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Sorry, Hillary is Not a Progressive

Hindsight

In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, in which Trump lost, O’Malley dropped out, and Sanders stood toe to toe against Clinton, the Presidential race has become noticeably more heated. And so has the rhetoric. At least that’s how it feels on my Facebook feed, a formerly placid Bernie bubble where friends have suddenly begun leaping out of the closet to proclaim their love for all things Clinton, along with their their condescension for all things Sanders.

The Bernie bashing comes in several popular flavors:

(1) If you support Bernie, you’re a naïve idealist. His proposals are too impractical, too pie-in-the-sky. Translation: grow up and give up. You can’t beat the system, so join it. A recent rant begins, “COOL, YOU LIKE BERNIE’S WISHES AND DREAMS APPROACH TO POLITICS. “FREE COLLEGE FOR EVERYONE AND A GODDAMN PONY.” Not only is this inaccurate (Bernie has never once mentioned ponies), but it’s an old conservative talking point. Forget about fundamental rights, fairness, justice, or compassion; liberals just want “free stuff.” [Fun fact: Hillary herself once called welfare recipients “deadbeats.”]

(2) If you dislike Hillary, you’re a misogynistic “BernieBro.” Way to undermine the intelligence and judgment of millions of women who support Sanders, not to mention feminist males who stand behind Bernie’s calls for pay equity, paid maternity leave, increased funding for Planned Parenthood, and a host of other policies that would directly benefit women.

(3) If you dislike Hillary, you’re a sucker who has fallen for the right wing’s ongoing smear campaign against her. One blogger went so far as to assert, “If you truly believe Hillary Clinton is dishonest and deceptive, then you are among the most gullible person on the planet.” [SIC]

Apparently, not liking or trusting Hillary could never be about her actual record, which speaks volumes about her values and flatly contradicts the assertion she’s been making since the first Democratic debate—before which she identified as a moderate—that she’s actually a progressive.

As I was compiling my own list of everything Hillary has done and said to prove that she is not in fact a progressive, I learned that Bernie himself had, that very afternoon, accused Hillary of only being a progressive “on some days.” His comments, which Hillary called a “low blow,” have ignited a Twitter debate under the hashtag #HillarySoProgressive. Most users have taken this phrase as sarcastic, dragging skeleton after skeleton from her pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street, pro-war, neoliberal closet, thereby making my job here a great deal easier. Indeed, this Sanders tweet goes a long way toward making my point:

Hillary_other days

To this partial laundry list we could add Hillary’s support for the death penalty, GMOs, and fracking, her time spent on the Board of Directors for Walmart, and her admiration for war criminal Henry Kissinger. Last but certainly not least, let’s not forget about her financial ties to the private prison industry and the Wall Street institutions that are bankrolling her campaign and have helped make her a multi-millionaire member of the 1%.

Hillary supporters will no doubt counter that she has since changed her mind on many of the above issues, in some cases even calling them “mistakes.” In fact, I’ve read claims that her shifts on issues like gay marriage, the Iraq War, and her own political orientation indicate a willingness to learn and grow that all but defines progressivism.

If we use this as our main criterion, we would have to call Trump a progressive, since he’s reversed his position on a number of key issues. As The Donald demonstrates, there is a fine line between personal growth and political flip-flopping on the basis of poll numbers, and one could easily argue that Hillary has managed to blur that line.

Instead of using malleability as a marker, let’s look at the moral conviction and abiding concern for justice exhibited by dyed-in-the-wool progressives like Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, FDR, or MLK, none of whom could ever have called themselves moderate with a straight face, let alone with pride. The same can be said about Bernie Sanders, who marched with King while Hillary campaigned for Goldwater and has since dedicated his political career to fighting against the unequal concentration of wealth and power.

If you’re a Hillary supporter and remain unconvinced by her record and her own claims of centrism, consider the fact that she has repeatedly vowed to continue the legacy of Obama, who will hardly be remembered as a progressive. Raise your hand if you want more wars, more drone terrorism, more NSA surveillance, more Wall Street bailouts, more Citizens United, more siphoning of wealth to the top tier, more big-business as usual.

Nobody is saying that Bernie will be able to solve the world’s problems with a wave of his democratic socialist wand, but he has demonstrated a commitment to wresting power from the oligarchs and restoring it to the people. He’s the most progressive candidate to come along in many decades, and, yes, he’s just as electable as Hillary, if not more so.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with people supporting Hillary because they like her or her policies (some of which are progressive, thanks partly to Bernie). And I will vote for her against whatever racist troglodyte the GOP barfs up. But if you support her because you think she’s a committed progressive, I think you’re fooling yourself.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris, people the world over expressed their solidarity with the victims using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. Even conservative Francophobes in the US adopted the slogan as a rallying cry for free speech, invoking the predictable theme of good vs. evil. More probing commentaries accused the cartoonists of being racist, anti-Islamic, or at least culturally insensitive, with some pundits explaining why they were not Charlie. Despite assurances from insiders that the paper is actually supportive of minorities, this author remains likewise reluctant to identify with Charlie, although I confess that this wasn’t always the case.

Years ago, seemingly in another lifetime, I was a political cartoonist. My strip, entitled “Channel X,” was published in several local newsweeklies and posted online under the banner of ZNet cartoons. I certainly wasn’t famous, but I was consistent, creating at least one relevant doodle per week for about six years, even whilst living abroad and struggling to stay abreast of American politics via an excruciatingly slow and wonky dial-up Internet connection (this was India, circa 1999).

