Tag Archives: Buddhism

Dogma is the problem: religion, secularism, and moral progress

Quick disclaimer so I don’t look like a complete idiot: In this post I discuss secularism and atheism sometimes interchangeably because this is how they’re often discussed – and perhaps I should not have done that because it contributes to the confusion that arises when people fail to acknowledge that there is in fact an important distinction between the two. I may return at a later date and clean up this language. My apologies.

In my last post I wrote about the morality of vegetarianism, specifically why being vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily represent a form of moral progress or enlightenment. Recently I came across an article by Michael Shermer entitled Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress in Salon. Sometimes Bill Maher is funny and he’s made some good points. But his tendency to be proudly ignorant and disrespectful, especially where culture and religion are concerned, makes him one of the last people I would turn to for guidance on the topic of moral progress.

My ethics in this area can be summed up thus: Never allow yourself to be silenced because you have something inconvenient to say, but don’t be an asshole about it. Most people avoid pompous blowhards for good reason. One can hardly trust the motives of a person who has already decided they know everything.

I’m not here to defend religion. I’m a Buddhist, first and foremost, with a lot of nature-based spirituality in the mix. Even though there’s something about Wicca and witchcraft that have always attracted me I don’t perform rituals or cast spells. It feels silly and contrived to me. I don’t pray or worship, although reverence toward nature is part of my worldview. I practice Vipassana meditation which involves an exercise called metta bhavana, commonly described as loving-kindness meditation or the cultivation of benevolence. Deities don’t figure into my spirituality; I don’t believe in God if by God we mean anything remotely resembling the Judeo-Christian male godhead. I was raised in a Catholic family but I’m not Christian in the sense that I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin and remained celibate, and that he rose from the dead as described by the Bible. I don’t agree that simply believing that he’s the Son of God will save me from Hell (which I don’t believe in either). I will never accept something as fact simply because someone somewhere wrote something down. I’ve always felt inspired, however, by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who preached love and stood up to injustice and was predictably murdered for it. What about reincarnation? I’ve never really given the idea much importance. Doing the right thing out of fear or a sense of insecurity doesn’t seem very right to me. And while I don’t think it’s lights out when our bodies cease to function, I’m willing to accept that this could be how things end. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If this is all that underpins the concept of eternal life or resurrection, I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy for me to accept that everything is impermanent. Everything is also energy and energy never really ‘leaves’, nor is it distinct in the way we like to think it is.

Paulo Coelho theorizes [YouTube] that when we die, the question that will be asked of us won’t be what sins we committed but rather: Did you love enough? Truth is, when our candle goes out, none of us knows what will happen until it happens. Some of us have had what we believe to be paranormal experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know about our planet or our universe and science may not be able to answer many of our enduring questions. Humans are also capable of believing what they want to or what others want them to. I think a lot of people believe crazy things, religious and otherwise. But there are more important things in life than who is right about spirituality and religion. What good is your faith if you don’t respect others? Likewise, what good is your rejection of religion if you don’t do the same?

Michael Shermer writes:

Most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.

Woah. What?!?

What about societies that existed before the “Enlightenment” and those that emerged (and continue to exist) outside of Western science and culture? Are they primitive? Does the fact that a society isn’t secular preclude it from offering values we can learn from? Why would their values be inferior, or any different, for that matter? Why aren’t we counting the knowledge and stewardship of indigenous peoples in what is termed moral “progress” by those who control popular discourse?

Clearly Shermer has made no attempt to educate himself about the incredible work done by many non-secular people across cultures and traditions over time including (imagine this!) Islamic scholars, thinkers, and technicians such as Avicenna, dubbed the father of early modern medicine. Wise women (witches), wise men, and shamans are frequently portrayed as superstitious charlatans in the modern imagination. What isn’t so well known is that many witches and healers were demonized because they were less invasive and more successful than doctors whose outlandish theories (science, back then) led them to violate the bodies of the living and the dead. When we heap praise on Ancient Greece for its contributions to Western civilization, let’s not forget that the Greeks were Pagans, and that didn’t stop them from being brilliant human beings.

