01 February 2017

Black People

I'm a fairly rich white guy living in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. I moved in almost four years ago to join ongoing efforts to grow and sustain Baha'i core activities, which have been moving along successfully. But this is not about children's classes, this is about some observations on race.

I'm not only a fairly rich white guy, but I'm in the whitest big city in the country. Portland had two neighborhoods where black people were funneled into during the 1950s, and where they had to stay. Both areas turned into high poverty/crime neighborhoods in the 1980s and 90s. One of these was gentrified and people migrated to poorer parts of Portland. The other was renovated with a federal grant and turned into mixed income housing, and that is where I live. Here are some of the antics that have gone on since I got here.
  • In the first month or so living here, when I would see a group of black teenagers walking down the street, I was afraid of them. Unconsciously, of course, but I realized that I was more cautious of black kids than white kids. This seemed strange because I was raised a Baha'i, grew up going to race unity events, and spent most of a year in Mississippi surrounded by black people. If that kind of prejudice is so baked into me, think of how difficult it would be to overcome in people who aren't even trying.
  • My neighborhood has attracted a lot of African immigrant families who were displaced from central African wars during the 1990s. While walking down the street with one of these African-born boys, we passed by two black American teenagers who were smoking. Afterwards my friend said, "I don't understand African Americans. They make bad choices." My mind melted a little. Was he just racist? Am I supposed to say something?
  • The African families generally have loads of kids, so a lot of them arrived in the US with teenagers. Being human, they arrive in high school very socially awkward and they're looking for friends, so they glance around and see some white people and some black people and some Hispanic people and some Asian people and some other humans. So which group do they befriend first? Right, they go to African Americans and try to make friends, but they are culturally totally different. Then they go to the white people and try to fit in, but they don't match up there either. Almost universally they have tried to adopt African American culture in an attempt to join a social club. This was fascinating to observe.
  • For some reason, in America people are considered black if they are any part dark skinned. Barack Obama is as much white as he is black, but everyone calls him a black President. In college I had an epiphany when a teacher showed how that attitude is racist. It means that being white is pure, and anything but 100% white is black. There is huge genetic diversity among Africans, so we really need to come up with some better ways to describe skin tone. 
  • One of my young friends in the neighborhood started telling me that he is not black and I am not white. I'd heard this before, that even using the term "black" is inaccurate and carries a negative association. That's why "African American" became the PC term a long time ago to replace "colored", "negro", and "black". So in a playful way I asked him what am I supposed to call people with dark skin, and he didn't have a good answer. Africans don't like the term "African American" to describe the American descendants of slaves, because they are culturally American. I don't have a solution either, but if you come up with a better phrase, I know a country who could use an answer. 
  • People often see racism where there is none. I care for the kids and youth in our classes like my own. When I was playfully wrestling with one of the teenage boys I was told by a white friend that I shouldn't do that because it looks bad, me being aggressive with a black kid. I found the comment quite strange. 
  • Once, one of the youth commented, "Why are all rich people white?" (she was including me in that category). I paused and said, "It's complicated." 
  • In the park one day, I saw a group of 6-7 year old black boys playing, and one of them got into a fight with a Hispanic kid. He grabbed a plastic pipe and was waving it around. I walked up and grabbed the pipe and said that they wouldn't be fighting as long as I was there. The black kids said that I didn't understand because I'm not black. I gave them a lecture about good behavior, and how they should try playing with the kid. A bit later they were all playing with the Hispanic kid. 
  • The problem of race in America is more about class and wealth than about skin color. Imagine you're playing a game of Monopoly (or maybe Settlers of Catan?) and all the white people get to go around the board three times, and then the black person gets to start. Most of the property will be taken up, and the black fellow is not on an even playing field. Even if racial prejudice were completely eliminated in access to jobs and housing (which it's not), most of the black communities would still be showing worse outcomes in education, wealth, and family cohesion. That's because you can't just let the black guy on the monopoly table and call it fair. There has to be a bias in favor of black people. Affirmative action was the right path, but it hasn't gone far enough. The status quo is unjust.
  • My neighborhood was designed around the principle of mixed housing, which I think is great. It means the neighborhood was designed for a mix of incomes, with about half the neighborhood part of low income subsidized housing. This helps prevent it from turning into a slum and provides social connection for upward mobility. My block is one with privately owned lots, and in three directions are strips of low income duplexes. This is a great principle, except the schools are not mixed. The wealthy families, who are mostly white, send their kids to better schools in other neighborhoods, and all the impoverished families, mostly black and Latino, send their kids to the neighborhood school, which is among the worst performing in the district. Kids there are notoriously misbehaved and disrespectful, especially above 4th grade. The physical mixing of the neighborhood was a great idea, but the schools are segregated by race and income.

20 January 2017

President Trump

In the summer of 2013 the Universal House of Justice initiated youth conferences around the world. My wife was just below the age cutoff at the time, and I was bringing several youth from my neighborhood, so we went to Tacoma, Washington and stayed several nights. It was really a special time, discussing high ideals about shaping the future of the world. On one of those nights I had a dream that seemed significant, so I wrote it down.

The dream had a nefarious character that seized power, and at the time I perceived it as a potentially prophetic dream about a real person whose identity might become clear in the future. Two and a half years later I was on a late night flight and while walking down the aisle of the plane I saw an ominously similar vision on the plane as I saw in the dream. On the plane I was walking down a dark aisle with people on both sides sitting staring at phones and computers, and in the dream I was walking down a dark aisle with people on both sides sitting on bunks staring at phones and computers.

Less than a week later I was driving and listening to a story about Donald Trump, and in a flood everything became clear. Keep in mind that this was January 2016 and the primaries were far from over, but I realized that Trump was the prisoner in my dream, and I realized with great certainty that he was going to be the next President. It all made sense, why he was going to win, what he would do, and what would come of it. As the vote grew closer I was confused by all the projections showing him definitively losing but I knew an upset was coming. In fact I have had absolutely no anxiety from that day until now, inauguration day.

I have been hesitant to share this for several reasons. First and foremost I don't want to wade into partisan politics. But also because prophetic dreams and visions are not of great value except to those who experience them, and people shouldn't be in the habit of feeling special or treating people special over them. But here is the dream pretty much as I wrote it in 2013 and you can come to your own conclusions about what is going to happen and why.

We were inside a big complex, sort of a huge building, where Barack Obama was in charge. Part of the building housed a prison, and there was some high-level meeting about the prisoners maybe getting out of hand.

The prison had two long corridors that were lined with bunk beds about 6 high, so you could walk down the aisle with beds going up way over your head. Each room had only one entrance with a dead end at the far side.  There were two guards with shotguns, and there was another guard behind protective glass.

Since they were worried about something going on, one of the security guards checked on each room, first the right, then the left. Walking down the left corridor, the lights were off and everyone in their bunks were watching videos on phones and tablets, distracted by movies and games. At the far end of the room there were two desktop computers. After making it to the end, the guard walked back.

