Friday, June 26, 2015

The Confederate Flag And Our Stunted Spiritual Growth

Over the time I have been writing these posts, I have often received comments from readers that said something to the effect that “I understand some of my perceptions color my ‘reality.’ But some don’t. How else can I explain how many, many others perceive as I do?” Those of you who have read me for a while will remember the several times I have discussed “race consciousness.” “Race” in this context refers to the human race – not ethnicity or skin color. Race consciousness is a learned set of beliefs that do, in fact, determine how we as a human race interpret what our physical eyes see.
The current controversy concerning the Confederate flag provides a great example of this. The flag’s history, quite misunderstood and reinvented, has defined our perceptions of it. History, as stated over and over, has repeated that reinvention by saying it is all about the South’s heritage, honor and ancestry. Actual history tells a different story – one that we are hesitant to talk about.
Actual history tells us the story of how the flag has become a symbol of rebellion. Initially, against the federal government over slavery and the firm belief that people of color are inherently inferior to white people of European descent. This rebellion led to the Civil War and the flag was the battle flag of General R. E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. That flag then became a symbol of the rebellion against the equality of the races (1880 – 1950) that led to the Jim Crow laws in the south legalizing segregation.  Finally, in 1948 it became a symbol against the forced end to Jim Crow – especially school integration, equal use of facilities (bathrooms, water fountains, front doors, restaurants, etc.) and voting rights.
This latest rebellion began when State Senator Strom Thurmond (SC) used the flag as he ran for president under a segregation platform in opposition to Harry Truman’s desegregation of the military following World War Two. It was raised again in opposition to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared “separate but equal” schools to be unconstitutional. This decision also was seen as the beginning of the dismantling of all Jim Crow laws in the South. This was the time (1950s) when southern states began flying the flag on their State Houses and monuments. This theme of rebellion against government was quickly cast as a State’s Right issue when it was all about protecting the belief in white supremacy (or colored inferiority). This issue of the equality of African –American citizens has been picked up by all forms of white supremacy and/or quasi-military groups as well as by bigoted lone wolfs – all of whom still preach the gospel of the inferiority of people of color.
This discussion seems to be very complicated because we are used to sweeping very unpleasant issues under the rug and pretending they don’t exist. I heard one black law professor at Georgetown (DC) University Law School tell a caller, who had stated the flag honored her ancestors, many of whom died in the Civil War, the following: [This is my paraphrase of his statement] “If your ancestors had prevailed, I would not be a professor of law at a major university. I would still be considered property. My wife and children would still be considered property – perhaps your property – to use or dispose of as you determined necessary. So, I do not honor your ancestors.
An ugly truth.
The history of the Confederate flag – the battle flag of Robert E. Lee – is an ugly history. It’s a symbol of rebellion and a symbol of the belief in white supremacy. So, we generally do not like to talk about it – except to spin its history to sound more palatable: Honor; Ancestry; Heritage; State Rights. To believe that reinvented history stunts our personal growth.
Since we don’t like to look ugliness in the face, we turn our heads and in that silence of politeness this reinvented history of the flag is all we’ve heard for the past 60+ years. That’s three generations. And that’s enough time for us to all begin actually believing this reinvented history as fact – when it isn’t.
This is how “race consciousness” begins. This is how it spreads. This is what it can look like.  This is why understanding the truth of history, sharing it, and speaking it becomes exceptionally important. Societal growth as well as our personal spiritual growth depends on the truth, as best we can define it. Without it our spiritual growth is stunted.
The South fought the Union for the right of states to continue treating people of color as property. They lost. They tried to maintain the right of states to legalize segregation. They lost. They are still trying to enforce “tradition” that favors the concepts of white supremacy. They are losing that fight as well.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#4 June 2015

