Sarah Teasdale: “There Will Come Soft Rains”

sara-teasdaleAm in a poetry mood again, which just shows you how subversive reading a poet’s biography can be (Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay).

In doing so, I came across Sara Teasdale, a once in-vogue poet and first recipient of a Pulitzer for poetry (1922).

Teasdale wrote verse that’s direct and without complication or artifice, elements contemporary critics eschew. She didn’t make the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., one of the best repositories of verse in English out there.

I had come across her poetry before as a prof of modern poetry, but never found leisure to take her in.

I admire a number of her poems for their ability to resonate those salient emotions in all of us when it comes to nature, love and loss and, of course, mortality without engaging in self-pity or straying into sentimentality.

With their redolent attention to metrics, much of her poetry has transitioned into contemporary music; for example, the Scarecrow band rendition of eleven poems from Flame and Shadow.

And then there’s that enticing title of one of her poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that I find among the most remarkably beautiful of all poetry titles. We principally know it today as Ray Bradbury’s title for one of his most celebrated stories, inspired by her poem.

Written shortly after the Great War, it features a world of nature absent of Man, who has annihilated himself. Lines 10-12 prove remarkably prescient in their intuitive application to our contemporary world with its apocalyptic tenor, replete with proliferation of nuclear arsenals; and yet Teasdale composed the poem in 1920.

Teasdale may not be one of our most renowned poets, but she wrote a haunting poetry of careful craftsmanship, rooted in the pathos of the human condition. She deserves a re-reading:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

–rj

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Is Mindfulness Warmed-over Buddhism?

momentMindfulness meditation seems everywhere these days. Even the corporate world embraces it, e. g., Google, Facebook, EBay and Twitter. And in medical circles, it’s all the rage, particularly in psychiatry where it increasingly rivals pharmaceutical intervention as a primary therapy in treating depression and general anxiety disorders.

But is there any real science behind mindfulness, or is it simply Buddhism warmed over for Western consumers?

Supposedly, mindfulness is all about being in the present. Never mind regrets about mistakes you made or things you’ll do to make things better. Just let go.  What matters is being sentient in the Now.  In the sports world, you might call it, “Being in the zone.”

Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, has three steps; namely, concentration, insight and its sequel, empathy.

You get there largely by focusing on your breathing. While your mind will inevitably stray with what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” don’t worry about it.  Simply listen to, and not engage, any thoughts that press-in on you.  Mindfulness encourages acceptance and avoids being judgmental.

But why mindfulness, even if its does help relieve your stress?

Why not a pill?

Why not counseling?

Or soft music?

Or having fun with a good friend?

Or relaxing on the beach?

Why not just slow things down and sit still?

Where’s the research to back-up the craze or to validate it’s more effective than traditional ways of promoting well-being?

In short, mindfulness has its critics, some of whom argue that self-confrontation can even be dangerous for you.  Do you really want to probe repressed memories and labyrinthian chambers of loss, grief, and failure?

Melanie McDonagh, a writer for the Evening Standard (London), argues in Spectator that Mindfulness didn’t work for her, given her inability to stay focused.

Mindfulness is supposed to ultimately make you more compassionate. But where’s the proof of that?:

…as far as I can gather, it’s mostly About Me Sitting.  Concentration on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbor in the practice of self-obsession?

In rebuttal, the test of properly practiced mindfulness is demonstrated outwardly in leaving ourselves behind and thinking of others. Any failure doesn’t lie in mindfulness, but those who really haven’t entered into what it’s all about.  I like how Shinzen Young  phrases it:  “The new self is not a noun, it is a verb” (The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works).

What really irks McDonagh is an underlying dislike of Buddhism. While extolling the virtues of Christianity, she glosses over its redolent history of crusades, inquisitions, misogyny, embrace of slavery, hostility towards gays, colonial genocide, etc. You’ll not find any of this in Buddhism.

Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, or even Christianity, teaches you to rid yourself of the sense of a separate self. In short, we’re all part of the experiential flux of time and the temporal.

Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, puts it this way in his observations of its exemplum in the Dalai Lama, whom he has met and spent time with on several occasions:

At the heart of [his] sensibility plays a deep empathy for the plight of others, which seemed to pour forth from him effortlessly and abundantly…Such empathy requires that one undergoes a radical emptying of self, so that instead of experiencing oneself as a fixed, detached ego, one comes to see how one is inextricably enmeshed in the fabric of the world (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist).

