A commie punk walks into a bar…: “What’s Left?” September 2015, MRR #388

I first visited New York City in the fall of 1988. I walked all day, everywhere, for weeks straight until I had blisters on my feet and I’d developed a crick in my neck from looking up at all the tall buildings. It was glorious.

The anarcho/ultra milieu was jumping at the time. Folks from WBAI, many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, the Libertarian Book Club, Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, Neither East Nor West, and that was just the politics. Probably the least interesting encounter I had was with Hakim Bey aka Peter Lamborn Wilson, while the most impressive was with Joey Homicides aka Bob McGlynn. Libertarian things were popping all over because the Warsaw Pact had just crumbled, and the old Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse.

Then there was all the touristy stuff I wanted to do, first time in The City. I spent a whole day at the Museum of Modern Art, making a beeline for Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” then walking around the rest of the building in utter rapture. I turned a corner, aimlessly, only to stumble upon Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” I was floored. The oversized painting had its own room, and it wasn’t in the best of shape. Cracked, peeling, warped, the somber black and white canvas made the hairs stand up on the back of my head.

Picasso is one of those people who elicits wide, often violent opinions. If you look at his drawings and paintings from before he went Cubist, during his Blue Period for instance, you can well understand why he was considered a brilliant artist. His politics were a bit more dodgy. Apparently, Picasso had entrusted “Guernica” to the MoMA after his death to keep until such time that the return of democracy to Spain allowed for the painting’s return. As I stood in the MoMA gazing at what I thought was an anti-fascist icon, a deal had been cut with the museum to return the original “Guernica” in 1981, despite the fact that Spain was a constitutional monarchy and not a democracy. I realized many years later that what I had seen in 1988 was not “Guernica” but the related masterpiece “The Charnel House,” so similar in style and power. Picasso was a member of the Communist Party, which meant he was an apologist for Stalin and his crimes, including the crimes committed by the Spanish CP during the Spanish Civil War. And he was a complete asshole, personally, when it came to women. Of his wives, lovers, and mistresses, two killed themselves and two went mad associating with a man who said: “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

“Loyal, generous and affectionate when it suited him, Picasso could be astoundingly brutal, to friends, lovers, even complete strangers,” wrote Mark Hudson. Lots of artist types turn out to be brilliant at their art, and thus publicly praised, while their private lives often reveal profound personal and moral failings. Of course, this disassociation between the public and the private goes both ways, with a common if mundane observation being that Hitler, arguably the world’s most brutal dictator, loved dogs and children and was loyal to Eva Braun. It’s easy to come up with a list of 15 or 20 great artists who were nasty people, but not so easy to name even 5 people generally considered evil who have also done demonstrable good. The idea of the brilliant genius artist who is simultaneously a monumental jerk is so frequent as to have become a trope. And when genius and asshole reside in the same individual, dispassionately evaluating famous people and their contributions can be tricky.

It becomes immensely more so when passion is involved. Gregory, the youngest son of Ernest Hemingway, wrote to his father spelling out the pros and cons from his traumatized perspective: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons – Hadley, Pauline, Marty, Patrick, and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?” To someone who loves Hemingway’s writing, or who admires good literature in general, any evaluation of the worth and cost/benefit of the man and his work might be substantially different, bringing to mind Tolstoy’s famous quote that “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Evaluating merit is not much easier when we switch from the life and work of an individual, whether famous or not, to gauging the merit of our not-so-personal relationships, with the organizations and movements we belong to or support. I wrote a column some time ago about how I experimented with every drug in the book during the 1960s, and only alcohol managed to kick my ass. I was more or less a daily drinker, not heavy but strong and steady, for 30 years up until January 1, 2010. It was all just maintenance at that point. My habit was fucking with me, my relationships, my pancreas, and to my mind the costs of my regular alcohol intake far outweighed the benefits. So, I decided to quit, and I did so through the Chemical Dependency and Recovery Program at Kaiser, of which I am a member. CDRP provided me with regular professional counseling, access to a shrink who could also prescribe drugs in case my withdrawal symptoms got too heavy, classes on the science of dependency and withdrawal, and lots and lots of meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, I went to every meeting and every class and every counseling session for 90 days until I no longer had a problem staying sober. The scientific knowledge alone—of what your mind and body go through 30, 60, and 90 days after withdrawal—was worth the price of admission.