In its earliest phase, Channel X dealt mainly in absurdity and apocalyptic humor, with occasional cartoons that my young, agnostic, and iconoclastic self considered tastefully irreverent, i.e. “sacrilicious.” Like Charlie Hebdo, I considered myself an equal-opportunity offender, although my favorite target was Christianity, the religion of my upbringing and of mainstream America, the latter of which always received plenty of playful pokes from my pen.

jesus_jokes

Perhaps it was inevitable that my jabs would eventually hit a sore spot. For one cartoon, I tuned Channel X to the “Salvation Station” to showcase several religiously themed sitcoms, including “Allah in the Family.” That particular frame (marked here with an “X”) featured a robed and bearded, God-like figure as a sit-in for Archie Bunker, telling his kneeling, veiled wife to fix him some meatloaf. At the time, I was ignorant of Islam’s ban on iconography, so when members of the local mosque wrote to ask for an apology from the editor, I gave my boss a bemused shrug. I didn’t apologize, but I never again crossed that particular line with my line art.

sacrilicious

In fact, I had already begun adopting a more political stance, shifting my aim from prophets to profiteering and other high crimes, especially those perpetrated by George W. Bush and his neoconservative cronies. In those days, the jokes tended to write themselves, from the commander-in-thief choking on pretzels to the true motives behind what was initially called “Operation Iraqi Liberation” being revealed by its own acronym.

politics

While routinely ridiculing the powers-that-were, I began discovering other, inner powers through daily meditation practice. Before long my explorations of Buddhist philosophy led me to question the ethics behind my chosen vocation: Given that political cartoons tend to draw amusement at someone’s expense, can they be considered right speech? I felt a growing tension between my desire to be the next Tom Tomorrow and my wish to help alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings, including—if not especially—my perceived political enemies. What, after all, did their selfish and destructive behavior signify, if not a deep unhappiness and a profound estrangement from their own essential goodness?

Eventually I quit cartooning, although less for moral reasons than practical ones that culminated in a move to the Left Coast. Over time, my spiritual and political selves became friends under the umbrella of engaged Buddhism, although the two still argue sometimes about the particulars of skillful and effective engagement. My inner activist has found a guiding principle in the injunction to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” whereas my more selfless self aims to end all affliction and strives to follow the Buddha’s rules for right speech, which basically amount to “If you can’t say something true, beneficial, and timely, don’t say anything at all.”

While mourning the senseless loss of life at the Charlie Hebdo offices, we can acknowledge that the paper’s collective commentary, even if often aimed at the comfortable, offers little comfort to the disenfranchised groups that are routinely caricatured and belittled in its pages in an attempt to make political points. Even if one buys the argument that Charlie is not racist or Islamophobic, one must concede that its cartoonists are guilty, as one writer puts it, of frequently “punching down.”

Obviously, this is not a sin for which anyone should be punished, let alone murdered. At the same time, it should also be obvious that free speech has its limits and liabilities, as it necessarily operates within a social context such as a crowded theater (to use a well-worn example) or a culturally divided country like France. To believe in free speech as an absolute right is to engage in a kind of fundamentalism, and isn’t fundamentalism the real problem here?

As I see it, freedom of speech is a kind of superpower. And as Spiderman and his friends have taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. Though we might not always be able to live up to the Buddha’s example, we can strive to speak responsibly and to direct our punches upwards while extending a helping hand downwards, even while balancing on the slippery slope of satire.

What I Learned from NOT Going to Burning Man

Photo by Andrew Keeler

Photo by Andrew Keeler

This year would have been my seventh consecutive pilgrimage to Burning Man. I realize that that’s not an especially impressive streak, yet it was long enough for the playa dust to have seeped deep into my dermis, for the ineffable experiences to have permanently altered my worldview and identity, for the art to have shaped my aesthetic and musical sensibilities (and nonsense-abilities), and for Black Rock City to have become a frequent setting for anxiety dreams in which I’ve forgotten my costume boxes or somehow neglected to leave camp until the final evening. It was certainly long enough for me to feel totally bummed when I realized that my wife and I (we honeymooned in BRC) would just not be able to swing it this year, due to a cacophonic convergence of factors that included an ailing cat, a new job, an impending move to a nearby city, and a pregnancy for which we had ceremoniously prayed for beneath a full moon at last year’s temple.

In astrological terms, seven years is known as a Saturn cycle (technically, one-fourth of the planet’s orbital period), which often marks a major life shift. Given Saturn’s relation to responsibility and structure, it wasn’t too surprising to find that while dozens of my campmates—not to mention tens of thousands of would-be friends—frolicked in the desert, I was engaged in the relative tedium of working, packing, and combing craigslist in a frantic (and ultimately fruitless) housing search. In short, I was fully immersed in the day-to-day doings of the default world, in which people went about their business in seemingly blissful ignorance of fire-breathing art cars, naked foam bath dance parties, and free French toast. Indeed the fact that the world continued to function in its usual dysfunctional way during Burn week came as a realization in itself, something I had long suspected but could not confirm.

The rest of my related revelations appear below.

(1) FOMO is not fatal. Fear of Missing Out may cause restlessness, shallow breathing, gnashing of the teeth, gastrointestinal distress, heart palpitations, and melancholia, but it will not kill you. Like a kidney stone, it will eventually pass.