The suggestion that reason and sound morality can only come from a secular or atheist mind – and is necessarily absent in religious people – is rendered preposterous by even a cursory review of world history. More importantly, however, this type of posturing is irresponsible. I’ve seem many people take the Western liberal commitment to secularism to extremes with the result of dismissing the legitimate experiences of many people; this tendency continues to be used in order to justify colonization and genocide particularly in a passive way, including among self-professed liberals who, if they were being consistent progressive, would reject rhetoric of this kind. Although Shermer and those like him aren’t coming right out and saying it, what people are really saying when they claim that “most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment” is that European men are the moral compass of the world and without them, we would be savages. What a steaming, putrid pile of horse shit.

I think we need to be very careful in equating secularism with enlightenment. There are many illusions we can cling to and an awful lot of damage we can cause (and have) outside of a spiritual or religious ideology. We need to look at the core problem as one of dogma. Western science preaches reductionism, which seeks to isolate phenomena, introducing the notion of separateness into our perception where none exists in reality. We live in a world in which everything is interconnected and interdependent. We barely understand these processes today even with all of our modern technology. Discovery Channel’s Earth From Space [YouTube] is a mind-blowing documentary that helps us to understand how so many of our planet’s systems overlap and work together through the use of satellites, and yet this knowledge has not inspired us to stop devouring the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A paradigm shift in thinking, not data or gadgets, is the key to determining our future. Western science will not save us. Western values, whatever we believe them to be, aren’t doing much good on that front either.

We’ve also lost a great deal of knowledge precisely because we’ve been told that there’s a special strata of people who are more intelligent and more worthy. If this doesn’t feed the idea of supremacy, particularly white/European/Western supremacy, I don’t know what does. We must eliminate this intellectual cancer from our psychology permanently.

Reductionism misses much of what we can’t see, measure, or articulate even through our own languages. It represents a compartmentalized framework that can’t grasp a holistic reality. Atheism and secularism aren’t in and of themselves antidotes to this problem. And what about science? Science is nothing more than a human construct that we’ve put into practice in order to better understand our world. It has never been confined to one continent or one period in time. And yet, it’s still not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

The very concept of moral progress is false. How can we possibly say we’re more evolved today as a species than we were even one thousand years ago? We subjugate sectors of the population based on race, gender, economic standing, etc. A tiny percentage of the global population owns and controls the world’s wealth and resources and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Western, secular countries. That’s moral progress? The consumption on which our lifestyle is based requires resources plundered from elsewhere. This necessitates corporate and state imperialism and even war. We are the new conquistadors. Technology may have advanced, but where has that gotten us? Who’s benefiting? Who’s paying the price for this “progress”? Morality is quite frankly nowhere to be found in all of this and yet Shermer wants us to believe that the boogeyman we should fear is religion. I don’t buy it.

While Carl Sagan was critical of religion, more specifically he was critical of dogma and recognized that atheists don’t have a monopoly on the truth:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible.

I’m tired of atheists and secularists advertizing their ideologies to the rest of the world as though they’re not just as susceptible to errors in perception and judgement as everyone else. Religion brainwashes people. It gives them a crutch. A reason to hate. A reason to die. But also a reason to live. Sometimes a reason to love. After tragic events such as the recent attacks in Paris, I inevitably hear people say that perpetrators who call themselves Muslims are ruining it for all the “normal” or “good” ones. Why? Why should members of any religion have to prove they’re not homogenous or inherently crazy and violent? Are the rest of us, who are supposedly so much more reasonable than these extremists or mentally unstable individuals, really not capable of figuring that out on our own? When NATO members bomb innocent people in countries whose governments aren’t actually invading entire regions for geopolitical control, how can we say that this is all happening because they’re backward people who don’t share our values and need to be saved by us? Messiah complex, anyone? This is the modus operandi of imperialism.

Western morality as defined by state and corporate puppets is largely self-validating. Why are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel not sanctioned while others are? Why does our anti-money laundering and anti-corruption policy deem certain businesses high risk when they operate in particular jurisdictions but not in terms of how they turn a profit in the first place? We’ve increased our scrutiny of financial institutions and the precious metals trade only to scale it back or fail to enforce laws altogether. Most industries exploit workers, natural resources, and local communities unless there’s regulation or public resistance preventing them from doing so. Our leaders don’t question “free” trade and globalization schemes that involve the privatization of local resources, land grabs, vulture capital-backed polluting industries, austerity (i.e. the gutting of social programs), and export-driven markets that weaken local economies. They want us to believe that this system is a natural expression of modern economics because identifying ourselves as the winners means we have to talk about the losers. Our hypocrisy is sickening. Once again, I ask: Is this moral progress?

