Thursday, September 15, 2005

Responding to Katrina

I've been working on this piece, sorta solicited by the director of BPF. Her immediate response to the Katrina response can be found here.

When events as awesome as Hurricane Katrina happen, they are like a great karmic distress flare. Their effects are so huge that all aspects of this conscious life are lit up in stark relief. Meritorious deeds blind us with their shiny glare and melt our hearts, but our dark karmas that we so often shy away from, these too are revealed with startling clarity. As with a distress flare, the sufferings are sharply outlined, too brazen for us to ignore.
The understanding of karma can be simple, and it can be complicated. When revealed by the effects of a hurricane that was the size of four states, there is no denying any of it. Sifting through the wreckage can be tedious as well as devastating. Put simply, karma is cause and effect. Katrina is a karma, nobody’s fault (though global warming likely has something to do with it). Racism and classism are more complicated karmas. The gestalt of our karma, our interconnectedness, this interwoven webbed thread of connections, this is our reality according to Buddhism. If we pull one thread, we cannot help but find another, and another, and another. Hurricane Katrina reveals how we pull those threads, as individuals and as a society.

The notion that we are separate beings is an illusion, but it is one that many in these United States like to buy into. (And buy we do, too.) When I learned that a portion of New Orleans that was most likely to be underwater was the poorest, and that in a mandatory evacuation those poor and mostly black people were given no useful means to leave, I couldn’t help but look at this illusion of separateness. People take care of themselves first. As this great distress flare of a hurricane brought to light the heritage that is our city of New Orleans and its precarious vulnerability to flooding, I couldn’t help but think about who must have been at the table when plans to protect her were devised. Rich and middle class white people. Who was there to say, "When you declare a mandatory evacuation, how will the people without cars get out?" I mourned for those who died because this systemic classism had made no plans for them, and I mourned for those at the table, who surely must feel the pangs of regret.

With such a watershed event, it is too easy to pick and choose what bits of the interconnected karma we focus on. Now more than ever there’s an instantaneous access to thousands of bits of information, and one way or another bits can be found to bolster any point of view. I find myself paralyzed as I try to sift through all the information. A president who remains on a glad-handing vacation tour. Here in Portland, our own hate radio icon Lars Larson believes the post-Katrina disaster was entirely due to criminals of the 'projects' and the "lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness" of the "welfare wards". Countless right-wing ditto-heads (including the President) who repeat, "Now’s not the time to play the blame game," while an anonymous senior White House official blames Democratic Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not declaring a state of emergency. I boggle at their amoral genius. They know their so-called opposition the Liberals make a practice of emotional feel-goods like avoiding 'the blame game'. They count on the cascading torrent of conflicting information to confuse people. They count on enough people clinging to it as truth even when revealed as a lie.

I read blogs, email lists, Indymedia, and filter through mainstream TV and press. Accounts reported as fact that are later shown to be untrue, such as 'lawless thugs' shooting at relief helicopters, or babies murdered in the convention center. One person’s 'looter' is another's 'forager'. Conscious and unconscious prejudices determine the weight a fact is given. Well-meaning folks gather supplies and support only to be turned away by inexplicable orders. I wonder if questions will ever be answered over the delayed relief. I wonder if it is paranoid to entertain thoughts that incompetence conveniently masks test cases for martial law. How does the media turn from scolding incompetence to praising the swagger of a general? I wonder at the ease in which martial law is welcomed. How does a failure to protect become a military operation?

Some Buddhists feel that rage and anger have no place in the Dharma. Buddhist Peace Fellowship director Maia Duerr hesitated to use strong words, "Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes?" What else can we trust but such heartfelt cries? A long time ago I was given a glimpse of my own racism when a Native American woman accused me of giving her poor service because of the color of her skin. I was shocked and defensive and didn’t believe it, but her burst of anger woke me up. Never again in customer service did I allow a white man to slip in front of a black woman because he's in a hurry. (They do, you know.) Never again did I allow a person of color to yield her place in line to a white person. (They do, you know.) I needed that person's anger to awaken me to a more skillful way of being the good person I wish to be.

So let me vent my own angry response, that I agree with Maia, "The decimation of New Orleans is the great tragedy and shame of the American people, and particularly, the Bush administration. We don't need terrorists to take us down. The empire is crumbling from within." I would say the capitalists who have stolen our country from us have set up a plutocratic hegemony. What does that mean to us who pay our tribute of taxes? They put unqualified people in positions where they rake in money, but do not bother to do the job that their position supposedly asks of them. They are lords of the manor squandering the hard-earned money of the serfs. Their titles mean nothing but are ornamental, simply a reason to divvy up the loot. These are the real looters, and they exploit the dark thread of racism as well as calmly install a Supreme Court Chief Justice in the midst of the chaos.

