Sunday, December 29, 2013

Whiskered Men With Olive Branches: Or, How to Think Outside the Box and Still Save the World

The Zen tradition embraces the concept of satori, a sudden flash of enlightenment. Usually, satori comes about from having studied long and hard on a koan -- a Zen riddle designed to frustrate the logical mind and push it outside the box, so to speak, allowing us to see into the true nature of things, rather than how our analytical minds want or expect the world to be. In a sense, it is a type of existential surrender. You push and push and push with your logical mind, until the bottom drops out and you realize there was nothing to push against in the first place, other than the obstacles of your own making.

Christians might recognize this as a sort of "let go, let God" moment. Buddhists would perhaps see it as the moment when you come to grasp the Second Noble Truth, in which the Buddha stated that the cause of our suffering, our dissatisfaction with life, is rooted in our craving. We crave things we want, and we crave to be rid of things we don't want. It's not that the things we crave are themselves necessarily bad; it's that we can't be at peace with life as it is. If we can change an unpleasant situation, we should do what we can to make it so. If we can't, it is best to find peace with things as they are. (Christians, think of the Serenity Prayer.) The key is to understand which is which, a process that often requires untangling wants from needs. 

I would like to be free of debt. I would like to be thinner. I would like to be less anxious. I would like the NSA to go away. I would like for people around me to be more kind and more intellectually curious. I would like to live in a country that promotes peace.

Some of those things I can control. Others I can't. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Barricade ahead
I can't really say I have it all figured out yet, but I can recall sitting at a red light a few weeks ago, letting my mind wander over some recent event that made me grumpy. I can't even remember what it was now. But I can remember feeling the familiar ball of tension rising up in my stomach as I silently worked myself up into a self-righteous outrage. I noticed myself starting to fidget, like I always do when I'm agitated. And out of nowhere, I found my mind forming a word: blocked. It came to me very clearly. As I focused on it, the context presented itself: I've been blocked like this for years. I don't want to be blocked anymore.

Blocked, as in emotionally blocked. Getting worked up about things I have no control over. Feeling frustrated and yearning for a breakthrough.

My little flash of insight reminded me of a lesson I seem to have to learn over and over again, and I'm sure I'm not alone: I cannot control what other people do, say, or think. The only thing I can control is my reaction to them.

Indeed, it's a lesson we'd all do well to reflect on a little more often. It sounds easy enough to abide by, doesn't it? And it is, until we're inevitably confronted with an idea we don't like.

The question then becomes: How do we deal with those unpleasant ideas? Not well, if the current political climate is any indication.

In a fantastic interview with Bill Moyers, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, talked about his studies of people and groups who call themselves liberal and conservative. In his research, he's found that three things have contributed greatly to the way things are:
  1. Ever since the Civil Rights Act essentially handed the South over to the Republicans, both major U.S. parties have lost their moderating voices that could work across the aisle with each other. With those moderating voices mostly gone, the parties have chosen ideological purity over compromise and pragmatism.
  2. The baby boomers seem more given to Manichean thought than their elders did. When your worldview assumes a stance of good versus evil, you don't negotiate with evil. This is why Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, quite famously, could sit down and talk over their differences, while you could never have imagined Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich doing the same. 
  3. Americans have shown a tendency toward self-segregating according to shared beliefs, with the result of building up insular enclaves in which we never have to encounter people with opposing views. Technology has played a significant role in this development. As Haidt put it: "If you get all your ideas about the other side from the Internet, where there's no human connection, it's just so easy and automatic to reject it, and demonize it. So once we've sorted ourselves into homogenous moral communities, it becomes a lot harder to work together." 
I'm working my way right now through Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and I heartily recommend it for anyone who really wants to understand why the "other" side thinks the way it does. One especially interesting observation he makes is that he thinks conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do, which is why liberals have a harder time connecting with Joe Average in Nebraska. For example, Haidt has broken down people's moral concerns into six realms: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Liberals are off the chart on care, and if there's a conflict between care and liberty or care and fairness, care wins out. But liberals don't talk a lot about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to value all six realms fairly equally.

I think this gets to why the left tends to attract dreamers, idealists, and radical thinkers. They want a more just and equitable world. Conservatives might want that, too, but they tend to deal more with the unpleasant reality of what is, and how people act, than with lofty ideas of how they perhaps should act.

What would Pope Francis do?
That's where I think I've always dealt with a bit of a personal ideological conflict. I was raised in a conservative Catholic home, and that worldview was ingrained in me at an early age. At the same time, though, it never seemed right to me that people down on their luck should be made to suffer for their plight. Haven't they had it bad enough already? Can't we show some compassion and generosity for those less fortunate? I know I wouldn't want someone calling me a lazy bum and yelling at me to get a job if I ever found myself falling on hard times. That's what the Golden Rule is all about. Besides, aren't we, in a sense, all in this together?

Even though I long ago abandoned the religion of my upbringing, one part of it that always stuck with me was the love and compassion Jesus extended to those whom society forgot and sometimes even shunned. So why is that I've encountered so many Christians in my life who equate material acquisition with success, who look down their noses at those in need, and who all too eagerly stand in judgment of others? How do we forget that Jesus admonished us to see the plank in our own eye before noticing the speck in our neighbor's eye? How do we overlook that he freely "shared the wealth" of the loaves and fishes? Or that he told the rich man who wished to follow him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor? 

Even more pointedly, how can we be a nation almost perpetually at war yet still claim to worship the Prince of Peace?

Those questions long lingered in the back of my mind. And then along came an Argentinian cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who put a voice to so many of my concerns regarding Christian priorities of recent years. That cardinal became Pope Francis, and from the very start he carried himself with a gentleness and compassion that I thought made him a powerful example of what it means to follow in Jesus' footsteps. He advocated for the poor; he spoke against worldliness and church bureaucracy and in favor of mercy; he rejected prejudice and judgment; he reached out to nonbelievers and those of other faiths and encouraged us all to find common ground on which to build a world rooted in peace and justice. This pope immediately went out of his way to reject the ostentatious trappings of his office and mingled freely with the common people, in a heartwarming show of humility that made me think this was one religious man who finally had his priorities straight.