Copyright 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

More Comments From My Trip To Cuba

I have received more comments from readers concerning my trip to Cuba. From the comments I could pretty much distinguish between those readers who were more politically progressive and those who were more conservative. The more progressive comments expressed a curiosity about specific aspects of the Cuban people – their life, culture, education, health, and arts. The more conservative concentrated their comments on Cuba’s system of government, especially the socialistic economic system, or on a general defense of capitalism to the point of stating that capitalism is biblical (thus Christian?) and socialism wasn’t.
I’ve heard it said there is a Christian basis for capitalism. But one can find biblical verses to support socialism as well. Often, I hear quoted as a biblical reference that supports capitalism, “God helps those who help themselves.” That quote is from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac not from the Bible.
There are really two major economic systems: socialism and capitalism. One of the “Aha” moments I had while in Cuba was recognition of the singular flaw in both of these major economic systems.
In the U.S. we do not have a true capitalistic system. We have a government-assisted form of capitalism just like Europe. The only difference is that our government-assisted capitalism is designed to support corporations and their shareholders. In Europe, their government-assisted capitalism is generally designed to protect the “little guy.”
But both socialism and capitalism have this one flaw: These are theoretical systems.  Everybody in the society has to subscribe to the system – and I mean everybody; every single person – for it to work. 
What happens when people don’t? They are beat down to a pulp. In fascist or communist governments with a socialistic form of economy, this “beating down” often takes the form of physical violence. Dissidents are threatened, hurt, imprisoned, and even killed. We in the USA and other major capitalistic countries like Spain and England have also done this when we dealt with colonists, with native Americans, with unions, and others. Governments were called in through their control of the National Guard to support the industrial community.  All you have to do is read about the miner/trucker/longshoremen strikes here or read Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol to see how society was skewed to support those fully engaged in the practice of their version of capitalism.
I remember a lady from France in Saint Augustine, where she would spend the winter, who could not understand why people would put up with “bad food” in grocery stores. The “good” food, i.e., organic, was very expensive or unavailable. In the course of her comments she made a poignant statement: “Here in the U.S. people seem to be afraid of big business and the government. In Europe big business and the government are afraid of the people.”
But generally, we “beat down” those who don’t participate fully in our economic systems by marginalizing, taxing, and controlling their behavior in inhumane ways to prevent their “drain” on our resources.  When I was a Street Minister in Trenton, NJ in the late 1960s I worked with these marginalized folks. People trying to use their incentive to add to their income, were taxed at a 100% rate! If the social worker found out that they were earning an additional $75 a month from taking in ironing, for example, they would have the family’s benefits cut by $75. Additionally, they would be blamed for “trying to cheat the system.” It was insane. Poor people often hold menial jobs and are dependent on public transportation, while factory jobs are moved to the outskirts of urban areas increasing transportation costs and travel time – both of which can become unbearable to someone earning the minimum wage.
Abortion restrictions apply mainly to those who are dependent on government assistance. Wealthier folks will find a way to take care of their daughters – they’ll send them away for an abortion or send them away to a “private school” to have their baby and give it up for adoption. The poor family simply has to take care of their child (or the teenager and her child) – further impeding the family’s attempt to climb out of their economic hole. But we don’t want to teach sex education or have contraception available. We want them to be forced into having their babies, and it’s the children who will suffer. Poor children will have improper diets and inadequate health care and do poorly in school. After all, it’s difficult for children to concentrate in school when they are hungry or ill. It is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy or a perfect circular argument: We don’t need to spend time and money on the poor because they only end up in menial jobs and are a “drain” on our economy. See! We haven’t spent money on them and, sure enough, they are not amounting to very much. Case proved. Case closed.
I’m reminded of a quote from the Code of Hammurabi. It was the source of the overriding legalistic system in Mesopotamia circa 2,000 BCE. This was the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Old Testament. Many of the practices we read about in Genesis stem from this Code of Law: The legal treatment of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar who was Sarah’s handmaiden; Abraham’s treatment of Sarah as his sister rather than as his wife; the codes and practices of inheritance.  All these were from the Code of Hammurabi, which had as a major tenet: “The first duty of government is to protect the powerless from the powerful.
We need to stop believing capitalism, as an economic system, is some form of a gift from God. It is what it is – an economic system. So is socialism. Socialism needs to adapt in order to honor, support and encourage the efforts of the individual. Capitalism needs to always be aware of and tempered by the practice of protecting the powerless from the powerful. When this is not done we end up with a system where 10% of the population owns more capital that the remaining 90%. That becomes a moral issue, and, if not addressed, will become the downfall of our democratic society, as we know it.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#3 June 2015
Copyright 2015

