Saturday, February 21, 2009

Change We Can Believe In: Barak Obama's Plan to Renew America's Promise / Forward by Barack Obama -- NY: Three Rivers Press, 2008.

Barak Obama's rhetoric in the 2008 presidential campaign was often inspiring, but it was never so intoxicating that it overcame my skepticism about the changes that his presidency would bring. Too often the specifics of his agenda included such oxymorons as "clean coal" and "safe nuclear energy." His promise to retool America's automobile industry to build clean, fuel efficient cars ignored the larger damage that automobile transportation does to our lives and land. His commitments to widen the war in Afghanistan and "rebuild a strong 21st century military" both seemed to me to acquiesce to the militarism that is paralyzing our social, economic, and moral progress. Obama seemed to me a smooth talking Democrat, good on many social issues, but unable or unwilling to challenge the fundamental assumptions that are leading us and the world to the brink of a dreadful dark age.

Since his inauguration, I have been cheered by a number of his executive decisions, the signs he has given about the direction of his policies, and what appears to be his genuine understanding of the importance of the rule of law. No doubt, a page has turned in American politics as well. We are lucky to have seen an eloquent spokesperson gain national prominence when lesser politicians might have failed to break from dismal engagement with neo-conservative blather.

The pleasant experience of Obama's first days led me to pick up the 280 page campaign book Change We Can Believe In just to better understand what he had committed to in writing. Sadly, there is little in Change that causes me to rethink my skepticism about his presidency. The fiscal demands of the recently passed stimulus package may create significant pressure to reduce the Pentagon's budget, but I have yet to hear Obama or anyone in his administration openly identify military spending as the wasteful disaster that it is.

More significantly, Obama has accepted the notion that our current fiscal crisis and recession must be addressed by making the economy grow again. This approach is simply "kicking the can down the road" writ large. Obama does not seem to realize or is not willing to admit that we are now confronting the physical limits of the world's resources and that "sustainability" must replace "growth" as the watchword for all economic decision making. Adopting policies that depend on growth are bound to fail. Instead, we must recognize that our focus must be on repairing and improving the quality of life for everyone and not merely increasing the Gross National Product.

My greatest hope for the Obama administration is that it will inspire people to learn the pleasures of civic engagement and that communities of mutual support will find local ways of adjusting to a new style of living that respect the Earth and its inhabitants and accommodates the limitations we now face.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Precious Garland and The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses / Nagarjuna and Kaysang Gyatso -- NY: Harper & Row, 1975.

The Precious Garland, also known as Suhrllekha, is a classic poetic Buddhist text written by Nargarjuna. It is Nagarjuna's advice to a king, written some 400 years after the life of the Buddha. It should come as no surprise that it is a stark contrast to Machiavelli's advice in The Prince. In The Precious Garland, Nagarjuna provides a brief exposition of Emptiness, the central doctrine of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. For Nagarjuna, the foremost obligation of the king is to gain an understanding of the Emptiness of all things, or that all things exist only conditionally in relation to all other things. By understanding this, one achieves enlightenment.

Knowing that the doctrine is not easily understood, Nagarjuna recommends that the king work toward this understanding by practicing giving, ethics, and patience. Nararjuna goes on to explain that these practices allow one to collect merit and wisdom, and these "collections" allow one to achieve the necessary detachment from the world -- its suffering and its pleasure (really one and the same) -- and to develop a disposition to understand the Emptiness of the world.

In the fourth chapter, Nagarjuna gives advice that seems more clearly relevant to a king. He recommends such concrete policies as supporting Buddhist education, foregoing capital punishment, and selecting virtuous ministers. The contrast with Machiavelli is profound. Instead of using any means necessary to amass power, Nagarjuna asserts that it is the responsibility of the king to foster virtue within himself and within those in his realm.

The final chapter provides further advice even to bodhisatvas seeking to attain enlightenment.

The Precious Garland is one of the truly great works in the Buddhist canon. It reads clearly and concisely and can provide insight for the relative Buddhist novice as well as for the relatively learned. It is a joy to read.

The second work in the volume, The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses is a mere 30 lines in four sections, written by Kaysan Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757). It is an aid to mediation, stressing that one be constantly mindful of (1) the perfect wisdom of the teacher (the Buddha), (2) altruistic aspirations toward enlightenment, (3) the divine nature of one's own body, and (4) the emptiness of the world. Buddhists often memorize the 30 lines of The Four Mindfulnesses. A single reading will allow you to understand why.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Anacostia: The Death and Life of an American River / John R. Wennersten -- Baltimore: Chesapeake Book Co., 2008.