McDonagh is just plain wrong in her reductionism, which short-circuits any fair appraisal based on a thorough knowledge of mindfulness in its antecedents, methodology, and scientific appraisal when she asserts that mindfulness is just essentially warmed-over hash: “Think meditation, think Buddhism, and you’re there, so long as you don’t forget the breathing.”

On the contrary, while Western mindfulness owes much to Buddhism, it’s essentially rationalistic, eschewing metaphysics, and eclectic in its make-up, drawing from many strands to implement those methodologies congruent with current science, validated through empirical research, much of it utilizing brain imaging data.

It professes no deities, practices no rituals; has no hierarchy, and no theology. It attracts the best minds.

What it does share with Buddhism–and science for that matter–is a belief in the interweave of causality and effect and the primary role of empiricism, not speculation, in assessing evidence.

Hence its appeal to Western minds and the fact that it works for diverse needs and in a plethora of settings.

–rj

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She showed us the way: Reflections on Mary Tyler Moore

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 08: Actress Mary Tyler Moore attends NBC's taping of 'Betty White's 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America's Golden Girl' at Millennium Biltmore Hotel on January 8, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 08: Actress Mary Tyler Moore attends NBC’s taping of ‘Betty White’s 90th Birthday: (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

A few days ago we lost Mary Tyler Moore, not only an icon from the entertainment world, but a remarkable human being blessed with talent, beauty,  and an infectious smile.  Endowed with relentless fortitude, she survived for so long the debilitating carnage diabetes often inflicts upon its victims.

She wasn’t just a talented actor (seven Emmys and an Academy Award nomination), but a real-life hero, setting an example for all us.

You’d never have surmised from her TV dominance in the 60s and 70s (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and (Mary Tyler Moore Show) her raging battle with diabetes, which ultimately would take her life.

Diabetes can occur as Type I or Type 2. In the former, your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin and you have to resort to insulin injections several times daily to survive. In type 2, your pancreas produces insulin, but either not enough or the body just can’t utilize it efficiently.

Both kinds are progressive and incurable, though with weight control, healthy diet, medication, and frequent exercise, you may be able to manage it, forestalling its many potential complications such as heart and kidney disease, blindness, infections, amputations, and even dementia.

Moore was diagnosed with diabetes Type 1 at age 33 in the course of blood work connected with a miscarriage. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again, she would detail her forty year struggle against this insidious illness, donating the book’s proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which she served as International Chair for many years. “I want others to learn how I fell down and how I picked myself up.”

The truth is she had been doing this her whole life. We never really know what life has in store for us, as Oedipus learned in Sophocles’ monumental play of 2500 years ago. For some of us, our fate can seem especially unfair in its harshness and singularity, raising the perpetual inquiry, “Why do good people suffer?”

Moore’s mother was an alcoholic, and so was Mary until she overcame it, prescient of her valiant struggle against a much bigger adversary.

Sometimes we find consolation in another parent, but Dad proved both distant and unloving.

Then, in what breaks a mother’s heart, her 23 year old son, Ritchie, died from an accidental gun shot to the head.

She would have two unhappy marriages, until finally striking happiness in her 33 year marriage to cardiologist, Robert Levine.

In 2011, she underwent brain surgery.

Though she lived to age 80, she might well have lived longer, and happier years, had she been free of this debilitating disease. In her last several years, she suffered from declining vision, kidney and heart issues, and Alzheimer’s.

In her final days, she had come down with pneumonia, a frequent consequence of a diminished immune system, and was on a respirator for a week.  Ultimately, she was removed from life support.

 

With Bernadette Peters

With Bernadette Peters

Short in stature and slight in build, ever humble and always compassionate, she fiercely loved both people and animals, practiced vegetarianism, and gave time to both diabetes and animal advocacy.

Just how did she manage to cope so long and so bravely against her antagonist”? What lay behind her heroism?

In mindfulness therapy, there’s an acronym known as RAIN that may explain how she did it, giving hope to all of us in life’s hard places:

R—Recognition
A—Acceptance
I— Investigation
N—Non-identification

R:  Initially, Moore hid her illness.  Later, she  made it known.

A:  She allowed it to be what it is with all its dissonance in both mind and body.  Mindfulness doesn’t contend; it listens.

I:   She explored methods of ameliorating it through diet, exercise, and medication and ways of nurturing others with like illness.

N:  We are not the sum of our emotions and thoughts.  Our  real Self lies beyond and can provide cognitive catharsis.  Acknowledging her fate, she lived outside the parameters of self-absorption in unstinting, compassionate activism, promoting awareness and hope for her fellow sufferers.