When the guard reached the entrance he turned back to look and one of the prisoners from the left wall was off his bunk and on the computer. It was obvious that this was related to what everyone was worried about, and he was actively hacking the computer to take control of the prison. The prisoner didn’t respond to yelling at him, so the guard raised his shotgun and fired. It was loud, but nothing came out. The guard then pulled the grip to pump the shotgun, and fired again with a loud blast. This time he hit the prisoner in the neck with a dart. The dart was like the Nerf darts that stick to a window, but it stuck to his neck and caused a lot of trauma.

The prisoners were all scared at this point, and the one at the computer was disturbed, but kept on hacking away at the computer. The guard pumped the shotgun again, but it was quite a bit more difficult to pull. He fired again, hitting him with another dart and disturbing him. Then the guard started walking slowly down the aisle while pumping the shotgun again, but it was even harder to pull. The prisoner switched to the other computer and was doing something nefarious there as well. The guard fired a third time and hit him again, greatly disturbing him. But with each shot it was harder to reload. Now the guard was standing next to the prisoner and pumping the shotgun, but it was so difficult that he almost couldn't reload. It was obvious that the guard was going to shoot the prisoner after reloading then hit him across the head with the butt of the gun. The prisoner finished what he was intending to accomplish and took control of the complex. He turned around to watch just as the guard finally reloaded. The prisoner congratulated the guard on his virtuous attempt to stop him and accomplishing the last shotgun load.

A loud noise caused the guard to look back the other way, and in a split second the prisoner had hit the guard across the head with the butt of his own rifle that appeared out of nowhere. The guard was knocked down and all the prisoners changed from fearful to empowered. They jumped out of their racks and started attacking the guard, while the lead prisoner used the rifle to bash in the guard’s head. I noticed that one of the prisoners jumping down was someone who works at my company. My vision in the dream panned over to the wall, like in a movie. To the sound of yelling, every few seconds blood splattered on the wall. 
The feeling I got was that the prisoner was unleashing some kind of chaos. He was not a freedom fighter, he was someone manipulating the public and was selfish. Society was keeping the prisoners locked up to keep order, and by breaking them out, he created disorder. 
In my interpretation, the complex was the United States, led by Barack Obama. The guards were the mainstream politicians keeping the status quo regardless of party. The two corridors were the two ends of the political spectrum filled with common folk being distracted by media and not really paying attention to issues of import to the world. Each end of the spectrum has its own type of anarchy, from anti-government white nationalist militiamen on one end to anti-Wall street communist eco-terrorists on the other. The parties use fringe issues to rile up their base, but they ultimately want to keep the chaos under control to keep society functioning. 

When one of the prisoners was getting out of hand, they inspected the prison and found Trump trying to take over the Republican Party nomination. Republican leadership across the board was opposed to him, not to mention Democrats. The media joined in to almost universally condemn him. Even the Pope urged the faithful not to support him. To a normal candidate these would have been death knells, but Trump wasn't a normal candidate. All the political machinery was set up for a technical boxing match, and Trump came in and hit them over the head with a folding chair. Their shots that should have killed him were mere nuisances, like Nerf darts coming out of a shotgun. As the guard approached the prisoner for a point blank shot followed by a blow to the head (hot mic audio about groping women), all the prisoners sat in their bunks afraid. But at the last second he succeeded in taking control and knocked out the guard (Clinton). Then even before taking office he began to gut the power of the establishment politicians.

The reasons he succeeded were many, but he played the Republican base like he played the media. The prisoners in the corridor were the far right, being whipped up from decades of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News truthiness. There is a very dark side of America. A side that still thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that there is something wrong with being a Muslim. There is a side to America that flirts with racism, cares nothing about other countries, and wants government to be small and weak. They are also good people who have certain perspectives because they live in the countryside in poverty where 911 services don't reach, where factories close, where regulations reduce their income, and they were just on the losing end of a major culture war. If you haven't read this article from Cracked.com, I highly recommend it.

When the prisoner won and knocked out the guard the prisoners on the political right were energized and left their bunks. Their ideology will now be manifested in the highest office. Trump will ruthlessly use his power to control media, privatize and reduce government, reduce the power of Congress, reduce military commitments around the world, and start trade wars. The economy will go up, at first. It is very likely that the US will engage in another war in the coming years and experience more dramatic acts of terrorism.

How? Why? Because American culture doesn't benefit from certain lessons of World War II. Germany was humbled and learned what it's like to follow a fascist leader who talks up nationalism, and their culture now makes it almost impossible for nationalism to seep into politics openly. Almost the opposite, American culture assumes that it is always the good guy and can't do wrong. Particularly on the far right, America is the "greatest nation on earth" with God lending a hand every now and then.

To be fair, the political left has its own serious flaws, but the right entered its own stratosphere in the last 20 years and has been using whatever power it can grab to prevent the full establishment of the Lesser Peace described by Baha'u'llah. If anyone has been following my blog, you know that the world order that has dominated since the end of the Cold War is fraying at the edges and can easily unravel catastrophically. See The End of Nuclear Weapons and a New World Order. Either America will miraculously become enlightened and fully embrace a world commonwealth (very unlikely), or a world cataclysm will dramatically reshape the power structure of the world while at the same time providing an impetus for change toward a united world, similar to what happened after World War II. America just chose the latter. The anxiety currently experienced by a large number of Americans is because they don't have a vision for where this is all going and feel lost, disempowered, and confused. They don't  understand the malady, let alone have a remedy.

But for Baha'is who have studied Shoghi Effendi and are engaged in the community building efforts across the world, they have a vision of a world that is not divided by class, race, nation, or even religion. They can not only identify the causes of injustice, they understand the solutions and are actively working toward a better future. The ship of the current world order is slowly sinking from mortal wounds. Baha'is are not engaged in debating who gets to be captain of a sinking ship, they are building a new ship.

Who else can be the blissful if not the community of the Most Great Name, whose world-embracing, continually consolidating activities constitute the one integrating process in a world whose institutions, secular as well as religious, are for the most part dissolving? They indeed are “the people of the right,” whose “noble habitation” is fixed on the foundations of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh—the Ark of everlasting salvation in this most grievous Day. Of all the kindreds of the earth they alone can recognize, amidst the welter of a tempestuous age, the Hand of the Divine Redeemer that traces its course and controls its destinies. They alone are aware of the silent growth of that orderly world polity whose fabric they themselves are weaving.
Conscious of their high calling, confident in the society-building power which their Faith possesses, they press forward, undeterred and undismayed, in their efforts to fashion and perfect the necessary instruments wherein the embryonic World Order of Bahá’u’lláh can mature and develop. It is this building process, slow and unobtrusive, to which the life of the world-wide Bahá’í Community is wholly consecrated, that constitutes the one hope of a stricken society. For this process is actuated by the generating influence of God’s changeless Purpose, and is evolving within the framework of the Administrative Order of His Faith.
In a world the structure of whose political and social institutions is impaired, whose vision is befogged, whose conscience is bewildered, whose religious systems have become anemic and lost their virtue, this healing Agency, this leavening Power, this cementing Force, intensely alive and all-pervasive, has been taking shape, is crystallizing into institutions, is mobilizing its forces, and is preparing for the spiritual conquest and the complete redemption of mankind. Though the society which incarnates its ideals be small, and its direct and tangible benefits as yet inconsiderable, yet the potentialities with which it has been endowed, and through which it is destined to regenerate the individual and rebuild a broken world, are incalculable. 
Shoghi Effendi. World Order of Baha'u'llah

07 December 2016

New Book on Evolution

Darwin's Original Title
Six years ago I started writing a post for this blog to address the topic of evolution from the Baha'i Writings, a sticky topic for sure.

