Books

This Is America: One Nation “Under God”

Currently reading: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.

I recently finished Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. In this work, Fanon examines the psychological effects of racism and colonialism on the Black psyche and traces their roots through observation of our media and psychoanalysis. My takeaway from Fanon is that racism continues to be a cancer that the United States refuses to treat. We see its ugly manifestations in our current immigration policy and even the way we treat successful people of color like Serena Williams.

Fanon argues that, “All forms of exploitation are alike. They all seek to justify their existence by citing some biblical decree.” (69) The notion of biblical justification has precedence in our past as well as our present. Nazi Germany, South Africa during apartheid, and the United States back then and now have the following in common: they all utilized the Bible to justify their systems of subjugation. The United States cherry-picked Bible verses to justify enslaving Black people. Nazi Germany and South Africa during apartheid both quoted Romans 13. The first verse reads, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” In other words, do not question or challenge authority. When you pick a fight with authority, you pick a fight with God Himself. You know who else quoted this verse to justify atrocities? Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

When announcing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy, Jeff Sessions evoked Romans 13: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” [1] Sessions is using this verse to legitimize separating families and putting them in facilities (see also: internment camps). Immigrant families are being exploited for political gain because Trump’s base is anti-immigration. The zero tolerance policy is a racist policy because these families are not white. I don’t see Trump promoting stereotypes when mentioning European immigrants. Immigrants are not the only group subject to prejudice and racism. We can see mistreatment on the basis of color in the recent case of Serena Williams with the Anti-Doping Agency.

Serena Williams is a seven-time tennis champion. She has also been tested for performance-enhancing drugs “five times this year by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.” [2] This is more than double her fellow women players. Why is that? We can find our answer in the way our society’s collective unconscious[3] views Black people as criminals. In the case of Serena Williams, this is criminality in the world of professional sports. Fanon encapsulates our country’s collective unconscious when he says, “Sin is black as virtue is white.” (118) This mental association of Black with wrongdoing is why people of color are disproportionately stopped by police, arrested and locked away by police, and shot by police. This prejudice of the Black person as criminal is also why Serena Williams is being disproportionately tested. Some may argue not everything is about race, but ask yourself this: Why only Serena Williams? What is even more damning is that the USADA has found no suspicion of doping on Serena’s part. This goes beyond viewing her as capable of cheating because of her being Black; now this looks like simple harassment because she is black. The fact that Serena has been the victim of racist and sexists remarks by members of the tennis world only bolsters the view that Serena is being disproportionately scrutinized because she is Black and a woman. The situation of Serena Williams teaches us that a Black woman can be accomplished and successful through hard work and still be subject to harassment because of the color of her skin.

After cataloging the various forms of our country’s racism, what is the solution? The Four Noble Truths contain an important step our country needs to take. In order to transform suffering into joy, the first step is acknowledgment of suffering’s existence. Before our country can take the necessary steps to heal, the injury needs to be identified, but the denial is strong. People of color are consistently told to get over it. Racism is in the past. Color doesn’t exist. Really? The children of immigrant families and successful people of color who are treated like criminals share the following in common: they are not white. But remember, folks: color doesn’t exist.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/06/16/jeff-sessions-bible-romans-13-trump-immigration-policy/707749002/

[2] https://www.npr.org/2018/07/03/625746829/deadspin-serena-williams-is-one-of-the-most-drug-tested-tennis-players

[3] And by collective unconscious, I refer to Fanon’s redefinition which argues the collective unconscious is the “repository of prejudices, myths, and collective attitudes of a particular group.” (165)

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Books

Octavia’s Talents: A Parable for Modern Times

Currently reading: Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.

The Parable of the Talents is the second part of Octavia Butler’s Parable series. The story takes place in a United States ravaged by climate change, a widening wage gap, and drug abuse. Butler paints a world that is futuristic yet so familiar to us in the present, making it a must-read especially for current times. For starters, the president in the Parable of the Talents, Andrew Steele Jarret, is Donald Trump with a different name because of the rhetoric he employs and his inability to hold his followers accountable for the wrongdoings they commit. Also, the administration in the novel has no respect for the law in the same way that our president’s administration has no respect for the law.