Thank you Mary, for the nobility of your life, its example and inspiration; its quiet dignity, yet marshaled bravery in the darkness of the night.

—rj

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Book fan, Barack Obama

tumblr_inline_ojtrxn3ovw1rowsy7_500There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them (Joseph Brodsky)

Regardless of your political views, our former president, Barack Obama, was a phenomenal book fan.

How he found time for his passion baffles me, given the pressing demands on his time as president of the United States.

And I admire the books he’s read and recommended, among them classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks and Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Always  up to date, in an interview with the New York Times (January 18, 2017), Obama gives high praise to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Lauren Gross’ Fates and Furies; Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon; and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Last, but not least, William Shakespeare:

I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that is fundamental for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

As Michiko Kakutani of the NYT comments, “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, conviction and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama.”

I think I know why our president often preferred the company of books. An introvert by temperament and consciously aware of his biracial heritage, books helped assuage a loneliness and provided a source for not only finding his identity, but  enlarging his mind and perspective through exposure to those ambiguities incumbent in the human make-up.

On a personal note, I confess I haven’t read a single one of the books I’ve just mentioned. I read a lot, but never enough, though I should be kind to myself and remember Edmund Wilson’s sage comment on the singularity of our reading experience—that “no two persons ever read the same book,” so even if I had, and you for that matter, we’re always individuals, and that’s the greatest gift of a good book–its capacity to reach each of us, no matter where we’re at in our lives.

Still, when I read that 27% of us never pick-up a book at all, I can’t really get my head around it. For me, we short-change ourselves when we do this. It’s like not giving plants the soil, light and water they need, resulting in stunted growth and preempting full bloom.

Books not only have the potential to reshape our lives, but make them better.

I say this first hand, knowing that they’ve saved me from a parochialism that doubtless would have channeled me into a lifestyle of narrow thoroughfares prodigious in polarized generalizations, born of the emotions, rather than seasoned judgment through exposure to reasoned perspectives, crafted in careful scrutiny, fostering balanced conclusions and wiser living.

Books not only provide pleasure and inform, but the ability to transform us.  In short, anyone who says they’ve only one life to live, needs to sit down and read a good book.

–rj

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Happiness: What it is and How to Find It

happinessI came across this still proverbial Tibetan saying in my pre-meditation reading the other day that I wanted to share with you:

“Seeking happiness outside is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.” In short, our happiness must be found within ourselves and not in events, goods, or even among those we love, for life often doesn’t reciprocate what we want, love, or even deserve.

Happiness can’t be imposed from the outside, since it derives from making peace within ourselves, free from the demons of self-doubt, jealousy, and anger and a critical spirit that can spill over into our daily lives, eroding relationships.

But if happiness is an inner thing, how do we go about having it? The Buddha tells us that our suffering, or unhappiness, derives from our craving. Modern psychologists like Freud and Skinner appear to confirm this, finding that we are creatures of Ego, perpetually seeking gratification.

We find happiness specifically in recognizing the temporality of everything, both of ourselves and of the world to which we belong. When we find it, we no longer react to life’s volatility of event and circumstance.

Accepting change and ourselves as a part of it, we are anchored even in duress.  What happens is that our egos dissolve when we discover the ability to let go through focusing on what really matters in a cosmos of entropy.

Such contentment derives from living mindfully in the moment, celebrating the treasure of being alive, or as Hellen Keller expressed it so wonderfully:

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.

We develop this capacity through practice, or meditation, being kind, not judgmental, about ourselves when our minds wander, as they always do.

Mindfulness meditation, which we can apply to every sphere of experience, disciplines us ultimately into intimate awareness and, with it, a rippling comprehension of not only ourselves, but of others in a wider empathy.

Mindful people find peace not only within themselves, but its enhancement in the outer world through service to others, which psychologists increasingly tell us yields that kind of gratification money, position and power cannot equal.

—rj

Postscript: A book I highly recommend as an amplification of my post is David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I promise that you’ll find it difficult to put down. (While I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve found Buddhism, more a way of life than a religion, offers a redolent wisdom that modern psychotherapy has found worthy of implementation on a universal scale, and validated through empirical research.)

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Tibet’s Tragedy: A Culture Teetering into Oblivion

_90482485_28344675572_e210e10c4e_bThe horror began with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949. In the decades since, Chinese oppression has continued relentlessly, with several hundred thousand Tibetans having been executed, tortured or imprisoned.

