I had a career as a counselor working with runaways, with street teens, with children undergoing in-patient psych evaluations, and in a crisis intervention and suicide prevention center—a career that taught me a lot about politics, gender, race, and justice. I continued to write, often about some of the most disturbing realities that I encountered, but not well.
I had been out of college nearly a decade when I took some courses in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, at the suggestion of some friends in a writing group who had also taken some. One of the professors encouraged me to apply to the Creative Writing Program, where I was accepted. The acceptance was a poignant moment—I was out of state at my father’s burial. My now ex-wife remained back with our then 2 year-old daughter. She saw the letter in the mail, so called and read it to me. It was also my 32nd birthday. So many emotions all at the same time. Mostly, I remember wishing I could have told my father—from when he first heard that I’d applied, every phone call we had included his asking if I had heard yet if I had been accepted. It was the most direct way he had of saying he was proud.
Jamie: Tell us a little about 100,000 Poets for Change (100TPC) in Israel and how people can get in touch with you if they want to participate this year. Are you able to manage a mix of Arabs and Jews?
Michael: The thing about 100TPC is that it’s pretty loose, as an organization, and very anarchic in governance. Which is to say, I’m not sure there is something I could call 100TPC in Israel. There’s a wonderful poet in Haifa who does some events, I don’t think every year. She is very active in peace activism and poetry. There’s an Israeli mentor of mine, Karen Alkalay-Gut, who has organized 100TPC events in Tel Aviv since the first year. For the past two years, I organized a poetry reading in Jerusalem. The first one was small, a few people I knew and cajoled into reading. The second one was much larger, over 25 poets. We had one Arab writer, who writes in English, at the second reading. Her poetry is powerful and personal, written as an Arab woman, a mother, and an Israeli. An Arab musician was going to join us, but he had a conflict arise with a paying gig. It is difficult to manage the practical, political, and social barriers, but people do it here. I am just learning a bit how to do this now.
For this year (2015), I am working with two other organizations—the Lindberg Peace Foundation, which has held annual Poetry for Peace events. This year will be the 40th anniversary (yartzheit, in Hebrew) of Miriam Lindberg’s tragic death at the age of 18. She wrote poetry, was a peace activist, and also an environmental activist. Her mother was a poet and professor, and passed away a few years ago. Joining us in planning the Jerusalem event will be the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. Their mission as I understand it is to develop interfaith leadership for common goals related to eco-justice that would also provide a model for solving the Middle East conflicts. (In the end, the collaborations did not work as planned in 2015, but there were three poetry events with some connection to 100TPC.)
The Jerusalem events won’t be the same date as the national event (26 September)—our dates will be 15–16 October, to honor the 40th anniversary of Miriam Lindberg’s death. Dorit Weissman, a Hebrew-language poet and playwright, also has become part of 100TPC this year, and she and I are having a smaller reading on 8 October with other poets.
We are just setting up a Facebook page for organizing with the three groups, 100TPC, the foundation, and the center. People could look for me on FB and send me a chat message there to be in touch. I hope that we will have the events posted on FB in the next few weeks, but we are still working on the details. The devil is always in the details, as the saying goes.
It’s great to get a poem or story published. It’s about income and getting read and for some it’s validation as well. These are all important (even vital), but I was reminded recently that our poetry and other writing is about so much more.
“The title of David Cooper’s book on Kabbalah invites us to re-think the Creator as Creating: God is a Verb. While I don’t want to equate science to God in a religious sense, I want to borrow this re-conception. Science is creative, creating, if you will, knowledge of the world. Science is a verb.”
A friend of mine came to visit and glowed when she told me she’d read Michael’s introduction. God is a Verb and Science is a verb popped out at her. Something she’d been struggling with suddenly fell into place. Other company arrived and I wasn’t able to get further explanation. I’m pleased but not surprise with her reaction to Michael’s piece. It demonstrates the power of words to bring joy, clarification and healing.
My own recent experience: a few people commenting or emailing me saying my post here – not with a bang but a whimper – helped release needed tears.