It didn't take long for my blog post to turn into 14 pages, and I realized I had a problem. When it hit 100 pages and I realized how awesome it was, I considered sending it to a publisher. This week I signed a contract with George Ronald to publish in 2017!

One reason it expanded was that I wanted to review all the other authors who have written on the topic, and that alone is a substantial task. `Abdu'l-Baha made comments that seem to indicate a kind of parallel evolution for humans, in a way that they evolved over millions of years from a primitive form, but in a way that they were distinctly human and not animal throughout their evolution. This interpretation clearly presents a conflict with standard science, but it is far, far removed from modern creationists.

The majority of Baha'i authors have addressed the issue by taking the modern scientific consensus as factual, and reinterpreting the context and language of `Abdu'l-Baha to suggest that the parallel growth interpretation is an unfortunate semantic mistake.

Originally, my only concern was to suggest that Baha'is not totally abandon the idea that new understandings in science could still validate the apparent meaning. After all, it is still naturalistic and does not involve a special creation by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I hypothesized some potential discoveries that could validate and affirm the apparent meaning of `Abdu'l-Baha's comments. Then I was surprised that pretty much all of my hypotheses had already been discovered, and I found that numerous leading evolutionary biologists were advocating for a paradigm shift in our understanding of evolution, so I began documenting.

I expect most people will scoff at the idea of someone writing about a change in science to support a religious doctrine. Anyone remotely familiar with the absolute dominance of neo-Darwinian theory should assume that my conclusions are wrong, but I can guarantee it'll surprise you. I encourage skeptics to read it and see if it doesn't leave you convinced that the model of independent descent is highly plausible.

I'll share more when the book becomes available, but I wanted to give you a heads up, and yes, it will be available as a Kindle eBook as well as print.

10 November 2016

6 Reforms to Save American Democracy

The majority of voters in this year's US presidential election said that they were inspired to vote against the opponent, rather than for their candidate. On the sidelines sits the most dysfunctional Congress that any living person has ever known (Americans are four times more likely to approve of the Internal Revenue Service). This, at a time when several slow-moving issues could eat out the soft innards of America's economy and leave memories of a once-great power. If there was ever a time to talk about major reforms to the political order, it is now. 

Here, I'll lay out some of the ideas that I've come across over the years of contemplating power and democracy. Minor tweaks in the election process create vastly different outcomes. The United States has the longest running constitution in the world, and it is a testimony to the foresight of the founders that it has worked so well, for so long. But it is a big ship letting in water, slowly sinking while the people who should be fixing it are fighting with each other over who gets to be captain. There is a pessimist inside me saying that it will sink no matter what, but the optimist wrote this article.

I listed these in order of feasibility. Tweaking how primaries work is a no-brainer and easy to implement at different levels. A constitutional amendment, however, requires a proposal from two thirds of Congress (or two third of states), then ratification by three fourths of states. The chance of Congress proposing an amendment that reduces their own power is unlikely, but this is not a thought experiment in what is likely, it's a brainstorm session on a better democracy. 

1. Ranked Choice

Any casual observer can see the problem of increased polarization, with politicians becoming more extreme and less moderate on issues. The main culprit behind this is the primary system that encourages candidates to play to their party's base during primaries, resulting in an extreme choice that the other side reviles. The primaries entrench the monopoly of the two main political parties. In a district that always swings Republican, the election is won in the primary among a subset of registered party members. This entrenchment of the monopoly is made worse with redistricting by politicians that use gerrymandering to reduce ideological competition. 

In my state of Oregon several ballot measures have appeared (and failed) that would create an "open primary" system where all candidates of any party get to be on the same primary ticket, and anybody can vote. The top two then would go to a runoff election where they are the only candidates. The explicit intention of the ballot's supporters was to reduce the power of political parties and create more moderate election results. However this kind of open primary system can still be corrupted by parties forming and running private primaries, with others splitting the electorate. There is a far better system called ranked choice (aka instant runoff). 

In a ranked choice election, voters may select several candidates for a position, and rank them in order of preference. Everyone only gets one vote, but if your first vote is not the winner, then your vote goes to the second choice, and so on. This might sound complicated at first, but mathematically it is very simple and once all the votes are entered, it spits out a winner. Typically when this is implemented, if the winner does not have more than 50% of the vote, then it becomes a top two runoff situation. 

The benefits of a ranked choice vote are clear. It greatly reduces the power of political parties and allows third party candidates to actually compete without throwing the election to the side that didn't split the vote. It forces all candidates to play to the ideological center and court the entire electorate. It gives voters more choices and more power. It reduces the amount of money required to run. It potentially reduces the amount of times people have to vote (thus cost) by combining the primary with the general election. It reduces negative campaigning because "if I'm not your first choice, make me second". 

This type of voting is already in practice around the world, and in some US cities. It should spread to all levels, including Congressional and Presidential elections. 

2. Replace the Electoral College

With what?

Everyone I know thinks that the electoral college used for electing the US President is made for horse and buggy days and needs replacing, but there are two major benefits that it offers. 

Look around the world and you'll see parliamentary governments with numerous small parties that have to rally together to elect the prime minister. These multi-party systems are inferior to America's two-party duopoly. Don't kid yourself, you don't want the President to be elected by 30% of people casting votes. No third party has been able to make a dent because the electoral college forces everyone into one of two camps, and that means that at least half of voters selected the winner*, which is better than a popular vote where the winner takes less than half, or third parties splitting the vote and weakening their "side", or populous urban areas simply dominating every election.

The electoral college also makes it easy to perform a recount. Close elections are won by a few swing counties in a few swing states, meaning a recount or contested election only has to deal with a few counties. A contested popular vote would have to recount 100 million votes, meaning you might as well just vote again.

Both of these benefits can be maintained with a nationwide ranked choice vote. That way every vote actually counts, you get all the benefits described previously, and if there is no candidate with a majority, then the top two go to a runoff where one person will definitely receive a majority. The problem of recounting can be resolved by making the runoff election similar to the electoral college, but by county or district instead of by state.

3. Vote by Mail

In 2000 my state became the first to run elections entirely by mail. It has boosted participation by 10% and reduced the cost of elections. Since then Washington and Colorado joined the club. Once the majority of states arrive in the 20th century, we'll work on online voting. 

4. Reduce the Election Cycle

The US election cycle is beyond comprehension. Presidential candidates start lining up two years in advance of the vote, and most Americans dread the endless negative advertisements and bemoan the huge piles of cash required to even be considered a candidate. Almost every country in the world has a law limiting the campaign season. From Mexico to Canada, France, UK, and Turkey, a three month campaign is considered lengthy or illegal. France typically elects their president in two weeks. But in America a full freaking year before the election is considered too late to join the race.