This is exactly the kind of message -- and messenger -- that Christianity has needed for a long time.

Meanwhile, back at Galt's Gulch ...
Yet even as I felt myself inspired by the pope's call to altruism, I fell back into my little political enclave, which mostly consisted of reading libertarian-friendly pages on Facebook. An old joke about libertarians is that they're just Republicans who smoke dope, but for me that was never the case. Even when I considered myself a GOP supporter, I never strictly followed the party lines that would be expected of good and loyal conservatives, in large part because I had no stomach for war. I was a staunch opponent of the first Gulf War back in 1990, and for my trouble I was subjected to my first angry "if you don't like this country, get out" harangue when I gave a speech in college about the seeming pointlessness of the war. By the time the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq came around in response to 9/11, I thought the Republicans had lost their minds. So my uneasy alliance with them came to an end as they pushed me into the arms of the libertarians, who by and large embrace the Non-Aggression Principle -- a rejection of the initiation of force, save in matters of self-defense.
An it harm none, do what ye will, as the Wiccans say. My rights end where your nose begins. Seemed to me a perfect way to live a nonviolent life. Neither of the major parties would ever embrace such a philosophy.

The most important thing I've taken from the libertarians is a laissez-faire attitude toward pretty much all peaceful, consensual adult behavior. I reject victimless-crime laws, and I couldn't care less what interests you choose to pursue in your private life, so long as those who cannot give their consent are not being harmed or exploited in any way. From the very start, I found the libertarians opposed to America's aggressive foreign policy, so that particular plank helped me fit right in. And the (virtual) company I've kept has only accelerated my devotion to the Constitutional liberties that both major parties have seemed all too eager to cast aside in the post-9/11 world. Edward Snowden is, for me, one of the greatest heroes in all of American history. I also couldn't donate quickly enough to Bradley/Chelsea Manning's legal defense fund. Much like Arlo Guthrie after being sent to the Group W bench, I have no doubt there's a little folder somewhere in Washington, D.C., with my name on it.

But ever since I started keeping company with the libertarians, there's also been a little nagging voice in the back of my head whenever the discussion shifts to the plight of the poor, the downtrodden, the forgotten. (Sound familiar? There's a trend here.) I think this is where libertarians falter the most in their philosophy. When you point out all the corporate malfeasance of the past several years and argue that maybe a little bit of regulation to stem any exploitative capitalist excesses and protect the little guy isn't such a bad thing, the common retort is that what we have in our nation today isn't capitalism at all, but rather corporatism -- a crony system in which the businesses use their deep pockets to gain political influence and extract kickbacks, including favorable legislation, in return.

Now, I can't really argue with that characterization of the current state of affairs. But I'm supposed to believe that in the absence of any government regulation whatsoever, these same corrupt businesses are going to magically start acting like angels and never exploit a single human being? Color me skeptical.

The libertarians who espouse these views don't help their cause when they start talking about things like fair labor practices. On more than one occasion, I've been witness to discussions in which libertarians have actually rationalized child labor and sweatshops. Essentially, the argument goes that we're helping destitute people in developing nations by sending them our manufacturing work, because they and their families might otherwise have starved to death. Never mind that they may be working in hellish conditions for pennies an hour, or that they may be children who should be off playing and enjoying their lives without a care in the world. Never mind, too, that these jobs could be going to American workers instead. I understand the libertarians' argument, but it seems heartless to defend a practice that can just as easily be seen as exploiting the poor overseas to avoid paying a decent living wage to a worker here at home, all in an attempt to maximize corporate profits.

Well, I can't control any libertarian views. I can only control my reaction to them.

And my reaction has been to open my ears to new points of view.

When the student is ready, the teacher(s) will appear
First, the pope struck a nerve. Then Russell Brand came out swinging a few months ago. Despite all his eccentricities, he made some points in a much-discussed BBC interview that I found myself agreeing with emphatically:
The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we're exploiting poor people all over the world, and the genuine legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class. ...

The Occupy movement made a difference -- even if only in that it introduced to the popular public lexicon the idea of the 1% versus the 99%. People for the first time in a generation are aware of massive corporate and economic exploitation. These things are not nonsense, and these subjects are not being addressed.

His suggestion that fixing our social ills may involve "a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment" caused a lot of people in conservative and libertarian circles to tune out. And I admit that it's a blow to one's credibility to say "profit is a filthy word" when one's net worth is estimated to be around $15 million.

But let's not shoot the messenger here. Russell Brand is simply expressing the same frustration with the current system that the Occupiers did. And he didn't go into his interview pretending to have all the answers to our ills; the interviewer pushed Brand to offer his solutions, and that was his off-the-cuff reply.

