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Politics, or the inner life?

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Possibly because I’m a Gemini (not that I’m a big believer in astrology), I’ve always had a strongly dualistic mind. Half of me inclines toward metaphysical, mystical explanations of the world, but then the other half is strictly rational, which makes me a firm believer in science as well as in politics.

This schism is reflected in my daily interests. As readers of this blog know, my political instincts are strong and unwavering. I believe that politics is the best way for humankind to learn to live with each other and work out our differences, while avoiding bloodshed, especially in a multi-everything country like ours. I admire the rationality of politics: the objectivity of voting, of facts, of winning and losing, and of the laws which politics seeks to preserve and perfect. My aversion to Trumpism is based on my profound belief that it represents everything amoral, hostile and dangerous to the kind of country I want to live in. Trumpism, which is the current expression of the Republican Party, is an enemy worth fighting.

At the same time, I’ve always had a renunciate side of me—a kind of Hindu hermitism that seeks realization, not in the grimy, grinding politics of this world, but in the inner mind. This is why I took LSD in the 1960s and sought God; this is why I dropped out of society (in Timothy Leary’s phrase) to join a spiritual commune in the 1970s. This is why in the 1990s I devoted considerable time to the study of Kabbala with a Chasidic Jewish teacher. And this is why the most recent books I’ve read have been Carlos Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality” and Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

Although the background and setting of the two books couldn’t be more different, both tread the same metaphysical ground. Castaneda’s book deals with the Yaqui Indian culture of Mexico in the 1960s, while Yogananda’s details his upbringing in India in the early 20th century. And yet both men were nearly identical in this respect: they sought God (by whatever name), and they realized that non-participation in (or non-pollution by) the greater materialist society was essential to further their search. Castaneda headed for the Central Mexican mountain wilderness to find his guides, while Yogananda went to the Himalayas in search of his guru.

It’s weird having these two opposed points of view vying with one another in my head! Politics plunges me into the world of strife, turmoil and struggle. Mysticism removes me from that world (or tries to), letting me explore the wide open expanses of heart and mind. But are these two concepts really inimical, or do they somehow complement one another?

Politics is indeed difficult. When you win (Obama in 2008 and 2012, the midterm elections in 2018, Biden in 2020), you’re ecstatic. When you lose (the midterm elections in 2010, Trump in 2016, Merrick Garland in 2017), you’re plunged into anger and despair. Well do I know of the philosophical tradition that says winning and losing are all the same: both manifestations of Maya, of illusion—worldly grasping which the true seeker must renounce upon recognizing their illusory nature.

Well and good, but there’s an element of the ostrich sticking its head into the sand about renunciation. The poor ostrich may believe that because it cannot see the tiger rushing towards it, the tiger is not really there. But the tiger really is there, toothed and clawed. I know many people here in Oakland—a city of a fantastic diversity of religious and spiritual approaches—who loathe politics, who are serious about meditating and following their divinities (whomever they happen to be), and who think that by taking political sides (Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Green, whatever), one merely aids and abets the confusion and rancor of this world. They’re right, to a degree; but America has profound problems (poverty, social inequality, racism, sexism, global warming, homophobia, religious extremism, and all the rest of the gloomy Almanack de Gotha), and crawling off to some cave somewhere and sitting in full lotus hardly can be the cure for these problems. Or so it seems to me.

Politics is war, to be sure, a nasty business, and politicians aren’t necessarily the kind, loving persons they want us to think they are. But we’re going to be led by political leaders whether we like it or not, whether we vote or not: someone is going to be Mayor, or City Councilman, or Congressman or Senator or President, and that “someone” is going to have control over our lives and over the lives of our loved ones. Don’t we have a personal responsibility to make sure that the decision-makers are making the right decisions? My beloved friend Philip, who adorned my body with his tattoo art, absolutely scorns political involvement, including voting, as evil: he would rather go to Tibet, or Burning Man, or to a drumming ritual in the Redwoods. But as I always tell him, nearly every aspect of his life–indeed, his life itself–is determined by laws and rules made by politicians and bureaucrats: his tattoo license, the roads upon which he drives, the safety of his car, the cleanliness of the air he and his son breathe, the ability of his gay friends to marry, his freedom from having alien religions imposed upon him or of having his own (slightly Wiccan) religion discriminated against, the purity of the food he eats, the existence of a police force to protect his storefront during riots—all of these things are political in nature. Philip acknowledges these truths, but he nonetheless sticks to his loathing of politics. We agree to disagree.