Let's take this one in baby steps. Congress should pass a law that no candidate may formally campaign earlier than six months before the vote. This is easy to enforce because it is tied to spending money on campaigning. Primaries, conventions, rallies, dirt digging, and advertisements all have to be in that still-outrageously-long six month window. Then once we have a standard and a few elections behind us, a future Congress could easily adjust that to a still-sort-of-too-long four month window. 

Reducing money in politics is a tricky business. Reducing the election cycles is a simple and effective way to reduce the amount of money required to campaign. If the president needs hundreds of millions of dollars from donors to be elected, then you won't see a president that doesn't owe serious favors. 

5. Reduce Ballot Measures

To put it simply, ballot measures (aka propositions) are the crack cocaine of democracy. Once you start, it's really really hard to get off of it. The US Constitution has no direct democracy. Citizens are not entitled to vote on any issue, even changes to the Constitution. The United States is a democratic republic. We elect people who make decisions. It is not a democracy, it is a republic! Ballot measures only appeared about a hundred years ago, and initially they were meant to be a forum for major issues, a kind of safety valve to make sure politicians don't totally screw over the public. But they have gotten out of control in many states. Voters consistently vote to: reduce taxes on themselves, increase services, increase prison sentences, increases veterans' benefits, tax the wealthy or corporations, fund high visibility projects, did I mention reduce taxes?

States like California have been so battered with contradictory propositions by special interests that someone actually proposed a vote to eliminate all previous propositions. The state's budget is mostly allocated by these public referendums that are easy to control with advertising money, so the legislature has very little room to actually legislate. 

Citizens typically don't have a full picture of the issues and priorities behind the ballot measures; only a small handful have the time and skills to do the research to vote intelligently. An even smaller number stop to ask the question: is this the type of issue that belongs in a ballot measure, or should it be passed by the legislature?

Some clarity and reform needs to come about. The measures should be vetted by the state itself, either before or after the vote. This makes it difficult to act as a safety valve, but the initiatives should be written by lawyers and lawmakers who know the language of law so that they are clear and feasible. The only ones allowed to be put to a vote should be on major issues, such as constitutional change that affects the very nature of the state; things that require the moral authority that comes from a referendum of the public. 

6. Fix Congress

Fixing Congress is the most complicated issue. There are some practical tweaks to the existing system: in the Senate change the filibuster-breaking number from 60 to 40, make limits of 2 consecutive terms (6 years each), confirm appointments automatically after 90 days of inactivity, ban unrelated earmarks, change budgeting to biennial and multi-year spends, and redistrict to avoid gerrymandering.

Then take a look at the big picture. If you were sitting at the Continental Congress debating what kind of government the states should be united under, what would it be? I would start by adjusting state boundaries from the somewhat arbitrary ones now to something more balanced (sorry Rhode Island). If the Senate bases political power on state governments, then there should be a more rational arrangement of the states. Small states should be combined and stretch along natural transportation corridors, centered on major metropolitan areas. There would be fewer states, and each would have more resources.

Each state would get one senator, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state legislature, leaving about 40 senators. Then I would leave the House of Representatives pretty much the same as it is now, based on population and with a large number of representatives.

Term limits are the most simple and popular way to change Congress. Any decision-making body gets stale without new blood and new ideas. 12 years is plenty long to avoid short-timer problems, and they could always take a break and run again after getting some practical experience in the real world.

Final Thought

All these ideas are procedural changes. They are important, but they must be combined with cultural and social changes. For example, the country's political divide is being further pushed apart by echo chamber media that only confirms one's own views while denigrating another. People have to listen to each other with compassion, use a kindly tongue, and build strong local communities.

Most important, in my experience, it is good to travel and get to know people that are totally different from yourself. If you're confused about Trump being elected, go find someone who supported him and really listen to what they say. They voted for him despite his sexist comments, not because of them. The Soviet Union thought they were fighting against greed and oppression of workers, while the US thought they were fighting against an evil ruthless empire. If you have an enemy, go talk to them.

* I realize that in the electoral college you can with with less than half of the popular vote, but the winner has to be very close to half

30 June 2016

Predictions for Britain and the European Union

Less than a week ago the United Kingdom voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. This was the most significant change in the EU's status since its expansion into eastern Europe in 2004. As one of the three big economies in the EU, Britain's leaving will have serious repercussions, and I have some predictions on how things will shake out.

Britain has always been at arms length from the EU. Despite being a founding member, it has stayed out of the Schengen area and euro currency. It has resisted attempts at further integration, causing the European quest for federalism to be slow and difficult.

The whole idea of integration was thrown into doubt with Greece's financial crisis and the Syrian refugee problem, and many misinterpreted these problems as a failure of the whole idea of integration. Rather, both situations were the result of taking fearful baby steps instead of a confident leap. The countries integrated incompletely, making a recipe for disaster. The answer is not less integration, it is more.

Many economists bemoan the idea of a currency union (the euro) without a fiscal and political union. In the case of Greece there was no effective central bank, no European budget controls, no consequences for violating the fiscal terms of the treaty. So of course Greece went to an extreme, its budget and debt became unsustainable, and its fellow countries had to throw together an improvised bailout. Of course it happened, because there were no controls. Since the crisis, Europe has now created a more powerful central bank, a stability fund, and other fiscal controls that will prevent and recover from financial instability. They integrated further, but still not far enough.

The EU's other pillar of integration is the Schengen area: countries that have no border controls and allow for the free migration of people, similar to inside the borders of the United States. Someone born in Portugal can drive to Sweden and find a job without needing a passport. But unlike the United States, there is no central authority patrolling the borders and controlling immigration. Each member state controls its own border, so in a sense, a million Syrian refugees pouring into Greece and Hungary to get to Germany was inevitable. If not Syrians in 2015, the hole in the system would be exploited eventually. Similar to the euro crisis, everyone now recognizes that maintaining the Schengen area means further integrating to create an EU-wide system of immigration control and shared burden of accepting refugees. Unlike the Euro crisis, basically no progress has been made on systemic border problems.

Both of the crises could have been averted with more intentional integration, but they were both implemented in the 1990s when integration was in small steps through treaties between independent sovereign nations. Those small steps were successful in creating something much more like a federal system of states, but now in the 2010s further integration is badly needed. But there are two areas of federal integration that are totally lacking and need to be addressed. Those are military integration and a constitution.

Several EU members have strong military forces, and most are also members of NATO, which defines security in Europe. A future step in integration will be to create a European army for the EU, then rethink or disband NATO. France's right as a legitimate nuclear weapons power under the NPT should transfer to the new military, which would be far more powerful than the sum of its current independent states.