Commenting after her recent release, one survivor informs us that “Chinese officials used different torture instruments on me to break my spirit…to make me denounce his Holiness and the aspirations of my people. My fellow political prisoners and I were subjected to electric shocks from batons and prods…I spent weeks in solitary confinement. This torture and mistreatment started when I was just a child of thirteen and continued through most of my life in prison.”

I knew that the Chinese regime had signaled out Buddhists in Tibet to denigrate its culture as one effort among others to suppress their identity and, with it, their desire to be a free people.

Of an original 6,254 monasteries that existed before the Chinese invasion, just 13 remain fully intact, the others either destroyed or severely damaged.

A few days ago, I finished reading Stephen Batchelor’s fascinating book, Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist. Batchelor had converted to Buddhism as a young man and was formally ordained as a monk in 1974, and knows both the Tibetan language well and the woes of Buddhism, Tibet’s ancient faith.

He recalls visiting Lhasa in 1984. While the Potala Palace remains, it’s now a museum. Few traces of Buddhism, in fact, remain in this city once filled with Buddhist shrines and ubiquitous prayer flags.

From the Potala, you can glimpse what remains of the nearby Sera Monastery. 3000 monks lived there in 1959, the year of the Tibetan uprising. Now, only 100 lamas remain, all of them elderly.

Twenty miles east of Lhasa lies the Ganden Monastery, founded in the 14th century. Sadly. the infamous Red Guards ordered the local people to dismantle it, stone by stone. Once the residence of some 5,000 monks, only a scattering of aged monks remains.

Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists continues unabated even beyond Tibet proper. In June 2016, the PRC mandated that half of the world’s largest Buddhist conclave, the Tibetan Buddhist Institute at Larung Gar, with its estimated 40,000 monks and nuns in Szechuan, be razed and its numbers reduced to 3,500 nuns and 1500 monks.

According to Radio Free Asia, expelled monastics must sign a pledge to “uphold the unity of the nation and not to engage in behavior opposing government policy in the area.”

Last month (December 6, 2016), the Tibetan government-in-exile asked the UN to intervene.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament on December 15, 2016, adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of the community.

Here at home, President Obama hosted Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama in both 2010 and 2014, giving verbal support for the preservation of Tibet’s culture, while subsequently restating the U. S. position that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.  (He did not meet with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office.)

China views the Dalai Lama as a separatist, however, and hence a threat to government hegemony, even though the Dalai Llama has never advocated independence..

Meanwhile China is pressing forward with resettling thousands of Chinese in Tibet and plans to build a second railway into the country to expedite commerce and tourism in particular.

Since 1990, China has relocated more than 2 million nomads into barrack settlements under the guise of protecting grazing land.

9-7-15_nomads_before_after_thumbnailIn urban areas, new schools are being built with Mandarin the primary language of instruction.

Though most of Tibet remains overwhelmingly Tibetan, an estimated 17% of Lhasa’s population is now Chinese.

In short, the Chinese have been following the Soviet formula of resettling volatile areas such as Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where a large Russian population now resides.

There are a few Westerners who argue that reports of Chinese repression have been exaggerated.

I have more faith in Amnesty International, which relies upon documentary evidence. In its 2014 report, it concluded that “ethnic Tibetans continued to face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedoms of religious belief, expression, association and assembly.”

We are now into 2017, and while the world largely goes its own way, Tibet’s fate continues to deter towards extinction of its culture as the Chinese People’s Republic recent ordnance demolishing Larung Gar clearly demonstrates in its strident callousness.

Since 2011, American International has documented 131 self-immolations in protest of Chinese incursions upon its way of life.

—rj

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Weighing-in: Reflections on 2016

celebrating-new-year-hd-9952-1920x1080-ymku-comWhen I was in my twenties, I used to keep a running account of what were good and bad years for me. Call it an exercise in ego, or whatever, I still like to weigh each year at its end. On balance, was it a good one? Or one I’d rather not repeat?

And here we are, the last day of 2016. We’re all different, yet I surmise it’s been a year a good many of us would like to toss in the dumpster.

To begin with, am I exaggerating to say it’s ending with a good many people I adored, no longer with us. The list is long, but among the losses was Leonard Cohen, poet-bard who sang life honestly. I loved his music and, thankfully, it will endure like all good art.

It’s also been an unusually volatile year politically, filled with surprises, spilling over into unprecedented acrimony and enduring anxiety as we enter the new year.