For myself, I will never stop seeking the “inner truth,” but I do so not as an alternative to political involvement, but as a balance to it. The inner life, for me, is like a refreshing bath in a cool pool of crystalline water, after the heated bloodletting of political battle. The words of Carlos Castaneda (and his spiritual teacher, Don Juan) and the words of Yogananda reveal to me vistas of peace and spiritual potential that are as important as the air I breathe and the food I eat to live. I want, need and believe both in politics as a worthy struggle for man, and in mystical contemplation as the proper field of inquiry for the human mind.


On Islamic wars, useful idiots and Republicans

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“I firmly believe that California is a lot redder than most people think,” said a woman in a MAGA hat at a Trump rally in the state capital, Sacramento. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, an MSNBC reporter said that after talking with dozens of locals, she was convinced that “most people here support Trump, and they’re glad he visited” their riot-torn city.

News junkies like me keep our fingers to the wind trying to discern pattern changes. And I have to say, the riots of the last several months seem to be having the effect of driving more and more people into the Trump camp.

Trump is doing a good job exploiting the riots. He’s become what George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were before him: a law-and-order Republican. Americans are rightfully concerned to see entire cities fall into the chaos of anarchy and looting. Regardless of their views on race relations—and most Americans, I would hope, want to see equity and fairness—they’re scared by what they see happening in Kenosha, Portland, Oakland, Louisville.

When I was out walking the other day, I passed two Black men who were sitting on their front porch having a conversation which I couldn’t help but overhear snatches of. “People are afraid of change,” one said to the other. I thought about that. What does being “afraid of change” mean? I can’t answer that without more information. What specific changes are people supposed to be afraid of? Speaking solely for myself, I’m not afraid of change, per se. What I am afraid of is having my city and my neighborhood plunge into a welter of criminality and dysfunction. I am afraid of homeless camps down the block from me, whose inhabitants roam the streets at night, overturning recycling and garbage bins to see what they can find, breaking into cars, jimmying the lock on my building’s front door and ransacking the mailboxes, stealing UPS and FedEX packages. All these things happen all the time; there’s nothing we can do about it; the police don’t care and won’t come even if you are able to get through to them. It doesn’t take a fan of dystopian movies like Mad Max to play this thing out into the future and see a city devolve to the point of collapse.

So, if there’s a group in America I hate more than any other, it’s the violent BLM protesters. They’re not only needlessly, pointlessly wrecking American cities, they’re doing their utmost to re-elect the felon Trump, a second term of which will plunge the nation and the entire world ever closer to catastrophe.

I’m reading an interesting book now, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, a 1,368-page history of the wars ranging across Islamic Africa, Israel and Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, and north and east into Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The book is a comprehensive account of how the European colonial powers originally stole those lands from the natives, and how the natives revolted, first as nationalists and, later, as Islamicists. The stories are replete with the savagery, butchery and treachery that typify these wars, civil wars and insurrections, with both sides convinced that God favors them. When you think God is on your side, you can do anything, commit any atrocity, trample on any freedom and crush any opponent, however gruesomely you want, because God is all-powerful and will forgive you.

That’s how I see Republicans. It’s not a coincidence that most of their flags, posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts feature the word “Christian” prominently. Their political platform is, essentially, the same as the old European colonizers who plundered the Middle East, Africa, East Asia and the American continent. “Gold, glory and the gospel,” it used to be said of their reasons for their long, dangerous expeditions across the open seas from their homelands of Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, France. They wanted gold for their King’s treasury, they craved the glory that came from conquering, and of course they were told it was their earthly duty to spread the word of God and Jesus Christ to pagans.