In contrast to the capitalist banking system, Islamic banking actually prohibits the charging of interest, specifically money earned on the lending out of money itself. The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance explains that:

Money in Islam is not regarded as an asset from which it is ethically permissible to earn a direct return. Money tends to be viewed purely as a medium of exchange. Interest can lead to injustice and exploitation in society; The Qur’an (2:279) characterises it as unfair, as implied by the word zulm (oppression, exploitation, opposite of adl i.e. justice). [Edited to correct one grammatical error]

You know what? I’m not about to convert to any religion but I absolutely agree with this tenet and I don’t see why we should have to determine its merit based on whether it’s secular or religious. Obviously it can be both, so there goes the assumption that values have to fit into an ‘either/or’ type of classification.

I’d like to sit Michael Shermer down over a nice cup of tea and ask him why, if we’ve developed so much, we have more global conflict than ever and we’re jeopardizing our own survival and that of millions of other species. Even as our own scientific process proves this to be true, nothing we’re doing offers a systemic solution to this problem.

Who gets to define enlightenment? Shouldn’t it be up to all of us? Don’t we all have that right, whether we’re spiritual, religious, agnostic or atheist? Don’t we share this planet with each other? Don’t we need each other?

Arrogance is another form of dogma and just like every other type of dogma, it arises from ego. Anyone who forgets this is prone to reproducing the same sort of closed-mindedness they criticize in others. Religion is just one possible vehicle of delusion. Anyone can get behind the wheel of their mind and drive it into confusion. As long as we’re convinced that the enemy is some external threat, personal responsibility is no longer necessary. This is fertile ground for binary thinking, xenophobia, racism, exceptionalism, and, of course, war and misery, among other things.

Governments should be secular because neutrality is necessary in order to respect the diversity and freedom of the people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re something we’re not. It also doesn’t mean we should be hostile or disrespectful toward what is an important part of many people’s lives. Especially when we’re talking about marginalized people who are targets of institutional violence. Karl Marx was under the impression that people would have no need for spirituality in a post-capitalist world. We haven’t gotten there yet but I sincerely doubt that we’d all suddenly become secular or atheist simply because we own the product of our own labour.

Maybe it’s tempting for secularists to cling to the idea of moral progress because it gives them hope that someday they’ll have proof that humans aren’t inherently spiritual after all. The reality is that some people are spiritual and some aren’t, and every individual can change their status at any point in time for pretty much any reason or no reason at all. Leftists – and I count myself among this broad category for better or for worse – exist within a culture of secularism to the extent that many chanted “Je Suis Charlie” while denying vehemently that Charlie Hebdo is racist. They’re wrong. If you’re a so-called progressive and you won’t stand up to Islamophobia because you don’t like religion, you don’t get social justice.

Our biggest threat doesn’t lie in other people or in other ideologies. It’s in ourselves; in the ego’s tendency to seek self-gratification over the self-denying work of observing our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one a better person than anyone else. Neither does being Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, atheist – whatever. It’s one thing to be proud of our heritage and traditions but quite another to delude ourselves into thinking that because we’ve come to believe or reject a spiritual precept, that makes us superior to anyone else. The only thing that makes us good people is how we treat other beings.

Have we loved enough?

The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.

– Dalai Lama

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The case against vegetarianism

It might seem odd, even hypocritical, for an environmentalist and Buddhist such as myself to come out in favour of eating meat. There are many great reasons to practice vegetarianism and it’s a personal choice that I respect. I’ve noticed that at social gatherings the topic comes up frequently and there’s a growing awareness of dietary diversity. I think it’s great that people are willing to accommodate each other now more than ever.

Another thing I notice, though, is that when people talk about eating meat they often express guilt, like it’s not the socially evolved or politically correct thing to do. So in today’s post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic and explore the discourse around vegetarianism.

I’ve taken a shot at being a vegetarian and it wasn’t my thing. Ultimately, I just don’t believe that eating meat is wrong. Not only do I not feel bad about it, but it’s a conscious choice that reflects my understanding of how I fit into the natural order of things.

To start with, animal rights are important to me. No, really – they are.