The other step is a constitution. The EU attempted a constitution in 2004 that would have replaced a confusing set of treaties with a single reference for legal authority and created a system of voting to replace the unanimous agreement that is required for treaties. Somewhat ironically, it was never ratified because two countries out of 20 rejected it. This legal hump should be attempted again, as it is the surest way to create the authority necessary to fix some of the problems created by partial integration and avoid more problems similar to the Euro crisis (imagine a shared military without a central authority). Once the constitution is ratified, there should be a clear in/out among various nations with overlapping commitments. For example, Norway is part of Schengen but not an EU member, so it would likely be thrown out of the border deal unless it joins the constitution.

I predict that the UK's exit will do the opposite of what some leave campaigners were hoping. First, within 5 years of the actual exit, Scotland will vote again on independence and will likely secede from the UK, then negotiate entrance into the EU as an independent nation. It's also possible that Northern Ireland will do the same, which would cause the whole island to join Schengen. What's left would be a lonely England and Wales that are excluded from the benefits of the European market. Without Britain's obstruction, integration will accelerate on several fronts, and it will succeed while England fails. In the end, it will be a lesson in regional integration, not the harbinger of the end of the idea of federalism. Then England itself will try to join the United States of Europe.

24 February 2016

Rural America and Federal Land

Oregon. The southeast counties right to left are Malheur, Harney, Lake.
I have had a good life. I was born in a small university town in Oregon to well off parents. Turning fourteen I got to live in Mexico for half a year and experience a new culture, but I also learned a lot about my own country by leaving and observing it from afar. It was while living in Mexico that I realized the United States is the preeminent and most affluent country in the world. This was a rather shocking revelation to a teenager who never really thought about the freakishly lucky conditions of his birth.

My life continued to get better and I continued to appreciate traveling and exploring the world's mix of peoples. I spent a summer in Spain, then joined the US Air Force, which took me to Texas and Mississippi for almost a year. The military sent me to Qatar for half a year where I baked in the sun with camels and worked alongside people from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Palestine. I went to college as an electronics engineer then lived in China for a year before starting a wonderful job for a power utility in Portland, Oregon. I've also seen Nicaragua, Ecuador, Greece, and Israel thanks to my access to wealth and a US passport.

In all my travels and studies, I've only increasingly appreciated the peace, stability, fairness, and economic opportunities in the United States. Even if China surpasses the US in GDP, it will be decades before it can become a more desirable place to live.

Visiting America

Then I visited a new culture that presented an interesting challenge. My wonderful job took me to field offices all over the northwestern United States in small remote towns that most people would never pass through. I did not have any trouble associating with people of different backgrounds. But I had just come out of a decade of international travel and university study, where people talk about technology, sustainability, and how to fix the world's problems. What I ran into in rural towns were discussions about what to do when the government comes to take away all your guns and serious opinions about Obama being born in Kenya. It was a culture shock.

As a visitor to this new culture, I could see what was happening and what the issues were. The longer you live in the rural country, the more individualistic you become. The longer you live in a dense urban city, the more socialistic you become. A common plea I heard from people in the country was that they wanted the government to just leave them alone. This makes some sense in remote areas where you're mostly isolated and see government decisions as intrusions into your personal space. However, those attitudes would quickly die in a city surrounded by a million people who have to deal with each other. In my experience city dwellers would prefer to limit access to weapons, whereas rural folk think everyone should have an assault rifle.

The other force driving people was economic hardship from a new world economy that abandoned them to misery.

The vast majority of people I ran into were good, friendly, loving, and hard working people. But just like on the urban left, there were extremists who were angry, racist, ignorant, and talked about overthrowing the government, or stashing food, weapons, and gold for when society collapses in a cannibalistic dystopian future.

Barack Hussein Obama

Then I noticed a sharp change in tone when Obama was elected in 2008.

In 2009 I had a three month tour in Redmond, Oregon, a definitively small rural town surrounded by small rural towns. The conservative right in the country were being whipped up into a frenzy against an enemy that didn't actually exist. It got even worse when the health care law was being debated. Conservative radio hosts and Fox News in general were profiting from fear and spreading misinformation. They were not very different from the Interahamwe radio from Hotel Rwanda, except it was in my backyard. The level of outright lying and manipulation was staggering. 

I heard Glenn Beck talk about his "movement" of protesters as if it was a growing militia that he was leading to save the country from internal enemies that have "abandoned the rule of law." I heard Rush Limbaugh say that Obama was, "actively working in opposition to the Constitution." I heard Laura Ingraham say that ACORN is a "criminal organization." I heard Sean Hannity tell everyone that the health care bill is "a total lie and deception on the American people", that it's a Nazi policy, and that it will have death panels killing people off to save the government money. They defended the right to torture. They encouraged listeners to rise up in creative ways in opposition to the government. They said that Obama "has a deep seeded hatred for white people." They played a song on the air called, "Barack the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon".

Their followers in rural America went to Obama rallies with weapons and wore signs that read, "It is time to water the tree of liberty" (Thomas Jefferson: 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants'), it was their followers that shouted outside the White House "Hang the lying Muslim traitor!", it was their followers that started declaring themselves "sovereign citizens" and decided to not pay taxes, and it was their followers who stockpiled gold, weapons, and ammunition as soon as Obama was elected and reelected.

I gave a lot of honest reflection to the issues people were bringing up. I considered whether there was any real injustice or government overreach or any breaches of the US Constitution (I read every word of it). My conclusion: absolutely not. Any perception of totalitarianism only came from half-truths or outright lies. This creates a serious problem for the United States.

True Patriots

It only got worse.

As seen on the internets
In the 1990s Cliven Bundy decided that he could ranch on federal land without paying grazing fees. After almost twenty years of letters, warnings, court orders, and fines accumulating to over $1M, federal agents came to seize his property and were met with a bunch of rifles pointing at them. Bundy had created a fictional story about how the federal government is not allowed by the Constitution to own the land, and further fooled locals into believing that the feds were coming for no good reason. Like a Ponzi scheme that went on too long, Bundy could not have possibly paid the fees so he latched on to any idea that could save him. After two separate courts decided against him, federal agents stood down and did not seize his property. This successful defiance lit a fire under a bunch of anti-government groups that believed that an inevitable showdown loomed large in their future.

Where have I heard this phrase before?
Then last month Bundy's sons and a dozen others showed up at a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon, a short distance from where I had worked in 2009. They repeated Cliven Bundy's claim that the federal government has no authority to own and manage large tracts of land in the western states and demanded that the two men who received jail sentences for setting fires on the land be set free. This grew into them demanding that the refuge be returned to "the people".

As an outside observer familiar with the delusional paranoia on the far right, I was honestly sad that this had gotten so far. The people at the refuge believed what they were preaching, along with thousands of others in small towns throughout several states. Liberals and the mass media thought the whole situation was hilarious and expected them to be under arrest or dead within a short amount of time.

After three weeks of largely leaving them alone with their snacks, the FBI arrested the leadership during a traffic stop in which one person, LaVoy Finicum, was killed. Within hours a supporter who had been in the vehicles during the shooting claimed that their vehicles were riddled with bullets (turned out to be stun grenades) and that LaVoy was shot with his hands in the air. The FBI soon released video showing LaVoy avoiding arrest, almost running over an agent, and reaching for his gun before being shot. The people who wanted to believe in the conspiracy continued believing that LaVoy was killed outside of the law. An investigation will take another month to complete, but the conspiracies are running wild and LaVoy is being declared a "patriot" that was "executed".