Their modern-day spawn are the Republicans, with one difference: they’re no longer in search of “gold,” at least, not more than any Democrat. In place of “gold” we might substitute Donald Trump and the Trump family, the psychological equivalent of gold’s wealth and security. But like their ancient forebears, they seek the “glory” of overturning the existing order (“the Deep State”), and of spreading their particular gospel, in the form of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity. In both cases—the 16th-century plunderers and the 21st century Trumpers—they see themselves as an Army of God, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, glory, glory halleleujah!

The author of The Great War for Civilization, the journalist Robert Fisk, reports on a conversation he had in 1992 with an Algerian Muslim prelate, Hassan Turabi, who told him of a chat he, Turabi, had had with one of the Islamic leaders of Algeria. “I asked him, What’s your programme like? What are you going to do after the elections?…And he just said, ‘No, no, we just want to win the elections.’”

No program. No plans. Just the acquisition and maintenance of power: that is the way of all authoritarian regimes. And that is the way of the Party of Trump. No plan or program concerning climate change, income inequality, healthcare. No vision for restoring the belief of the American people in a fair and effective government. No plan for immigration, beyond insane walls and detention chambers. No plan for restoring America’s credibility around the world. No plan for how Americans of all races, religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations can live together, in peace and harmony. Their only plan: to win the elections and push their far-right, radically evangelical agenda.

I began this post with my concern that America might be redder than anyone thinks. I end on the same note. The violence in the cities is doing exactly what Trump wants it to—and anyone who supports the violence is, at best, a useful idiot, and at worst, a collaborator.


White Trash: an American tragedy

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Nancy Isenberg’s 2016 book, “White Trash,” traces the history of this American underclass, and underscores the little-known fact that what we call “white trash” is not a new phenomenon, but has scarred the American landscape almost from the first moment Europeans set foot on our shores.

Isenberg reports (and I’d never before heard this) that large numbers of the original Britishers (including Scots and the Irish) that settled the new North American wilderness were considered undesirables in their home country, and were exported here in order to rid the Mother Country of them.

They were called “the waste people,” but acquired other monikers over time (all of these terms are attested to in the book through historical citations): filth, offal, sluggish idlers, losers, debauched, offscourings of society, parasites, landlubbers. They were unhealthy: had ghastly complexions, open sores on their bodies, with missing limbs, noses, palates and teeth, ignorant wretches: an early Governor of North Carolina called them “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the [human] species,” whose hovels had “dung and nastiness” on the floor.

The South quickly became their habitat. Northerners, who felt superior to them, argued that the “peculiar institution” of slavery had debased poor white people. Because labor was so cheap, white people did not really have to work; black slaves–a “natural servant class”–would pick the cotton and tobacco and do all the dirty work, leaving poor whites free to eat, drink, fornicate, forage, sleep and drink themselves to death, in the “dismal swamps” where they erected their shanties and hovels.

Needless to say, “gentlemen and gentlewomen”—the productive, educated class—did not much care for the waste people, who were a blemish on the “city on a hill” they were trying to build. Ben Franklin called them “the vilest and most abandoned of mankind,” a “scandalous Collection of drunks and low white servants.” His friend, Thomas Jefferson, called them “rubbish,” squatters who were the opposite of the “cultivators of the earth” who worked hard to build civilization out of the wilderness.

By the late 1700s the waste people were called “crackers,” described by a British official (in the 1760s) as “a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia.” Crackers—white trash—it doesn’t matter what you called them. Decent people knew what they were: an undesirable population, antithetical to American values if not actually dangerous, a people to be deplored. By the time the Civil War came, northerners had identified white trash as “the bogeyman of southern hypocrisy.”