PETA

I’m not a big fan of PETA but I do use their search engine to identify cruelty-free companies. Some might say it’s a contradiction for me to be concerned about testing on animals while, well… eating them (and enthusiastically, at that!). Following are some valid questions along with my best crack at what I trust are sensible answers.

“But aren’t you a Buddhist?”

In spiritual traditions that sanction a carnivorous diet there tend to be rules around how it should be approached. Of course, in some religions it’s altogether forbidden. Many (and possibly most) Buddhists are indeed vegetarian. Buddhism teaches ahimsa – the principle of non-harming – and of course this is part of the more fundamental teaching that it’s wrong to kill. However, there are many variations of Buddhist practice. Some Buddhist texts discuss the concept of “clean” meat and some Tibetan Buddhists including Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama himself) are not vegetarian. Ultimately, if a Buddhist is truly concerned about contravening the texts and teachings on this matter, the safe bet would be to cut out meat entirely or to only eat certain types of meat as directed. It’s evident why anyone regardless of persuasion would believe that killing is wrong, but the Buddha had a much more nuanced understanding than categorical dos and don’ts. Surely there are instances in which it might be acceptable. Personally, I’m satisfied that nutrition and hence sustenance are good reasons, in keeping with certain conditions which I’ll address further below.

“You’re an environmentalist, right?”

Much has been reported about the ecological impact of Western meat-heavy diets. I think it’s fair to say that we eat way too much meat and need to cut back substantially. Livestock do contribute to global warming by releasing an awful lot of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There’s no getting away from the fact that the list of environmental impacts is long, but it’s important to ask why. For me the overriding problem is the way we produce food – namely factory farming and industrial agriculture. Methane emissions can be largely attributed to the diet that livestock are fed. Cows simply shouldn’t be fed corn, soy, or other grains because they can’t properly digest these foods, so I’m happy to see that grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly accessible. While this means that more land will be required for pasture, less land will be necessary for the crops dedicated to this feed. Monoculture or cash crops themselves are bad for biodiversity and involve the use of GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides, etc., all of which are prevalent in this model of food production. This system treats both animals and plants as just another raw input or commodity. The only value they’re assumed to have is in the profit they generate and that’s not a healthy, mindful or ethical way to nourish our bodies or participate in the processes of nature.

“Shouldn’t we know better by now?”

While I think it’s legitimate and commendable that many people are analyzing their food consumption and make changes out of consideration for animal welfare and our environment, it’s also part of a popular trend. There’s a degree to which being vegetarian, and vegan even more so, gives one an image boost in some circles. But honestly, I don’t see why it should. It’s one thing to use persuasion to further important causes; it’s another to wear one’s vegetarianism as a badge. You’re vegan? Okey dokey. But really… so what? It shouldn’t be an excuse for self-congratulation.

I simply don’t believe that observing a vegetarian diet makes one a better person. Part of my reason for saying this is the logical insinuation inherent in such a belief. Is vegetarianism actually a criterion for enlightenment and civilization? Did our non-vegetarian ancestors just not know any better? What about indigenous peoples who not only live off the land and depend on animals for their survival (food, clothing, etc.) but have woven the existence of these life forms into their very cosmologies? Are these people somehow less evolved than modern vegetarians? Certainly not. There’s no correlation whatsoever between a culture’s propensity to eat meat and their evolution as human beings. In fact, it’s the societies that live closest to nature, firmly embedded within it, that are most involved in hunting animals.

Why do such people have a profound understanding of and respect for animals and yet see nothing wrong in eating them? It’s a matter of cultural paradigm that involves a deep and complex appreciation for the interdependency of all life forms on our planet. Relationship is key. So is an understanding of the origin and meaning of life.

Organic matter is composed of both plant and animal matter. It’s not as though Mother Nature places dead plants and dead animals in different compost bins; it’s all part of one cyclical system. All organic matter originates from the same plant-animal process of death and rebirth. We can follow a vegan diet, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but understanding the process of life on this planet means understanding that even the plants we eat ultimately come from both plant and animal sources. Any separation of the two is entirely illusory. It’s socially constructed.

“How can you kill something you love?”