Saturday, June 13, 2015

How I Know I’m In A State Of Serenity

I received many comments last week– all positive – about our trip to Cuba. In those comments, however, were lots of statements that identified with the angry lady I quoted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Moonlight Mile, [Harper Collins, 2010). That kind of surprised me. I was expecting more comments in the vein of “How can you consider such a communist godless country as providing a good vacation?” I didn’t receive any of those. As stated, virtually all comments also contained a resonance with the anger or repressed rage of Lehane’s fictitious lady.
Repressed rage – still alive and well in our country just as Steinbeck (I think) stated in that famous line “… people living a life of quiet desperation.” I began thinking a lot about how angry, frustrated, suspicious or resentful people can be. They seem to be pleased they understand the situation. Nevertheless, they do not seem to be filled with joy and peace.
These comments made me think of how it is that I know when I’m in a place of serenity, of peace, of joy, of happiness.
I cannot rely on my feelings to provide a clue to recognizing my serenity. My feelings are too transient, too fleeting. They can change almost instantly. Old-timers in AA have told me “Feelings or emotions are an indicator, not a dictator.” I need to always remember that.  My egoic mind will latch onto a feeling and treat it as if it’s a gauge of reality. It’s not. It is simply a passing state of my emotional being – which, most of the time is in some state of fear: frightened that I’ll lose something I have or not acquire something I want.
When I place too much emphasis on the “reality” of my emotional state, I find myself constantly buffeted by invisible forces that make me miserable. In that state, I chase my tail as a little puppy. Going nowhere and feeling tense, apprehensive, and defensive. I may not know where I am, but I know I’m not in a state of serenity.
Early in my sobriety I kept asking members of the Fellowship “How do I know if I’m enjoying serenity?” Often they laughed, but I was very serious.  I didn’t ask this during a meeting, but I would bring it up at an after-meeting coffee shop where many of us went.
Finally, a mature member who had a stable and constant program of recovery told me this: “Don, when I’m in a good place in my recovery, it is because my spiritual development is on track. The Big Book [Alcoholics Anonymous] tells us that our state of serenity is directly proportional to the state of our spiritual life. When all is well for me, I am viewing all that is happening either as a joyous outcome to a situation or as another learning experience for me. It is either one or the other, and both are good for me. I am not upset with some outcome or relationship. I realize that I am fully enjoying what is happening or I am being confronted with another view of one of my character defects or shortcomings. I can say to everything around me: ‘This is good.’ Or ‘This is a good learning experience.’ Under these circumstances there is nothing “bad” going on with my life. I am content. That is how I know I am serene.” 
I have taken that description to heart.
When I’m driven by my emotions or feelings I am anything but serene. I am not looking at what is happening to me in terms of joy or a needed learning experience. I am angry or fearful, or defensive, or nervous, or irritated, or envious, or, or, or. But I’m not peaceful. I am not calm. I am not at ease. I am not happy.
So, I try to understand that all that happens to me has been filtered through my perception. If I am uncomfortable and ill at ease, the problem is within me. I need to change my way of looking at what’s going on.
That, however, is something I cannot achieve by my egoic self – by my will power.
All I can do is recognize this is where I am and I am willing to see it differently. If I ask this of the Holy Spirit, that is all He needs to hear. He will answer my plea. I need, also to be ready to listen for His voice, which means I have to tune my hearing, not to the loud monkey-mind voices of my ego, but to His whispers.
That is still hard for me to do. But my spiritual development is all about progress not perfection. So, I still try and am still willing and still remain very desirous of seeing life in a manner that is serene, joyous, and happy. That is my inheritance. That is what I am. That is the promise of A Course in Miracles: “… Nothing real [Love] can be threatened. Nothing unreal [Fear] exists. Herein lies the peace of God.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#2 June 2015

Copyright 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Our Trip To Cuba – What An Experience!

