Some Better Questions

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program, I’ve heard and read a lot of discussions that start with a question whose premise could be summed up as “there are bad guys out there, and what if torturing them can help save lives?”

This question doesn’t need to be answered so much as rejected and shamed as the utter bullshit it is. Torture is immoral and abhorrent to any notion of civilization, and if that’s too fancy for you, it’s illegal in this country and a war crime everywhere in the world. So the question is irrelevant. It’s like asking “what if murdering someone does some good?” or “what if there’s some value in racism?”

The question is not only irrelevant, but it’s predicated more or less on this assumption: that terrorists are inhuman monsters with evil agendas that they will only reveal if we show we’re willing to be even more brutal than they are. And that somewhere, there’s a ticking bomb, thus giving whatever pummeling we choose to administer even more moral force and urgency. It’s a question that comes from watching too many bad movies and TV shows.

And finally, it’s a question with a simple answer. Torture does not work. It doesn’t yield actionable intelligence. This is a widely accepted consensus view in the intelligence community.

Here are some better questions to ask in the wake of the Intelligence Committee report. I’d like to hear some powerful and respected voices asking these questions:

Shouldn’t the words “enhanced interrogation” make us all deeply ashamed of the culture of euphemism that corporations and politicians have fostered? Shouldn’t every “journalist” who ever used those words to describe torture make a public apology?

Have we become so cynical and jaded about our government that we really don’t care what atrocities it commits, as long as we’re “free”? And does “free” just mean free to be left alone to munch on tacos and watch TV?

Why are we so afraid of terrorism? I was eight blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and I saw the towers fall right in front of me, and later I ran through the smoke and debris to safety, and I’m not afraid of terrorism, or terrorists. They’re criminals, that’s all. Find them and arrest the fuckers. Why are we making them into some existential threat? Americans used to have some balls — what happened to us?

If we allow torture to be a policy of our government, what exactly makes us different from “the terrorists” anyway? Our good intentions? Our self concept as noble and good people?

Are we going to do anything about the CIA? It’s a government bureaucracy, just like any other. Are we going to continue letting it do anything it deems necessary, including deceiving two branches of government? Why is the CIA off limits to a thorough housecleaning? Are we simply afraid of the CIA? And if we are, is this still a democracy?

This program was authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The names of the people who did so are not a secret. Why is it so unthinkable that they should be prosecuted for war crimes? Why can’t that idea even be floated in the mainstream media? Is it because they are powerful, and more to the point in our celebrity-bedazzled culture, famous?

Why is it that many conservatives, usually so quick to paint everything in stark black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, suddenly see the issue of torture as one big gray area? Right-wingers are always talking about “accountability.” Why don’t we hear any of them using that word in this case?

Why haven’t Democratic leaders been much more visible and staunch in their opposition to this? Why didn’t they loudly call out President Obama when he essentially caved on the issue by issuing an order rescinding the policy and then kicking everything else about it under the rug? Why are Democrats now vocal about the report but largely silent about Obama’s lack of leadership on this issue?

Is it because politics in this country has become nothing more than a sport, with fans rooting for their team regardless of what it does, as long as their team is perceived as winning? Is the conservative silence on torture, or worse, defense of it, simply driven by the fear that it might be bad for Republicans? Is the Democratic position (if there is one) driven by the same cynical calculus?

Those are the questions that I’d like to hear asked in public, but the really tough questions are the ones we should be asking ourselves:

Do we kind of like the idea of torture? Have we been fed so much revenge-fantasy pop culture that we’re into it now? Do we feel so powerless and small, are we so full of impotent rage, that the idea of some righteous CIA dude giving the works to a swarthy foreign guy in rags makes us feel just a little better about the world and ourselves?

Or are we just not paying attention to any of this? Is it just more news and information we can’t really use? Do we think it has nothing to do with us, so fuck it?

And so is torture — the deliberate infliction of unbearable pain that serves no purpose except as an outlet for humanity’s worst impulses —  just one more He Said/She Said, meh I’m really not sure, let’s agree to disagree kind of thing? Because that’s the perspective of a sociopath.

Have we all become sociopaths?

 

 

A Healthy Old Man Shares His Secret!