Let’s begin with Andrew Steel Jarret. The novel introduces the character when he is running for president. Jarret says the following during his campaign: “Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us make America great again.” (20) Sound familiar? What makes this line disturbing in 2018 is the fact that this novel was published in 1998, yet Butler’s world is disturbingly familiar. Butler was ahead of her time for creating the “Make America great” line that serves as the slogan of our president (unfortunately) Donald Trump. Jarret is not only similar to Trump because of those words. Like Trump, Jarret does not hold his supporters accountable when they engage in wrongdoing.

Jarret’s supporters engage in heinous acts in the name of Christianity. Before Jarret wins the election, they began to “form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches.” Instead of telling his people to stop, Jarret decides to use “such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.” (19) This inability to hold followers accountable bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump’s inaction during the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. When a bunch of white supremacists decided to stage a racist rally, an action that resulted in one death by a vehicle-ramming attack and over thirty injuries, instead of coming out definitively against ignorance and racism, Trump argued there was violence on “both sides”. Like Jarret, Trump cannot hold his supporters to the mark and allows them to run amok, yet another testament to Octavia Butler’s accurate vision of the direction our country is heading. Another area where Jarret and Trump turn a blind eye is to the law.

Under the Jarret administration, slavery makes a comeback. His supporters, calling themselves the Crusaders, start to enslave the poor population. Despite the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery, no effort is made on the part of the Jarret administration to put a stop to this heinous institution. This disregard for our laws bears a striking resemblance to something recent our president said. Yesterday, our president said in a tweet, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” This move would violate Due Process, a right that is guaranteed not only to US citizens but to those who may have entered the country illegally. This similarity proves chilling because, like Jarret, Trump completely disregards what the law says. Atrocities begin when we flout laws designed to protect the people. Jarret serves as a warning of where this disregard can lead us if we as a people allow it to happen.

I am halfway through the novel. I do not know if things will get better in Butler’s vision of the United States, but I am not optimistic. This novel is not a light read, but it is a must-read for the times that we are living in. The similarities are startling and serve as a reminder of the direction we may be heading in if we do not exercise caution.

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Buddhism

“There Is a Fire in Me, a Fire That Burns…”

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

I want to cultivate the practice of Right Speech. In Buddhism, Right Speech is defined as speech crafted to uplift people. Right Speech is grounded in truth. Right Speech aims to alleviate the suffering of others. The two obstacles in my path toward Right Speech are my temper and my tendency to be opinionated to the point of being inconsiderate.

I am a true Aries. Being a fire sign, Aries are renowned for their fiery temper. If you want to see me pissed off, take my kindness for weakness. When I feel slighted or taken for a fool, my temper flares up. Depending on the severity of the insult, I may intersperse my speech with expletives. Before the flare-up occurs, I need to remember to embrace my anger and nurture it to maintain my calm. My anger will always be there, but it does not need to control me and devour everything in its path. I plan to employ meditation and breathing exercises to water the seeds of compassion and understanding. Besides my anger, I also need to moderate my tongue.

I can be very opinionated when conversing with people. When expressing my thoughts, sometimes I lose sight of the person I am talking to. It is important to know your audience. My downfall is sometimes I become engrossed when I dissect an issue. The gears start turning in my head and refuses to stop until I analyze a topic from multiple angles. It isn’t wrong to analyze an issue, but it is important to remember your audience and consider how that person will feel at the end of the conversation. I am not advocating not expressing yourself; I am advocating sensitivity. Your opinion should not result in another person’s suffering. I have contributed to people’s suffering inadvertently, and words cannot express my remorse. If I could redo certain conversations I had with the people I hurt, I would do so in a heartbeat.

In order to succeed in cultivating Right Speech, the first step is to confront my anger. The fire will always reside in my chest, and I have learned to accept that. The key is to accept it, embrace it, and practice mindfulness through yoga and meditation in order to manage my anger. The next step is to tailor my words to my audience. I want to uplift and contribute to the happiness of the people around me, not add to anyone’s suffering. There will always be a fire in me. That doesn’t mean that the people I care about need to get burned by it.

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Buddhism

Woodstock

To celebrate the end of my twenties, I spent the past weekend in Woodstock, NY. Besides being the site of the legendary music festival of the 60’s, Woodstock has a lot going on for people seeking a bite to eat or a little bit of culture such as a trip to an art gallery or a poetry reading. I particularly enjoyed the closeness of the town’s major businesses as well as the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Tibetan Monastery, or KTD for short.