We just returned from a cultural “people-to-people” 8-day tour of Cuba. It was a very different kind of tour. Not your typical monuments, museums, historical buildings, etc. Although there was some of that, it was more focused on meeting various segments of the population – the elderly, pre-school and medical facilities, the art community, historical renovators and social service organizations.  Some of these were government-sanctioned organizations and some of them were private or entrepreneurial efforts. When combined, they constituted the “good, bad, and ugly” of Cuba, as our tour director described them. In other words, there was little sugar-coating going on.
What we witnessed was the impact of our 50-year embargo and it was shaming. What we have done has not affected the government that much – it has targeted the elderly, the children, and the poor. Food, medicines, tools, and equipment are still hard to come by if at all. Farmers still plow with yoked oxen. I believe we had hoped the embargo would make the population rise up in protest and overthrow the Castro government. That didn’t happen. All that happened was the people for the most part learned to simply ignore the government and survive the best they could – being creative, innovative, and making-do. It did expose the major flaw in the Cuban society, however, which is their economic system. Their health care, education, arts and housing efforts are going strong, although housing is beginning to be an issue. Many homes are beginning to deteriorate and the residents have neither the money nor the tools to handle the repairs on their own.
Everything is changing.  We felt fortunate to be there in the midst of the beginning of their transition. The government understands the need to focus on the economy and is recognizing the importance of entrepreneurism. It is recognizing the need to embrace change in how they have done “business” with foreign governments. It understands the need for better agricultural practices to grow more vegetables because their traditional diet – starches and meats – is leading to diabetes. It understands how it needs to provide more incentives so neighborhoods will begin to improve themselves. Some have. Many haven’t. We saw both.
But through all this the people themselves are genuinely happy, gentle and very friendly. They love their country, its emphasis on education (Cuba’s literacy rate is about 95% - one of the highest in the world), arts of all kinds (visual, graphic, dance, music), health care and their diversity. Real diversity is relatively new for Cuba. The traditional Latino “macho” culture is waning. Gays and lesbians are openly entering politics, the military, and business.  They want more women in the workforce, but to do that they have to meet child-care needs, which they are doing. They are truly in transition. Our Cuban guide believes it will take another 5-6 years for all these social transformations to settle in. [While we were there it was announced that a ferry will begin operating from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Havana and Jet Blue has been approved to begin service to Cuba in July of this year.]
Although we were in some very, very poor neighborhoods – barrios, if you will – with piles of trash, local government-sponsored ration stores and houses that resembled hovels rather than homes, the expressions of subdued rage were absent. I don’t think they were “Putting on the Ritz” for us. I believe they are a happy people. They were excited to see us, meet us, and talk to us. They wanted to show-off – whether with their wares, activities, art or especially with their Cuban music.
I really was amazed.  I expected to see a lot of repressed anger and frustration – either at their government or – especially – at the USA. It just wasn’t there. Several times people on the street approached me and said, “Are you American?” “Si.” I replied. Then, with 2 thumbs up and grinning broadly, “Obama. Obama.”
I read recently in a novel Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane, [Harper Collins, 2010] a description of the repressed rage that exists here – elements we have seen rising up in the form of an angry Tea Party, para-military groups, the NRA and gun carrying, voter repression, virulent hatred of the government and especially Obama, and the popular promotion of fear, anxiety, conspiracy and distrust for political gain. Not just hatred of policies – but of the people who espouse them. If someone disagrees with a policy position I favor, I am vilified. I’m sure you are too.
Lehane writes of a woman who knew a run-away girl who was smart enough to enter an Ivy-League school: “So she could, what, enter some cubicle at a slightly higher rate of pay? Hang her f***ing diploma on the partition wall? She spends the next thirty-forty years learning how to short stock and steal people’s jobs and houses, their 401(k)s? But that’s okay…. She sleeps like a baby at night, tells herself she’s not to blame, it’s the system. Then one day she finds a lump in her breast. And it’s not okay anymore, but nobody gives a s**t, honey, because you made your f***ing bed. So do us all a favor and die….The woman had never raised her voice, but the rage she’d expelled into the atmosphere had been so torn and pitiable it rattled us all. And it wasn’t rare. Quite the contrary. You asked a simple question lately or made an innocuous aside and suddenly you were the recipient of a howl of loss and fury. We no longer understood how we’d gotten here. We couldn’t grasp what had happened to us. We woke up one day and all the street signs had been stolen, all the navigation systems had shorted out. The car had no gas, the living room had no furniture, the imprint in the bed beside us had been smoothed over.” [pp. 212-213]
That’s what’s happening here. That’s not what I saw in Cuba.
Bottomline? I think we can learn something from Cuba’s government whose policies mirror the country’s values. I also think they can learn a great deal from us about general economic issues. If you can go to Cuba, please do.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to your friends, family, and those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
#1 June 2015

Copyright 2015