Let's take a moment to consider the economic situation that's made people like Brand speak up:
  • Income inequality is at its worst in 90 years
  • For the first time in U.S. history following a financial crash, wealth concentration among the richest Americans has increased. The economic "recovery," which has seen the stock market hit one record high after another, has raised incomes 31.4% for the top 1%. Many, if not most, Americans aren't feeling a boost from this recovery.
  • The richest 10% of Americans hold 75.4% of all privately held wealth, the highest figure among developed nations.
  • The 400 wealthiest Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of all American households.
  • Corporate profits have reached all-time highs and account for a larger share of GDP than at any other time in U.S. history. Meanwhile, wages as a percentage of the economy were at an all-time low in 2012. Many businesses, it appears, are keeping wages low because they know there are a lot of unemployed people who would be willing to work for even less.
  • Whereas in 1979 the top 1% took in 7.9% of all the nation's income, that number increased to 23.5% in 2007. And while the top 5% enjoyed a 73% increase in real income between 1979 and 2008, the bottom 20% saw their real income decline 4.1%. In the past seven years, real wages have dropped by nearly 7%.
  • As of 2012, the average CEO made 273 times as much as his or her employees. 
  • Meanwhile, poverty and hunger are on the rise, and tent cities are proliferating around the country.
  • The same banks that precipitated the economic crash have paid out billions in fines, but there has been little to no restitution for those who were victims of the banks' malfeasance. Further, the banks seem to have simply set aside money for the fines as a cost of doing business, so it hasn't affected them in any significant way. No one has gone to jail, and they continue to rake in massive profits. 
  • Recently, Wal-Mart infamously sought food donations for its own workers, so that those who couldn't afford Thanksgiving dinner might enjoy one. It's hard to imagine that a company that recorded more than $15 billion in profits in 2012 couldn't afford to simply pay its employees a little more. Nor is Wal-Mart alone: It's estimated that the top 10 fast-food companies place a $3.8 billion burden on taxpayers, who have to pay for some sort of public assistance for fast-food workers when their employers fail to provide them with enough to pay for food, housing, and other necessities.
  • Savers are being penalized by the Federal Reserve's suppression of interest rates in an attempt to stimulate consumer borrowing and spending. I can remember when CDs came with rates exceeding 15% in the early to mid-1980s, and now I get online ads from banks and brokers offering a measly 0.75%, yet presenting it in big, bold type, as if it's some kind of terrific offer. People are piling into the stock market to try to grab some decent returns, although the deck seems stacked in a market in which the top 1% lay claim to 50.9% of all stocks, bonds, and mutual fund assets. The top 10% own 90.3%.
  • Young people are drowning in debt from taking on student loans to pay for college tuitions that have exploded in the past two decades, and they're graduating into a world that offers them limited job opportunities to pay off that debt -- which, perversely, can't be discharged in bankruptcy. There is often no way for them to escape the debt albatross.
  • Companies are cutting hours to avoid the coming mandate to provide insurance coverage for their full-time employees -- many of whom are finding their health premiums increasing under the new law. And while the official unemployment numbers are dropping, many of the new jobs on offer are low-wage and part-time. So even though not as many are unemployed, they may still be underemployed.
  • In 2011, more people than ever before were collecting food stamps. Again, this is while corporate profits are at an all-time high. And the latest federal budget will end long-term unemployment benefits for more than a million people. One Republican Congressman quoted the Bible to argue that if people are unwilling to work, they shouldn't eat -- as if every unemployed person doesn't want to work, and as if we should be so heartless as to let people starve. 
If those items aren't sobering enough, here's the same concept in pictures:

Something is seriously wrong when so much wealth has become concentrated in the hands of so few, and when so many suffer and go without basic needs in the world's wealthiest nation. As Pope Francis recently lamented, "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"

Our priorities are messed up. We've lost our empathy and compassion as we've largely come to value money and profit over people. The poor are told they just need to work harder to get ahead, even as stocks rise nearly every time a company announces more layoffs.

The game seems rigged. Powerful corporate interests buy favor with our politicians, who in turn pass legislation that benefits the corporations. Even Obamacare seems to have been written with insurance companies, pharmaceutical makers, and hospitals in mind, so that health care remains a profit center instead of the public service that it is in most of the rest of the Western world. Forcing people to buy a product from a private insurer hardly seems like a reform, let alone a policy that will rein in health-care costs.

The next chapter ... or a whole new book?
So where do we go from here? What can you do when the system seems as if it's corrupt beyond repair?

Like Russell Brand, I'm not sure I have the answer. But like Pope Francis, I recognize that what we're doing is not working.

And this is where my little epiphany comes into play. In the days following that moment at the red light, when I felt blocked from making any kind of headway on the questions that keep nagging at me, I came to three conclusions that I hope will make some small difference in the world. I want to share those thoughts, in hopes of inspiring others who may feel similarly frustrated about the current state of affairs -- whether globally, locally, or in their own lives. Your insights and solutions may be very different from mine. That's fine. My goal is simply to get people thinking about ways to change their world, or at least themselves, in a positive manner.

1. Politicians will not save us.
It's a peculiar thing to watch Americans talk about politics. When the Democrats mess things up, a lot of potential voters think the solution is to vote Republican next time around. Then, when the Republicans mess things up, those same voters think the solution is to vote Democrats back in. When that doesn't work, they return Republicans to power. This is essentially how our political process has been working since the end of the Civil War.

They say one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But inevitably, another smooth-talking politician will come along to make people starry-eyed about a better future, whether it's Ronald Reagan with his vision of a "shining city on a hill" or Barack Obama with his "hope and change." Voters convince themselves that this time it'll be different, and more often than not, they end up disappointed as their white knight turns out to be yet another in a long line of disappointments after taking power.

The simple truth is that politicians from the two major parties no longer listen to the people. And they don't listen because they don't represent the people anymore. They represent the special interests and corporations that fund their campaigns. The independent-minded firebrands who come along once in a while and threaten to shake things up -- think Howard Dean on the left or Ron Paul on the right -- are ridiculed and marginalized, ensuring that the national conversation remains focused on the narrowly defined "establishment" candidates, who tend to differ more in the campaign slogans they use than in any substantial matters of policy. As Ralph Nader so brilliantly put it:

Russell Brand has surveyed the whole mess and decided it's not even worth voting in a system that effectively ignores vast swaths of the public:
I don't get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm, which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means, alternate political systems.
Writing for Salon recently, K.M. Cholewa made much the same point when it comes to a need for alternative systems. After spending years in the political trenches, the author has reached the conclusion that even incremental political victories don't matter in the grand scheme of things, because the prevailing system accommodates the incrementalism without having to change, especially from an economic standpoint. "[W]ithout economic justice, social justice efforts will always be handicapped in a system driven, calibrated, and shaped by money," she argues. "Money buys power that directs money to power to buy more power to accumulate more money that buys more power, and so on. It’s a self-reinforcing loop."

On remembering the night of John Lennon's death when she was in college, Cholewa remembers the slain Beatle as being a political radical, with such radicals being defined as those who either want to destroy the existing system or -- like Russell Brand -- seek to create an entirely new system. The radicals aren't "interested in little 'c' change," she says. "They don't want different or 'better' rules. They want a different game."

Lennon, she says, was one of the latter -- those who wanted something new entirely.

I'll talk more later about her thoughts on Lennon, because Cholewa has touched on the very reason I call myself a Tie-Dye Dad. I don't just wear my hair long and practically live in tie-dye shirts for the aesthetic fun of it. It's my way of outwardly expressing solidarity with the ideals of one of the most important movements our nation has ever seen.