Federal Lands

Those hurling ridicule at the anti-government crowd also have an obligation to investigate their concerns and address them. Those protesters sincerely believe that they were fighting against a tyrannical government and they used the language of the American revolutionary war. It is in everyone's interest to listen to their grievances.

If you want to wade through constitutional law regarding federal land ownership, here is an excellent and relatively short article by the Heritage Foundation. In short, there are two clauses of the US Constitution that are relevant: the enclave clause,

The Congress shall have Power To ...exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.
And the property clause,

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States....
The first addresses the sovereignty of the capital district, military installations, and other strictly federal land purposes, and guarantees that those properties that are purchased by and for the good of the United States are not subject to the whim of state governments. The second addresses non-state territories and "other property" belonging to the federal government. The federal government has sovereignty over new territories, but when they became states, the federal land became state land and then would be subject to the enclave clause. The federal government may also have "proprietary" ownership of lands, just like a private citizen may own land, but the states have sovereignty over that land.

So there goes an argument that in between territory and enclave, the federal government lacks constitutional authority to manage state lands that are not enclaves. However, the property clause mentions "other property" and this has always been a squishy area for interpretation. If a state petitioned to have the proprietary land ownership transferred to the state, they would almost certainly be able to, and over one quarter of the land in the United States could change hands this way. But states generally want to retain those lands as public and enjoy the benefit of not having to pay for their management. A second question is whether Congress can manage the use of the lands and, for example, ban or regulate hunting on them.

The ultimate arbiter of constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court, has unequivocally supported the basic right of federal land ownership, and stated that the authority to manage the use of the lands is "without limitation". The non-enclave land is still under the jurisdiction of the state and they also ruled that the state does not need to actively consent in order to retain federal land.

And here is the huge gaping hole in the argument of the Bundys: the Supreme Court is the only institution that can interpret the Constitution authoritatively to resolve disputes, and the Supreme Court very clearly disagrees with them. They are trying to enforce their personal (erroneous) interpretation of the Constitution in a way that benefits them financially and they are disregarding the system of law. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance in calling yourself a patriotic supporter of the Constitution while ignoring court orders and resisting the government by force.

The Bundys also tried to bypass state ownership and asked for federal land to go straight into private or some kind of community ownership. Their methods, ideology, and demands were incoherent and fruitless, bordering on communism or anarchy. Their dialogue sounded like the ramblings of the communist party.

Despite the rhetoric, the fights are not about the Constitution and freedom, they are about access to wealth.

The Timber Industry

The demands and grievances of the Bundy clan were hollow and their methods brought ridicule from the left. However, there is another storyline in this debate that should not be overlooked.

Rural economies have been left in the dust. Numerous small towns around Oregon were built up around the timber industry over a hundred years ago. My grandfather and great-grandfather worked in mills in three areas of the state, (Enterprise, Dallas, and Coos Bay) moving to where the jobs were. Several forces ground the timber prosperity to a halt.
  1. The easy money that came from harvesting mature virgin forests was unsustainable and couldn't last indefinitely. 
  2. The timber industry was largely unrestrained and unregulated until the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s the industry was hammered with several state and federal laws that forced them to harvest responsibly, or not at all when it interfered with endangered species or the other environmental concerns. 
  3. Globalization provided new markets for the timber, but also brought competition.
  4. Forest fires destroyed vast amounts of the best timber in the world. The timber industry both started the fires during operations, and contributed to their intensity by suppressing small fires.
  5. Most importantly, technology advances reduced the manpower needed to harvest trees. A single operator can harvest 2,000 trees in a day with a machine that efficiently processes an entire tree into board lengths in a single sweeping motion. 
The decline of the timber industry and unskilled labor was practically inevitable. The counties in Oregon that couldn't integrate into the modern economy saw a decline in wages and population. In Coos County, where my mother grew up, the public school was recently dropped to four days a week to cut costs, contributing to a spiral of decline.

The Rural Divide

Harney County was once the most prosperous in the state, per capita. Now the old decommissioned lumber mill sits empty and rusting and incomes are second worst in the state. In 2008 the last timber company in the area, and a manufacturing plant both shut down and laid off a few hundred people out of the 7,000 that lived in the county. The only bright spot in the economy is ranching, thus the desire to confiscate federal lands for private use.

Paradoxically, federal grazing fees are cheaper than private ones, and management prevents destruction from overgrazing, keeping the land viable. But federal management also comes with bureaucracy, and somewhat arbitrary limitations like when some obscure insect might be mating. This can infuriate ranchers who take a financial hit. Or in the case of what sparked the Malheur Wildlife Refuge takeover, the jail sentences for two ranchers seemed excessive for the crime. One rancher in Oregon wrote that, "Utilizing federal land requires ranchers to follow an unfair, complicated and constantly evolving set of rules."

People are suffering and losing access to education and jobs, and nobody is paying attention to their plight. In the middle of that comes a wave of Mexican migrants appearing to undercut their pay, a President whose middle name is Hussein, media lying to them for profit, and an inefficient bureaucracy that makes it harder for them to eek out a living in order to save some animals.

No politician can replicate the miracle of the 1950s and bring back widespread middle class jobs where someone can work in a factory and make $80,000 a year. Some people are having to adjust to a lower standard of living. That makes them pissed off and more likely to fall for simple answers to complex problems. That's why populism and protectionism are so strongly felt now on both the right and left. But there is a particular virulent brand of it on the right, one that points blame at progressivism, regulation, and foreigners.

In western states this political divide follows population density.

In Oregon, half of the state's population lives in two large metro areas, and elections play to the left. Laws that regulate the rural economy are made by people who have never been there. It takes a toll when you see elections going the "wrong way" all your life with no hope for change. This has led to a statehood movement in eastern Oregon and Washington. A national debate about how to administer and manage western lands would be appropriate, and chopping up the state borders should be in the forefront of options. After all, they are largely arbitrary, and the Constitution provides methods for changing them.

On the topic of proper state borders, I already made an attempt to redraw them in a previous article, 29 Nations of the Earth. That article also redraws national boundaries, but you can ignore that and focus on the five states in the northwestern United States. I proposed that land would be better administered by dividing the Columbia River basin into an upper Columbia (western MT), Snake River (south ID and east OR), middle Columbia (central WA and OR), lower Columbia (west OR and SW WA), and Puget sound area. The Klamath River basin and some of the endorheic lakes would be another state, and the list could go on.

The point is, the arbitrary nature of the current state boundaries has a lot to do with the feeling of helplessness and disempowerment that is compounding the anger coming from economically depressed counties. 

There are four things that governments can work on to fix the problems in the rural west and avoid conflict. 

  • Improve rural economies. This is truly difficult, and there are no simple solutions.
  • Change the political landscape. Creating new states would resolve a lot, but it is almost unheard of and beyond most people's conceptions of what is possible.
  • Changing land from federal to state ownership could resolve some issues, but requires more resources from the state. 
  • Make the BLM more friendly to locals. Changing the laws and regulations for federal land is the easiest adjustment. With power comes great responsibility. The BLM is holding all the power, and should have more consideration for the human cost of their policies. 