On another occasion in woman in Scotland wrote to say she’d read my poem – Wabi Sabi – to her wabi sabi group. They found it inspiring. Wow! While I do need my payments, it’s this sort of thing – this human connection – that is satisfying right down to the marrow of my bones.
Poetry is also important as an entry point into sacred space for both artist and audience. This is motivation for everyone to practice their art, whether professionally or as amateur, which is not a pejorative. I’m sure many of you – if not all of you – know what I mean. There’s a shift that happens. Sometimes it feels more like channeling than writing. The experience is illuminating, healing and peaceful. An unexpected insight often arrives just when you need it.
Our job as poets and writers goes even further: we bear witness, we give voice to the voiceless, and we observe and commemorate.
Myra Schneider said in an interview HERE, that “I believe the role of the poet is to reflect on human experience and the world we live in and to articulate it for oneself and others. Many people who suffer a loss or go through a trauma feel a need for poetry to give voice to their grief and to support them through a difficult time. When an atrocity is committed poems are a potent way of expressing shock and anger, also of bearing witness. I think that the poet can write forcefully, using a different approach from a journalist, about subjects such as climate change, violence, abuse and mental illness and that this is meaningful to others. I very much believe too that poetry is a way of celebrating life. I think it deserves a central place in our world.”
So, as we celebrate poetry this month, be sure to give yourself time to read and write … for the sake of your spirit and for the rest of us too.
Please join us at The BeZine on April 15th for our special interNational poetry issue. Michael Dickel is the lead editor.
‘Raven’s lesson is to walk without fear even if the way is not clear…trust your intuition to guide you.’ As it is with all original people history is recorded through verbal stories. I love the tales from Native American culture because they add to the spirit and mystery of the animals that I […]
The reason that people awaken is because they finally stop agreeing to things that insult their soul.
I have never been interested in politics or followed politics for a great many reasons, but present times, I feel, demand that I know what is transpiring in the government of the United States. What I am seeing is that seemingly soul less people have assumed authority. The common man has been duped into thinking that what is good for him and what he wants will be delivered along with his vote. Such a terrible manipulation. The entire world is watching things unravel and we citizens of the USA are being used for the soul less command of greed and power.
I function as a creative….an artist in this world. I see that it is my duty, my dharma to illustrate with my paintings caring, peace, love and humility that dwells never-ending…
The title of David Cooper’s book on Kabbalah invites us to re-think the Creator as Creating: God is a Verb. While I don’t want to equate science to God in a religious sense, I want to borrow this re-conception. Science is creative, creating, if you will, knowledge of the world. Science is a verb.
Too often we get tied down to a concept of science as about facts. However, as Thomas Kuhn describes it in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, science is a process (hence, verb). The process involves a method (the scientific method), observation, repeated results, and, if repeated results are consistent, an assertion that a hypothesis is likely to be true. However, Kuhn explains that it is also a sociological process where the method and affirmed hypotheses lead to paradigmatic beliefs—models that predict reasonably well future observations.
The paradigms are not easily changed—the paradigm of Newtonian Mechanics, which work very well in most real-world situations, did not easily yield to Relativity and Quantum Mechanics even as Newtonian physics accumulated observations it couldn’t explain while quantum physics explained more and more. As a model for most human activities on Earth, though, Newton’s model still works. It’s when boring down to atomic particles or moving out into massive astronomical systems, or specific cases like black holes and light itself, that we need Quantum Mechanics.
The different (and often competing) models—also known as theories—are products of science, the verb. The scientific process refines, overturns, explores new models. Science, at its best, produces closer and closer approximations of the actual universe it models. This is different from a belief in an unwavering truth or an ideology—in part, because it relies on observation and corrections if observations do not show what the model predicts. And second, because science does not make truth statements but, rather, probability statements. Sometimes, the probability approaches 100%, sometimes only 95%.