Although I was born at the tail end of the hippie movement, I grew up immersed in the music of the hippies, and that in turn got me interested in what they stood for. At their core, they opposed the Establishment -- not just the political class that had plunged us into a pointless war in Vietnam, but also the conformist cultural homogenization that their parents built and sustained. The hippies were unafraid to question the world they lived in, and it didn't matter who was in charge. Unlike the more recent antiwar protests that blossomed when George W. Bush was in office but disappeared once Barack Obama took over, the hippies took to the streets during both LBJ's and Nixon's reigns. They weren't against only Democrats or Republicans, but against the entire corrupt system. That's the kind of intellectual honesty we need today.

And it's well overdue. The hippies had things like Vietnam, Kent State, and civil rights to rally around. Our concerns today are no less pressing. We have an imperialist foreign policy; drone bombs killing women and children; an out-of-control security/surveillance state that makes a mockery of the Fourth Amendment and is shredding our personal liberties; prisoners being brutally force-fed at a compound that was supposed to be shut down by now; leaders who approve of indefinite detention without charge or trial, operate kill lists, and assassinate American citizens without due process; an unprecedented war on whistleblowers; a pointless and destructive drug war; health "reform" that amounts to pushing everyone into an inefficient for-profit system; crippling student-loan debts; high unemployment and underemployment; legislators who cut the social safety net while continuing to pour billions into the military machine; rampant corporate-government collusion that keeps profits high and lets the rich get richer, while everyone else struggles to make ends meet; and a complicit media that does it all can to keep the masses distracted. What in heaven's name are we waiting for?

In fairness, I think we saw a spark of that old hippie spirit with the Occupy movement, although the targets of their protests were different from what the hippies focused on, and there was a sense that the Occupiers believed they could force the existing system to change. But for the hippies, the mantra was turn on, tune in, drop out. That wasn't a call to indifference. It was, in a very real sense, a call to reject society's existing hierarchies altogether and start things over from scratch.

If we could really build an alternative political system, what form would it take?

Well, I had a little light bulb flicker to life above my head this past summer, when I went to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor in concert. Godspeed's music is largely instrumental, but the field-recording snippets peppered throughout the pieces, along with some of the composition titles and the occasionally provocative album cover imagery, all suggest a radical agitation bubbling under the surface -- a sense that things are irrevocably off kilter, and that the arrogance of the West is ultimately self-destructive, as we gradually lose our iron grip on the rest of the world and our culture enters into a period of long, slow decay. Quite a forceful political statement for a band that has never sung a single lyric, but it's there if you choose to see it.

And if you don't see it in the music, the band members' physical placements onstage should offer another clue. They were all arranged -- some standing, some sitting -- in a semicircle. No hierarchy, just like at the Round Table.

If you still didn't get it by then, you could swing by the merch table and check out the titles from AK Press, including Order Without Power and Undoing Border Imperialism, along with some audio lectures from the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. The concert was on Sept. 5, and the things I saw and heard that night put me in a frame of mind to seek out Chomsky's book 9/11, a powerful counter-narrative to the events of that tragic day in 2001.

I've been chewing on these ideas ever since -- these political views that do indeed seek an alternative to our current system of governance.

J.R.R. Tolkien himself had some thoughts about this particular philosophy. His words in a letter to his son have resonated with me from the moment I read them earlier this year:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs). ... [T]he proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.   
Now, of course, I already said that I was skeptical that an unregulated capitalist society, such as what the libertarians envision, could work. The difference, as I see it, is that libertarianism -- and its kissing cousin, anarcho-capitalism -- would in effect hand over unlimited power to private interests such as corporations, by way of removing all regulations. Since the driving impetus in both systems is individual self-determination, there would in theory be little to no political desire to restrain them. And if large, wealthy companies continued to grow, they could merge and monopolize and buy up more and more resources, including private land -- and with no checks on their power, things could easily degenerate into a type of corporate feudalism.

"Traditional" anarchism, in contrast, aims to create communities that would focus on the common good and build all things, including business and industry, from the bottom up instead of the top down. Essentially, as I see it, the "right" and "left" branches boil down to a difference between individualist anarchism, in which everyone is essentially an island and it's every man for himself, and collectivist anarchism, or a type of communitarianism in which mutual aid and social solidarity bind citizens together in the absence of an external hierarchy of governance.

The problem I have with "traditional" anarchism, however, is the popular image of Tolkien's "whiskered men with bombs." It is not an uncommon belief among anarchists that violent revolution against the state is both inevitable and necessary. The Seattle area, where I live, has seen its fair share of vandalism and violence perpetrated at the hands of self-professed anarchists.

And I can tell you one thing about my political views: Before I ever figured out whether I was a Democrat or a Republican, I was a pacifist. I have always steadfastly believed that very little good can come from violence. I would much rather win over hearts and minds through persuasion and leading by example -- and, if necessary, through actions such as passive resistance and peaceful civil disobedience.

Now, if the life of my wife or daughter were in immediate danger because of the actions of a violent assailant, I can't promise that my pacifism would prevail. But I want to live in a world where violence is the last resort instead of the default, which I believe is where we find ourselves today.

My greatest heroes are the peacemakers. Jesus, the Buddha, Lao-tzu, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Jain principle of ahimsa has informed my outlook, as have Albert Schwietzer's Reverence for Life philosophy and the Catholic consistent life ethic. Even Einstein, despite inconsistencies on the subject, was an inspiration when he stated:
I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.
To bring the discussion full circle, author Ursula Le Guin summed up her views on anarchism nicely in the preface to a story about a revolutionary character named Odo. She expounds on Tolkien's view of those who would espouse violence. (Emphasis added.)
Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social-Darwinist economic "libertarianism" of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
It is indeed an idealistic theory, and one that may never come to fruition. But ideals can serve as a guiding light when one is trying to cut through the fog of confusion to arrive at the best possible solutions to our problems. Even one of the most famous idealists in American history, Henry David Thoreau, saw the value of pragmatism while striving toward one's ultimate goals. In his famous "Civil Disobedience" essay, he makes his stance on central governance quite clear:
I heartily accept the motto, -- "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
But until that time, he has no qualms with using the state to achieve some of his ends:
[T]o speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.
If we must have government, at least let it be a force for good. That is a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly.

