Friday, December 25, 2009

2010 & Beyond: Beltwayistan, the Body Politic, & the Message of Avatar

Avatar, a film by James Cameron

We cannot afford to let Darfur slip away. The next 12 months are a crucial period for the whole of Sudan. Twice voters will go to the polls in make-or-break moments with the potential to cement slow-running reforms or tip Africa’s biggest nation into the abyss. Rob Crilly, Irish Times, 12-24-09

Last weekend's minimalist Copenhagen global climate accord provides a great opportunity. The old deceitful, ineffectual approach is severely wounded and must die. Now there is a chance for the world to get on to an honest, effective path to an agreement. James Hansen, Guardian, 12-27-09

Now consider what lies ahead. We need fundamental financial reform. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit. What are the chances that we can do all that — or, I’m tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate? Paul Krugman, New York Times, 12-21-09

In the year 2154, the RDA corporation is mining Pandora, the lush, Earthlike moon of the planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri system. Parker Selfridge, the administrator, employs former marines as mercenaries to provide security. The humans aim to exploit Pandora’s reserves of unobtanium, a valuable mineral. Pandora is inhabited by the na’vi, a paleolithic species of sapient humanoids with feline characteristics. Physically stronger and several feet taller than humans, the blue-skinned indigenes live in harmony with Nature and worship a mother goddess called Eywa. Avatar (2009), Wikipedia,

2010 & Beyond: Beltwayistan, the Body Politic, & the Message of Avatar

By Richard Power

Somehow we survived the first decade of the 21st Century. But at great price, and at great ongoing peril. Here at the end of the Gregorian calendar year, as the sun turns northward, there is an interlude, an eerie pause between the past present and the future present, a brief period almost absent of now. Let us use this timeless moment wisely.

I want to share some ruminations about Avatar, which I found to be a profound and almost unspeakably beautiful movie. But I need to start in a dismal place, far away from the realm of sacred myth. We must begin with some grisly verities.

It is important to understand all that has happened to us:

10. Stagnating worker wages and the emergence of a new monied aristocracy
9. Health and food insecurity increased for ordinary Americans
8. The environment became more polluted.
7. The imperial presidency was ensconced in ways it will be difficult to pare back
6. The Katrina flood and the destruction of much of historic African-American New Orleans, and the massive failure of the Bush administration to come to the aid of one of America's great cities
5. The Bush administration's post-2002 mishandling of Afghanistan, where the Taliban had been overthrown successfully in 2001 and were universally despised
4. The Iraq War
3. The great $12 trillion Bank Robbery,
2. The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington by al-Qaeda, an organization that stemmed from the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980
1. The constitutional coup of 2000
Juan Cole, Top Ten Worst Things about the Bush Decade; Or, the Rise of the New Oligarchs, Informed Comment, 12-22-09

It is also important to understand that those responsible have not only escaped accountability (at least thus far), but also continue to force their malevolent ignorance upon the national psyche:

The George W. Bush Institute -- the "action- oriented think tank" that is part of Bush's Presidential Center -- will co-produce a public television show ... The show will be distributed by Executive Program Services (EPS) to public television stations nationwide, including many PBS affiliates. Huffington Post, 12-22-09


Obama is a centrist, not a progressive. His roots are in the progressive movement, but he ran as a centrist, and he is governing as a centrist. That should not be a surprise.

In Beltwayistan, the primary concern of both major political parties is not tending to their respective bases, but rather cobbling together some aggregate of those corporate interests with the cash to make or break political campaigns (e.g., Wall Street, big oil, gas and coal, big Pharma, the health insurance racketeers, the Chamber of Commerce, and yes, the Military-Industrial Complex). That should not be a surprise either.

The cult-formerly-known-as-the-Republican-Party curries the favor of those corporate interests by NEVER taking up any reform that would limit their reach in any way.

Within the Democratic Party establishment, the "conservative" and "centrist" elements (i.e., DLC, the "New Democrats," the "Blue Dogs," etc.) curry the corporatists' favor by mitigating the impact of necessary reform and morphing it into something those interests can actually feed on.

The difference is significant; however dissatisfying the result is to us.

If it were up to the cult-formerly-known-as-the-Republican-Party, we would not even be on the verge of opening 10,000 clinics, covering 30 million people currently uncovered, or curtailing termination on the grounds of "pre-existing condition."

The corporate interests play both of these suitors off against each other.

They prefer the no-people-oriented-reform-ever approach of the cult-formerly-known-as-the-Republican-Party; but at times, e.g., after the debacle of the Bush-Cheney era, they look for cover with the give-the-working-people-something-but-water-it-down-as-much-as-possible approach of those craven elements which now control much of the Democratic Party establishment.