For me personally, another surgery, my third in six years after a bout with excruciating sciatica.

But there were good things that happened for me too. We got to be with our children for a week in Maine last June; then again at Thanksgiving in WA and CA.

I also discovered the tranquility of mindfulness meditation.

And then there were the three online courses I completed, two of them in mindfulness; the other, a stimulating Stanford course in modern women poets.

I somehow managed to keep up with this blog, now entering into its sixth year. I had begun Brimmings initially as a diversion from physical distress.

Finally, my surgery was successful.

For a lot of folks, New Year’s Eve calls for celebration. I always view it as a time of sober reflection, assessing the assets vs liabilities of the waning year, trusting I’m still in the black.

To each of you, I hope on the whole you’ve escaped with a balance and that next year will, indeed, prove a Happy New Year!

–rj

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Does the Electoral College Have a Future?

azThe Electoral College has been in the news a lot lately. And why not, considering that the loser in the 2016 election garnered nearly 3 million more votes than the declared winner.

In fact, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote turns out to be greater than those that elected John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush to the presidency. In turn, a good many understandably want the Electoral College abolished. We elect our members of Congress on the basis of vote totals. Why not go national?

But should we? The issue isn’t quite so simple as there exist good arguments either way.

Let’s take a careful look.

Why did the Founding Fathers establish the Electoral College?

The Electoral College goes back to 1787, the year in which our Constitution was first formulated. Because of the expanding geography of the new nation, the Fathers feared local voters wouldn’t have access to the fullest information on a candidate outside their region to choose wisely.

We need to remember there were then just 13 states with a population of only 4 million stretched across a 1000 mile seaboard. There was also the danger that more populated states might dominate lesser populated states. This has remained an issue right up to the present day.

Some, distrusting the electorate, saw the College as a buffer against their folly. Alexander Hamilton, for example, who championed the Electoral College, argued in Federalist Papers 68 that it would preempt “any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” from taking office.

Ironically, it’s this very set-up that on December 19 will allow electors to rubber-stamp the election into fact, unless they choose to revolt against the norm, which has never occurred.

Hamilton, living in a time when there were no political parties, hadn’t foreseen the rise of partisanship.   On the contrary, electors would be free to vote their conscience. The 12th Amendment changed all that with the rise of political parties and their partisanship that Washington took pangs to warn us about in his sobering farewell address.

Hamilton’s proposal, however, was boosted at the time by the interests of Southerners, particularly Virginians, who feared The Northern states, with their greater population, might threaten slavery. Thus, Blacks were partially counted in the Southern population totals, even though they couldn’t vote, allowing Southern states greater electoral clout. Accordingly, Virginians held the presidency 32 of the first 36 years under the new Constitution.

This ugly truth is yet another reason why some have called for the ending of the Electoral College, since they view it as conceived in slavery.

On the other hand, the Founding Fathers were sincerely troubled about equity at every level, whether within state legislatures, or at the Federal level where it’s embedded in the checks and balances provided by the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, or between larger and smaller states. Balance likewise undergirds resolving the tensions between federal and local sovereignty.

How the Electoral College works:

There are presently 538 electors.

Each state receives as many electors as it has representatives and senators in Congress.

The number of representatives is reapportioned every ten years in conjunction with the census.

States with small populations are assigned 3 electoral votes to promote equity; currently six states, plus D. C.

Residents of U. S. territories, even though they’re American citizens, cannot vote.

Normally, the winner takes all, even if the vote difference is marginal. Two states, however, Maine and Nebraska, proportion their vote, based on the state popular vote.

The major parties nominate electors for their states in the months preceding the election.   Some states resort to primaries for that purpose, or rely on a party committee, or state party convention. Electors are frequently selected on the basis of their service to their party.

No person holding federal office, elected, or appointed, is eligible.

The party winning the state vote determines the ultimate electors.

Every effort is made by political parties to assure their electors vote faithfully as pledged, even though the Constitution allows free choice. Those who don’t comply are known as “faithless” electors and may suffer severe censure from their party.

Each Elector delegation votes in their state capitol, this year, on December 19.

Still, 21 states don’t require a pledge at all, potentially setting up a scenario where a few faithless electors could upset even a candidate receiving a majority vote nationally, wiping out the choice of millions. As I write, this weakness lies at the heart of largely Democrat efforts to halt Trump’s accession to the presidency. So much for the fairness argument for Electoral reform.

Tabulation takes place January 6, 2017, in the House of Representatives in Washington.