Quite simply, life is death and death is life. We as a species would have never evolved to the present had we not eaten animals. We are animals. We can choose whether to eat other animals (at least those of us who feel being vegetarian wouldn’t be detrimental to our health) – but having that choice doesn’t say anything about what that choice should be. When we observe carnivores or omnivores we see that there is some natural law whereby they never cause unnecessary suffering, and yet they don’t hesitate before eating each other alive. Nature doesn’t ‘think’ that this pain or death is wrong. It’s just part of life. It’s part of nature itself.

From a Western modern anthropocentric standpoint, death is bad. But every spiritual tradition teaches the cyclical nature of existence and treats life and death as interchangeable. Even in Judeo-Christian religions that place human beings above other species, nature is still understood as being simultaneously destructive and creative. The idea of resurrection and the salvation it supposedly brings is based on the reality that death is life.

It’s the practice of cooperation and respect that determines the dignity of relationships between entities. I have a feeling that the deeper our disconnect from nature, the easier it is to forget this. There’s something about vegetarianism that for me personally would represent a kind of implied separation between myself and other forms of life on Earth, as weird as that might sound. I just don’t feel guilty when I eat meat. Instead, I’m grateful for that sustenance.

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
– Lao Tzu

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Voices and choices: reflections on Ani DiFranco, feminism & racism

i’m no heroine
at least, not last time i checked

– Ani DiFranco in ‘I’m No Heroine’

A gargantuan mess has exploded over last the few weeks over a controversy surrounding American indie folk artist Ani DiFranco. Ani’s official apology Thursday set off another wave of public opinion and media response, and this circus may not yet be over. As a lifelong fan, I’ve spent a great deal of time reacting to the reactions, thinking about my own ideologies, and figuring out how I can turn this imbroglio into an opportunity to be a better feminist and human being.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Ani DiFranco or Righteous Babe Records. I ran an Ani DiFranco fan site called ani-difranco.net several years ago and eventually sold the domain and content to her record label for a modest sum when I was no longer able to maintain it. It is still being used as a redirect. I’ve seen Ani live about four times but have never met her.

Who is Ani DiFranco?

Ani DiFrancoAni DiFranco (pronounced AH-nee) grew up in Buffalo, New York to Italian American parents. Her first experience of social justice work was accompanying her mother on grassroots women’s rights campaigns. Ani took up songwriting and performing at an early age and after extensive touring, and despite multiple contract offers from record labels, she scrounged together all the money she could raise and founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, at the age of 19 (by most accounts). She gained a huge cult following for her overtly political songs that deal with issues including domestic abuse, sexism, poverty, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and religion. Many LGBT fans were drawn to her for her fierce pride in her own bisexuality and her commitment to shattering stereotypes. Ani’s career has now spanned over two decades and her repertoire includes over 20 albums. Ani is much-loved for her diverse musical talents and songwriting prowess, her incisive and articulate analysis, and her open, upbeat, and compassionate manner.

Righteous Retreat

Ani was approached to lend her name to and participate in a music workshop in Louisiana, dubbed Righteous Retreat. She asked for the event to be held near New Orleans, where she lives, so she could return home every night. She learned some time later that the event had been booked at Nottoway Plantation and Resort, a former slave plantation, which has been restored and is rented out for events such as conferences and weddings. While many people expressed enthusiasm regarding the event, many also quickly pointed out that it could have the effect of excluding black women or others who did not wish to spend time in a place with such horrific history, and that this could also amount to supporting a business that is exploiting that history. Furthermore, the oversight was interpreted as yet another example of white privilege steamrolling over the goals and concerns of people of colour, particularly in the mainstream feminist movement. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the concerns.

There can be no question that this was a serious and unfortunate miscalculation on Ani DiDranco’s part. Even though she didn’t create or organize the event, she knew where it was going to be held, and even after a great deal of uproar over the venue, a full apology and cancellation did not come nearly as quickly as many had hoped – myself included. It’s a testament to the insidious nature of white privilege that an individual who is so passionate about and well-versed in the language of social justice failed to anticipate that people might be offended by the idea of holding this event in this kind of space. Though she explained that her hope was to encourage reconciliation and healing by incorporating discussions about the setting into the content of the workshop, that was not her torch to carry. Explaining your intention does nothing to remedy the offense and no matter the character of the person in question, it always carries a whiff of cold, calculating damage control, all the more insulting because the damage is already done. A dab of whitesplaining rubbed on for good measure is just another slap in the face.