(2) Burning Man is like polyamory. The more you think about the fun you might be missing out on at any given time, the more your imagination will conjure vivid images of your loved ones participating in acutely upsetting activities. To avoid this spiral into self-torture, it may be necessary to distract yourself.

(3) Facebook is safe during Burn week, but not after. Thankfully, the playa is still phone-free for the better part of the week, so your Burner buddies aren’t able to post pics, videos, and status updates about their latest hookup with the Divine. Immediately following the Burn, however, expect to be assaulted with awesomeness.

(4) Fortunately, pictures do not do justice. I have found that looking at playa porn is actually enjoyable, albeit ultimately unsatisfying. Show me the amazing art, colorful costumes, and luminous landscape, but please do not remind me of the soul-stirring, awe-inspiring, heart-rending magic that can never be fully captured with either cameras or words, lest I fall into a pit of self-pity.

(5) One doesn’t need Burning Man to realize the beauty and preciousness of life. Any spiritual teacher will tell you that awakening is possible for anyone at any time, even—if not especially—in moments of frustration or boredom. External inspiration is not necessary.

(6) But it sure as hell helps. Given the default world’s relentless and effective campaign to encourage competition, instill consumerism, foster complacency, and generally crush the spirit, one often needs a strong jolt of juju—whether a festival, entheogenic journey, meditation retreat, or long camping trip—to get rid of old patterns, unhealthy addictions, and obsolete ideas and to open the heart-mind to fresh perspectives and new channels of self-expression.

(7) The insights gained from not going to Burning Man pale in comparison to those gained from actually going. Let’s face it, this article is just a clumsy attempt to make myself and perhaps a few other people feel better about not attending the most epic experiment in communal creativity and transformation that the world has ever known. Could someone please pass me the TUMS?

(8) Burning Man will happen again next year. Probably. If not, then it looks like I just missed humanity’s last gasp of freedom before the cyborg apocalypse.

Oh well, back to the housing search!

capitalism
I was a first-time author waiting to give my first live online interview, and I was nervous. With only a few minutes to make my case for global transformation, I expected the host Gary Null to cut to the chase, but instead he opened with a curve ball. The Occupy movement was afoot, and Gary recounted seeing the police ransack a makeshift kitchen set up to feed the homeless. He was fishing for an explanation, but I could offer nothing beyond my shared vexation. Although this gave us more time to discuss my book (the title of which I nevertheless failed to mention), I soon came to regret this missed opportunity to air a topic that had been all but forbidden just a few months before: class warfare.

If I’d had more time and lucidity, I would have mentioned other gift-based movements like Food Not Bombs and The San Francisco Diggers that have faced routine harassment. I would have lamented the absurd illegality of dumpster diving. I would have talked about the War on Drugs and how America imprisons more of its citizens—mostly poor people of color—than any other country in history, mainly for petty drug offenses, while those with white skin and white collars (who use illegal drugs themselves) enjoy almost total impunity for fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, war profiteering, and other high crimes that adversely affect millions of lives. I would have described the aggressive, well-organized, and ongoing campaign led by corporate-backed politicians to kill unions, outsource and automate jobs, keep the minimum wage unlivable, defund Social Security, cut Medicaid and food stamps, and generally shred the social safety net.

I would have concluded, like my allies in Occupy and millions of other reasonable people, that an all-out war against the poor and working class has been raging for decades.

As Marx pointed out, class conflict is as old as civilization itself. But in the US, the war in question was, by most accounts, unofficially declared by Ronald Reagan, who espoused the theory that wealth would somehow “trickle down” from the upper class to the lower. Needless to say, no such trickle has occurred, and the wealth gap has since become a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. One of Reagan’s closest comrades was Margaret Thatcher, an equally ardent devotee of Ayn Rand (“altruism is evil”) who infamously asserted that “there is no such thing as society.” Thatcher also earned the nickname “TINA” for declaring “There Is No Alternative” to the pro-corporate laissez-faire economic policies, structural adjustment programs, and austerity measures that have since been imposed throughout the world, under the authority of every US President since Reagan.

Of course, most elites would deny that a class war is being waged. Among those who dare entertain the notion, the tendency is to insist that it is the rich, not the poor, who are put upon and persecuted. Such was the recent claim of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who went so far as to compare the 1% to the Jews during the Holocaust. Though his hyperbole was widely criticized, Perkins was defended by the Wall Street Journal in a follow-up article that concluded: “The liberals aren’t encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents.”

Apparently for the rich right, it’s all about politics. Fairness is not the issue, nor even poverty. Never mind the billions of people worldwide who are scraping by on $1.25/day or less. Pay no attention to starving children in Zambia, sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, rice farmers in China, and struggling single mothers in the US. Forget the populist rhetoric of Obama, the admonitions of the Pope, the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and the core teachings of every major religion. Disregard the recent Oxfam report revealing that the richest 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. And if you can’t ignore such news, why not openly celebrate it like Kevin O’Leary, a reality show host and investor who called the Oxfam findings “fantastic” and asked, “What can be wrong with this?” Not to be outdone, a staff writer for Forbes described income inequality as “unrelentingly beautiful,” insisting (again in his italics) that “inequality hasn’t increased enough.”