Of course, AA was and is ubiquitous, as the oldest and best known absolutely free recovery program around. But AA impressed me as a cult from the very first chanted call-and-response. I freely admit to having cherry-picked different principles from different programs to get the recovery that works for me—among them the notions of surrender and forgiveness from AA, the ideas of secularity and self-help from LifeRing, and the medical use of prescribed drugs when necessary to help with withdrawal from harm reduction. Still, virtually everybody around me was in AA, working an AA program, so I accepted the validity and efficacy of AA in going about not drinking. I started sitting zazen at the San Francisco Zen Center, with its meditation in recovery meetings being my anchor for five years. But over those years the focus of those meetings, equal parts Buddhism and 12-step recovery, has grown thin, not because of the zen but because of the steps.

Whether or not there is a god has absolutely nothing to do with the existence, nature, and solution to suffering. That’s basic Buddhism, whose founder cautioned: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I’ve been pretty much an atheist after giving up Catholicism for Lent at 13. Buddhism is about as non theistic, and zen as atheistic, as you can get and still call it a spiritual practice.

I never saw or felt the need for a god to help me stop drinking, and no matter how much AA papers over it, some concept of god is required for their program to work. Court-ordered AA participation is thus a direct violation of the basic Constitutional right to religious liberty, in this case the freedom to not have a religion. All that “your ‘higher power’ can be anything, even a doorknob” AA bullshit I find theologically imbecilic, spiritually vacuous, and personally insulting. Surrendering to a “higher power” isn’t necessary to experience the need to forgive and be forgiven, or to simply surrender and ask for help. Whether or not a god exists has absolutely nothing to do with stopping drinking and staying sober.

The debate over whether alcohol abuse is a disease or a choice is not resolved, although more and more scientists are supporting the disease model. Prolonged alcohol abuse chemically restructures the alcoholic’s body and brain and causes the difficulties in withdrawal, according to current scientific research, and there is much evidence that certain individuals are born with a proclivity for addiction to alcohol. AA’s main problem is that its central metaphor of “alcoholism as disease” clashes with various other aspects of AA’s program. If alcoholism is a disease, then why blame the alcoholic for the moral failure of not staying sober? If alcoholism is a disease, then why does AA resist the use of drugs like naltrexone to lessen the desire to drink? If I had a disease like cancer I would do everything in my power—prescription drugs, radiation, chemotherapy, surgery—to control or eliminate that disease. I certainly wouldn’t sit around making a “fearless moral inventory” of my personal failings, asking for forgiveness for my moral shortcomings, then seeking moral support from a god that doesn’t exist when cold, hard science is crucial to my cure. Or, as Gabrielle Glaser wrote in her recent Atlantic Monthly article “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous”: “Why do we assume they [alcoholics] failed the program, rather than that the program failed them?”

Aside from Glaser’s excellent article there is a whole website (orange-papers.org) devoted to systematically and thoroughly debunking AA—its history, program, and claims. AA is ranked 38th out of 48 common alcohol treatment methods, not very effective at all. Given that it is “anonymous,” recovery statistics for AA are hard to come by and even harder to verify. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes puts the actual success rate for AA somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. Every disease has a spontaneous remission rate, and Harvard Medical School calculated that the annual rate of spontaneous remission in alcoholics is around 5 percent. Which means that AA’s track record is at, or at most just 3 percent higher than the spontaneous remission rate for alcoholics. Hardly worth all the hoopla surrounding AA’s supposed successes.