The first thing that stuck out to me about Woodstock is how a lot of its major businesses lie in proximity to each other. The town has bookshops, vegan / vegetarian friendly restaurants, art galleries, museums, monuments, a yoga studio, etc. There is not a lack of something to do, and the fact that they are within walking distance means not having to take a cab, public transportation, or any other roundabout way to get around. I spent the first day getting the lay of the land and popping into the occasional business. I felt so relaxed because I did not have to deal with waiting for a train, the train stopping en route because of train traffic ahead, being squished against random people on a crowded train, etc. Everything was easygoing. The only time I had to use a cab was to visit one of the main stars of the vacation: the KTD monastery.

Situated in the Catskill Mountains, this Tibetan monastery has a natural and calming vibe about it. The moment you enter the building, a sense of peace envelopes you. You’re surrounded by nature instead of people in a rush, traffic, noise, etc. I had the pleasure of listening to one of the prayer services led by the Gyalwang Karmapa, the leader of the Karma Kagyu, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Though I did not understand his words, his prayer recitation washed over me like a wave, introducing a calm that I don’t get to experience in the city renowned for not sleeping. After the prayer, the monastery hosted a delicious meal for the monks and the laypeople. It was delightful to sit back and enjoy a quiet meal, surrounded by nature and smiling faces. The overall experience in the monastery was transformative despite the language barrier. I definitely want to come back in the future for one of their retreats.

I could not ask for a better way to conclude my twenties. I felt at home in a town where I could go to a restaurant without worrying about whether or not I could find something I can eat. I had the pleasure of visiting a Buddhist temple and experiencing a traditional prayer ceremony. Woodstock is definitely a town I would visit again.

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Buddhism

Twenty Eighteen

My goal for 2018 is to enhance my Buddhist practice. Sometimes I am my worst critic. I hear a voice in my mind from time to time, chastising myself for not being a real Buddhist. I hardly meditate. The lack of meditation makes me easy to upset or fluster when things go wrong, causing me to sometimes fly off the handle and lapse into Wrong Speech. These setbacks lead me down the path of self-doubt. I plan to fight this self-flagellating voice through action. The next step is how do I plan to go deeper into my practice. The answer is two-fold: scriptures and meditation.

Scriptures will prove to be a challenge because, well, scriptures. Scriptures are not known for being riveting reads. I tried in the past to read scriptures from the Pali Canon (i.e., the first known set of early Buddhist scriptures), but I fell off quickly. The reason for this is my approach. I try to digest a sutra I am tackling all in one day. Buddhist scriptures have characteristics that make reading a sutra all at once difficult: length, repetition, and extensive footnotes. All of these features together make it easy to nod off. To remedy this, I plan to take it slow. If I find that my brain is too full, I have reached my limit and need to take a break. The approach of reading a sutra all at once is like cramming the night of the exam: it is not an effective means of learning in the long term. If I want to carry the wisdom of the scriptures with me, this will require a slower approach to retain the meaning of the teachings. Without retention of what I am reading, I will not have anything to put into practice.

Speaking of practice, I need to make meditation a part of my everyday routine. Because of the nature of my job (i.e., clerk in the medical field), I get bombarded from every possible angle on a daily basis. Some doctors can be rude when you are making their jobs easier. Some parents think they can talk to you like you are their child. The hospital administration adds processes to an already extensive workflow when the patients are many and the staffing is spread thin. All of these stressors add up to increase one’s blood pressure, make one jaded and frustrated, and can lead to unfortunate outbursts of Wrong Speech. This is why the breath is so important. When I attend my yoga classes and open up a session with breathing exercises, I feel a peace afterwards. This is the peace I need to take with me especially with so many stressors aiming to piss me off. If I have this peace, I can approach difficult situations with calm, lowering the chances of composure giving way to anger.

I already started reading the Digha Nikaya, the first collection of the Pali Canon. I did power through sutra 2 a little too fast. Today I plan to start sutra 3 with ease. If I finish it today, that’s great. If I need to pause, I will play a video game, escape into a work of fiction, or listen to music for diversion. I also recently purchased a set of rosewood beads. Tonight, I plan to close the day with some ambient music and counting breaths. I will enhance my practice; I just need to put one foot in front of the other.