One could dismiss these guys as renegade extremists if their ideas weren’t so apparently widespread amongst the top percentile. But normally such “greed is good” rhetoric is kept confined to smoke-filled back rooms, secret society functions, and $1000-a-plate dinners, which begs the question: why the recent public displays of psychopathy and megalomania? Perhaps the rich believe that the war on the poor has already been won, as maintained by journalist and producer of The Wire, David Simon. If indeed the common folk have been successfully subjugated, then there is little to lose by offending them, since any insurrection can and will be quickly and violently suppressed, as happened with Occupy.

On the other hand there exists a more hopeful possibility, one suggested by the persecution complex of the 1 percent: they’re worried that their halcyon days are numbered, genuinely afraid of a sudden outbreak of equality. Only time will tell if we the people will, like citizens in so many countries throughout the world, rise again in defense of our most cherished ideals.

billet 100 dollars #1

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has famously remarked that for most people it’s easier to imagine the end of life on earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This might be especially true in America, where despite ample evidence of the antagonism between free markets and freedom, the two have become virtually synonymous in the popular psyche, and where both are frequently defended with a passion that Patrick Henry would admire.

Yet a growing number of people are realizing that economic liberty and death are indeed linked, but not in the way neoliberals imagine. To return to Zizek’s idea, capitalism and apocalypse go together in that the former could well cause the latter. Certainly much has already been said about the basic incompatibility between a system predicated on infinite growth and the finite resources of Earth, but capitalism has other, related design flaws that are already proving fatal, not only to various life forms but to the vitality of human communities as well. What follows is a list of capitalism’s seven deadliest sins (or capital vices), presented in reverse order.

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#7: AMORALITY
Although some economic actors do indeed behave immorally (while many strive to do good), the system as a whole frankly doesn’t give a damn. Its only “concern” is its own survival and growth, which always trumps the welfare of those living within its constraints. As a refutation of the claim that capitalism is the most efficient distributor of resources, consider that almost 50% of food is wasted in America, much of it by producers and vendors. Such waste is all the more egregious when witnessed by actual hungry people. As the linked article explains:

In a capitalist society, the motive behind the production of food is not to feed people, housing is not made to give them shelter, clothing is not made to keep them warm, and health care is not offered primarily to keep people healthy. All of these things, which are and should be viewed as basic rights, are nothing other than commodities—to be bought and sold—from which to make a profit. If a profit cannot be made, usually due to overproduction in relation to the market, the commodity is considered useless by the capitalist and destroyed.

By a similar logic, money better spent on the curing of serious diseases like malaria and HIV is often funneled into relatively trivial conditions like male baldness and erectile dysfunction that affect fewer people but generate greater revenue.

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#6: INTRINSIC INEQUALITY
Due largely to deadly defects in the monetary system (see #1 below), capitalism divides the world into haves and have-nots, inevitably concentrating wealth in the hands of the former—as we have seen in recent years and in the period preceding the Great Depression—until redistribution or revolution. Despite the rhetoric, a rising economic tide does not raise all boats; it only raises the yachts while the dinghies, deprived of bailouts, inevitably go under.

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#5: POVERTY
One of the most common arguments for global capitalism is that it helps alleviate poverty. Problem is, global poverty statistics are generated by the World Bank, an institution explicitly designed to promote globalization. Critics argue that (1) the numbers are usually skewed by one or two rapidly developing countries, (2) the definition of deep poverty as a wage of $1.25/day is set arbitrarily low in order to yield the desired stats, and (3) daily wages say nothing about access to potable water, adequate nutrition, healthcare, education, community, and other things that determine quality of life. Moreover, poverty rates mean little when economic disparity has increased so dramatically in recent decades.

Actually, a compelling argument can be made that global capitalism doesn’t alleviate poverty but causes poverty. After all, the aim of globalization is to expand markets by infiltrating “undeveloped” (read: self-sufficient) communities and dragging them into the money economy, thus creating new laborers and consumers. Could members of a gift-based, indigenous tribe really be called “poor”? Only by the logic of capitalism, which defines poverty as the inability to purchase one’s basic necessities (which might include designer clothing) from an outside party using fiat currency.

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# 4: EXTERNALIZATION
To externalize a cost is to pass it along to someone else, typically the general public and the environment. The most obvious example is pollution: when Company X dumps its toxic waste into a river, downstream communities pay with health problems and ecological degradation. Another example is given in the now-classic Story of Stuff when Annie Leonard talks about buying a $4.99 radio and realizing that the low price is only possible because of the many externalized costs and the people around the world who paid them.

The main purveyors of this capital vice are corporations, which function mainly by privatizing profits and publicizing costs. Indeed a corporation has been described as an “externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine (1),” each doing what they are designed to do. Externalization is legally enshrined in the limited liability corporation (LLC), which cleverly enables risk-taking and pathologically encourages irresponsibility.

A 2013 UN-sponsored study showed that if the world’s top industries were forced to absorb their own costs, none of them would make a profit.

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# 3: GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT
GDP is supposed to monitor economic wellbeing by tallying up all the goods and services exchanged within a given area and time frame. But GDP sinfully ignores what is being exchanged, such that war, natural disasters, accidents, disease, depression, and other negatives are counted as positives for GDP because they generate revenue, while life-affirming activities like volunteering and gifting are not counted at all. Furthermore, GDP ignores the distribution of wealth.