If nothing changes, expect more armed conflicts. 

21 January 2016

The End of Nuclear Weapons and a New World Order

"There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth." 
Abdu'l-Baha to a Japanese Ambassador, 1912 

The World
With North Korea detonating their fourth nuclear weapon and Iran's standoff over its nuclear program, it's time to address once and for all the US policy toward nuclear weapons. It is time for the United States to unilaterally renounce the use of nuclear weapons, then systematically destroy its nuclear arsenal.

I expect the typical American will think that disarming would be suicidal and ludicrous. The typical American is wrong. Nuclear disarmament is in the best interests of the people and government of the United States, not to mention the whole world. The world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is fraying at the edges. To secure the future, the US needs to help mould a new order before the old one unravels completely.

10 January 2016

15 Great Group Games

My first junior youth group, 2003
Over about 12 years of facilitating junior youth groups in various forms, I made a growing list of the best group games I've encountered. I'll provide details below on how to facilitate the games, and what worked well in different situations.

The spiritual empowerment program for junior youth is intended to provide a rough balance between study, service, and recreation. To be successful, the group should not focus on one of those exclusively, or ignore one entirely. With that in mind, the recreational piece can be defined pretty broadly, and incorporate anything from crafts to sports, hiking, or trips to the zoo. Many of these games have the advantage of being short and easy to organize, so they could be added to every gathering. 

Junior youth groups are meant for ages 11-15, during a time of growing social awareness. Especially in the first few meetings after a group forms, it's important to establish an attraction and desire to participate. While the facilitators should be careful not to make it a group who's only purpose is to play, recreational activities are great for establishing friendships and leave people with a good feeling about the group.

Please leave comments if you have more to add.


The tricky part of this game is that you need to create a repetitive beat that everyone participates in. For example, slap your legs, clap, snap, pause. Repeat. 

Once everyone gets the pattern, pick a category, such as animals. As the facilitator, you'll start, and on the "pause" beat you'll say the name of an animal. On the next beat the person to your left will have to say the name of an animal that hasn't been said already, then the person to their left, and so on. If someone hesitates or repeats on their turn, they get eliminated and the next person in order continues.

Eventually you'll have two people going back and forth one after the other until one fails. The game goes fast, so don't be afraid to eliminate people and start a new category. If people are having a hard time, practice first with the alphabet as the solution set, or say that the game has to go around the circle once before anyone can be eliminated.

Try another round with the category plants, or states, or countries, or names of people you know.

05 January 2016

5 Tips for Raising Toddlers

A combination of professional advice and my personal experience.

And one more coming!

There are not many things as challenging or rewarding as raising a child. Soon my oldest girl will turn 5, my second girl will turn 2, and my son will be born, all in February. And while raising these cute little monsters, I've compiled my own list of parenting advice.

Before you roll your eyes and say that all children are different, I know. While there is a plethora of emotionally charged parenting advice that amounts to personal ranting, there is also a well studied and researched discipline on early childhood development. These recommendations are standard fare for the experts and have serious consequences on development.

1. Enough Sleep

As every parent knows, sleep is precious. Children sleeping not only allows you time to do the laundry without "help", but it is also the greatest tool to keep your child from having meltdowns. A tired four year old can crumble into a sobbing pile of tears when they can't find their favorite shoes, but with enough sleep they will be adorable little angels.

They're so peaceful when they sleep
A newborn baby will sleep for two thirds of the day! The trick comes later when they SHOULD be sleeping half of the day, including naps, up to the age of 6. But getting in that 12 hours requires the parents to really be on top of things, especially at nap time. This is one of the most frustrating things for parents to deal with, because you have to make your child want to sleep. And this at an age and time of day where they are irrational and emotional.

I recommend reading through lots of detailed advice on getting children to sleep, like this article from WebMD. This is an area where authors vary significantly. You'll get a lot of recommendations, and then you have to see what works with your particular child. Here are a few tips that have worked for myself and some friends.
  • Use a routine. Once you get into the habit of letting children put themselves to sleep, you'll have to reset that expectation when you change the routine. My almost five year old still takes naps for up to two hours during the day. I tell her she needs to lay in bed and rest for one hour, and if she gets up and runs around, then the timer starts over. Almost every time she falls asleep while laying there, but it took months of setting expectations and being consistent for it to work.
  • They need more sleep. If we get our kids to bed an hour earlier than normal, they go to sleep without noticing the difference and wake up at the same time. They just get more sleep. The problem is usually the parents, who are slow to get the bedtime process started, or who keep their kids out late at a party.
  • Make a dark, quiet room. We have always covered venetian blinds with an extra set of blackout curtains in the kids' rooms. When you pull the shades and the room goes dark it knocks them right out. The curtains also prevent them from waking up super early in the summer. Danger: you may find it hard to get them to sleep in other spaces, like visiting relatives.

18 September 2015

Two Could Have Defeated Thousands

Back in 2003 my friend's father, Amir Badiei, compiled Stories Told by `Abdu'l-Baha, but it wasn't until this year that I got a copy and started reading. I have been impressed from the start with its witty, funny, and insightful stories, not about `Abdu'l-Baha, but told by him to illustrate a point.

One of the stories that I had never heard before was about a time when thousands of people came to kill Baha'u'llah in Baghdad, providing a close parallel to the gangs of armed men who followed Muhammad to Medina to exterminate the early Muslims. This was, of course, before Baha'u'llah declared publicly and renounced holy war.

Two Could Have Defeated Thousands
[Edited for clarity]

When the Islamic clergy and Nasiri'd-Din Shah sent `Abdu'l-Husayn to Iraq, he began agitating against Baha'u'llah. He gathered many clergy at Kazimayn, near Baghdad, and began talk of waging a holy war. Soon a large number of Persians and Shi`ih Arabs congregated there.

Those gathered in Kazimayn then arranged to come two days later and attack us. We were only forty-six in all and our strong man was Aqa Asadu'llah, whose dagger would dangle and touch the ground.

There was a certain Siyyid Hasan from Shiraz. He was not a believer, but he was a very good man. One morning, when Baha'u'llah had been up and about, this Siyyid Hasan came knocking at our door. Much agitated, he asked, 'Where is the Aqa [Baha'u'llah]?' I said, 'He has gone to the riverside.' 'What is it that you say?' he responded. I offered him tea and said, 'He will come back.' He replied, 'Aqa! The world has been turned upside down... It has become turbulent... Do you know that last night they held a council... How is it that Baha'u'llah has gone to the riverside? They have decided to start their attack tomorrow.'

Whilst he was telling me what had happened, Baha'u'llah came in. Siyyid Hasan wanted immediately to express his anxiety. But Baha'u'llah said, 'Let us talk of other matters', and went on speaking. Later, Siyyid Hasan insisted on unburdening himself. However,  Baha'u'llah told him, 'It is of no consequence.' So Siyyid Hasan stayed for lunch and then went home.