I'll offer an example. When Jill Stein was running for president in 2012 under the Green Party banner, she mentioned her desire to see the United States establish a single-payer health-care system and free college education. Many European countries offer both, but at the time the only thing I could think was, "How are we supposed to afford that? This country is broke." Now my thought has become, "How can we not afford it?"

If I have to pay taxes, I'd much rather see my hard-earned money going toward helping and enriching people, rather than funding a massive spy agency, paying for corporate welfare, and building drones whose bombs indiscriminately kill both the suspect and the innocent, the adult and the child. I'd also much rather see us treat drug abuse as a public health issue and focus on rehab, rather than continue to criminalize drug use, which has given us unhelpful things like minimum mandatory sentences that tie judges' hands, overcrowded prisons, and the militarization of police forces. Combined with stronger substance-abuse programs, I think that improving our mental-health resources would also go a very long way toward combating homelessness.

We can do so much better as a nation. We have to stop excusing corporate malfeasance and rediscover our humanity. In Switzerland, there's a pending referendum to grant every citizen a guaranteed monthly income regardless of one's salary, assets, job status, or ability to work. If Switzerland can make such a humane gesture, then certainly so can we, the richest nation on the planet. It's a simple matter of demanding new priorities for our tax dollars. (The monthly minimum income, or "mincome," might even reduce bureaucracy by consolidating several safety-net programs and thus save the government money.)
But my goal ultimately lies beyond having the state fix our problems. I want to see the people empowered, in both wealth and in spirit, to do these things for ourselves -- and, just as importantly, for each other. So where does that leave me? Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the Canadian band Rush, once saw himself as a follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy, but he's since come around to reject her teachings and now considers himself a "bleeding-heart libertarian." In his own words:
I still totally believe in individual rights and individual responsibility and in choosing to do good. On the liberal side of things, they go to an extreme of how people need to be led, and they can't handle freedom. Pure libertarianism believes that people will be generous and help each other. Well, they won't. I wish it were so, and I live that way. I help panhandlers, but other people are, "Oh look at that -- why doesn't he get a job?" While I believe in all that freedom, I also believe that no one should suffer needlessly. A realization I had lately: It is impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and be a Republican. It's philosophically absolutely opposed -- if they could only think about what they were saying for a minute. That’s when you get caught up in the webs of what people call themselves and how they behave. You just become adaptable and try to lead a good life in ways that make sense, regardless.
Peart's journey echoes my own in a lot of ways. I was enamored with Ayn Rand for a brief time when I was young. Taking to heart the best I can Jonathan Haidt's reminder that we too easily demonize those with whom we disagree, I will say that Rand's works do contain some useful observations on capitalism and self-determination. But I also must admit that I look back today with no small amount of embarrassment at what I so heartily embraced back then in Rand's worldview. The way I see it today, she elevated sociopathic narcissism to a virtue and substituted healthy self-interest with malignant selfishness. I can't think of another way to put it. Rand did not advocate for the rugged individualism and bootstrapping self-reliance of Emerson and Thoreau, who retained their humanity and their desire for societal betterment; instead, she championed the ruthless pursuit of personal material gain, and woe to any down-on-their-luck "parasites" (her word) who might stand in the way. Suffice it to say that Ayn Rand never was part of my libertarianism. She didn't like libertarians, anyway.  

So what else is out there? I admire the teachings of Jesus too much to join forces with a movement that claims to follow him yet vilifies the poor, as many in the conservative movement seem to do. Yet I have far too many philosophical differences with contemporary liberalism to plant my flag there. Does that leave me in Peart's corner, as a bleeding-heart libertarian? Or maybe a liberaltarian? Maybe, depending on what social and economic issues the liberals and libertarians could agree on.

But those approaches still seek to work within a system that may no longer be salvageable. They might offer short-term solutions, but these days I feel a lot like the legendary Lao-tzu, who got fed up with it all, climbed on his water buffalo, and rode out of China for good. To that end, if I could expatriate to a country that more closely reflected my values, I'd do it in a heartbeat -- but for various reasons, that's not in the cards right now, if ever.
I also don't care to "get caught up in the webs of what people call themselves," as Peart put it, and I reject identity politics anyway -- one of many reasons I can't associate with today's liberal movement. But if I had to identify with any particular group, I suppose you could sign me up as an anarcho-pacifist -- at least at this point on my journey.

Why? Because politicians will not save us. I am convinced of that. And because when we are ready -- when we open our hearts and do our best to emulate the great peacemakers of world history -- I believe we can work toward creating a more harmonious world by establishing communities that take their own initiative to look out for each other, without the need for a top-down external authority.

I have two formative anarcho-pacifist books on my reading list -- Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, and Bart de Ligt's The Conquest of Violence -- and I'm still working through where I stand on the various anarchist philosophies on private property, and on the distinction sometimes drawn between property and possessions. Again, I don't pretend to have all the answers. This is very much a work in progress, and from what I've read and pondered over the past several months, I find this path to be the one that makes sense to me, and one that would best serve the most people -- when men are prepared for it, to go back to Thoreau. 

Can such an idea succeed? Well, I can't control what decisions other people come to. But one thing is fore sure: We'll never know if we don't try. And as Thoreau advised:
[I]f one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. 
You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one ...

2. Our own anger hurts us more than it does anyone else.
In the fifth-century Buddhist manual Vissuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa likens anger to picking up a hot ember to throw at somebody: The thrower ends up getting burned.

Not only do I burn myself with a lot of righteous indignation about politics, and sometimes about people in general, but I've always been notorious for holding grudges. I've ceased communication with people for years after a disagreement. What the targets of my anger probably don't know, and don't care to know, is that many of my actions stem from my own insecurities and self-doubts and really have little to do with them.

But there are other cases, notably involving close family members, about whom I've carried anger for most of my life -- anger that almost anyone would think is justified.