The bottom line is that a simple number says nothing about human happiness or ecological integrity. In fact, a rise in artificial wealth generally corresponds with a decline in natural wealth. As author Paul Hawken has said, “We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”

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# 2: PRIVATE PROPERTY
The Romans were the first to advance the legal concept of dominium, which was considered “the ultimate right, the right which had no right behind it, the right which legitimated all others, while itself having no need of legitimation… the right ‘of using, enjoying, and abusing’”(2) This dominator mindset prevailed throughout Europe and eventually infiltrated what is now America, where the ownership of land is still considered an unalienable and unquestioned right.

But to the native peoples of this continent who were so brutalized, land ownership was an absurd concept, for it suggested that a greater power (nature) could be owned by a lesser power (humans). In all parts of the world, indigenous groups have upheld reverence for nature and a respect for “the commons”—the air, water, and land that supports life and thus rightly belong to all living creatures.

By contrast, capitalism strives to privatize and profit from everything; not only land but water, slices of the electromagnetic spectrum, species, seeds, genes, songs, images, ideas, etc. This vice was summed up by the anarchist Proudhon, who said, “Property is theft.”

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# 1: USURY
If anything can be considered the root of all evil, it would have to be usury. The practice of lending money at interest is condemned by most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, although the Bible allows Jews to profit from foreigners as a way of “fighting without a sword.” The implication of violence is inherent in usury, which is basically the opposite of a gift.

In our modern economic system, institutional theft is the business of commercial banks and the (private) Fed, which have been empowered to conjure money into existence as interest-bearing debt. Since the money to repay all these loans (with interest) doesn’t exist, society is driven by a sense of competition and a mentality of scarcity. Worse yet, usury creates a demand for continuous economic growth (measured in GDP), without which the economy is subject to collapse.

As noted, such growth is obviously unsustainable and ultimately suicidal. Although we may be on the road to ruin, it’s never too late to change our wicked ways.

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(1) Robert Monk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._G._Monks)
(2) Avila (2004) Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, p. 20 (via Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics)

The Enchanted Cosmos

The human spirit can no longer survive in a disenchanted universe.

When we realign ourselves with the sun, moon, stars and planets, an inner world is revealed for us to evolve and grow together.

Archetypal astrology begins by inviting the cosmic unconscious into human consciousness. From there, the healing journey begins.

Help plant the seeds of a movement to reclaim our place in the cosmos.

CAMP COSMICOPIA

From August 26 to September 2, 2013, tens of thousands of freedom loving pilgrims will descend upon the arid Pleistocene lake beds of central Nevada to build and live in Black Rock City, intergalactic portal and home of the annual Burning Man festival.

Planting itself along the city’s dusty, spiraling street of John Frum at 7:15, CAMP COSMICOPIA is a vibrant community of half-a-hundred deep souls dedicated to archetypal cosmology, integral philosophy, and the holistic healing arts. Since 2010, Cosmicopia has offered its gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and healing to the citizens of Black Rock City. Consultations with our camp’s astrologers have catalyzed profound moments of self-discovery for past visitors, revealing the correlations between the inner and outer events of their personal lives and the larger patterns of cosmic evolution.

Camp Cosmicopia intends to continue its mission at this year’s Burning Man festival. Through archetypal astrological readings, intellectually titillating lectures, and embodied participatory workshops, we will provide a powerful portal for those in Black Rock City who are seeking a deeper understanding of their psyche’s place in the cosmos.

New to Camp Cosmicopia this year are two exciting initiatives. The Cosmic Confession Booth will provide Burners a much-needed respite for reflection, allowing them to take a moment away from the delightful chaos of the city to collect their thoughts and emotions. Visitors will be invited to open up and share their own journeys face-to-face with a video-camera-shaped cosmic mirror. By inviting citizens of Black Rock City to share their playa stories in private, the Cosmic Confession Booth promotes healing of the psycho-social wounds alienating us from one another and from the larger patterns of meaning informing the universe.

The Enchanted Cosmos is a short documentary film that will follow several new members of Camp Cosmicopia. All of them will also be attending Burning Man for the first time, and all have little if any experience with archetypal cosmology. The film will follow their progress before, during and after the Burn, and reveal the transformative potential of both Black Rock City and an initiation into the music of the spheres. Combined with footage from the Cosmic Confession Booth and original animation, The Enchanted Cosmos will be a visionary exploration into the cosmological ground of the human soul and a powerful invocation of the healing that results from a reunion with the sacred universe.

We invite you to share this journey with us by contributing to our fundraising goal. With your help, Camp Cosmicopia will unfold into its largest, grandest and most transformative incarnation yet! Funds will also be used to maximize the production values of The Enchanted Cosmos. We can’t do it without YOU!

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-camp-cosmicopia-and-a-short-film-the-enchanted-cosmos

The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness

pursuit
It’s hard to imagine a single phrase that has had a more profound impact on human civilization than the one enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” The exercise of this unalienable right has served as a primary driving force of the entire American enterprise, which in turn has dramatically reshaped the rest of the world, both physically and psychologically. Through globalization, an ever-growing percentage of humanity is joining the chase, which might be a good thing if not for a few deep and related flaws in the Founding Fathers’ famous phrase.

The most obvious and dire problem is the widespread conflation of happiness with material gain, which can be traced back to the Founding Fathers themselves. However noble their intentions, they were constrained by Enlightenment values and blinded by their own privilege as wealthy landowners, and in some cases slaveholders. To be fair, they borrowed the phrase in question from the English philosopher John Locke, whose shortlist of unalienable rights included “Life liberty, and estate,” meaning property.

