Monday, March 30, 2015

indiana's rfra act

This kind of nonsense makes it hard for someone like me to be religious:

What Makes Indiana's Religious-Freedom Law Different?

I consider myself a religious person. I love Buddhism. I love going to mass at Catholic and Orthodox churches. I'm interested in the poetry and mysticism of Sufism. I find that religion enriches my understanding of life. But the intolerance and oppressiveness of many who call themselves religious makes it hard for me to fully immerse myself in my spirituality and to be open about. I'm embarrassed, frankly, to be associated with people who think being gay is a sin and/or try to restrict women's reproductive rights.

Another thing that really annoys me is how many religious people in the West, particularly Christians, complain about how they feel persecuted, saying that it's hard to be openly religious these days because of growing secularism. Sure, there are a lot more people who are vocal about their issues with religion these days; but can you blame them? Just look at our history. If anyone is persecuted and oppressed in our society besides the poor (and Native Americans), it's the non-religious, women, and the LGBT community. And most of the persecution the religious do experience usually comes at the hands of other religious (e.g., Protestants vs. Catholics, etc.).

This country is still predominately a Christian nation. According to Pew, 78% of people in the US self-identify as Christian. The evidence is everywhere. It's on our money. It's in the Pledge of Allegiance. It's witnessed in the National Day of Prayer and every law banning same-sex marriage and restricting women's access to abortions and contraception. And despite their actions, most politicians profess to be Christian because it's damn near political suicide to be anything else (especially atheist). From a 2010 ABC News article:

[A] 2007 Pew survey found that 45 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim. 61 percent said they would be less likely to vote for an atheist. Only 25 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate. Sixteen percent said they would be less likely to vote for an Evangelical and 11 percent would be less likely to vote for a Jewish candidate.

The fact is, it's almost always those of religious faith who try to impose their ideas and morals onto the rest of society, not vice versa. Nobody's trying to force those against it to enter into a same-sex marriage; but those against it feel it's perfectly OK to impose their beliefs about marriage onto the rest of the country through gay marriage bans (and anti-sodomy laws before that). Nobody's trying to force religious people to have abortions or use contraception if they're against it; but it's religious people and institutions who are actively trying to limit women's access to both.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that a person should have the freedom to practice their religion as they see fit so long as it doesn't infringe upon the rights and freedoms of others. I want to be free to explore and express my faith (or lack thereof) in whatever way I choose. But let's face it, these kinds of laws are more about legalizing discrimination than protecting religious freedom. Instead of more Religious Freedom Restoration Acts protecting religion from society, what we really need is a Freedom From Religion Act to protect society from religion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Today marks the 25th anniversary of Oscar Romero's assassination. Romero was a Roman Catholic bishop who was assassinated in El Salvador for speaking out against the economic inequality and political violence suffered by the El Salvadorian people.

He was a rather bookish conservative priest, and many of the more leftist priests and revolutionaries in El Salvador disliked him for it. But after seeing the violence and oppression first hand, his conscience wouldn't let him ignore it, and he began to speak out, especially in his homilies and weekly radio broadcasts, where he'd read off the names of those who were tortured, murdered, and disappeared by the military government, as well as revolutionary groups.

One of the things I admire about Romero is that his focus wasn't limited or sectarian; his focus was all the victims of violence and injustice. His words were the words of truth. He actions were those of love. And his life was one that mirrored the words of Jesus read last Sunday, "unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Or in Romero's own words, spoken during his last homily just before he was assassinated on March 24, 1980:

Many do not understand; they think Christianity should not be involved in such things. But, to the contrary, you have just heard in Christ’s gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others, will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.

I've always found the example of people like Romero inspiring. It's hard to face the harsh realities of life, to open one's eyes and heart to them. And it's even harder trying to confront them with love and compassion rather than anger, and to truly serve others rather than retreat into the safety of complacency. It takes a level of bravery and conviction that I don't think I have but that I aspire to.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

happy international women's day

Today marks the 104th anniversary of International Women's Day, a day dedicated to women and their contributions to the world.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the first International Women's Day was observed, women were being pushed into the workforce in record numbers due to a combination of factors including rapid economic and population growth, widespread poverty, and the need for cheap labour to fuel the industrial capitalist machine, which in turn fuelled both their suffering and solidarity.