Still, where does it get me -- except for feeling emotionally blocked?

The problem was that I never knew how to drop the anger without feeling as if I was allowing the other person to win. If I stop being angry, I long believed, that's essentially letting the other person off the hook for whatever transgression he or she committed.

Of course, that's not what moving on is all about, is it? It's about acknowledging the wrongdoing and the pain, finding peace with it, and knowing that it's in the past and can't be changed. All you can really do is try to do better next time (if the fault lies with you) or try to understand why the other person did what he or she did (if the fault lies with someone else) and put closure to it. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to let a person back into your life if you've been wronged. It just means you stop carrying all that psychological baggage and get on with other things.

Because when you keep carting around the baggage of things that are in the past, all you're doing is causing yourself unnecessary pain. It's like taking that glowing ember in your hand and deliberately holding onto it.

Which reminds me of another old Buddhist tale. Two monks were walking back to their temple one day, when they encountered a beautiful young woman standing at the edge of a river. She was wary of the quick current but clearly wanted to cross the water. So the elder monk picked her up, put her on his shoulders, and carried her to the opposite shore. He set her down, and the monks continued on their way.

The younger monk was quiet for a long time, and the elder monk could tell he was upset.

Finally, the younger monk could no longer contain himself. He stopped and looked angrily at the elder monk. "You know it is against our vows to touch a woman! Why did you do that?"

The elder monk calmly replied, "I set the woman down back at the river's edge. Why are you still carrying her?" 

An article by yoga teacher Ally Hamilton on MindBodyGreen really brought a lot of this kind of stuff into sharp focus for me. It's not the first time I've heard any of these arguments, but maybe sometimes the way something is said makes all the difference -- or maybe the article just happened to show up at a time when I was receptive to its message. Here's some of what she had to say:
When we forgive people, it does not mean we have to invite them back into our lives; maybe they don't belong there. But identifying with the idea that you're a victim is disempowering. Forgiveness is a way of unhooking your journey from something that happened long ago. Your past does not have to own you or define you; you can liberate yourself. When you relinquish your rage and move toward forgiveness, you rob the past situation or person of the control it, or they, had over you.

Because it takes quite a lot of energy to stay angry. And you have to devote a significant amount of time thinking about this past transgression in order to keep yourself hard. But if you want to love in this life, you're going to have to be soft, but brave. So really, at a certain point you have to decide if you're going to let your past, or any person or event, prevent you from loving in your present and your future.

When you drop the fighting stance and open to your pain, you also open to the possibility for compassion. Life can make your heart ache with all its beauty, and it can make your heart break with all its uncertainty. This business of being human is an incredibly vulnerable undertaking. ... None of this is easy to swallow. And some people really struggle with it all, some people do not handle the vulnerability of this thing with ease or grace or strength. When we forgive, we acknowledge that. We don't excuse it, we just recognize it.

Sometimes acceptance is the only closure you're going to get. You may never hear an apology, or see any evidence of remorse. But that's not about you. What is about you is the quality of your own life, and your ability to feel hopeful and optimistic.
She's sure right about the "being brave" part. It's not easy to confront these things -- both one's own shortcomings and the disappointing behaviors of others. I've found in the past that the best way to try unraveling all the emotions is to meditate -- just sit your butt down in a quiet area, focus on your breath, and clear your mind.

Sometimes what bubbles up to the surface will surprise you, even scare you. It's amazing what we'll allow ourselves to suppress to justify our own feelings, or just as a coping mechanism to get through the day. But confronting those buried thoughts is what leads to personal growth and liberation. It's not easy, but it beats being stuck in the paralyzing alternative of anger and fear.

My meditation practice has been sporadic ever since I started sitting about a decade ago. But now that I have a little girl who's going to model herself after the way I deal with the world around me, I have a responsibility to get my head on straight. I'm working on arranging a little meditation nook in the corner of our basement rec room, and I hope to have it ready, hopefully with some courage and perseverance in tow, in time to make meditation a new habit for 2014. Who knows -- maybe my little girl will join me in the near future.

3. Be the change we wish to see in the world.
Forgiveness starts with oneself, and that's a tall order for me. I'm very hard on myself. I know this. But I've also done a lot of selfish and hurtful things in my life, and I can't just ignore that. I often make impulsive decisions only to regret them and change my mind, and others get hurt in the process. It's not an excuse, but again I think a lot of the way I deal with things comes down to my own insecurities, which go back to the unfortunate events of my early childhood. This is why the mindfulness of Buddhism is good for me. It keeps me grounded and aware. It will help me stop and think before I act irrationally. And I hope it will help me to go easier on myself, when perhaps my self-flagellation gets a bit overdone.

If I want to look at the world from a new, healthier perspective, I need to start by adopting a healthier perspective for myself.

And once again, I have some incentive that wasn't there in the past. When I see my daughter and know that she's looking to me to help her figure out the world, I don't want her to model from a person who's negative, sarcastic, cynical, or judgmental. I want her to learn the value of respect -- both for herself and for those around her. I want her to think the best of others, give them second chances, and offer the benefit of the doubt. I want her to be kind and generous. I want her to remember that she's human and it's OK to make mistakes, so long as one learns from those mistakes.

I also want her to embody the spirit of a saying I try to take to heart every day: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." Maybe the person who cut us off in traffic had a bad argument at home and is taking out his frustrations on everyone else. Maybe the rude customer-service person is preoccupied with wondering how she's going to pay the bills and feed the kids this month. We all make snap judgments without knowing the whole story. Sometimes just imagining ourselves in somebody else's shoes can make a world of difference in our own perceptions.  

Given the role Pope Francis has had in awakening some of these thoughts in my mind, it is perhaps fitting that the Prayer of St. Francis came to mind as a guidepost for putting these principles into practice. It was not written by Francis of Assisi, but it embodies the humble spiritual simplicity that marked his ministry.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred,
Let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, Joy.

O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled
As to console;
To be understood,as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I take the "dying" and "eternal life" in a symbolic sense, in that we find spiritual fulfillment when we die to our old way of doing and seeing things. In much the same way, "rebirth" in Buddhism is more to me about being reborn into our old habits that chain us to our suffering than it is about a literal reincarnation. But that's a post for another day. The sentiment of the prayer remains, and I intend to reflect on it as I go about my days.