Another portion of the blame can be assigned to Calvinism, a Protestant denomination that has had—and continues to have—an enormous influence on American culture. In a near total inversion of traditional Christian morality, Calvinists regard wealth as a sign of piety and a mark of God’s grace, whereas poverty and rebelliousness indicate an individual who is hopelessly hell-bound.

Apart form these historical influences on the USA’s MO, there’s an important psychological reason why the pursuit of happiness remains married to material gain: we’re all constantly besieged by ads telling us that fulfillment lies in the acquisition of a certain product and the achievement of a certain lifestyle, and we have been since childhood. In fact, in recent years the advertising industry has been targeting ever-younger children, including toddlers, in a ruthless and highly effective campaign to instill consumerism in kids.

Of course, we’re also taught that money can’t buy happiness, but we refuse to believe it despite personal experience. Additionally, the old adage has received new support from scientific studies, such as one by economist Richard Layard showing that once people’s basic needs are met, greater income provides them no additional happiness, and in fact makes them more prone to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The magic number, the salary at which happiness peaks, is about $20,000 per year.

(If your inner voice screams, “I can’t live on that!” then consider that half of humanity lives on $900/year, while one quarter squeaks by on $450/year. According to a recent Daily Mail article, the global average salary is $1225/year, and a salary of $32,000 puts you in the global 1 percent. And yes, these numbers are adjusted for purchasing power, so there’s no arguing about how much 32K would buy in Bangladesh.)

So if 20K is the optimum annual salary (actually, it’s far less, all things considered), then why do we continuously clamor for more? The simple truth is that once someone achieves a certain standard of living, she becomes attached to it and can’t imagine living with less. Former extravagances become necessities, and the pursuit becomes a vicious, unending cycle. In general, we underestimate the addictive nature of money and possessions, forever imagining that we’d be happy with just a little more.

Finally we come to the biggest bug in the operating system, a flaw so glaring that we generally fail to see it: happiness cannot be pursued. Clearly it cannot be found in some external object or future situation, in some other place and time. It can only arise here and now, and only when allowed to do so. This is because happiness is actually our default setting, our natural state, which gets obscured by the desire for more. In other words, happiness is prevented by pursuit, in the same way that a forgotten name or number won’t usually come to mind until you stop thinking about it.

The poet Guillaume Appollinaire put it succinctly: “Sometimes it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”

As it turns out, happiness is not a product but a practice. It abides in the heart, a muscle that can be exercised through the cultivation of everyday contentment, gratitude, and generosity, which arise whenever the craving for more is relinquished. Indeed happiness comes not from having but from giving, and is borne from a deep understanding of human interconnection. Had the Founding Fathers understood this more deeply, they could have issued a Declaration of Interdependence based on life, liberty, and love, thereby saving everyone a lot of trouble.

Wisdom 2.0 and the Protection of the Spiritual Commons

NOTE: The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich around 3/23/13. Although appearing on this blog after the related article entitled “Speaking Truth to Power,” this article was written first.
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Over the last weekend in February, executives from tech companies like Google, Cisco, Zynga, and Twitter shared a stage in Silicon Valley with spiritual luminaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Marianne Williamson, and Joan Halifax for the fourth annual Wisdom 2.0 conference. In presentations, interviews, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, the role of spirituality in business and society was explored from every angle—almost. One question that hung heavily in the ether above the privileged participants was this: Is Wisdom 2.0 really an upgrade?

Lacking $275 for admission, I watched the conference online. Not the whole thing of course, but enough to hear almost every New Age buzzword rendered nearly meaningless through repetition. Speeches on mindful management, conscious leadership, and wisdom in the workplace were all delivered with a warm glow of self-satisfaction. Yet few speakers seemed conscious of the obscenely affluent elephant in the room.

The notable exception was the best-selling author Marianne Williamson, who pointed at the pachyderm several times during the conference. On the final afternoon, her gentleness gave way to a fierce compassion that inspired her to drop this show-stealing zinger:

“Let me tell you something ladies and gentlemen: no spiritual leader person is going to come here and be a dancing monkey to help a bunch of rich capitalists talk about the fact that they can have a more compassionate workplace and meditation rooms while not dealing with the moral calling and the moral invitation of our species to deal with the fact that we have so much and so many have so little…

Only in modern America could we come up with some ersatz version of spirituality that gives us a pass on addressing the unnecessary human suffering in our midst.”

Bravo! Finally, a piece of real wisdom—good, old-fashioned Wisdom 1.0—designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The basic point of Marianne’s brave and brilliant speech (see below) was that mindfulness is all well and good, but that wisdom and compassion mean nothing if not extended beyond the cozy confines of Silicon Valley to the entire Earth community. On an even deeper, unspoken level, she was saying, “Sorry techies, but you cannot use the word ‘wisdom’ unless you really mean it, unless you actually live it.” With a flash of Manjusri’s sword, she drew a line in the sand.

As Marianne demonstrated, real wisdom requires asking the most challenging and probing questions, the ones that disarm the ego and cut to the heart of the matter. As a co-defender of this brand of wisdom, I feel called to pick up the sword and ask the question that has kept occurring to me:

Is wisdom even compatible with capitalism?

Almost all spiritual traditions stress the central importance of generosity. In Buddhism, for example, dana is considered the highest of the ten paramitas or spiritual virtues. By contrast, capitalism is based not on giving but on taking. Starting with the premise that humans are fundamentally selfish, it presupposes that every individual is out to maximize self-interest, which means getting something for nothing if possible. Such is the basis of usury, through which all money is brought into being. It is also the basis of private property, a relatively recent legal creation that grants an individual or corporate “person” the right to own, exploit, and profit from a piece of Nature that rightfully belongs to every living creature.