But even one recovered alcoholic is success enough, many in AA would argue. Combine the abysmally low rate of recovery with other problems in AA such as 13th Stepping and AA’s cons far outweigh the pros. Thirteenth Stepping is when individuals, oftentimes mandated by law to attend AA meetings, take advantage of AA’s horizontal and relatively leaderless organization in general, and its unsupervised sponsor/sponsee structure in particular, to prey upon and sexually exploit newbies, most often young naïve girls. CBS’s 60 Minutes did an entire segment, “The Sober Truth,” that, along with The 13th Step Film by Monica Richardson, exposed the underreported realities of 13th Stepping. But the rampant problem of 13th Stepping is not even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by AA’s national/international organization.

When I was running around NYC back in 1988, I hung around a crew of friends and comrades, many of whom were heavy drinkers. And since it was a vacation for me, I was drinking more than my usual. One of my companions at the time wisecracked: “The liver is a muscle that must be exercised.” Well, the brain is also a muscle, and our capacity for analysis and coming to reasoned conclusions needs to be exercised as well. My judgment is still out on whether Picasso’s or Hemingway’s art was worth the human damage those artists inflicted. Not so with AA, where its paltry success rate is not offset by it problems, everything from its moralizing guilt tripping to 13th Stepping. There are lots of evidence-based non 12-step recovery and support programs out there, including a promising Buddhist-based one pioneered by Noah Levine called Refuge Recovery. As for AA?

Don’t believe the hype!

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Evidence-based Recovery and Support Groups

Secular
SMART: Self Management And Recovery Training
Women for Sobriety
Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves/SOS
LifeRing Secular Recovery/LSR
Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support/HAMS
Moderation Management
Rational Recovery
Naltrexone/Sinclair Method

Buddhist
Refuge Recovery

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No apology necessary (or offered): “What’s Left?” December 2014, MRR #379

THE LEFT BEHIND LEFT

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Pogo (Walt Kelly), comic strip

We called it “The System” back in the day. After I got politics in 1968, I considered capitalism and the State equally destructive of human individuality and community, and that working people would be able to overthrow both to bring about socialism. My world view didn’t change much as I evolved from anarchism to left communism over the decades that followed. I identified the working class as the social class with the revolutionary agency to overthrow capitalism and the State and realize communism, a bit more nuanced than the political debates of the 60s where Marxists argued that capitalism was the principle enemy while anarchists argued that it was the State.

Things got a whole lot more complicated in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. The New Left splintered into the New Communist Movement, various nationalist movements, the women’s movement, the gay movement, et al, even as we pretended that a bunch of ineffective little groupings amounted to one big ineffectual Movement. Alternative analyses arose where patriarchy was the enemy and women the revolutionary agent, or white supremacy was the enemy and people of color the revolutionary agent, and so on. Eventually, it became necessary to define The System, after bell hooks, as the “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” enemy; a rather clunky accumulation of oppressions that did little to advance any kind of radical struggle other than to appease various and sundry wannabe revolutionaries.

I will take on the issue of revolutionary agency, as well as of the realistic capacities of any such agency, in a future column. For now, it should be clear that the implied parity between forms of oppression entailed by the phrase The “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” System is bullshit. Every group in radical circles singles out one form of oppression as primary, with all others consigned to secondary status. Radical people of color and their allies see white supremacy as THE enemy. Radical feminists and their allies contend that patriarchy is THE enemy. And so it goes. Such was the case when Marxists argued that capitalism was THE enemy, or when anarchists proclaimed that the State was THE enemy.

I’m happy to discuss and debate which form of oppression is paramount, even to argue whether all are equally valid, and learn from or adjust my analysis accordingly. Unfortunately, the quality of discussion and debate in this sad excuse for a Movement is abysmal. I’m not sure whether it is merely dogmatism and sectarianism run rampant, or the consequence of postmodernism’s effects on our capacity for critical thinking and dialogue, but reason and analysis seem to be in short supply whereas rational study and articulate argument have become lost arts. I won’t go into all the gory details of my latest run-in with internecine anarchist idiocy. You can google that for yourself. For the record, I’m utterly disdainful of the thoroughly isolated, completely fragmented, pathetic joke of a so-called Movement. Nowadays, I no longer claim anything left of the Left, although my sympathies remain gauchist. Instead, lets discuss two general topics of interest.