However important all those things are, though, I think the greatest value I can instill in my daughter is a free and independent mind. Following the crowd is easy; it takes significantly more courage to question what everyone believes, and to stand by a principle if you're the only one who seems to believe in it.

Besides, blind obedience is for dogs. (And you heard me say it here first, little girl.)

Why is this so important to me? Because the road less traveled makes all the difference. Because the unexamined life is not worth living. Because without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. All the great thinkers throughout history have been nonconformists. They're the ones who sought to change the world -- and often did.

From a more practical standpoint, asking questions and challenging assumptions makes a person much less likely to get hoodwinked by others trying to sell them something, like a political or religious ideology loaded with emotional appeals but short on substance. I believe that the most important question anyone can ever ask is Why? It helps you guard against the idea that you know everything. It keeps you from getting complacent in your views. Here I am, 42 years old, and I find my worldviews shifting again -- not for the first time at that. I just can't imagine living life any other way. As Noam Chomsky once said, "I never was aware of any other option but to question everything."

Plus, it comes with its own built-in benefit: The more you learn, the less you realize you know, and that just makes you want to keep learning and learning. Socrates is reported to have said, "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing." A few centuries later, Michelangelo proclaimed: Ancora imparo. "Yet I am learning." They understood. Such a humbling admission opens one's mind to a boundless universe of wonder and possibility. And from a more practical standpoint, it also keeps us from becoming insufferable know-it-alls, content with what little knowledge we actually possess. I think we can all agree that there's already enough of that in the world. 

If the greatest question you can ask is Why? then one of the greatest answers you can offer is I don't know -- because that empowers you to take one of the greatest actions possible: seeking out the answer. Knowledge is power!

Let us go in peace
On the occasion of Joseph Stalin's death, President Eisenhower delivered a speech. In today's divisive political climate, one can easily imagine a political leader taking such an opportunity to puff out his chest, berating America's enemies while extolling the virtues of American power and might. Instead, Ike took a conciliatory approach, making an overture to the Soviet Union to seek an end to the arms race and the Cold War.

The words are stirring not just for the truths they convey, but from whom they came. Sometimes, even old warriors can see how our budgetary affinity for planes and bombs has a deleterious effect on society. Indeed, perhaps few are as qualified to speak about the ways in which we can do better as a species than those who have seen men at their most violent and barbaric.

This is part of what Ike said that day in 1953:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace.

It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty.

It calls upon them to answer the question that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?
Surely there is another way. We just have to want it badly enough. We must try to rise above our fears and prejudices, and that will surely begin us on our journey toward a more peaceful future.

Getting back to K.M. Cholewa's thoughts on John Lennon for a moment: She saw him as a radical who wanted to construct a new way of doing things outside the current system, and the core of his approach was almost disarmingly simple, yet it answered Ike's question of whether there was another, better way for the world to live (emphasis added):
John Lennon didn't fight the system. He didn't try to get it to change. He stood on a separate platform and said to give peace a chance -- a fluffy, hippie sentiment. Yet, if the sentiment were to be undertaken in concrete terms, the current political-economic system would collapse. 
Being a radical and changing the world doesn't have to entail a violent uprising. The hardest work may well consist of opening up the hearts and minds of people who have become disillusioned and angry with the way things are.

Yet that may be the most radical revolution of all. We're not talking about holding hands around the campfire and singing "Kumbaya." We're talking about getting people to opt out of a system that wages both physical and economic violence on a routine basis. When we reject the violence, we reject the system. Without our approval -- either tacit or explicit -- to continue holding it up, we may well find that it collapses under its own weight, leaving us all free to pursue a future built on peace, freedom, cooperation, and justice.

Give peace a chance. It may sound too simplistic, but maybe -- just maybe -- those crazy hippies had it right all along.

Postscript: Anthem for a new world
Jon Anderson's spiritual openness, sense of wonder, and belief in the transformative power of love may have no better representative in song than on his Yes composition from 1987, "Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)." Even when things look their bleakest, our courage to let go of our old ways and embrace an open heart can change the world. A video clip follows the lyrics.

Holy lamb
See the world we started
Is it so low again
Like a light that's lost upon the stage
So the more it shines, it goes away

Surely then
See the curtain rising to show us once again
All the magic of the earth and the skies
See the more we find
The more we realize

That every time
See the laws of nature keep telling us like a friend
The spirit of emotion dancing to the wind
High above, high above
So sure inspired again

I can tell a new story now
Can we see through this mask of uncertainty
Surely now
How can it be so hard
When all there is to know
Don't be afraid of letting go
It takes a loving heart 
To see and show
This love
For our own ecology

Hold the light
Hold the light
Out of love we'll come a long long glorious way
At the start of every day
A child begins to play
And all we need to know
Is that the future is a friend of yours and mine

Keep growing. Keep questioning. Keep loving.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 10: Nine Inch Nails, Key Arena, Seattle, 11/22/13

Of all the artists I've gone to see this summer and fall, the one whose work I was least familiar with beforehand was Trent Reznor. When Nine Inch Nails ruled the world with Pretty Hate Machine and "Head Like a Hole," I was too engrossed in progressive rock to pay it any mind. I missed out on a good 15 years' worth of mainstream music before I wised up and realized I'd neglected a lot of good stuff while immersing myself in the Renaissance Faire-like world of glittery capes, Mellotrons, and dry ice. Not that I don't still love that stuff, but nowadays there's room in my music-loving heart for just about any type of good tune that comes along.

Still, NIN slipped through the cracks for me until this past summer, when I heard a song on Seattle's alternative-rock station. It kicked off with a tight, minimalist digital beat that initially put me in the mind of something from Kraftwerk in their heyday. A warbling bass line on the synth created a feeling something like an aural vertigo. The singer entered, delivering his lines in a breathy urgency, as if looking over his shoulder while he sang, eager to get his message out before it was too late. Some dramatic sustained notes appeared under the relentless drumbeat as the mood grew more urgent. Then the refrain: "I came-back-haun-ted." A solo from a distorted guitar mixed in with the electronics, the singer fell to a loud whisper, and then it all came to an abrupt end.