If the president-elect fails to muster the 270 vote majority, then the final decision on who becomes president is made within the House of Representatives. It could be someone other than the president-elect.

If the House can’t reach a decision by Inauguration Day, the Vice President elect becomes president until such a decision is reached.

The choice of the Vice President ultimately takes place in the Senate, with each senator having one vote. This actually occurred once in our political history when, in 1836, Martin Van Buren’s running mate fell short of the electoral majority by one vote.

Proposals to change or abolish the Electoral College:

Over 700 proposals re: the Electoral College have been made, virtually none of them successful. Only two proposals concerning the Electoral College have ever passed in Congress and succeeded as amendments to the Constitution (12th and 23rd Amendments).

The process of amending the Constitution under the provisions of Article V in the Constitution makes it exceedingly difficult for any proposal to succeed, since it requires a two thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and legislative approval by three quarters of the states.

There is, however, a bi-partisan movement underway known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would ultimately preserve the Electoral College, yet assure the top national vote winner secures the presidency. No amendment process would apply, since our Constitution, Article II, Section I, allows states to devise their own elector process.

Specifically. It would be a multi-state pledge to cast their electoral votes for the candidate winning the popular vote nationally. So far, ten states and the District of Columbia have signed on, representing a total of 165 electoral votes.   Pro-compact bills, backed by both Democrats and Republicans, have been introduced in other states as well. Imminent passage is anticipated in MN and PA. Should the compact achieve a majority of electoral votes through its member states, it would then go into effect.

One of the chief arguments against its abolishment is that it disenfranchises smaller, less populated states, especially in the American heartland, against the likes of gargantuan states like California and New York.

Candidates wouldn’t visit the small states like New Hampshire, say opponents to change, even if deemed swing states, but shift their focus to metropolitan areas. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Houston would dominate. What happens to rural America?

On the other hand, those for change or abolishing the Electoral College, contend that the small states, if anything, are overly represented. We use the most vote method within our states to elect members to local and national office. Why not go nationwide?

Should the Electoral College be Abolished?

Many think so.  After all, it denied the Presidency on five occasions to candidates receiving a majority of votes: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.  Polls reveal overwhelming support for abolishing the College.  Even president-elect Donald Trump embraces the idea of a popular vote replacing the Electoral College.

Nonetheless, as I pointed out at the outset, there aren’t any easy answers.

One of the chief arguments against its abolishment is that it disenfranchises smaller, less populated states, especially in the American heartland, against the likes of gargantuan states like California and New York.

Candidates wouldn’t visit the small states like New Hampshire, say opponents to change, even if deemed swing states, but shift their focus to metropolitan areas. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Houston would dominate. What happens to rural America?

On the other hand, those for change or abolishing the Electoral College, contend that the small states, if anything, are overly represented. We use the most vote method within our states to elect members to local and national office. Why not go nationwide?

What’s more, states thought to be in the opposition’s column are already neglected. In 2016, PBS NewsHour found that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just eleven so-called battleground states. Of those visits, nearly two-thirds took place in the four battlegrounds with the most electoral votes — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina.

My own opinion, and that’s all it is, favors the genius argument at the heart of the American experiment, which is balance.   Historically, we’ve been a nation constructed uniquely through a system of checks and balances, derived from compromise, or consensus. Without it, we could never have achieved the initial unity that founded a nation.

Tensions have always existed in our nation, not only between North and South, but the coasts versus heartland America. The Electoral College does sometimes fail, but it has served us well overall, preserving equilibrium between myriad factions.

Of the ten states that have joined the compact thus far, all of them are blue states or jurisdictions (i.e, D. C.) despite bi-partisan advocates. Passage is anticipated in Oregon, another blue state.   While currently red states like Arizona and Oklahoma are possible candidates for inclusion, the movement is largely Democratic in its inspiration. Two states, MN and PA, are likely to join the compact very soon–again, traditional blue states.

Present states along with the District of Columbia that have adopted the National Popular Vote initiative are CA, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA. Collectively, they now represent 165 electoral votes, or nearly two-thirds of the required 270 majority.

I find this proposal that would assign the state electoral vote to the top voter candidate nationally an absurdity, since it would wipe out even a state’s plurality vote, if that candidate drew up short in a national vote. Let’s take PA, for example; if the compact were in effect, the majority wold see their vote cast aside. Now how fair is that that?