When people think of rivers and Washington D.C., they naturally think of the Potomac. However, when the city was first planned, its primary waterfront was to be on the Anacostia River, or what was once called the "East Branch." Unfortunately for the Anacostia, the wealthier and established citizens of Georgetown persuaded developers to direct the face of the city toward the Potomac, thus starting a long history of neglect and degradation of the Anacostia.

John Wennersten's Anacostia is both a natural and political history of the Anacostia River. It's natural history made its headwaters an ocean-going port until silt clogged the port at Bladensburg in 1850 and with the growth of Washington D.C. during. After the Civil War, poor water management resulted in extreme contamination and epidemics of small pox, cholera, and malaria which killed thousands. By 1873, it (and Rock Creek) had become little more than open sewers which it remained until the Clean Water Act was passed one hundred years later in 1972.

While the Clean Water Act brought some progress toward cleaning the river, one can still not safely swim or fish in the Anacostia (goals set by the Act.) It was not until 1988 that genuine progress began when the Anacostia Watershed Society was formed. The Society was (and is) a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the watershed. Along with other environmental partners, the Society has forced the EPA to address the dreadful state of the river. While much remains to be done, the last third of Anacostia is an inspiring testament to the determination of environmentalists to take back our natural birthright from the self-interested developers and despoilers of the land.

Among the most interesting aspects of Anacostia is how Wennersten connects the lives of the people of Washington D.C. to the Anacostia. Time and again, the rich and powerful (wittingly or not) displaced the poor and vulnerable from prime real estate and forced them to move to what is known as "Anacostia" or the east side of the Anacostia River inside D.C. Wennersten's sympathetic account of the mistreatment of people would not be news to many people in D.C., but deserves much wider currency.

The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz / Carl Schurz -- NY: McClure Company, 1908.

I knew Carl Schurz was among the most influential German-Americans in our political history, but I had no idea how engaging his writing was until I read his Reminiscence. After a long life at the heart of German and American politics, Schurz retired to write over a thousand pages describing his life from his childhood to 1869. His three volumes of reminiscences are remarkably engaging.

The first volume is an account of his life in Germany (1829-1852). The highlight of which was his involvement in the failed 1848 revolution. Schurz was trapped by Prussian soldiers in the siege of Rastatt. As a Prussian citizen, Schurz correctly expected to be executed when the the town surrendered. Consequently, he and two Prussian companions attempted to escape through a storm water pipe that led out of town past the Prussian troops. Finding the exit guarded, they returned to the town to hide in the loft of a shed. With the help of a sympathetic neighbor, they managed to escape later, through the storm water pipe, and then to France.

Not long after, he returned to Germany under a false passport to free one the leading revolutionists, Gotfried Kinkel, from Spandau Prison. The events Schurz recounts are vividly told and as exciting as any piece of good fiction.

The second volume recounts his life in America. Settling in Wisconsin, Schurz became the leading German language orator advocating the abolition of slavery. His efforts led him to participate in every presidential campaign, save one, from 1856 to nearly the end of his life in 1906. Upon Lincoln's election, Schurz became the US Ambassador to Spain, but quickly was allowed to resign from the post for a commission in the Union Army.

Brigadier General Schurz led troops in numerous important battles, including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, his troops bore the brunt of General T.J. Jackson's crushing attack, and he spent much of the subsequent months (even years) refuting scurrilous criticisms of his "Dutch" soldiers. His defense of the performance of the German troops in the Civil War raises interesting questions in light of the nativist criticism of them.

Following the War, Schurz became a Senator representing the State of Missouri and worked hard in defense of equal rights for freedmen. In volume three of his Reminiscences, Schurz describes the political battle surrounding the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Schurz shows himself to be a staunch defender of what he thought would be Lincoln's reconstruction policy, steering a course between the Radical Republicans and Johnson's policies. He joined with the Liberal Republicans opposing Grant's nomination. He was also instrumental in defeating President Grant's efforts to annex the Dominican Republic.

Later, Schurz became Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes Administration. These later years (1869-1904) are described in a 140 page essay by Frederick Bancroft and William A. Dunning which concludes the third volume of his Reminiscences. By the end of his career, Schurz had essentially left the Republican Party to become an Independent. He worked particularly hard against the spoils system and in favor of good government. He also strongly resisted the imperialist policies of later Presidents.

Schurz's Reminiscences make for delightful reading and offer an interesting lens through which to view 19th century American politics.