Women, who in many countries, including the US, still couldn't vote, were often working 10-12 hours a day in deplorable, sweatshop-style conditions, sometimes even being locked in factories until their work was done. And during this time, many of the largest and most militant strikes were organized by women fighting for shorter hours, better pay, safer working conditions, the right to unionize, the right to vote, and the right to fully participate in public life.

With all the progress that's been made, it can be easy to forget how bad things were and how far we've come in just the last 100 years alone. But I think it's important to remind ourselves every now and then of the contributions and struggles of women both past and present, not only to honour those that fought so hard to get us where we are today, but to remind ourselves of the work that's yet to be done. Women are still fighting for equal pay, for equal representation in leadership roles, and for reproductive rights, while fighting against patriarchy, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

So today, we celebrate and honour the contributions and struggles of women everywhere. Bread and Roses!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

the contemplative vehicle

On today, a university student doing some research for an essay regarding contemporary Buddhism asked, Why does Buddhism appeal to you? My answer to such questions changes depending on the day, with certain aspects taking the forefront in my mind, and today was no different. Since recently starting Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, some of the things mentioned in the introduction and foreword have given me a new appreciation for what the Buddha taught from an evolutionary standpoint.

According to people like Dawkins, for example, there are two kinds of units in natural selection, the gene (as replicator) and the organism (as vehicle). And while the vehicle may be more or less altruistic, doing things out of compassion, generosity, love, etc., the genes are decidedly 'selfish.' In this context, deceit is arguably fundamental in animal communication, therefore, as Robert Trivers points out, "there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray - by the subtle signs of self-knowledge - the deception being practiced" (The Selfish Gene, xx).

Here we see that some of our motivations, influenced by a subtle form of selfishness (original sin?), lay hidden within us. This is akin to the Buddhist teaching that many of our actions are conditioned/coloured by greed, aversion, and delusion (i.e., selfishness and self-deception); and one of the Buddha's insights was that we can master these mental processes of conditionality in such a way as to 'go against the stream' of craving (tahna, which here can be seen as the influence of genetic selfishness on human psychology) and ultimately transcend craving altogether. As Dawkins puts it, "Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes" (xiv); and the Buddha was one of the greatest revolutionaries in this regard.

So looking at it from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I'd say that it's the contemplative aspects of Buddhism that appeal to me the most. Although other religious traditions have their own forms of robust contemplativism, Buddhism has a very thorough and explicit form that I think cuts straight to the heart of the human condition. By practicing things like mindfulness meditation and constantly observing our actions via MN 61, we begin to remove this evolutionary veil of ignorance or avijja ('not knowing'), allowing us to see within the hidden depths of our psyche so that we can begin to condition changes in our behaviour and perception that lead to fuller awareness, self-knowledge and control, and liberation via transcendence of our genetic programming.

Today, Buddhism comes in all shapes and sizes, arising out of a peculiar Indic culture, replete with its own religious traditions and worldview, and further shaped by the diverse cultures in which it's taken root, giving rise to numerous schools and approaches. Much of it may appear to be outdated and superstitious to the scientifically minded; but I think the underlying goal, as well as the various practices and insights that characterize 'Buddhism,' have a lot to offer us in terms of understanding and transforming ourselves.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

all lives matter

Suffice it to say that I find torture to be beyond the pale, and I don't think we should be doing things like rectally feeding anyone as "a means of behavior control." But what concerns me more than the torture itself is the lack of outrage at such glaring inhumanity and injustice, even after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report describing some of the techniques used, including the aforementioned form of sexual assault, and the fact that 1/5 of the detainees were "wrongfully held."

It's especially frightening to me that a recent PEW poll shows a majority of those polled believe the CIA's methods were justified, and that the information gleaned helped prevent terror attacks despite the fact that the report suggests the exact opposite (assuming that's even a viable justification in the first place). This should engender as much public outrage, in my opinion, as the events in Ferguson, New York, etc. The more so, I think, because each is an concrete example of abuse of state power characterized by a lack of accountability. The two are intertwined—they're multiple heads of the same political-economic hydra.

Unfortunately, many people feel they deserve to be put into cages and tortured, even though many were despite being innocent (or at least not proven guilt of any crime). And many doubt the validity of the report, even though people 'in the know' like Dick Cheney are going around defending some of the previously unknown torture techniques like rectal feeding described in the report. Worst of all, many are indifferent to such acts of cruelty.