The flexibility that comes from self-correction unfortunately also provides ammunition for “science deniers,” such as those who deny climate change. As science is a process and models do change, as models are based on predictive ability and that ability is not 100% even in the best cases, those whose ideology or greed get in the way of accepting the predictions (even the very strongly likely ones) often claim the whole model is “unreliable,” or point to earlier results that required corrections to the model in order to discredit the whole theory. Yet, those who object do not offer an alternative model that does stand up to the process of scrutiny, repeated results, and reliable prediction of future events. They often offer no alternative at all.
At its outer theoretical spheres, the science verb sometimes takes us to conversations that sound like mysticism—as do some of aspects of that mysterious energy, light. Humans have a long cultural (and religious) history with light. Arthur Zajonc’s book Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mindprovides a wide ranging cultural and inter-cultural exploration of human understanding of light through history. In the end, Zajonc re-connects current quantum physics concepts with those from ancient myths as accurate metaphors (or analogies). Zajonc, a professor of physics at Amherst (now retired), has studied culture, mind and spirit in relation to physics from his perspective as a physic working in quantum optics (for example: The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, one of his better known books).
In a very real sense, the verb science interacts with arts and culture. It is an active process of human society, a developed methodology for producing close observations and repeatable results to help us build models that predict future results under different conditions. It is not a series of facts, but rather a system of understanding and predicting creation. In this way, it actively creates the world, literally as we know it. And it has influence culture. Certain newly (re)discovered understandings from mathematics helped European artists develop perspective in painting. A recent example, Chaos Theory, with its fractals and butterfly effect, has influenced art, music, and literature, and not just with science fiction movies.
In this issue, we celebrate, explore, and raise questions involving science, culture, politics, and religion. John Anstie and I both contribute poems that have sub-atomic particles at their centers, but are not (only or even mostly) about them. Naomi Baltuck explores Galileo through the Musee Galileo, in another one of her marvelous photo-essays. An sampling of snippets from science take us through “Science in culture, politics and religion” in Corina Ravenscraft’s exploration of connections. In “A Life,” Michael Watson gives a highly personal account of his own encounters and loves with different ways of understanding — or knowing — embodied in the theme’s elements of science, culture, religion, and politics. Current politics seem to attack the different approaches each has to offer. Phillip T. Stevens begins with Chaos Theory and moves into myths, the myths of myths, as it happens. Hearts, Minds, and Souls, by John Anstie, considers the theme from a socio-political framework, considering societies need to control as one of many elements in shaping science, culture, and religion through politics.
The issue has much more to offer— fiction by Joseph Hesch and lots of poetry by Jamie Dedes, Renée Espiru, Priscilla Galasso, Terri Muuss, and Phillip T. Stevens. The more light section has three more poems that are not directly related to this month’s theme, but we wanted to share with our readers at this time.
“It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man.” Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977), American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer
This issue of The BeZine is dedicated to scientists the world over, especially those who are conscientiously fighting to preserve this earth, its people, and scientific integrity. Throughout history scientists have met with the same skepticism they face in some quarters today. They were sometimes misunderstood and crudely punished. Alan Turing comes to mind first, cruelly treated after being of enormous service to his country.
I think of Rhazes (865-925), a forward-looking medical scientist who wrote a compendium of all that was known about medicine in his time. He was beaten over the head with his book, went blind and was unable to continue his work. Galileo’s (1564-1642) insight and honesty was labeled heresy. Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) books were burned. Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677) was suspected of spying when he sought to acquire and publish worthy works by people outside his own country.
The tensions between ignorance and cognoscence continue today. So much so that in my country scientists are planning an Earth Day march on Washington to protest the current regime’s dismantling of climate protections. Members of many scientific and research groups are scrambling to archive government data they believe could be in jeopardy under this new regime.
Many thanks this month to Michael Dickel for having my back on this issue and for his distinguished contributions. Thanks also to all our supporters – especially Terri Stewart, Charlie Martin, Chrysty Darby Hendrick, Ruth Jewel, Lana Phillips, Sharon Frye, Silva Merjanian, M. Zane McCllelan and Inger Morgan and to this month’s contributors (not in any particular order) Priscilla Galasso, Corina Ravenscraft, Joe Hesch, Michael Watson, Naomi Baltuck, John Anstie, James R. Cowles, Terri Muuss and Pat Leighton. All are valued as we pursue this small effort in the name of peace and understanding.