Over the next century, the epithets continued to pile up to describe this class of vagabonds and illiterates: scalawags, poltroons, poor folk. W.E.B. DuBois called them “some of the worst stocks of mankind” and noted the irony of southern whites describing Negroes as “inferior” when the southern states were crammed with such “degenerates.” Today, we might call these people “trailer trash” or “rednecks” or, in Hillary Clinton’s apt phrase, “a basket of deplorables.” But the old descriptor, white trash, still seems the best.

They are, of course, Donald J. Trump’s base. They didn’t always used to be Republicans. To the extent they voted at all, in the mid-twentieth century they were for Franklin Roosevelt, and remained Democrats for a generation. Some bolted away from the party when it nominated John F. Kennedy, in 1960; white trash has always been anti-Catholic. More went over to the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights laws were passed. In the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicalism swept through the south (and Midwest) like a prairie fire, and the unholy alliance of Reagan-style Republicans, unscrupulous pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and conservative political operatives like Lee Atwater and Ed Rollins managed to turn white trash into solid Republican voters.

Which is where we are today. Sadly, this American underbelly, which has tainted our culture from the start, continues to metastasize, eating away at the vitals of American excellence and threatening our stability. I know it’s not politically correct to bash poor white trash: we’re supposed to reach out to one another to discover our common values (Obama constantly preaches this). But once you understand how loathsome this class is, and how feared they’ve been by men and women of knowledge and substance—how much they have undermined our country—how they have formed a third column of depravity and deplorability—how they continue to try and drive our country into the mud–it’s very hard to forgive them. They’ve plunged America into the gutter of this guttersnipe, Trump, and the clowns he surrounds himself with. The Founding Fathers hated them; Democrats and Republicans of good conscience alike have been appalled by them; and so are we, the decent citizens of America in the year 2019. What we eventually do with, or to, them, I do not know; but I know this: They must be resisted.


Review: A new, small book from Jancis

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Jancis Robinson, “the most respected wine critic in the world” according to the cover of her new book, goes the route of brevity in this, our Twitter-addled world. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” was just published by Abrams, a small house publisher specializing in art, photography and fashion. The book itself is small and thin, deliberately designed for easy-breezy reading.

For the beginner crowd—and, Lord knows, we love you, you are the future—“24” is a pretty good read. More experienced winos won’t find anything new in it, but let’s give Jancis credit for reinventing her brand for one, or even two, new generations who may not know of her renown but are about to discover it.

It’s a good, useful book, but I do have some gripes, and that is Jancis’s tendency, like that of so many world-famous wine writers, to stick with the same old famous names, a safely conservative but unsurprising and all-too-predictable practice that is a constant challenge for wine writers to avoid, if for no other reason than to show that they’re not stuck in some dusty old niche. Jancis has a category called “bottles to knock socks off,” presumably showoff wines. These are for your “label drinkers.” They are the classic illustration of the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who clamor for these wines have just enough knowledge to pass themselves off as experts, but beyond that, there’s not much going on. Every once in a while they memorize another famous name, because some critic they love said so, and so it goes onto the “socks-knocking” list.

Here are Jancis’s “bottles to knock socks off” from California. These are the only nine California wineries she includes: Arnot Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Corison, DuMol, Frog’s Leap, Littorai, Rhys, Ridge and Spotteswoode. An eclectic list to be sure; one might add others to it. Jancis has also two lists whose relationship offers perhaps a glimpse into her attitude towards Napa Valley: the first, “Twenty heart-stopping (and bank-breaking) wines,” includes nothing from California. The second, “Some overpriced wines,” includes “California’s cult Cabernets.”

“The 24-Hour Wine Expert” is ultimately a useful little book, a sort of stocking-stuffer for a holiday gift for that budding wine aficionado who’s probably younger and just starting out to explore the world’s most fascinating beverage. Experts will glance at it if for no other reason than to check out what Jancis, “the most respected wine critic in the world,” is up to.


Does a grower’s personality enter into the wine?

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In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.

The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”

“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.”  Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”

When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.

This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?

Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!


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