There was a lot of talk about Ani having a racist fan base with many people, including myself, being defensive about this. What, me, racist? Where there’s white people there’s racism. Rich white people, working class white people, straight whites, queer whites, white men, white women – doesn’t matter. The common denominator here is white privilege. If you’ve got white privilege there’s a far greater probability of your having retained racist attitudes – no matter how hard you’ve tried to unravel them – than not. White progressives may prefer not to admit this because we like to think we’re the enlightened white people. It’s this very belief that sets us up to perpetuate racism under the cover of liberal politics.

Obviously, when many people are faced with an opportunity to accept an inconvenient truth, they choose the alternative, which is to rationalize. One of the things that people need to stop doing is hiding behind straw man arguments. This topic is discussed brilliantly by Scott Woods in 5 Things No One Is Actually Saying About Ani DiFranco or Plantations.

Nottoway Plantation

Since numerous articles have called attention to the details surrounding the venue itself as a basis for criticism of Ani DiFranco, I think it’s worth delving into. It’s true, as some have pointed out, that it’s nearly impossible to find soil in the South – or most of North America, for that matter – upon which atrocities have not been committed against African Americans, Native Americans or other oppressed people. Many plantations have been restored, reimagined and used for entirely new purposes. If progressive artists were to visit only venues whose history, owners, and staff were squeaky clean, they wouldn’t have many venues to choose from. But anyone whose defence of Ani’s behaviour rests entirely on this analysis is completely missing the point.

The following except from Nottoway Plantation and Resort’s website has been cited as indication that they’re whitewashing history:

“Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production. It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time.”

Sure, it would be counterproductive for them to emphasize their painful and dark history, but when an establishment misrepresents or manipulates its history for any reason, and especially for the sake of profit, that legacy of racism takes on a modern manifestation. If this account of a visit to Nottoway is at all accurate, whitewashing is exactly what they’re doing. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the 102 out of 137 individuals who rated the resort as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ on TripAdvisor that they were participating in something objectionable.

Questions have come up about whether it would have been fair to expect Ani to have done her own research on this particular venue or whether she should be held personally responsible for the scripting and practices of a venue with which she was unfamiliar. An establishment whose website describes itself as offering “luxury resort amenities” clearly caters exclusively to the needs and wants of the affluent, who we can safely assume are overwhelmingly white, at best. Does that clash with the image of person who defends the poor and otherwise underprivileged? Of course it does! While I think that expecting her to know that Nottoway is owned by a corporation/individual who funds bigoted political campaigns would be going a bit far, the issue here isn’t one of a celebrity accidentally being associated with something unsavoury; it’s the fact that she entertained the idea of patronizing this establishment knowing what she already knew.

It’s certainly difficult to form a consensus on when we should be involved with a place that has a dark past and when we should not. How far should or can we go in order to avoid contributing to systems of exploitation? While these questions might comprise a valid element of the debate and can stimulate further discussion regarding the politics of space, we should never use them as an excuse to disregard the idea that we might really want to think twice about visiting former slave plantations, or more specifically what we might do when we’re there.

That being said, I noticed something interesting in some of the language used in news reports and media commentary. The Huffington Post published this headline: Ani DiFranco Is ‘Remarkably Unapologetic’ About Slave Plantation Retreat. There word former is missing. Mother Jones did it too. Huffington Post actually published another article, which they introduced on Twitter with the following blurb: “What happens when a pop star realizes hosting a retreat on a slave plantation is a bad idea”. Ani DiFranco a pop star? And again, mysteriously absent that one word. Why the repeated omission? It’s predictable that the media will latch on to a scandal and that they may not get everything right. What bothers me about this is that there’s enough contention here that we don’t need to be disingenuous or resort to semantic laziness – whichever it is.

Reflection and perception

There may be some people so turned off by this situation that they’ve decided they’re done with Ani. Maybe previous controversies were the stepping stones to this. For the rest of us there remains this uncomfortable dichotomy to our fandom. People attach a strong emotional connection to artists who’ve helped usher them through their formative years or through difficult or even magical times in their lives. It hurts to know that the people we idolize are flawed because there’s an existential truth hidden there: we’re flawed too. No degree of coolness subtracts the actions we regret. Everything coexists, the good and the bad.