New to our pages this month is Phillip T. Stevens. Phillip tells me he spent most of the eighties and nineties as a community and arts activist. To pay his bills he taught writing and visual design to community college students and at-risk youth for the Texas Youth Commission. He published four novels, two volumes of poetry and academic papers (including a series of articles on the role of metaphoric thinking in the development of scientific theory and religious belief for the International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society). Phillip lives with his wife Carol in Oak Hill, Texas, where they rescue abandoned cats for Austin Siamese Rescue.
And here we are. Thanks to the efforts of many, we leave the March issue in your hands. Enjoy and …
Be inspired. Be creative. Be peace. Be …
On behalf of the Bardo Group Beguines
and in the spirit of love and community, Jamie Dedes, Managing Editor
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Science in Culture, Politics and Religion
To Read this issue of The BeZine
Click HERE to read the entire magazine by scrolling. (I place it in backwards though, so you’ll be starting at the end and moving forward. Sorry about that. Just getting this down. J.D.), or
You can read each piece individually by clicking the links the below.
Shiriki is stunning and the quote Gretchen Del Rio included with this painting is perfect for these days when the evironment is increasingly inhosptitable to the humans who are causing her damage and those who deny she’s being abused. Enjoy! ... and thank you to Gretchen for her willingness to share her gifts with us. xo
“Rise, awaken, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor, so say the wise.” Katha Upanishads, verse 1.3.14
SURPRISED TO HAVE MADE IT TO SIXTY-SEVEN
In gratitude today, I celebrate sixty-seven years of life, forty-seven years with my world-class son, and sixteen years of survival beyond my medically predicted expiration date.
In 1999, I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) and given two years to live. (No, I have never smoked in my life.) Thanks to the boundless patience and kindness of my son and the compassion and good offices of an extraordinary medical team, I’m still here, sometimes home-bound and always bound to toting an oxygen tank. These complications don’t keep me from enjoying the CitySon Philosopher, my beautiful, smart, fab and funny daughter-in-law, and the friendship of many including my friends from our Group for people with life-threatening illnesses, my neighbors, the members of our spiritual congregation/social justice network and my arts community of poets, writers, artists, musicians and bloggers.
Regarding the latter, I hold Jingle Yanqui (no longer online) most especially in heart. Her vision for forming a cohesive and supportive online poetry community has facilitated a network of poets I could not have hoped to manage on my own. It makes up for being unable to take part in off-line poetry readings and groups.
Without a doubt, I cherish the friendships and shared values among The BeZine core team members and guest contributors. They rock … and they’re helping to rock the world into peace.
Celebrating poetry, prose, music and art with you through your books and blogs numbers among my most treasured gifts. Thank you for your honesty, for sharing your wisdom, your joys and sorrows, your laughter and pain and very human folly, your faith and despair, the rough knobby wool of the human condition. As my workload and commitments have expanded over the years and my disease progresses, I don’t get to visit as often as I like … but I do peek in on you and you continue to endear yourselves to me.
LESSONS FROM THE SHARPENED EDGE OF THE RAZOR
Over the past few days, I have been thinking about life lessons learned from years of living – as you do too – on the razor’s edge:
We are not meant to compare ourselves with others. Our beauty is absolute, not relative.
Freedom is a state of mind. It requires a recognition of Madison Avenue values and programming and a disconnect from them and from any other received values that are not consistent with our own inner truth.
Committing art is spiritual practice.
We are meant to immerse ourselves in beauty: family, friends, flowers, music, poetry …
As long as we live on this earth, we have to make a living, but we were not meant to be wage-slaves. Find the balance between making a living with making a life.
Health is a relative thing: We will always be more-or-less healthy. We may have to modify our activities because of health challenges and/or aging, but as long as we’re alive, there’s no reason not to stay engaged.
When we receive a terminal diagnosis, it takes time to process and to deal with the shock. Eventually we find our way to peace and continue our lives, albeit within the limits of disability. The terminus – as you can see from my experience – may be a long way off.