Do you remember looking at the 2016 election geographical map, the small blue areas, almost dots, in a vast tapestry of red, what we used to call “fly-over America”? Thirty states voted for Trump. The Compact would nullify their majority vote in all of them.

Now how is that fair?

Instead, I would like to see a mix of both positions with adoption of a proportional vote measure, doing away with the winner take all–why vote?–and honoring the votes cast by the minority. Let’s allow them a voice in the best interests of a democracy. A proportional College has been proposed before, but went down to defeat in the Congress.

I believe it would result in greater vote turnout. It was hard for me, for example, a Democrat progressive, to get motivated to vote here in Kentucky, overwhelmingly Trump country. In the 2012 election, voter turnout was highest in swing states, where the vote could have gone either way.

In that election, Obama massively won the electoral vote, 332 to 206 for Romney. If it had been a proportional vote, the result would be 51% to 47%, much closer indeed and more reflective of the popular vote (Justin Curtis, “Recrafting the Electoral College” (harvardpoltics.com).

Given the continuing growth of America’s metropolitan areas, particularly on both coasts with their predominantly regional interests, we could end-up with a facsimile of Mexico’s Revolutionary Party, which governed that country for seventy-five years. In short, the end of our two party system which, for better or worse, has worked well for us.

As is, these power states are likely to continue their rapid growth, meaning still more electoral votes by way of a substantial increase in population.   Presently, one in every three immigrants chooses CA, FL, OR NY as their residence, exacerbating their population boom.

In life, I’ve learned from the hard places to be wary of peripheries, often embraced by purists. I prefer the middle, drawing from the best of opposing scenarios.

I think a proportional allocation is the reasonable approach. Why resort to a system that like the present Electoral College abrogates the minority vote? Isn’t that the problem now?

Dividing the electoral votes provisionally preempts that unfairness, while achieving recognition for all regional interests like that of coal miners in West Virginia as well as Silicon Valley high techs in CA.

It levels the playing field. I’m all for that!

What does the future hold for the Electoral College?

I think the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is likely to succeed in attracting a sufficient number of states, among them some Republican ones, that will put the measure over the top. This surprises me, since history’s quirk has yielded a Republic president in all five elections featuring a losing candidate who had won the popular vote, the most egregious being Hillary Clinton’s loss, though garnering a nearly 3 million plurality.

My hunch is that the Compact could possibly be in place even by the next election, and surely by the second, making old hat of the so-called “battleground” or “swing” states scenario, distorting the campaign focus. Campaigning would shift to the most populous states with their big cities and metropolitan areas in particular.

This will be great news for minorities, as both Democrats and Republicans will find them especially attractive to a national ticket, given their urban numbers. The sad fact is that Clinton lost the election because of a drop-off in Black voting since the the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

If the vastly white Republicans, regardless of what the future holds for the Electoral College, don’t catch-up with the changing demographic and continue sponsoring legislation that would threaten popular entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, along with alienating immigrants, they are doomed to obsolescence, apart from their remaining clout in rural areas at the state level. It’s just that the Compact will force their hand even sooner.

But there’s also a big if that clouds the future of the Compact, since conservatives are likely to view it as an end run around the Constitution and challenge it, both in Congress and the courts, perhaps ultimately reaching the Supreme Court.

There is, after all, that troublesome clause in the Constitution that states that “no state shall, without the consent of Congress enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power.”

–rj

 

 

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Teach me to measure all my days

speedAnother year, now one of many for me, is about to pass. Life flows incessantly forward. More than ever, I’m thankful for every moment in the present, wanting to indulge, pamper, and exhaust it for its sensory fullness, or like a bowl of chocolate ice cream topped with fresh strawberries, swirling its sweet coldness slowly in my mouth, titillating my tastebuds, in vain effort to prolong its goodness.

I wake to day, rejoicing in its newness, a privilege I no longer take for granted.

Recently I’ve been in contact through Facebook with a member of my 1958 class at Newburyport High School in Massachusetts. It turns out she’s also the class secretary. The other day, she shared that of the 158 graduates, 51 have died. There might be more.

In February I turn 77, so I found this news sobering.

I don’t know how I even got this far. The average lifespan for males in the U. S. is 76.3. My once older brother, so full of life, died on his birthday. He was 47. I’ve had friends who died younger.

There’s no rhyme or reason, no logic you can apply. So much of life is simply a matter of accident, or having luck on your side. Contingency, or  incertitude in the weave of randomness, defines the wise among us in a cosmos absent of Mind.