In general, capitalism operates by stealing from the commons, by appropriating something from the non-monetized realm and dragging it into the marketplace. Such appropriation and commodification happens constantly, often in the most insidious and unconscious ways. It can even happen right in front of hundreds of extremely smart and well-intentioned people in northern California.

Granted, the tech industry represents an emerging form of capitalism based largely upon intellectual property, which is surely less extractive than the manufacturing and shipping of computers and other hardware and the maintenance of servers. Yet even new ideas are based on older ones, begging the question of whether truly original ideas exist, and if so, how much are they worth? Before the advent of capitalism, common wisdom suggested that any idea was valuable to the extent that it benefitted one’s community. Personal gain was not an issue.

These days, our community is the whole world—a world of rising temperatures, declining natural systems, disappearing species, and an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. The stakes are high, as are the moral standards to which influential people ought be held. Like everyone at Wisdom 2.0, I believe that that the intersection of spirituality and technology holds enormous potential for profound social change. I can only hope that the brightest minds of our day will be inspired by genuine wisdom to create not just a kinder business model but a more just and compassionate world, one that works not only for the privileged few, but for all. Should we succeed at making this monumental transition, we could even call it “Civilization 2.0.”

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If you don’t know the author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson by name, you may have seen her most famous quotation posted on an office bulletin board or refrigerator door. Taken from her best-selling book A Return to Love, the passage begins: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …. Your playing small does not serve the world…”

Marianne herself is not one to play small. Despite her petite build, she’s a dynamic speaker who frequently commands the attention of large audiences around the world. Unlike some rock star gurus, she’s not afraid to mix spirituality with politics and display her vibrant liberal plumage in her ongoing crusade to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed it was this well-known phrase that Marianne invoked at Wisdom 2.0 this year as she schooled participants about true wisdom and global responsibility in a show-stealing speech that included her refusal to be a “dancing monkey for a bunch of rich capitalists,” a line that quickly turned my longstanding indifference to deep respect. Inspired to look into Marianne’s life and work, I learned that her fierceness is even more apparent offstage, at least to those who describe her as harsh, demanding, and controlling, a reputation that she seems keen to perpetuate by calling herself “the bitch of God.”

Thus I was a bit nervous as I queued up to question Marianne in front of hundreds of faithful fans packing the pews at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco. It was here that the public programs department of my alma mater, the California Institute of Integral Studies, had booked Marianne to speak, with a specific request that she put her progressive foot forward. She was even presented with a title: “Speaking Truth to Power: A Spirituality That Inspires Social Change,” to which she did justice by preaching passionately on poverty, civil and human rights, feminism, the Occupy movement, corporate corruption, and the addictive nature of American culture, among other things.

Her speech was quite inspiring, actually. Yet she failed to address a question that has been on my mind for quite awhile, namely: How to cultivate an attitude of abundance, universal love, and generosity while living under the soul-crushing heel an economic system predicated on scarcity, competition, and exploitation? I believe that individual awakening is impossible without cultural awakening, which is impossible without a radical restructuring of our systems of finance and governance to more accurately reflect the interconnected nature of reality. Surely many spiritual leaders would agree, yet none that I know—except the Dalai Lama, who calls himself a socialist—have dared to directly challenge the status quo, perhaps reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. In fact many of them continue peddling the old “law of attraction” snake oil that keeps people focused on personal gain rather than collective transformation.

Marianne Williamson is no exception. Her latest book, The Law of Divine Compensation, is essentially a rewrite of The Secret, itself a mash-up of dozens of “think and grow rich” books that had come before. Since Marianne’s new book was handed out to all attendees, I had a chance to skim through it before her appearance, hoping to find some truly radical gem buried within. Finding nothing of the sort, I decided to compassionately call her out, and immediately started scribbling my thoughts on the book’s back page, for reference in case of brain freeze. This would prove to be a mistake.

I was the last questioner in the queue. Book in hand and butterflies in stomach, I stepped up to the mic and said something like this:

“First of all, thank you for your talk, and for bringing such fire into the otherwise watery realm of spirituality. I especially want to thank you for bringing up the addiction piece, which I find to be totally spot on. But I don’t think we can talk about addiction without talking about our economic system, which is based on addiction, on the endless drive for more and more. And we can’t really talk about abundance without addressing an economic system that is based on scarcity, and that forces us into competition with one another, no matter how loving we’d like to be. This is the conversation I’d like to see happening in our public spaces. It’s the elephant in the room; it’s the third rail…nobody wants to talk about it. So my hope, my prayer, is that people with spiritual authority and wisdom like you will start to discuss our economic system and its fatal flaws, to at least get the conversation started.”

I can’t remember if anyone clapped, but I was pleased with myself for speaking truth to spiritual power—in a relatively calm and coherent manner even. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been more explicit by uttering if not emphasizing the unspeakable C-word—capitalism—but I didn’t want to sound like a myopic Marxist when the problem as I see it runs deeper and wider, to the monetary system itself and the outdated assumptions upon which it rests. At any rate, my basic point was unequivocal enough. Or so I thought.