Still, I love Ani. I still respect her for having opened my eyes to a lot of issues that I might not have been aware of or cared about otherwise. I reread the lyrics she’s written now with fresh eyes and they speak to me in a slightly different tone. They carry more weight now that the person who’s written them has had a mirror held up to her face, as I have to mine. Something discomforting has been brought out into the light that changes the context, doesn’t it? If you’re familiar with Ani’s music, does it sound different to you now? Do these words, ideas, and images, feel different?

i love my country
by which i mean
i am indebted joyfully
to all the people throughout its history
who have fought the government to make right
where so many cunning sons and daughters
our foremothers and forefathers
came singing through slaughter
came through hell and high water
so that we could stand here
and behold breathlessly the sight
how a raging river of tears
cut a grand canyon of light
so i lean in
breathe deeper that brutal burning smell
that surrounds the smoldering wreckage
that i’ve come to love so well
yes, color me stunned and dazzled
by all the red white and blue flashing lights
in the american intersection
where black crashed head on with white
comes a melody
comes a rhythm
a particular resonance
that is us and only us
comes a screaming ambulance
a hand that you can trust
laid steady on your chest
working for the better good
(which is good at its best)
and too, bearing witness
like a woman bears a child:
with all her might
born of the greatest pain
into a grand canyon of light
Grand Canyon in Educated Guess

they caught the last poor man on a poor man’s vacation
they cuffed him and they confiscated his stuff
and they dragged his black ass down to the station
and said “ok the streets are safe now.
all your pretty white children can come out to see spot run
and they came out of their houses and they looked around
but they didn’t see no one
‘Tis of Thee in Up Up Up Up Up Up

i know so many white people
i mean, where do i start?
the trouble with white people
is you can’t tell them apart
i’m so bad with names and dates and times
but i’m big on faces
that is, except for mine
Names and Dates and Times in Puddle Dive

you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
Crime for Crime in Not a Pretty Girl

they were digging a new foundation in manhattan
and they discovered a slave cemetery there
may their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
and we’ve moved on to the electric chair
am i headed for the same brick wall
is there anything i can do
about anything at all
except go back to that corner in manhattan
and dig deeper
dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones
beneath the bedrock of the mystery
beneath the sewage system and the path train
beneath the cobblestones and the water main
beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
beneath everything i can think of to think about
beneath it all
beneath all get out
beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there’s a fire that’s just waiting for fuel
Fuel in Little Plastic Castle

so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in palestine
afghanistan
iraq
el salvador
here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation
under the stone cold gaze of mt. rushmore
Self Evident in Girls Singing Night (Disc 2 of So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter)

when i was four years old
they tried to test my i.q.
they showed me a picture
of 3 oranges and a pear
they said,
which one is different?
it does not belong
they taught me different is wrong
My I.Q. in Puddle Dive

teach myself to see each of us
through the lens of forgiveness
like we’re stuck with each other (god forbid!)
teach myself to smile and stop and talk
to a whole other color kid
teach myself to be new in an instant
like the truth is accessible at any time
teach myself it’s never really one or the other
there’s a paradox in every paradigm
Paradigm in Knuckle Down

too many stories
written out in black and white
come on people of privilege
it’s time to join the fight
are we living in the shadow of slavery
or are we moving on?
tell me which side are you on now
which side are you on?
Which Side Are You On? (title track)

white people are so scared of black people
they bulldoze out to the country
and put up houses on little loop-dee-loop streets
and while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest
the berlin wall still runs down main street
separating east side from west
and nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
in the boarded-up stores and the broken-down houses
so they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
just to prove they got no manners
no mercy and no sense
and i’m wondering what it will take
for my city to rise
first we admit our mistakes
then we open our eyes
the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots
in the city of good neighbors that history forgot
Subdivision in Reckoning

Lyrics to pretty much every Ani DiFranco song published can be found here.

 

 

 

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Ew, is that patchouli??

Okay. So with the whole new-and-improved-me thing I’ve got going on (I’m guessing this is Me Version 21.0), I’ve figuratively jumped out of my own body and kicked my own ass into gear. My Higher Self has sent me a very clear message in one of those cheesy metaphors it’s so good at pumping out: No more elevators or escalators, bitch. MOVE IT! “Alright, I’m goin’!”, I whine back. And whaddya know? I’m actually doing stuff. I’m even making appointments and signing up for things I would feel too guilty to cancel. I actually had to go out the other day and buy a day planner. Wow. This is progress.