On several occasions, I’ve missed death by inches, or like in Maryland in 1983 when I foolishly tried to pass a lumbering tractor trailer going up a steep hill, only to find another vehicle in the outside lane coming at me at rocket speed, forcing me to apply the gas pedal for all I was worth and thread the needle, barely, while in my ears, the scream of tires from a careening car, struggling for control.

I taught poetry for some forty years and I know full-well its bottom line is mortality. Think Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson and Hopkins.

Yesterday, I came upon Stephen Batchelor’s thoughtful, eloquent summation on life’s ephemerality in my reading:

Life is a groundless ground: no sooner does it appear, than it disappears, only to renew itself, then immediately break up and vanish again. It pours forth endlessly,
like the river of Heraclitus into which one cannot step twice. If you try to grasp it, it slips away between your fingers (Confession of a  Buddhist Atheist).

And so back to the moment, this moment, its showering of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Teach me to be mindful.

To enjoy what I cannot hold.

–rj

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Solace for the Hard Places: Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic”

Big Sur Jeffers' residence

BIG SUR

I suppose every generation thinks it’s in crisis and, you know, they’re probably right, given the volatility of history; our time, no less so, as we make the transition to a new Washington regime that appears menacing to many of us seeking an America that fulfills its promise to promote the welfare of all its citizenry and not the interests of the privileged few, often White, endowed by wealth and power.

It’s in times like ours that I’m thankful for the healing repository of good poetry in its beauty, counsel and solace.

As I write, Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) sweeps into my mind as a poet with uncanny prescience of America’s soul-ache in his own time, expressed in maybe his finest poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic.” What follows is his relatively short poem, with my own commentary on each stanza, and a final summation:

The Poem:

1.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens.

2.

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

3.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.

4.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thick-
ening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.

5.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught–they say–
God, when he walked on earth.

Commentary

Stanza 1.
In the initial stanza, the persona decries what he sees as burgeoning American imperialism taking its place among the nations. (Robinson lamented what he perceived as a growing “Caesarism.”). Note his “This America,” signaling out contemporary America in contrast perhaps to past America with its espousal of Jeffersonian democracy, harbinging Jeffer’s notion of genesis, maturation and decay in the subsequent stanza.

A striking image also occurs here of lava hardening to depict the insensitivy of a nation, other than for an inconsequential few who protest—“only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out.”

Stanza 2:
What follows is Jeffers’ use of the cyclic, a favorite motif, reflecting his wide reading in Voto, Spengler and Nietzsche. That nature poses not only genesis, but decline suggests consolation. In the scheme of things, humanity must inexorably yield to Nature’s conquest. So much for its arrogance or self-importance. Here, the line rhythms of the stanza’s conclusion reinforce the persona’s notion of the cyclic.

Stanza 3:
A startling, accusatory address begins the stanza: “You making haste on decay.” You perhaps refers to the individual as well as the nation. We who are mortal or perishing committing the folly of investing in the ephemeral (i. e., making haste on decay) should be accepting of our mortality, whether of Self or Nation. Dissolution or demise is Nature’s law.

Whether life is long or short, life is to be affirmed: “meteors (short-lived) are not needed less than mountains (longevity). Everything has its place in Nature’s scheme of things. The imperative then is to live life passionately: “Shine,perishing republic. ”Shine” perhaps also connotes life lived nobly, or honorably. Or like the last shine, as of a fire’s glow just before it goes out. Cf. Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night.”

Note the speaker’s insistence that “life is good”; that is, when lived rightly, despite its governance by mortality.

Stanza 4:
Employing archetype, Jeffers emphasizes that we needn’t capitulate to the nation’s malaise centered in its cities as opposed to the sanctuary of the mountains offering transcendence. In essence, plurality often imposes its own tyranny.

Stanza 5:
The speaker would have his children live cautiously in a time such as this, i.e, with tempered idealism in regard to collective humanity with its intrinsic capacity for chicanery and despotism (“a clever servant, insufferable master”) avoiding the fate of other idealists like Jesus:

Summary: History proceeds in repetitive cycles, implying we learn little from it in ameliorating the human condition in its enamorizing power with its resulting despotism. Live apart with integrity and passion in the solace of Nature. As Jeffers memorably expressed it in his poem, “The Beauty of Things, “To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things/…to feel /Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural/Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.”

In essence, Jeffers gives counsel on how to live in the context of what Buddhists might equate with Dhaka, or disillusion. Given our post-election malaise, I find it’s advice worth heeding.

–rj

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