What complicates matters is that it's part of a broader, systematic problem that's beyond any one individual, making it difficult to face in the first place. I know when I often ignore the news, for example, it's because it's usually overwhelming and I feel helpless to do anything about it except express my impotent outrage on social media. But seeing the responses from the growing #blacklivesmatter movement and others like it, I think people can collectively make a difference and force changes to be made, especially if they're able to connect the dots and realize that these issues are just symptoms of a bigger, systematic problem.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

power to the people

I started walking home from the Holiday Ale Fest and ran straight into a march protesting the decision not to indict the officer involved in the murder of Eric Garner, as well as the decision not to indict the officer involved in the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown. All those involved were rallying against the recent decisions and the societal issues underlying them.

I don't know where they originated from, but I found myself in the front as the group marched from Pioneer Square to the Moda Center, chanting along the way various slogans such as, "No justice, no peace," "Who's streets? Our streets," "Who's lives matter? Black lives matter," etc.

It just felt good, right; and being near the front, I started screaming at the top of my lungs, raising my fist and raging against the system with all my being. All that was going through my mind was, "This shit has to stop, and I have to be on the front line against racism, sexism, and every other kind of discriminatory 'ism' there is. Enough is enough!"

I don't know if anything I do, or ever have done, will actually make a difference; but I know I'm at least willing to try. I'm not afraid to add my voice to the millions crying out for the same thing: Equality. Justice. Peace. An end to discrimination and oppression in all of its forms. If at some point we're not a part of the solution, we by default become part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

justice doesn't exist for the state

This is why I doubt equipping cops with cameras will do any good. Even when it's caught on tape, they rarely ever get charged for killing an unarmed person, whether it's by beating, shooting, or choking:

Grand Jury Lets Cop Choke Guy To Death Because Everything Is Terrible

The problems are built into the very fabric of our justice system. Nevertheless, I've seen a lot of people lately posting things like, "Not all cops are bad. Not all black people are criminals. Not all white people are racists. Quit labeling." This is true, not all cops are bad people, just as not all black people are criminals and not all white people are racists. But what people don't seem to understand here is the oppressive nature of the police as a social institution itself.

Individual police officers may very well be good people; but the real issue is, the police as a whole are primarily protectors of property and enforcers of the state, as well as a means of extracting surplus-value from working people (through parking tickets, traffic fines, etc.). They get their marching orders from the ruling class, not 'the people'; and more often than not, it's minorities and the poor that are the most affected by those policies.

When the police target the poor, the homeless, minorities, etc., they primarily do so because of institutionalized pressures created by those in power. Sit-lie and anti-camping ordinances, for example, are two ways for the state to legally harass homeless people by forcing them to move if they're sitting or lying anywhere in certain areas at anytime, often at the behest of local business alliances.

And there are numerous other laws that target minorities and the poor, such as harsher penalties for someone caught with crack cocaine, which is more prevalent in poorer communities and communities of colour, than powder cocaine, which is a more 'effluent' form of the drug, despite no physiological differences between the two. (In 2010, the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine was finally reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act.) It's a two-tiered justice system weighed heavily in favour of the wealthy.

When the police send in riot cops to arrest protesters, even if they're non-violent and protesting a gross injustice, they do so because they're more concerned about protecting property and making sure economic supply-lines for both goods and labour (i.e., roads) remain open than they are justice and the lives of the people they're allegedly there to 'serve and protect.'

And due to the lingering effects of racism, from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the practice of redlining to the unconscious racial biases that still haunt our perception, our judicial system is disproportionately biased against minorities, particularly the black community. Non-whites statistically get targeted more than whites; non-whites statistically get harsher sentences than whites; etc.

But what this case and others like it demonstrate to me is that, ultimately, justice doesn't exist for the state. The Establishment and those designed to serve and protect the interests of the ruling class and wealthy are above the laws that the rest of us plebs are subject to. They play by an entirely different set of rules.

A cop killing an unarmed black man? Or an unarmed, mentally-ill, homeless person who didn't do anything wrong, like James Chasse? No grounds for indictment. But a black man killing a cop? A homeless person killing a cop, even in self-defense? Shit. They'd probably never see the light of day, if they weren't killed themselves in retaliation.

But I think people are finally getting tired of the disparities, the growing militarization of the police, and the lack of accountability. In a lot of these cases, the cops seem like they're above the law.