Saturday, June 26, 2010

Toying with Isolationism

I’ve never considered myself an isolationist but I confess I’m toying with the idea.

A search of “Isolation, recession” turned up this, which seems extreme, but well worth reading. Here’s a bit of it for those of you not visiting Hal Licino’s site.

The Canadian-USA border is erased. The Mexican border is turned into the Berlin Wall.

All Military and Homeland Security forces are turned towards defending the continental perimeter.

Immigration is stopped. All visitors and tourists must obtain a visa and place a $50,000 bond, returnable only on their departure.

Based on a retroactive date, all citizens within that border are granted full North American citizenship, no questions asked.

On that same retroactive date, all citizens have title deed to whatever housing unit they resided. The North American government will hold a 50% 30 year mortgage and will enforce monthly payments at a fixed 2.5% annual rate.

A 250 percent tariff is set on every single imported product with absolutely no exceptions.
The gold reserves of North America are fixed to the common currency. A constitutional amendment forbids any change to this policy for 50 years.

Private banks are closed. Lending centers are set up where investors can pool their available funds. Interest cannot exceed 5% annually for any reason or any purpose.

All current taxes are eliminated. There is a 20% V.A.T. on the purchase of every item, no exceptions.

Interestingly, Licino, in making this immodest proposal, fails to mention the huge saving that would accrue to us by no longer being the “world’s cop on the beat.” More about money later, but imagine being able to redirect our military resources to productive, not destructive, investments.

Clearly Licino’s isolationist scenario raises more questions than it answers.

Just for starters, why eliminate the border with Canada and put up “A Berlin Wall” along the Mexican border? There are all kinds of nasty answers to this one. But, hey, I’m just asking?

And then what about that 20 percent across-the-board value-added tax and the elimination of all other taxes. So the person struggling to get by on $20,000 (if that in this economy) pays at the same tax rate as some Wall Street rip-off artist. This is a perverse form of equity.

The list of questions grows.

Remember, we are talking about economic isolationism too, not just a military hunkering down. Before we close the ports we might ask what natural resources are essential to our economy and how many of them come from abroad. Could we manage without such “essentials”? We might be surprised by the answer. Then again, we might not . . . .

Would adversary nations, previously held in check by our military might, immediately leap at each other’s throats? Consider North and South Korea, Israel and Iran (and Syria etc.), Pakistan and India, mainland China and Taiwan. The line forms on the right.

Then there are the internal rivalries we have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to influence. The Sunnis and the Shiites, the tribes of Rwanda and Burundi, the clans of Sudan, and religious fundamentalists and the secular everywhere,

Questions, questions.

One idea I'd throw into the mix is this: While we are isolating ourselves economically, politically and militarily, we should vigorously reach out socially and culturally. Consider this a variation of the distinction between economic capital and social capital. We need to invest in, and trade in, social and cultural capital. In so doing we might find that our failed fixation on amassing economic capital has blinded us to our own human potential.

The world-wide web, which grows stronger and more influential by the nano-second, makes investment in social capital magnificently simple.

In short, life here is about people, a planet and survival — not money.


Consider the truth to that simple statement: “In short, life here is about people, a planet and survival — not money.” It has the whiff of cant.

Are we really in an either/or world? Can’t we pursue wealth AND still save our souls, ourselves and the planet.

Add the question to the list and see where the discussion takes us.

One thing is for sure. We need to break out of rigid, unquestioned assumptions about “national security,” “defending democracy,” “free trade” and “America’s role in the world.”

Some vested interests — the arms industry and Wall Street come to mind — want nothing to do with rethinking assumptions that have made them insanely rich at the expense others. But if you can overcome such greed (no small task, particularly because we are all infected with it to some degree), my guess is that the large majority of Americans, of every political stripe, would leap at the chance to explore where isolationism, in its considerable variations, might take us.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beside the still waters . . .

Quakers describe their worship as “silent.”

Nearly all of our worship is in silence. The silence is broken only when someone is compelled to “share ministry” from the spiritual depths of silence.

But the word “silence” fails to adequately describe our worship.

I prefer to think of it as stillness.

Silence is, as they say, “necessary but not sufficient” for stillness.

Indeed all kinds of “noise” inhabits silence. Physical restlessness, distractions, worries, the mundane (Did I feed the cat? Did I water the plants?).

Stillness is altogether different.

That difference swept over me in the course of worship last Sunday.

My worshipful stillness led me to the image of a still pond. No ripple disturbed its surface.

My fellow worshippers and I sat in a circle around tranquility.

I’ve seen ponds and lakes like this. In their glassy stillness, I’ve seen clearly and deeply beneath the surface. Down to the very bottom. Seen through the deep, cold currents, to the stoney bed that quivers in animated distortions of light and shadow. To reeds that sway in gentle waters.

That’s where I went in the stillness of Sunday’s worship.

Later I thought of the 23rd Psalm. “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

At their core, Quakers believe God (or, I prefer, the “Spirit”) is in everyone. In the stillness of worship, we embrace it and let it lead us.

It was that spirit that led me beside these still waters. It was that spirit that was stilling the waters and allowing me to see into them.

There was more.

Sometimes in meeting we all have stilled the waters. We simultaneously experience the depth and clarity. We call this experience “a gathered meeting.”

I did not want to speak out of the silence of any of this to my fellow worshippers. I could feel they were, in their own ways, already at one in the stillness.

The last thing I wanted to do was to send blinding ripples — words — across the surface of our pond.

I sought only to protect the stillness, for our worship had immersed us in the sacred.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Observations from the Empire Builder

For three days last week Amtrak carried me across country, from Boston to Portland.

I wanted to get a sense of the nation's vast breadth and diversity.