THE MYTH OF FACT CHECKING

Memory is a motherfucker.

Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist

This is one of my favorite quotes. Ayers makes the point that many of the memories he claims are fact or true are actually not that at all, but are based on recollections fogged by time, as well as a “blurring of details” where “[m]ost names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away.” There is plenty of scientific evidence for the unreliability of personal memory and eyewitness testimony. This plus my experience with writing and reading history, where there are invariably numerous versions of the same historical narrative, has made me cynical of words like “fact” and “truth.” I won’t go so far as Nietzsche’s famous quote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but I will argue that there are no facts, only evidence for facts. The only way we can establish a fact, or for that matter a truth, is through verifiable, empirical evidence for that fact or truth.

Fact checking then is not a matter of tallying up the facts, but of compiling and weighing the evidence for the facts. In my experience, two things often stand in the way of honest fact checking when it comes to current events. First, there are plenty of people claiming that “they were there” at any given notorious incident, whether or not they actually were. And second, of those individuals who come forth and claim to be present when such incidents take place, most are decidedly less than forthcoming about the what, when, where and how of their supposed eyewitness experiences despite their willingness to loudly pass judgment on the why.

As for history, I wasn’t around for either the Russian revolution or the Spanish civil war. Yet I’ve scoured all the available history and primary sources, the evidence if you will, for the facts and lessons to be drawn from these historical events. In the process, I’ve noticed that new evidence is always being discovered, and thus new facts are being determined, and new histories are being written.

DUALISM VS DIALECTIC

When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him.

Shunryu Suzuki, “No Dualism,” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.

Tom Waits, “Heartattack and Vine”

Finally, there is the tendency to reduce everything to a Manichean good vs evil view of the world, inherited from our Judeo-Christian society. Marx made it clear that capitalism is a system of exploitation and oppression, but also an all encompassing social relationship in which both capitalists and workers are intimately involved. Capitalist and worker are both oppressed by capitalism, although by no means equally so. Thus, Marx was against vulgar Marxists who label capitalists as purely evil and workers as entirely good. White supremacy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that white people are evil and people of color are good. Patriarchy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that men are evil and women are good.

Even the penchant for naming an enemy is problematic. To do so is to suggest an evil that must be countered by the good. I have been sitting zazen for the past three plus years, trying to wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of non duality. Non duality seems the perfect antidote to good vs evil thinking, except that it propounds paradox at every turn. Strive for non-striving, let go of letting go, achieve non-achievement; Buddhism is chock full of such paradoxes. These are consciously enigmatic contradictions akin to the famous koans of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai school, meant not to supply answers but to provoke enlightenment. Combine that with Buddhism’s own recent demonstration of good vs evil dualistic behavior, illustrated by the murderous agitation of rabidly anti-Muslim Buddhist monks like U Wirathu and Galagodaatte Gnanasara, and we’re back in the thick of this world’s shit.

WHAT’S LEFT?

Nobody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.

John Sayles, “At the Anarchists’ Convention”

In John Sayles’ piquant short story, “At the Anarchists’ Convention,” cantankerous personal squabbling and bitter political sectarianism among the scruffy convention participants are momentarily set aside when all in attendance unite against a hotel manager who tries to kick the Convention out of its rented room due to double booking. This whimsical tale ends when the convention of geriatric has-been red-flag wavers dedicated to lost causes erect a barricade, stand together, link arms, and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

The notion that The Movement is something we should rally around against a common enemy reeks of just such sentimentality and nostalgia. That this degenerate offspring of what was called The Left is all but worthless goes without saying.

So, call me a fascist or a racist, or label my thinking white supremacist or Eurocentric. I write my columns knowing full well that some people will dismiss what I say as defensive, abstract, condescending, or self-serving. For those of you who consider me an anachronistic, eccentric old school commie, here’s my upraised middle finger.