However, for several reasons, the Democratic Party, has a distinct disadvantage in this perverse mating dance: first, not all of its leadership is craven, second, its base is an intelligent mix of the streetwise and the well-educated. It cannot sell out its base with as much impunity as the cult-formerly-known-as-the-Republican-Party, third, its alternate news media, i.e., the blogosphere and progressive talk radio, is not simply working off a tightly controlled script and echoing a single Orwellian message.

All of this has been painfully evident in the struggle to deliver meaningful healthcare reform over the past few months.

Indeed, what the cult-formerly-known-as-the-Republican-Party is fighting so savagely is not the Democratic Party's progressive agenda, but the Democratic Party's bid to replace the GOP as the go-to team for corporate interests.

I suggest to you that this analysis explains much of what seems otherwise incomprehensible in the behavior of the Obama White House during the healthcare debate, e.g., its hollow advocacy of the public option and its decision to only twist its left arm, and not its right arm.

You may think this is a struggle for the best way to drive down costs for the working people of this country, or blow the door open for the eventuality of universal coverage, but if we achieve that goal it will be at best a by-product of a different struggle, i.e., the struggle for hegemony in fund-raising from corporate special interests.

None of this should be a surprise.

So where do we go from here? How do we make the best of this opportunity, with a decent albeit centrist Democratic President, and large, albeit significantly compromised majorities in both the House and the Senate?

True North

My pondering of these questions coincides with the release of my sixth book, True North on the Pathless Path: Toward 21st Century Spirituality, a collection of writings on the world's mystical traditions, originally published, in the 1990s, as a series of articles in an obscure western Sufi journal. It is the second book I have chosen to publish on demand, and independently (it is the way of the future.)

Left-Handed Security: Overcoming Fear, Greed & Ignorance in This Era of Global Crisis, the first book I self-published, was framed around four vital questions: "Will the USA choose reason or madness in 2008? Will UN peacekeepers halt the genocide in Darfur? Will the governments of the world achieve a meaningful accord on global warming by 2009, or stumble again as in Kyoto and Bali? Will the UN Millennium Development Goals be achieved by 2015?" My hope was that by answering these questions correctly we could put humanity on a different and more promising trajectory than we were on after eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime.

Well, now at the end of 2009, and over a year since the election of Obama-Biden, we have some clarity. The USA did choose reason over madness in the 2008 election, no matter how disappointing the Obama-Biden administration may turn out to be. Copenhagen was mostly a failure, and although we must all struggle on, there is no point in pretending that it wasn't. Whether the MDG are achieved by 2015 or not, the consequences of the failure in Copenhagen, coupled with a severe economic downturn experienced around the world, will will effectively negate their impact. And Darfur? Well, you can search my archive of Darfur posts to follow the twists and turns in this sad story; but in short, the powers that be have found Darfur too inconvenient, so they have started to re-write the narrative in a way that casts less harsh light on their complicity and cowardice.

So where do these underwhelming results to the four questions articulated in Left-Handed Security leave us all? And where does it lead my thinking?

In my youth, I was involved in progressive politics in New York, I worked on a presidential campaign, a Senate campaign, a gubernatorial campaign, a congressional campaign and a mayoral campaign. It was an all-consuming passion, and had I made different choices in life I could have ended up in both the Carter and Clinton administration (as several of those I worked for, and with, did).

I worked for Harold Ickes. He was a hero of mine. A true blue political street fighter. The outsider's insider. His motto was "Shit fire and save matches." (For some background on him, read the 1997 New York Times Magazine article, Bill Clinton's Garbage Man.

I also knew Dick Morris. At that time, he was a young, rather petite "volunteer coordinator." He wore suits and ties, and clutched a small index card file box. Even then, it occurred to me that it was power not policy that motivated him. It is so surreal to watch and listen to him now -- a heavy-set, jaded man who seemingly believes in nothing, blathering on and on to Bill O'Reilly. (To view one of the defining moments of the later day Dick Morris, check out this post from Crooks and Liars: Dick Morris thinks the two freed hostages should still be back in Pyongyang.)

But I chose a different path than politics. I moved to California in the 1970s, and immersed myself in Vajrayana Buddhism, Adwaita Vedanta and other spiritual traditions. By the time I wrote the essays just published in True North (1992-1997), I was long gone from the political arena.

Although I continued to pay close attention to politics, I was not involved in electoral politics (except for voting, of course) or any kind of activism for over two decades. It was the sordid saga of the Starr Chamber so well documented in the Hunting of the President that alerted me to a new level of danger in our society, and it was the theft of Fraudida and the subsequent Supreme Injustice that forced me to conclude that anyone not offering resistance would be complicit in the death of the republic.

Now, here at the end of this tragic decade, I feel as if I have come full circle, and have started to travel along a new octave.