Scenes from a Library Overhaul: Day 1

Death of a card catalog

Several years ago the local governing agency put forth the call for a new library catalog fitting for a crown jewel of a library system. Several corporate suitors sought the hand of this demanding princess, but only one could win. In the end, Innovative Interfaces met the demanding conditions and won the contract over all other suitors, assuring the local government that their product Millenium would best meet the needs of the library. Nobles, scholars, computer wizards, squires, and pages of the library system gathered repeatedly to consult and protect their diverse needs and wishes for the new catalog system, and the company did its best to construct its wizardly tool to answer even the lowly page's request, "Larger font for printouts, please." Officials reassured patrons and pages alike that this company would best meet their needs, why, even their big sister library, King County, uses it.

Library computer wizards worked day and night to assure the smooth transfer of all bits of knowledge and its relations from one container to the other. They constructed their wizardly spells while business continued as usual among the library caretakers and users. Well, not completely as usual, as the many workers who would use this new catalog needed to learn how to use it without having the completed product to work with. Those who rely heavily on visual cues secretly chewed their nails as they were repeatedly told, "This is not what it's going to look like." But as all wizards (and those who study wizards) know, no one can really convey what a spell looks like until it is completed, but if one can understand the logic of the spell, the change shouldn't be too bad.

Now clearly Day 1 of this library overhaul did not begin on September 11, 2005, but as this humble scribe looks back, it's hard to know where to start, so why not the day the old catalog died? After all, even before the proclamation seeking corporate suitors, the nobles of the fiefdom of Multnomah County had long recognized the continual need to meet change opportunistically, and the library has seen many sweeping shifts in policies, protocols, as well as the magical technology.

This scribe was there when the first of the library's many buildings was completely renovated and brought back to life to include the magical windows into the world called the internet. One by one the buildings were improved with electrical potions and wizardly objects to improve the fiefdom's subjects' access to that internet. Indeed, the advent of the World Wide Web and the continual improvement of computer wizardry brought about the end of the dynix catalog system. Wizardly support is no longer provided to the worn-out DYNA, and most libraries now choose web-based catalogs (and for all this scribe knows, may be the only large catalog system provided these days). Besides, the nobles had a duty to spend the taxes they'd collected for technology on technology, or they would have been fined.

The many scholars, squires, pages, subjects and nobles were quite used to using the old DYNA catalog. Some could even create rudimentary spells with it. One fellow squire tells me DYNA came into use back in 1989. Another squire told me back then they were told a few things, and were set loose to sink or swim. Nowadays we have intensive training to understand the many functions the wizardly tool provides. Some of the teachers were frustrated that they could not yet provide such complete training to their co-workers on the new catalog, but most merely shrugged, knowing at least we wouldn't literally be at risk of drowning. [not at all meant to convey any of the preparation and process was incompetent.]

The library computer wizards and the corporate computer wizards did all they could to make the princess's transition from one catalog to another as seamless as possible, but when it came down to it, when one died the other couldn't immediately be born. So on 6 pm, Sunday, September 11, DYNA was shut down at Multnomah County and squires and pages, whose job it is to check in books and shuffle them to their various places had to stop doing so for three days. Thanks to the foresight of the nobles and other middle-management types, they were not required to shuffle books about aimlessly for those three days, but gatekeepers locked the doors and pulled up the drawbridges until the books and other conveyors of thought and entertainment could be processed in the usual manner. The heralds made proclamations far and wide, so it is to be hoped the subjects heeded their words and don't leave their library materials outside the gates at risk of theft.

Friday, September 02, 2005

MacGyver in Space

The thing I like most about scifi is the creation of worlds, creation of societies. I really get a good fix of that with alternate reality type shows like Sliders or of course the Star Trek universe where so many alien societies are encountered. Lately I've been watching Stargate SG-1. I didn't watch it on television, but now I'm up to the 7th season on DVD. Refreshingly, they haven't succumbed very much to the cheesecake trend that we saw in Star Trek: Enterprise. Almost every episode reveals a new world visited through the stargate.

I got a nifty little bonus with the extras on disc 3 of season 7. mean Richard Dean Anderson (sexier as Jack O'Neil) likes the outdoors, and was working on a project with a friend, documenting 8 of the great rivers of the world. He says the most profound experience was on the upper Yangtze. They made an effort to document the "physicality of it, but also the many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries along the way." He really enjoyed meeting the people and communicating through body language. Unfortunately they must still be working on the documentary, there's no mention in IMDB or his website. There is about 3 minutes on his DVD featurette, wonderful footage.