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Books

How Not to Disagree in 2017

On December 17th, 2017, Dr. Cornel West published a scathing critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Guardian after the release of Coates’s book We Were Eight Years in Power. West accuses Coates of being soft on Barack Obama’s presidency and silent on his serious flaws. The feud exploded on Twitter and eventually led to Coates deleting his Twitter account after white supremacist Richard Spencer also joined the fray by stating West was right. West’s criticism mischaracterizes Coates’s arguments in such a way that I question if we read the same book. Dr. West inaccurately describes what the book is, claims Coates fetishizes white supremacy when he analyzes systemic racism with the purpose of moving away from it, and inaccurately describes Coates as silent on Barack Obama’s flawed presidency when the evidence from the text proves otherwise.

In the beginning of the Guardian article, West describes We Were Eight Years in Power as “a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy”. Wrong. It is a collection of essays that touch on a number of different topics such as the differing histories taught about the Civil War, Michelle Obama’s background, mass incarceration, the way real estate hurt the black community, etc. You do not have to read the book to get this idea; you can take a gander at the table of contents. While three of the eight essays directly talk about Obama, the other essays bear titles such as “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” etc. These titles reveal that the book is not solely about Barack Obama and white supremacy; they demonstrate that the book talks about a whole host of issues that affect the black community. Cornel West quotes from the book as if he read it, but from the very beginning he fails to accurately describe what this book in fact is.

West also makes the claim that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy”. Fetishizing implies devotion or reverence. Coates discussing white supremacy has nothing to do with either. Coates dissects white supremacy and expands upon its prevalence because the purpose of examining white supremacy is to confront and move past it. To say that Coates is “fetishizing white supremacy” is missing the point. Coates traces the history of systemic racism to force us to come to grips with our nation’s dark past because this is a requirement for redemption. In the essay “The Case for Reparations,” he explains, “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” (207) Racism is a persistent and systemic problem in our country. Coates states that the remedy is coming to grips with the fact that we have a problem. The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that it is there. West’s dismissal fails to recognize the goal of examining history: to avoid repeating it. West does not only misrepresent Coates’s examination of white supremacy; he also mislabels Coates as an Obama fanboy. The book shows that Coates is measured while critical of Obama’s shortcomings.

Cornel West disagrees with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument that the Obama presidency is an example of “Good Negro Government”. During an interview with The Root, West explains, “I don’t view Good Negro Government as policies that don’t highlight poor people, that have drone strikes, that’s tied to Wall Street, that reinforces surveillance. That is not good government for me.” On this point, I do agree. I too do not view a government that is complicit in mass murder and other heinous forms of injustice as good government. I disagree with West’s assessment on the Guardian piece that Coates’s views on race and politics “has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty.” This statement ignores the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates likes Obama, but liking him does not mean he is incapable of criticizing the former president.

Coates supports what Obama represents, but he is critical of his missteps and horrible decisions. West claims that Coates is silent on the crimes of the US, but Coates explains in the essay “Fear of a Black President” that he was “horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints.” (140) This line contradicts West’s charge that Coates is quiet on the crimes of the United States. West’s condemnation bothers me as someone who believes in the Buddhist concept of Right Speech, which consists of not “speaking with a forked tongue” (i.e., lying). I am not arguing that Cornel West is intentionally lying, but he is making claims that the evidence reveals is not true. Stating something that is blatantly not true is a falsehood whether it’s intentional or not. This misrepresentation also extends to Coates’s view on Barack Obama’s presidency.

West paints Coates as quiet on Obama’s mistakes, but what the book describes is an internal conflict within Coates. On the one hand, Coates admires what the Obama presidency symbolized: “The Obama family represents our ideal imaginings of ourselves — an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage (127). On the other hand, Coates experiences difficulty reconciling Obama’s great achievements with his shortcomings. When it comes to the issue of race in our country, he saw Barack Obama as “playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy—and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to ‘make bad choices.’” (299) This quote serves as an acknowledgment that the former president did not do as much for the black community as he would have liked. Obama instead decided to enact policies that favored all Americans, which does not address a system that is stacked against minorities when you factor in mass incarceration, police brutality, gentrification, redlining, etc. Coates does not fail to point out when Obama falls short of his expectations.

Coates also did not agree with Obama’s optimism with regard to where the country was on race during the former president’s two terms: “Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.” (324) This line demonstrates Coates, despite liking Obama, harbored serious disagreements he is willing to express. Coates feels white supremacy was the foundation for our democracy and continues to operate in more subtle forms, but Obama still held onto hope for the best in people, a hope that proved too optimistic when you take into account the racism he dealt with during his two terms and that same racism becoming more emboldened with the election of Donald Trump. To categorize Coates as an Obama fanboy is misleading. Coates is a fan of Obama who is willing to admit when his president messed up.