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It was an icy cold April morning in Orlando. In fact, it was yesterday morning. I don’t know how low the temperature was but it must have been around 70 degrees. I was up early because after months of preparation, I finally set the alarm clock and was planning to take a walk around the block.

Mostly I sit at home at a desk and a computer and write advertising copy disguised as blog posts. You can make amazing money working from home but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about the amazing thing that happened yesterday.

As I was walking towards the mailbox I felt a rush of nervous energy and anticipation because I knew I was about to take on the toughest physical challenge of my life.

After making it to the end of the driveway, I found myself a nice little spot kind of away from where the dog usually does his business, where I could do some stretches and warm up my legs a little. As I was stretching I glanced over my left shoulder. Or it may have been my right shoulder. Some details I remember so well and others, not so well. But I saw a man arching his back and pointing his chest towards the sky.

He was a lot shorter than me and a bit more weathered but we struck up a conversation and amazingly after a few minutes of chatting I found out that I was actually talking to a man in his mid-50s.

I remember our conversation like it was yesterday.

He was soft spoken and he was brimming with energy. He told me that he just turned 55 years old and that he exercised. Every morning. And that HE was about to walk around the block. Not just walk around it, but run around it. Well maybe a combination of walking and running.

I was in awe.

I was 25 years old, in fact I still am, and here I was talking to someone more than double my age who was about to put his body through more pain and more stress than I could possibly imagine.

I was truly dumbstruck.

Here I was, trying desperately to find a way to cope with the stress of writing ad copy free of grammatical and getting fatter every day and here this incredibly old guy was in amazing shape and running around the block to boot.

What’s your secret I asked him?

He looked at me puzzled. You talk funny, he said.

While he slowly raised his hand over his head and bent to the side to stretch his hip, he told me that a long time ago he discovered that eating a certain combination of foods helped give him a significant boost of energy.

I was skeptical.

But I looked again at this 55 year old man who was getting ready to exercise, and my disbelief slowly faded.

What? Can you say that again? I asked him.

He said what, are you fucking deaf, I’m supposed to be the old guy here,
and then he told me that years ago he discovered that when he ate a combination of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, stayed away from sugars and fats, and got regular exercise his energy levels dramatically increased.

He didn’t know why, or how, he just knew that he felt great and that now he never went a day without working out and eating this magic combination of “vegetables” and other superfoods.

I can still remember his face and how his eyes lit up when he was telling me this.

Is it possible that eating healthy food and getting exercise could help give a guy in his 50s enough energy to go outside and run?

After a few more stretches and general chit chat he took off. But I needed more answers so it was time to go back inside to sit in front of my computer do some research.

After getting distracted by a few Buzzfeed quizzes (it turns out I’m Smaug!) and some porn that came up by accident and some proofreading tips that I’ll get to someday I plowed through hundreds of websites, research papers and medial journals I found something really surprising about diet and exercise and that’s what I want to share right after I catch up on the sleep I missed…

When Will Florida Address its Bear Problem?

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There are bears running loose in my neighborhood; something that has gone from a curiosity to a serious nuisance… or worse. The mother is protecting her cubs and has no fear of humans. As I told the local news crew, someone is inevitably going to get mauled, or worse.

Calls to Florida Fish & Wildlife get you only happy talk (e.g. “don’t leave a bucket of honey in your driveway!”) and advice on how to live with bears. But I don’t want to live with them — I’m not on safari. The authorities are saying “Florida is Bear Country,” which as an excuse for inaction is kind of ridiculous: Florida is mosquito country too, but nobody is telling you it’s illegal to kill them, or advising you on how to scratch yourself more efficiently.

Yesterday one of the local news stations came to interview me and other neighbors about this increasing problem. Here’s a link to the story, which aired at 10 p.m. on January 4. Couldn’t embed it, sadly.

http://www.myfoxorlando.com/story/24366162/family-of-bears-is-making-themselves-too-much-at-home-for-some-heathrow-residents

Rejecting Authority

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“In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.”

~ Pope Francis, in an August interview conducted on behalf of La Civiltà Cattolica, America and several other major Jesuit journals around the world.

Francis continues to blow my mind; I never thought I’d hear a Pope say such right-on things. But the world is changing faster and faster. If Catholicism or any other religion wants to thrive, it’s going to have to embrace chaos and uncertainty rather than deny them. As technology continues to erase barriers, as the world in all its complexity crashes in on each of us more and more, anyone who claims to have absolute answers is going to be seen as irrelevant.

