Saturday, February 12, 2011

Herbert nails it: America's sham democracy

I don't know whether the New York Times' Bob Herbert is channeling me or I'm channeling him. Maybe a few thousand of us are channeling each other. It's about time.

Will events in Cairo trigger our own "Hundredth Monkey"?

Herbert begins today's column, "As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only."

Actually, it's worse that that, as he points out. We ARE a democracy in name only.

He concludes, as I have, that we need our very own bottom-up leadership from the streets.

We need a Tahrir square. Where will it be? And when?

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Quaker elevator talk

Quakers realize that most people don’t have a clue about Quakers. What they know often begins and ends with the guy in the funny hat on the oat meal carton.

Some of us in our Quaker meeting have been working on how to describe ourselves — briefly. Our model is the 30-second elevator speech.

It’s hard to imagine the subject of Quakers coming up on an elevator, but suppose....

“Quaker?” says the stranger. “Aren’t you kind of, like, Amish? The oat meal guy. Virtuous and old-fashioned. Kind of odd? Quaking even?”

“Do you have 30 seconds?”

“All the way to the 30th floor.”

I take a breath.

“Start with ‘spirit.’ There's something in each of us that is spirit. Many of us call it ‘God.’ Many of us don’t call it ‘God.'

"That's okay. We should be free to call it what we want.

"Friends— that’s what we call ourselves — Friends know we are different when it comes to words and theology. We are happily and variously Christians, atheists, Buddhists, Jews.... We think of ourselves as 'radically inclusive.' We know we all experience this ineffable living force — call it what you will.

“Quakers find that worshiping in silence — being beyond words — centers and deepens our relationship to this "it," this inner spirit or God. Stillness also deepens our relationship with each other. Sometimes, a Friend is led to speak out of the silence, to share ‘ministry.’”

“Through silent worship and words that emerge from it, we have been led to five guiding truths. We call them ‘testimonies.’ They are...

“Simplicity. Just as our worship is simple, the spirit leads us to live simply.

“Peace. Because spirit or God is in everyone (EVERYONE regardless of belief or non-belief), we strive to live in peace with all.

“Integrity. The spirit leads us to adhere to the truth as we discern it.

“Community. We are united and one in love, worship and the manifest spirit of many names.

“Equality. All are equally in and of the spirit.”

“That’s it. Oh, the testimonies are easy to remember; they spell the acronym ‘SPICE.’”

The elevator chimes. Its door slides open onto the 30th floor.

"I just wish we had another 30 floors for silence," I say.

The stranger touches my shoulder on the way out.

“Spirit or God, silence and SPICE,” he says with a spreading grin. “Elevating!”

As the door shuts, I'm left with a small problem. As is, the speech clocks in at over 45 seconds. Should I hold the elevator door open for 15 seconds for the sake of “integrity,” “community,” and “equality”?

And what about those extra floors for silence? Maybe that's why we have skyscrapers.

For more than an elevator ride's worth about Quakers, go to

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tested for Ten

I recently came across the following question on a test.

Name 10 of the most influential people of the 20th Century and, in three sentences or less for each person, explain who the person is and the impact he or she had.

As it turned out, I wasn’t taking the test, but I tried to imagine what I would write if I were.

The key word, of course, is “influential.” To whom? Are the sheer numbers of those influenced important? Influenced how? For good or bad?

For me, personally, I’d list my parents, who lived entirely within the 20th Century. My dad was a urologist; my mom was a kind of amateur mystic and, well, Mom. For better or worse, I am what I am because of them. Hey, I owe my existence to them. Now that’s influence.

But I think the test designers had something else in mind. They wanted to learn about “influential people” who might test awareness beyond the test taker’s mother, father, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, teachers, Little League coaches and friends.

I’m also thinking that the test givers might be weary of some candidates whom all the other test takers are certain to mention. Folks like FDR and MLK.

Consider going for surprising, but none-the-less, valid candidates, like Edward Bernays, the “Father” of Public Relations, or “Big Brother,” Orwell’s fictional creation who has taken on a life of his own, or Yogi Berra, seer of the not-so-obvious obvious.

Then there’s the question, what does “of the 20th Century” mean? Could a candidate live previous to the 20th Century to influence it? Several religious figures (Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed) come to mind. And what about Marx, Locke, Thoreau and Rousseau? They are alive and well in today’s world.

But enough question begging. At some point the test-taker must set pen to paper.

Here are ten, in no particular order and in much less than three sentences:

Walt Disney, because everyone needs a fantasy or two — or two hundred.

Jonas Salk, because everyone needs a life and his vaccine saved millions of them

The Wright Brothers, because we need to get around, fast and faster. (or do we?)

Hugh Hefner, because we need to be OK with sex.

Rosa Parks, because we ALL should be able to sit anywhere we want.

George Orwell, because we need unvarnished truth-tellers — and clarity.

Adolf Hitler, because humanity has a Dark Side and (still) needs to learn how to oppose with it through some means short of war.

Lee Harvey Oswald (or James Earl Ray), because a single bullet can, alas, change history.

Mohandas Gandhi, because virtue has nothing to do with money or possessions, and everything to to do with spirit and justice.

Louis Armstrong, because who and where would we be without music?

That’s a list, not THE list.

What’s yours?

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