It started Thursday night when I attended the first meditation class I’ve been to in a very long time. Meditation is one of those things that probably becomes so enriching over time that you can’t help but do it on the regular. But you have to get to that point first, and I’ve been having one hell of a time doing it for even two days in a row. I have several books on meditation, some of which I’ve read and others I won’t give myself permission to read unless I’m sure I’m actually going to do more than let them collect dust on my nightstand for weeks after I’m done with them. I’m ridiculous. So, in the spirit of making sure I go through with these things, I signed up for a crazy intensive meditation retreat in March (future posts on this guaranteed).

I’m assuming I read the class description at least twice, but when I walked into that moldy, creepy room in the basement of a church on Thursday night, I started to have doubts. There stood a skinny dude who was tuning his guitar, offering me snacks and telling me that he brought tea for everyone but his cups disappeared. Why are these people always so CALM and KIND and why am I the FIRST ONE HERE? I panicked silently as I observed all the polite but awkward niceties, finally whipping out a book so the poor bastard wouldn’t feel he had to entertain me during the next ten empty minutes it would probably take for everyone else to show up. When they finally did, I internally cringed through the introduction process and ensuing sheepish smiles we forced every time we were caught looking at each other and wondering whether the other person shaves their armpits or is here because they’re on the verge of a mental breakdown. But in all seriousness, I was super nervous, and I probably wasn’t the only one there wondering why we all felt like we were in a fucking AA meeting. Somehow, the instructor, who was very laid back and yet assuring, convinced us to chant and even sing (AKA kirtan) while he strummed a predictable G-D-Am-D chord progression. As I sang the verses in Sanskrit (fucking up every once in a while because I was too proud to admit I didn’t have the mantra memorized and should probably look down at the flash card) I noticed we looked like a bunch of hippies sitting around a campfire. What was I so freaked out about, anyway? It was corny, sure, but no one else got up to leave and we’d probably never see each other again. Still, I was a little annoyed that the website didn’t seem to mention any of this. I was hoping this wasn’t part of some propaganda campaign to lure us into an elusive new age sect. Then I snapped out of it and realized I was really just super nervous. And it turns out it was all outlined in the class description, which I must have read and decided was worth a try once and for all – and then forgot I was ready for it. Oops.

You know, it really wasn’t bad! Actually, it was pretty cool. After chanting, you have this sort of light, indescribable buzz going on that gives you an ethereal feeling of peace. The point of chanting is to elevate your consciousness, and I’m thinking the Indian sages got something right and choose the correct sounds because there’s no doubt that the sound vibrations in your body produce a beneficial effect. If I can feel that after doing it for 5 minutes, I wouldn’t doubt you’d get amazing results if you practiced it regularly. Going back to vegetarianism, though? Pfft… I don’t think so. Will I suddenly start liking the scent of patchouli? Oh, I doubt it. Sandalwood, I think I sort of like. But patchouli? Does anyone even wear that as a fragrance anymore? I’d rather wear Chantilly Lace.

Another thing that I realized during the session is that I don’t really have many friends I can talk to about this stuff. I don’t know anyone else who would be familiar enough with Buddhism, Yogic and Eastern philosophy and new age stuff to even be able to fake being interested in it. I’ve taken this on as a subject of great personal interest for years now and I guess as a result, I just assumed that it’s a solitary road. After all, you can read in public or meditate as part of a group, but ultimately your mind and thoughts are your own. In reality, I don’t have to do this alone, and it would be fantastic to sink my intellectual teeth into this stuff with fellow geeks (Happy Thought #1). I also realized that I’m on the right track, and I’m ready to stay on it. When you do something on your own even though you’re terrifyingly shy and a little skeptical of how you’ll fit in, you know the connection is genuine – and you just might make some great friends without even having to try (Happy Thought #2).

Next on the menu is a different meditation class and 30 days of unlimited hot (Bikram) yoga classes (i.e. suicide). There’s going to be a lot of pain and regret during the tougher moments, but it will definitely give me something to write about and (hopefully) you something to laugh about. Stay tuned.

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Filed under Eastern Philosophy, Health & Environment, Humour