The only difference between people who are living with a terminal diagnosis and those who are not is that the former are no longer in denial.
Don’t turn good time into bad by worrying about what is an inevitable part of life. There comes a point when we accept that things are just the way they should be even though we don’t understand the whys and hows.
As long as we insist on identifying with the painful experiences of our lives, with the insults received at the hands of others, we feel desolate and somehow less. The order of the day is reframe and reinvent. The need is to rewrite our stories.
People who are at peace with themselves are never cruel. If someone hurts or has hurt us, it’s because of their own pain.
Best policy: let go, trust yourself and get on with life.
Consciousness is not the mind attached to the brain. It is a Light independent of the physical. We may not always have form or human personality but we have always been and we always will be. The challenge is to be a worthy spark of Being.
Love – true love – is not romantic love. Love is found by seeing the reflection of Being in ourselves and all life. It is the ability to recognize the sacred everywhere and in everyone, even in our frail and fallible selves, in the most unfortunate conditions and the most unfortunate people.
May every day be a rebirth for you in the light of Love.
A lovely late winter morning, the light clear and vibrant on the snow and trees. The day is warm for late February; this entire week will likely be far above normal in temperature, a condition that increasingly seems normative in itself.
Early Saturday morning a crew arrived to install solar panels on our roof. In spite of our best efforts our steep driveway was dangerously icy which resulted in a confab as to whether the work could proceed. Fortunately, the temperature was rapidly rising and the application of more ice-melt soon remedied the situation. Sometime in the next few days the panels will be connected to the grid and our home will begin to generate relatively clean electricity.
Over the weekend my Facebook feed was filled with the idea of resistance. After a month of resistance I’ve decided that even more important than resistance, which remains crucial, is vision. We’ve had many years of resistance by one party or the other here in the US, resistance that has only managed to create ever more division and the very real possibility of massive physical violence. (I imagine people on all sides might agree they have experienced a prolonged period of emotional and spiritual violence.)
Also on the weekend, I got around to reading about a new project from Howlround and SpiderWebShow. Howlround wrote:
Across the much-discussed border, we are exchanging letters; Letters from Canadians and letters from Americans. CdnTimes will publish letters from Americans to hear what it’s like on the ground, now, for theatre artists working in the United States. Meanwhile, HowlRound will be publishing letters from Canadians about what’s affecting our work now. Artists from both countries share warnings, worries, strategies of resistance, generosity, and advocacy—messages of solidarity. What can we learn from each other? —Adrienne Wong and Laurel Green, co-editors at SpiderWebShow’s CdnTimes.
I’ve been wondering how I might bring diverse voices together in this difficult time, and as I read the first letters I became increasingly excited, wondering how the inspiration inherent in that project might be joined with and amplified. I’m still curious. What might those of us who are working for a more equitable, caring, responsive world share with one another that would be useful and mutually supportive? How might I provide an accessible forum for the thoughts and concerns of a diverse group of fellow travelers? What might happen were the conversation to be global!
I envision a gathering of folks in the arts, from around the world, where a conversation might be had about making art in this vexing time. I like the idea of letters as the are usually written, yet may contain photos and artwork. Letters can be thoughtful, personal, and engaging; they are by nature more than sound bites and talking points. Letters might also be created using video and integrating images, words, and sound. Hopefully the conversation would be inclusive, and those in education, the healing arts, and many other vocations would participate. If there is enough interest, I’ll put up a separate website to carry the conversation.
I invite you to share your preferred vision for the your life and the world, and how your work feeds that vision. You may leave your response here at The BeZine (I’ll read them) or on my site. My expectation is that write-ups here today would be thoughtful, personal, focused on your work, respectful of a wide range of views, and honoring the possibility of reconciliation and mutual care, far beyond North America. Please do let me know what you think of this idea, and whether you might be interested in participating in such a project. My hope is that should I go ahead with the project there would be letters from artists, and others, working in a wide range of disciplines and in many lands, and that conversations and collaborations might arise from the sharing.