The Body Politic & The Message of Avatar

Where do we go from here? How do we make the best of this opportunity (2008-2012), with a decent albeit centrist Democratic President, and large, albeit significantly compromised majorities in both the House and the Senate?

And where do the underwhelming results to the four vital questions articulated in Left-Handed Security leave us all? Where does humanity's failures to the call of its conscience on Darfur and the Climate Crisis lead my thinking?

There are few voices in the alternate media I respect as much as Thom Hartmann. I do not agree with him on every issue, but we share a holistic perspective on the challenges that confront us a nation and a species.

Two of Thom's current themes speak to me here.

Over the years, on his radio show, he has consistently urged his listeners to become involved with Democratic Party politics, and to "take it over" on the local level. Recently, though, he has also been emphasizing the need for getting involved in movement politics, i.e., cultivating grass roots strength coalesced around urgent and essential issues, e.g., going green, 100% public funding of political campaigns, human rights, an end to the false notion of corporate personhood, and yes, single-payer healthcare.

Both of these strategies are part of the mix. Some of us will go in one directions, some of us will go in the other direction, all of it will apply pressure from underneath, which is where it needs to come from.

But some of us will not go in either of these directions, some of us may choose to totally reject politics and ideological struggle, and instead, devote their energies to good works, some of us may choose to lead lives of silent contemplation.

All of it is in the mix, if you understand and embrace the oneness of all life.

In his wonderful book, Threshold, Thom enumerates four mistakes that have led us into the planetary state of emergency in which we are languishing:

The first mistake is to believe we are separate from nature ...
The second mistake is to believe that an abstraction – an economic system – is divine and separate from us ...
The third mistake is to believe that men should run the world, and that women are their property ...
The fourth mistake is to believe that the best way to influence people is through fear rather than through the power of love ...
Threshold: The Crisis of Western Civilization

(For more on this important book, see A Secret is Lost Within Us, Somewhere Between Darfur & Denmark; If We Don't Find It, We Will Perish or Wish We Had; Reflections on Thom Hartmann's Threshold)

That brings us to Avatar.

In deference to those who have not yet seen it, I am not going to devalue the experience by revealing the story line or its outcome, I will just make three points.

Avatar hits either directly or indirectly on all four of the mistakes that Thom outlines in Threshold, in particular, the belief in separation from nature, and by extension from the oneness of all life, that led this civilization into what is at best spiritual and moral bankruptcy, and at worst, psychosis.

Avatar puts it to you that at the moment of crisis you must make a choice, you cannot continue to exist in two worlds, you must either choose to struggle for a world that reflects the human psyche (with all our cramped, unprocessed nightmares projected on it), or cultivate a human psyche that reflects the vast, wondrous expanse of the universe, in which we live and move and have our being.

You must choose. Either you choose to embrace the oneness of all life, or you choose to remain at war with yourself.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pandora (1869)

Avatar takes place on a world called Pandora.

Do you know the myth of Pandora?

On its surface, it is about an extraordinarily beautiful woman, created by Zeus, upon whom all the gods and goddesses bestowed powerful gifts. She was dispatched to Earth, after Prometheus has given the stolen gift of fire to humanity. She was sent down among us, armed with a box. Yes, Pandora's box.

In it, numerous magical elements were contained, including all toil, disease and evil. She was to loose this woe upon the world. She did so, leaving only hope left inside the box, when she closed the lid. But if you scratch below the surface of this official version, you find even older traditions in which Pandora's box actually contained all good, which she released into the world by lifting the lid.

There are also scholarly debates as to the meaning of hope being left behind in the box. Is it good portent or a bad portent?

Of course, it is plausible to suggest that in the original legend, Pandora's box actually contained all the evil and all the good, and that both were released into the world simultaneously, as light and shadow, day and night, life and death exist simultaneously; like the two sides of a coin, the substance of which is an ineffable mystery. And, if we propose this heretical view of the myth, what of leaving hope behind inside the box? Well, that is a koan, my friend, and each of us must realize its meaning for ourselves.

For the Words of Power Climate Crisis Updates Archive, click here.

Have you met Al Gore at the Wall yet?

I encourage you to find out why 350 is the most important number in your life and the lives of everyone you love: go to or Google "Bill McKibben" for the answer.

As always, I encourage you to follow events in Darfur on Mia Farrow's site, it is the real-time journal of a humanitarian at work; the content is compelling, insightful and fiercely independent.

For an archive of Words of Power posts on the Crisis in Darfur, click here.

And go to Stand w/ Howard Dean to participate in the struggle to bring meaningful healthcare reform to the USA.

True North on the Pathless Path: Toward 21st Century Spirituality is available from

Left-Handed Security: Overcoming Fear, Greed & Ignorance in This Era of Global Crisis is available from

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