Attached to non attachment: “What’s Left?” July 2009, MRR #314

Ask yourself why you practice zazen? If it is to reach some specific goal, or to create some special state of mind, then you are heading in the opposite direction from zazen. You create a separation from reality. Please, trust zazen as it is, surrender to reality here and now, forget body and mind, and do not DO zazen, do not DO anything, don’t be mindful, don’t be anything – just let zazen be and follow along.

Muho Noelke

Of all the whacky religions people believe in, I’m kind of fond of Zen Buddhism.

Maybe it was because of my proximity to the Beats when I lived in San Francisco between three and six years of age. Or because of my dad’s interest in all things Beatnik during my adolescence.

Or maybe it’s because Zen reminds me of Unitarianism. The local Unitarian church offered draft counseling when I lived in Ventura and was facing conscription for the Vietnam War, keeping me sane if not saving my ass as I confronted the US government during the ‘60s. Unitarianism, like Zen, doesn’t demand that its adherents believe in anything really, not even god.

Perfect for an agnostic like me. Except that I’ve always lacked the personal discipline to pursue any type of spiritual practice, even the bare bones, anti-formalist, anti-scriptural, purely experiential immediatism of Zen. I mean, I can’t even fucking sit and meditate for fifteen minutes a day when I have no job and all the time in the world. And Zen requires a lot of self-discipline, contrary to popular belief.

It’s one of these popular misconceptions that I want to take on at the moment. The common perception of Zen is of a rarified, somewhat cerebral, comfortably pacifist, tolerant religion of robed, head shaven monks who spend all their time ensconced in monasteries engaged in quiet contemplation. This image has been fostered by western appropriation of certain Zen concepts, principle among them the notion of mindfulness. Popularized by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, among others, mindfulness has spread from the realm of New Age spirituality and entered the mainstream medical and psychiatric communities. The practice of mindfulness is now touted as being able to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress, reduce pain and suffering, and help people to be happy.

All well and good, except that this medical extraction of mindfulness out of the general framework of Zen Buddhism, much like the pharmaceutical purification of a particular chemical from a complex herb, tends to make mindfulness into a kind of drug. Instead of understanding mindfulness as a means of awareness sufficient unto itself, it becomes a cure for various ailments, something to be used to achieve an end. In the process, this reinforces the passive, peaceful stereotype of Zen Buddhism, when nothing about Zen could be further from the truth.

Kaiten Nukariya’s aptly titled 1913 work Religion of the Samurai first advanced the understanding of Zen as a warrior religion, something that para-fascist Julius Evola reiterated in his 1981 monograph Lo Zen. It was Evola’s controversial contention that all Buddhism, at its base and when not bastardized by popularization, is a warrior religion, given that Gautama Buddha was by birth a member of India’s Kashatriya caste. Brian Daizen Victoria wrote his book Zen at War in 1998, which claimed that Zen was instrumental to the rise of Japanese militarism from the Meiji Restoration to the Second World War. Victoria’s thesis is not without its critics, but the links between Zen Buddhism and military practice are hard to discount. Nor are they difficult to appreciate.

Zen mental training has a number of direct applications to warrior preparation, beginning with intense concentration that allows for the perfection of fighting skills. The powerful moment-to-moment awareness cultivated by Zen is an ideal state of mind for the warrior, permitting appropriate action to arise spontaneously, which is crucial to anyone in the heat of battle. And the settling, or clearing, of the mind, the standing apart from thought employed by Zen certainly facilitates the standing back from any moral qualms that might arise from fighting and killing. No doubt, western practitioners of mindfulness as a form of therapy would be appalled to learn of the easy application of this technique to the art of war. Yet its historical reality is incontrovertible.

The singular western focus on mindfulness also tends to limit the qualities of mindfulness itself. Or, as Muho Noelke, abbot of Antaiji Monastery, once said:
We should always try to be active coming out of samadhi. For this, we have to forget things like “I should be mindful of this or that.” If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation (“I – am – mindful – of -…”). Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: “When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma”). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.

Easier said than done.

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