My pride quickly turned to dismay as Marianne artfully dodged—no, completely subverted—my subtly subversive question, turning it into a pitch for the little blue book I happened to be carrying. She even joked about me being planted by her publisher so that she could finally get down to business and share with us the keys to wealth and prosperity that she had learned on her journey to New Age notoriety.
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Apparently, in the world of pop spirituality no less than business, it helps to be an egomaniac. I later learned that Marianne lived up to her reputation that night, bossing and berating her backstage point people to the brink of tears. The experience served as a powerful reminder that spiritual celebrities like Marianne, Deepak Chopra, and Wayne Dyer are—first and foremost perhaps—expert entertainers. This is not to say that their books and lectures are devoid of powerful truths and potentially transformative ideas, but that behind the wise words lie beautifully flawed humans seeking power, recognition, and yes, even money. Another, more cynical notion is that our teachers, like all of us, often behave more like monkeys, dancing for a bunch of rich capitalists to a tune that nobody can even imagine ending.

This article was originally published on Reality Sandwich in mid_January of 2013.

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On New Years Eve of 1999, artist Daniel Northcott and his friend scaled The Lions, an iconic pair of peaks that rise some 5400 feet above Vancouver, BC. As the first sunrise of the third millennium brightened the sky over Daniel’s beloved hometown, the twenty year old could see with prophetic clarity what he wanted to do with the third decade of his life: he would travel the world with a video camera and the intention to weave a story of global unity, cosmic interconnection, and wonder. Along with video footage, he would collect stones, pottery shards, and other relics that reflected what he called “orbicularity,” his unique cosmology based upon circles within circles.

Daniel’s wanderlust had recently been ignited by his first trip abroad. JAfter defiantly leaving high school just one month before graduation, he had spent a semester teaching English in Taiwan with his older sister Erin, an experience that had drawn the siblings closer than they had been in years. Despite differences, Dan and Erin—son and daughter of Canadian folk singer Tom Northcott—shared a love of music, learning, and travel, along with a profound trust in each other that would prove to be fateful.

Of the two, Dan had always been the dreamer. His mother remembers him as a gifted “star child” with an insatiable curiosity and a deep connection to the natural world that compelled him to roam barefoot through the forests and meadows surrounding his rural childhood home. Even when his Y2K epiphany took him further afield to Egypt, Cambodia, Guatemala, Japan, and dozens of other countries, the self-described “tragic romantic nomad and existential documentarian” preferred to walk with the damp earth beneath his feet and the warm sand between his toes. His greatest wish was to reconnect all of humanity with the Earth, and to expose the half-hidden patterns that permeate the universe and bind everything together.

So intense was Daniel’s fascination with symbolic forms that it led him to tempt fate and provoke the gods. After seven years of traveling and filming, Dan found himself on the Yucatan peninsula, in an ancient Mayan burial cave, amidst the remains of women and children who had been killed in ritual sacrifice. “Those bones are charged with bad vibes,” his friend warned. “People who have taken these bones home…have gotten sick.” Unfortunately, Dan had already become captivated by a small, calcified sphere that represented his orbicular worldview. He couldn’t resist the urge to drop the bone into his pocket, surreptitiously.
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It would be the last souvenir Daniel would collect. Months after returning from Mexico, he was diagnosed with leukemia—cancer of the bone marrow—and given three to six months to live. During that time his body grew weaker, but his spirit remained strong, as did his will to live and to find and return the bone on his way to finishing his epic film. With characteristic openness and bravery, Dan documented in raw detail his struggle with mortality. His hope for recovery lasted until the end, which came on the summer solstice of 2009, eleven months after his diagnosis and six months before his 30th birthday. As per his request, he was given a green burial, wrapped in a simple cotton shroud.

In his will, Daniel bequeathed over 1000 hours worth of unedited film footage to his sister, along with a request to finish his as-yet-untitled opus. Despite assurances from Dan that her intuition would direct her, Erin was so overwhelmed that nearly three years passed before she felt ready to take on the project. When she did, however, the pieces began to fall magically into place. Through a producer friend in Los Angeles, Erin connected with Ojai-based Elevate Studios, whose founder Mikki Willis was moved to tears by what he saw and learned about Dan and his vision. Soon thereafter came the title, which had been hidden in plain sight at the end of Dan’s final film sketch and woven throughout his life: Be Brave.

It was a message that Erin herself needed to hear. In another synchronicity of the time, she found the mysterious bone that may have ended Dan’s mission and life. Instead of destroying it in turn, however, the family decided to honor Dan’s desire to return the bone to its initial resting place. Shortly after the long-awaited winter solstice of 2012, Erin left Vancouver for the land of the ancient Maya with a small film crew and a deep desire to finish what her beloved brother had started.

The rest of the story remains unwritten.

Before his passing, Dan predicted that “a bunch of allies would come together to complete his film.” Perhaps he foresaw the talented Elevate team, or maybe he imagined hundreds of like-minded people from all over the world. The project is now being crowd-funded through Indiegogo, where Erin and her family hope to raise $183,000 to edit and market the film. If you feel moved by Dan’s story and inspired by his message, please consider contributing to the campaign to turn the late filmmaker’s dream into a reality.

“The film I want to make in the future will speak every language, cross every country, all of time, and make the journey personal to anyone who watches it. Please help me… Join me and learn what you already know, once and for all. We are the same. We share the same origin. The same apparatus… flesh, bones, blood.”

Postscipt: The indiegogo campaign was successful in raising the required funds. The Elevate team is now working on the film with hopes to complete it by the end of 2013. Stay tuned!

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