What humanity needs is leaders who will show us how to engage with the world as it IS. How to successfully navigate a dizzying array of voices and choices. One reason for the rise of fundamentalism and orthodoxy around the world is simple fear. Confusion and uncertainty are very threatening to the ego. Simple answers, black and white notions of good and evil, right and wrong can seem like a rock to cling to in a stormy sea. Finding an “answer” in some rigid set of beliefs is very reassuring (suddenly, we feel not just reassured, but right, and nothing feels better than that). Until, inevitably, we’re forced to confront some new fact that doesn’t fit our tidy worldview.

What the Pope is saying, in interview after interview, is that this doctrinaire reliance on rules and certainty takes us away from God, not closer to God. That as human beings we can never really know what God is, or the nature of God. That no person can claim with any degree of authority to know God, or know what God thinks or desires. This is, pardon me, some radical shit to hear from a major religious leader, much less the Pope. Read what he’s saying. It’s amazing. Time and again, he is rejecting authority for himself. The old hippie paradigm of the 60s was to reject outside authority, and that’s a start… but rejecting authority for oneself is where it’s really at (to borrow an old hippie phrase).

Because that’s how you experience real spirituality: by transcending your ego. It’s your ego that wants authority, either for yourself or from others. Or from your notion of God. It’s basically the desire to be a child again, to experience that warm feeling of protection and safety that comes from believing in your parents’ infallibility. We all eventually learn that our parents are not infallible, but many of us take the wrong lesson from this: we blame our parents for failing and go searching for some new authority figure to give us that safe feeling again.

But increasingly, the times we live in are demanding that we grow up. To grow up doesn’t mean to become an authority figure. Far from it. To grow up means to take responsibility for yourself and your own imperfections. To watch your very best intentions go totally awry. To hurt people you love, helplessly and unintentionally. To make big mistakes and to have to own the consequences. To keep trying, despite being humbled by the huge gap between the person you know you could be and the person you actually are.

And whatever God is (I surely don’t know), God is in that gap. You find your way through it haltingly, stumblingly, blindly. There is no rock to cling to. There’s only the effort, the movement toward something better and more noble, and the inevitable sliding back. And real grace is when we develop some compassion for our fellow stumblers. Francis gets this. We are not here on this earth to be certain. We’re here to be uncertain, to try to know something we can never know, to believe in something we have no hard evidence for.

It’s called faith. To hear it being preached by the Pope, to see it being lived by him, is a profoundly inspiring and hopeful thing.

Read the full text of the Pope’s interview, quoted above.

How to Make Egg Nog Like a Gentleman

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Salvatore Calabrese is quite possibly the best bartender in the world. Years ago, my wife gave me his slim, elegant little book Classic Cocktails. It sits quietly on the side of the bar as a reference, but it’s more than that. It’s a book about values, about living well.

For example, although it’s essentially a book of cocktail recipes in alphabetical order, it begins with 14 pages on the Martini: history, legend, lore. Then it proceeds to list the others, under the chapter heading “The Rest.” At no point does Salvatore (I feel we’re on a first name basis, and I’m sure he would agree) specifically say that the Martini the best of all mixed drinks — he just assumes it, and demonstrates it.

Calm assertion, as the great dog trainer Cesar Millan would put it. Brilliant.

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“To be a bartender is to practice the art of conviviality and humanity to all types of people at all social levels,” he begins. He even writes like the perfect bartender: laying out the ingredients, mixing in a little context and background, giving great advice — but offhandedly, swiftly. He lets you in on things with a conspirator’s wink; reading him, you feel kind of brilliant yourself.

So in that spirit of conviviality, let me kick off your holidays with Salvatore’s recipe for egg nog. We’re not talking about the stuff you get in a cardboard quart at the supermarket. This is a cocktail; it’s meant to be created one drink at a time, made with some flair and served with love. Try it and see.

By the way, these are Salvatore’s exact words; I have added nothing.

1 fresh egg (preferably free range)
1 dash of gomme syrup
1 oz. brandy
1 oz. dark rum
5 oz. milk
nutmeg

Put all ingredients (except the milk) in a shaker and shake sharply. Strain into a highball glass. Add the milk and stir, then sprinkle fresh grated nutmeg.