The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as a sobering lesson on how not to express disagreement. Dr. West definitely did not deeply read Coates because he managed to say numerous things about his thesis that are proven false upon further study. When you don’t agree, it is important to disagree in a way that encourages a healthy exchange of ideas. I would advise staying away from the word fetishizing and linking it with something heinous, especially when the person with whom you disagree is against that something heinous. At the same time, it is important to not walk away from a debate. I hope Ta-Nehisi Coates returns to social media. There are plenty of people who are on his side and support him. I count myself as one of them. I am also on Cornel West’s side because he brings up issues that we need to discuss, but this discussion needs to be done to unite and share ideas, not tear each other apart.

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Books

Hermione Granger and the Struggle for Social Justice

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hermione Granger becomes an activist for house-elves. She observes how Winky the house-elf is treated roughly and immediately dismissed by her owner Bartemius Crouch for a crime she did not commit. This injustice leads Hermione to take up the fight for racial equality in the wizarding world, but J.K. Rowling does more than teach young audiences to take a stand when you see something wrong going on in your community. She teaches us that the fight for social justice is an uphill struggle that does not lead to immediate change. Hermione learns this lesson when she meets resistance in the form of the status quo with regard to the role of house elves and the fact that house-elves do not feel their oppression.

When Hermione hears that Hogwarts employs house-elves without pay or benefits, she launches a grassroots campaign to promote change. She creates the organization S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). The aim of this society is to “secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions.” (225) Hermione attempts to rally students to create reform in the school, but she is told every time that she is on the wrong side of the issue. When Hermione explains how house-elf enslavement in the wizarding world goes back centuries, Ron Weasley responds, “Hermione — open your ears. They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!” (224) Even Hagrid, known for his love for magical creatures, explains, “I’m not sayin’ there isn’t the odd elf who’d take freedom, but yeh’ll never persuade most of ‘em ter do it — no, nothin’ doin’, Hermione.” (265) Hermione’s words fall on deaf ears precisely because of what she mentions to Ron: house-elf enslavement goes back centuries. In the eyes of the wizarding community, that is just the way it is. You cannot expect to easily change an idea that is considered normal and a part of everyday life. Ron and Hagrid’s words point to another problem: house-elves love their enslavement.

Hermione not only has to change the minds of the entire wizarding community; she also needs to convince the oppressed of their oppression. House-elves love to serve. Fred and George Weasley, when visiting the kitchens of Hogwarts, observe that they look “happy” and “think they’ve got the best job in the world.” (239) Harry Potter and the gang confirm these observations when they visit the kitchens. The house-elves, upon seeing them,“came trotting up. . . bearing a large silver tray laden with a teapot, cups for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, a milk jug, and a large plate of biscuits.” (377) Service is hardwired into the house-elves. When Dobby, the house-elf freed by Harry Potter, mentions how he is enjoying his freedom, the house-elves “started edging away from Dobby, as though he were carrying something contagious.” (378) How can Hermione fight for the freedom of house-elves when they hate the very mention of it? Even Dobby, a lover of freedom, reverts back to his servant ways. When he calls the Malfoys “bad masters,” (381) he seems okay at first but suddenly starts calling himself bad and banging himself on the head. Dobby is incapable, despite being free to do and say as he please, to freely express himself without shock and a feeling of wrongdoing. Dobby’s self-punishment points to how deep this institution runs. This institution has its intricate web in the psyche of house-elves. Hermione will have a tough time liberating the oppressed if they love their oppression and balk at the idea of freedom.

Hermione Granger’s struggle to promote house-elf rights is the struggle for social justice. It is a constant battle that requires, to borrow Professor Moody’s words, constant vigilance. If we are not vigilant and accept things as they are without question, like Ron, that is how systems of oppression are allowed to take root in society and flourish. The battle is not easy. It is a gradual, uphill battle. Hermione learns that change is not going to happen overnight. It will require dismantling an institution that has thrived for centuries and changing ideas that society views as the natural order of things. Tough lesson aside, Rowling does an excellent job of providing young readers with a role model who questions what society deems as normal and challenges injustice when it rears its ugly countenance. In other words, Hermione Granger is woke as fuck.

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