Of course the real way to experience place is to walk it, Lewis and Clark style. Much of the train’s route followed Lewis and Clark’s.

There similarity ends.

Much of the country rolled beneath me at night when I was oblivious to the sweep of the darkened landscape.

I struggled to find enough comfort in my reclining coach seat to sleep. In the course of three nights, I experimented with a restless hodge-podge of reclining postures, often by observing dozing passengers nearby. I finally nestled into a contortion that allowed me to nod off.

At one point I toyed with sleep by having my iPod pipe Oscar Peterson’s “Night Train” into my skull. A Sinatra/Basie track, “Please be Kind,” finally put me down for good.

Trains have their own legendary rhythms. Swaying, jostling, click-eting. They meld in syncopation. Just about any tune can find a groove in the music of the rails.

One blessing: no one sat next to me at night. I could stretch out — in a manner of speaking. "Curl out" is more like it.

I rode a half day plus a night and a morning on the Lakeshore Limited between Boston (leaving at noon Sunday) and Chicago (arriving at 10 a.m. Monday).

The Empire Builder (a unsettling, imperialistic, dark reminder of a name) left Chicago at 2 p.m., took a sharp left at Milwaukee, stopped in the Twin Cities then rolled out across the northern tier of North Dakota and Montana for the entire next day. The silver Amtrak snake wound through the Rockies in the dark, rushed along the Columbia most of Wednesday morning and arrived in Portland at 10:10 a.m.

I stirred from sleep in my seat/bed early on the Tuesday morning of the northern tier. The sun must have been just on the horizon, directly behind the train. I had no idea where we were but we had to be somewhere in North Dakota, “The Peace Garden State.” I wandered up to the observation car with its big over-arching windows. The seats are arranged side-wise to look out on the landscape. I took my handy Neo keyboard (a slab of keys with a screen for only four lines of text at a time.)

There, a cup of watery Amtrak coffee at my elbow, I wrote a landscape-guided monologue into the little computer.

A sampler:

Trains reveal detail: the backside of towns, the work of the land. Jet bound, you can’t see people , but here on the rails punching through the hamlets and towns of the northern plains you see signs of striving and pride (a pocket park, a war memorial, tool sheds, dust-covered pickups, streets named for heroes and patriots).

I’ve looked down on this place, North Dakota, from the sky and seen the patchwork of plantings. The glint of lake and pond. It’s a perspective farmers do not know or think of as they go about their toil.

From on high, one can’t see the lovely white church we just passed, or the deer by the grove or the Masonic Lodge next to the gravel road.

There’s an electrical transmission station. Evidence of power and the need for it.

And graffiti. Freight cars as itinerant galleries.

Serene, hidden, unassuming, frog-inhabited ponds.

Wood-framed houses, far, far older than their inhabitants. Pitched roofed boxes with aspiring horizontal windows. Proud and revealing survivors.

Last night, late, I watched windows for lamps and signs of life. Once, the glow of TV on a huge screen.

Public works yards, dump trucks. Abandoned, rust-yellow Caterpillar tractors.

It’s early Tuesday morning in the observation car. I just changed clothes in the broom closet they call a rest room. Houdini like.

We’ve stopped at a station. Where are we? Devil’s Lake, North Dakota.

We’re moving again. The land is a flat, grassy sea with islands of trees. It's honest beauty. Green. Stolid. (My God, imagine the winters!)

Morning ground fog wisps over flat grain fields. The road crews are out working on the interstate paralleling the tracks. Between train and freeway, a reedy swale morphs into a pond at 70 miles per hour and then vanishes.

Here’s Devils Lake — the lake not the town. Beaver dams, loons. A great expansive aviary. A refuge on a flyway. A glorious, wild place.

Hamlets whisk by, no more than gathering spots. Where a general store communes with a church that blesses two or three houses served by a shed under the elms.

I’m looking north now, the non-freeway side of the train. Freshly plowed fields. Forested groves, patches of trees, where farmhouses and barns huddle against bitter winters. The out buildings anchor fields, nurture crops, house the harvest.

Man made, nature-made, serving and sustaining life.

Life here is distilled to mending fences, tilling fields. Harvesting. Wondering/worrying about weather and the price of wheat. Surrender and acceptance.

In the early morning, the shadows soften the flatness. When there’s a roll to the land, as there is now, the angle of the sun defines it.

On this short stretch, I’ve seen two deer loping across fields.

Dead, dying, struggling trees stranded in ponds. Their bone branches and trunks angle up from still waters. Their final purpose: perches for birds.

Ducks ignore the rush of steel on the tracks above their ponds.

A fox running across a field intent on a fluttering, escaping bird.

White bee hive boxes in a green field.

Another deer, alert, scanning the flatness. And another, prancing into reeds. Another pausing between clumps of trees.

More deer than people.

We are stopped in Rugby, North Dakota. It has Sinclair gas. $2.84 for unleaded. A “Hair Emporium.” We stopped all of two minutes. Rolling out. A sign on the receding, red brick train station announces: “Welcome to the geographical center of the US.”

We have a long way to go and only a day to do it.

I’ve seen the isolated cellular tower here with relay dishes and flashing lights. Communication courses quickly across these plains. A trunk rail line just split off to the north. The first rail diversion I’ve seen. Is it still used?

Abandoned cars, stacked next to a barn. Did they belong to one family? Uncle Fred’s old Chevy deLux sedan on top of Grandpa Ben's Studebaker pickup.

Artifacts of ancient journeys. To Fargo? Pierre? Denver? Cheyenne?

Chicago, where I was just yesterday, is beyond far away.

A Sunday morning like mine in a Boston? A dream.

The Empire Builder rolls through North Dakota, on into the West, the afternoon, the night and the Rockies.

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