The holidays can have a dead, depressed feeling about them. Maybe the problem is simply the canned, prepackaged quality of the “joy” that’s being offered. When “JOY!” becomes a banner hanging over the ornament section of K-Mart, maybe it is time for a war on Christmas… at least on that kind of joyless corporate Christmas.

Maybe a little handcrafted, thoughtfully made and offered, and yes, quite possibly alcoholic joy would be the antidote.

Cheers!

Conspiracy Theories

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With the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination looming, there will be the usual spate of documentaries and articles… many of them revisiting the various theories about what really happened on that morning in Dallas. I watched a bit of one the other night, and at one point the semi-sleazy “investigator” was poking around Dealey Plaza, eventually looking out the window of the book depository next to the one Oswald fired from. And he said, in a tone that came close to suggesting thoughtfulness, “this is a really difficult place to make a shot from.”

Which, pardon me, is utter bullshit.

I’ve been to Dealey Plaza, looked out that same window. It’s a ridiculously easy place to take a shot from. Elm Street slopes gently downward and away from the window, and a car moving at 10 mph would likely seem to stay suspended there for an eternity. It’s all very compact and surprisingly tiny, and you can easily imagine how simple it would be, in the torpor of 1963 Dallas, for a nobody like Oswald to bring a rifle upstairs, open a window, and fire it a few times.

When you assume Oswald acted alone, it’s all very simple and everything falls into place. But when you start picking away at details like how a human head reacts when it’s shot from behind, or the fuzzy implications of 50-year-old acoustics captured on a radio, you quickly fall down a rabbit hole in which anything might have happened. Several shooters? The Dallas police in on the whole thing? The hit ordered by Lyndon Johnson… or Fidel Castro… or the Mafia?  Or, hell, all of them? The more shadowy it gets, the more you get to project your own stuff onto the event, until it’s not about Kennedy anymore. It’s all about you.

Meanwhile, many of the people who are into endlessly poring over this event are lying to themselves about what they’re really up to. Which is having a convenient excuse to indulge a prurient fascination with watching a handsome young President’s head blow apart, over and over and over. And, often, an excuse to neglect their own issues, their own relationships and responsibilities that need tending to while they zoom in on blurry photographs and ponder, endlessly.

So yeah, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. Do people conspire and collude, and lie? Of course. Just look at tobacco companies, to take a convenient example. But I don’t believe that the President has special superhuman powers, or that the government has secret, shadowy knowledge and intentions. Who is “the government,” anyway? It’s a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats who are anxious, above all else, to hang on to their jobs. Have you ever been in a government office? Been to the DMV? Seen the ancient computers, felt the dead atmosphere of sloth and anxiety, cynicism and indifference? Do you think those people are capable of mounting a conspiracy? They can’t even take a decent driver’s license photo.

For that matter, I don’t believe in UFOs, alien abductions, faked moon landings, 9/11 “trutherism” or any of that nonsense. To me, it’s not just bullshit but an expression of deep powerlessness… an adult version of a child’s perception that Daddy and Mommy know everything, and are doing strange unknowable things in the other room that end up controlling and thwarting us. “They” know the Truth, but they aren’t telling us.

Here’s the thing: when you grow up, you realize that Daddy and Mommy are human beings, limited and flawed and doing what they can just to make it through another day. And screwing you up with only the best intentions. Or perhaps just telling themselves they have the best intentions. I don’t believe in conspiracies, but I believe in accidents and messes and fuckups. I believe in stupidity and selfishness and ineptitude. Callousness and willful blindness and plain old mistakes. Oh, yes, I do believe in those.

And as endemic as they are, who needs a conspiracy?

Photo from arstechnica

The War on Consciousness

Graham Hancock’s now-legendary TED talk, given at Whitechapel in January of this year and pulled from the TED site in March (they later put it back up, but in a dusty side pocket someplace). I have to thank TED for censoring this talk, because if they hadn’t I might never have heard of Graham. Six months after watching this video for the first time, I was sitting next to him in a noisy restaurant in Peru, just hours after participating in a ceremony like the one he describes, and comparing notes with him about the experience. More about that soon.