Later in the afternoon the friends gathered around Baha'u'llah. Amongst them were two who were double-faced. He turned to the Friends and said, 'Have you heard the news? The [clergy] and the Consul have come together and gathered ten to twenty thousand people round them to wage jihad against Us.'

Then He addressed the two double-faced men, 'Go and tell them, by the One God, the Lord of all, I will send two men to drive them away, all the way to Kazimayn. If they are capable of accepting a challenge, let them come.'

The two hurried away and repeated what they had heard. And do you know, they dispersed!

31 August 2015

Update on Bryan

As the majority of a year has passed since the last post, I want to send a quick update to let people know that there are live bodies still thinking about the blog.

For the last 4 years most of my life has been taken up with children and my wife's medical residency. Now that we are transitioning into a somewhat normal life, I anticipate more time to blog, and I have a sizable list of blog topic ideas that get me excited when I look at them. Our third (and maybe last) child is due in February, so my goal is to get out all my ideas before then.

I've been pondering whether I should start a new blog for my posts, or continue with the Baha'i Coherence format. I like the idea of several writers contributing content together, but this forum hasn't been used in a few years now.

Another reason for my lack of time is that one of my posts (that was never shared) from 4 years ago grew and took on a life of its own. I submitted 110 pages to George Ronald for publication and I'll hear back by the end of September whether they'll publish it. I wrote on the Baha'i perspective on evolution, and much of that time I was waiting for the new translation of Some Answered Questions, which came out last March. Most of my writing time has gone into that project, but I still have a passion for sharing other topics of reasonable length.

Below are a few topics that I want to address. Any thoughts?
  • Group games for junior youth groups
  • Gun rights in America
  • Jesus' parable of wineskins
  • The end of nuclear weapons
  • UN Security Council reform

03 October 2014

There is no clean intellectual coherence...

The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced...

There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author's personal faith is not actively at risk.

Christian Wiman - My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

...And Wiman quoting Rainer Maria Rilke

The comprehensible slips away, is transformed; instead of possession one learns relationship, and there arises a namelessness that must begin once more in our relations with God if we are to be complete and without evasion. The experience of feeling him recedes behind an infinite delight in everything that can be felt; all attributes are taken away from God, who is no longer sayable, and fall back into creation, into love and death.

...And Further Wiman

16 September 2014

10 Meditation Techniques that I Have Found Helpful

In the past year I have gotten into meditation and have experimented with a number of techniques. While there is great value in going deep with one method, I have also found value in becoming comfortable with many, having many tools in the toolbox, so to speak. Over time it becomes natural to switch among them, to mix and match, even in the course of a single sit. Here is the list of boiled down techniques and tips that I wish I would have had from the beginning.

14 August 2014

What Would an Agnostic Spirituality Look Like?

Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist, is coming out with a book titled "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". I will be interested to read because, while I consider myself more of an agnostic, I relate to his interest in meditation and higher states of consciousness while at the same time being skeptical of the metaphysical implications that can be drawn from the phenomenology of it. He has come out with a precursor article that I highly recommend. His discussion of the various philosophies/methods of awakening to the realization of "no-self" (for Baha'i's, read "the death of the self"), particularly Theravada Vipasssana compared to Advaita Vedanta and Dzogchen direct inquiry, squarely hit home what I have been pondering lately. I was also surprised to hear that he doesn't believe consciousness is limited to the 5 senses, which makes him kind of an outlier among atheists.

05 August 2014

There should be a law

Poverty. Homelessness. Addiction problems. Hate. Violence. War, etc. There should be a law against them all.

Oh that's right there is---Bahai 'law'. And we need it now but---until there is a bunch of us, more than there are now, we have to pretty much live with the above. So entry troop on!

I have been writing as Portland's Addiction Examiner for over a year or more so go check it out. When you get to the site put my name Grace E. Reed and you should be able to open the articles. Let me know if that works---meanwhile I continue to work on these issues as a Bahai.


06 April 2014

God, global self-government, and male domination

Dear Ones and Friends,
One of the things I have realized about world federation theory as a result of a recent Wilmette Institute course on this subject is the extent to which both the theory as articulated by scholars and the actual efforts of good-willed people in the direction of world federation are disabled by a failure to take account of male evolutionary psychology and the ritual displays that almost all males, including human males, go through when threatened with loss of territory or control.

Just as Baha'u'llah was the prisoner of male leaders, so too world federation and His world order--the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth--are the prisoner of specifically male political thinking.

By the amount to which we fail to address and overcome typical male thinking in relation to world order, by the amount to which we fail to empower girls, women, and non-adversarial patterns and methods of self-government, by that amount we fail to appreciate the nature of the Kingdom, of the world order of Baha'u'llah, and the notion of global self-government guided by God.

The nasty, pathological aspects of alpha male evolutionary psychology are again dominating recent headlines and distracting the public from urgent issues of humanity’s future sustainability. First, there was Putin’s gesture in Crimea, then North Korean missile tests, and now Japan's reaction to North Korea.  Suddenly the world of “politics” reveals itself again as mostly a snake pit of male-psychology-driven tensions. Meanwhile, NASA and UN reports on climate change paint an ever more urgent picture of the need for massive global cooperation in human family problem-solving.

25 January 2014

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Baha'i Faith: Part 3

Part 1 here and part 2 here.  

I realize that most people go into meditation looking for stability, happiness, and comfort in the face of their own existence...I have spent many years cultivating extreme experiential instability, careful awareness of the minutia of my suffering and the clear perception that I don't even exist as a separate entity...I can honestly say that these practices are without doubt the sanest thing I have ever done in my life. -Daniel Ingram

The path of insight is not known to be easy. There are said to be many ups and downs - ecstatic bliss and energy one moment and crushing fear and misery the next. There are many maps of this territory, all different on a superficial level, yet all containing many of the same fundamentals. In the words of Ingram:

One of the most profound things about these stages is that they are strangely predictable regardless of the practitioner or the insight tradition. Texts two thousand years old describe the stages just the way people go through them today, though there will be some individual variation on some of the particulars today as then. The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps of the Tibetans and the Theravada, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals. I chanced into these classic experiences before I had any training in meditation, and I have met a large number of people who have done likewise. These maps, Buddhist or otherwise, are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. They are describing basic human development. These stages are not Buddhist but universal, and Buddhism is merely one of the traditions that describes them, albeit unusually well.

In this post I will discuss the map, known as the "Progress of Insight", which is originally derived from the Pali cannon in the Theravada tradition, as related by Mahasi Sayada and Daniel Ingram. The part of the map that I will discuss is "1st path" (there are four successive paths) which is basically the road to initial, but not complete, enlightenment, to a point after which insight generates itself automatically whether one practices or not, beyond the "plane of limitation". I will also relate this path to the first Four Valleys in the Sufi tradition, as commented on by Baha'u'llah: Search, Love, Knowledge, and Unity. 

My motivation for doing this is simply to share something that has become a big part of my life. This is my own working model of spiritual development and I will relate some of my experiential reports traveling along this path.