Wow! That was cool. Once I found out it was a song by NIN from their then-forthcoming album Hesitation Marks, and that they were going to be playing in Seattle in the fall, I decided to track down their back catalog and catch up on what I'd missed. I found Pretty Hate Machine to be one of their best, mixing its grinding electronic heaviness with some great riffs and melodies. My only points of reference for industrial music up to that point were Einstürzende Neubauten, who to my ears emphasized the avant-garde mechanics of the subgenre (music from non-musical sources, with all the requisite buzzes and squawks over insistent drumbeats), and Ministry, which favored metallic guitar riffs over a driving but repetitive backdrop of pounding drums and processed noise. NIN seemed to lean more toward the heavier Ministry side of things, but with more conventional-sounding song structures that surely made them more palatable to a wider audience. I can only take loud, aggressive music in small doses, but I could see what made NIN as popular as they were. Even for a style of music I wouldn't listen to on a regular basis, this was pretty good stuff. I don't care for the abundance of profanity in the lyrics, but alas, it's hard to get away from that in popular music these days.

The Downward Spiral and The Fragile seemed the most aggressive of all the albums, both musically and lyrically -- capped off by "Hurt," Trent's gut-wrenching depths-of-despair piece that Johnny Cash covered so brilliantly shortly before he died. Reading about Trent as I was discovering all this new music, I learned that he was staring down a lot of personal demons during this point in his career, and it certainly showed. Hesitation Marks signaled a comeback for a sober Trent Reznor, now a husband and father. I know some longtime fans have said the new album lacks the bite of some of Trent's best work, and I can see where they're coming from, although I don't mind having the emphasis back on the riffs and melodies, the way things were on Pretty Hate Machine. There's still plenty of heaviness and urgency in the music, though perhaps with less focus on the guitars and more on the pulsating electronics. It's still unmistakably NIN, only seen through the lens of someone who's gone through hell and come out the other side, with plenty of stories to tell from his harrowing experiences. In fact, if there's any lyrical theme on Hesitation Marks, it seems to be a sense of uneasiness that the new, improved Trent Reznor won't last and that his old demons will come charging back to pull him down to the depths again. So the new NIN isn't exactly a mellowed-out version of its old self -- it's just an anxious view from a different vantage point.

Now, I admit I might not have ended up buying a concert ticket had I known Adrian Belew wasn't going to be a part of the touring band. Ade has been one of my favorite musicians since I first heard him fronting King Crimson in its '80s incarnation. He's played on several NIN albums, including the new one, and even toured with them a few times. He was supposed to be on the current tour. But then news came that he was out. No one really gave any specifics why. The most Ade said on his Facebook page was that he had great respect for Trent, but things just didn't work out. Given that Trent has called Adrian "the most awesome musician in the world," I'm still at a loss as to what might have transpired.  

Anyway, I'm still glad I went to the show. About a third of the setlist came from Hesitation Marks, which made me happy. The rest was a mixture of music from across Trent's NIN career, touching on every album except for Ghosts I-IV, whose omission wasn't a surprise, as it's such a left-field album in NIN's career -- ambient, slow, moody, and almost completely instrumental. It happens to be my favorite NIN album, but I had no expectation of hearing anything from it at the show.

Trent was, naturally, front and center for the proceedings. He contributed a few guitar and keyboard parts during the show -- including an arresting piano solo on "The Frail," but most of the time he was clutching the mic with both hands and singing as if his life depended on it. It was also hard not to notice the guy's physique, with his muscular arms protruding from the short sleeves of his black T-shirt. He was fit and lean and full of emotion and energy -- not bad for a guy in his late 40s, especially one who's gone through all he has.

The band was a well-oiled machine, which I guess you'd expect with the tour winding down. There were only a few shows left after Seattle, and they've been at this for months now. That didn't make the performance any less impressive, though. The nine-piece lineup included six musicians besides Trent, and two female backing vocalists. On bass was the incomparable Pino Palladino, who's played with just about everybody who's anybody in the music industry. He's been working a lot with The Who ever since John Entwistle died. Naturally, he was perfect, as he and the rest of the band tore through two hours of highly intense music, including some with a few tricky twists -- like "March of the Pigs." It took me a while to decipher the time signature when I first heard it on The Downward Spiral, and a quick look online confirmed what I was hearing: 29/8. Nice. Or you could be less of a geek and break it down into three bars of 7/8 and one of 8/8, but where's the fun in that?

One of the musical highlights came just before the last song of the night, with the finale from Hesitation Marks, the combo of "While I'm Still Here" and "Black Noise." "While I'm Still Here," with its minimal musical atmosphere of electronic percussion and synthesizer drones, built to a close featuring a staccato baritone sax -- not something I expected to see onstage amidst all the electronics and inorganic sounds. As on the album, the first song leads directly into "Black Noise," an instrumental piece that takes the synth drones and slowly layers waves of distorted guitars on top of them, until the music has transformed into a roar of tuneless cacophony -- and then, suddenly, it all ended, as if someone had pulled the plug. The stage went black, and the air hung silent for a split second before the crowd realized it was all over and cheered its approval. After that, the show ended with "Hurt," featuring some disturbingly graphic scenes of violence projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. There's no arguing that the images fit the mood of the song, but it was quite a crushing way to end a concert. Trent didn't exactly send us dancing off into the night with that one.

As good as the music was, though, the visuals were even better -- the graphic scenes accompanying "Hurt" notwithstanding. A couple of times during the show, a mesh screen descended to the front of the stage, with a flurry of lights and lasers bouncing off its surface. There were even some pretty neat 3-D effects, with shapes and jagged patterns appearing to spin around the band, from the front to the back of the stage. The light rigs moved up and down and panned over the audience. The strobes were nearly blinding. Smoke billowed off the stage for most of the night. Early on in the show, a cluster of lights hung low over each musician like a ceiling lamp, and with the light concentrated on such a small area, the musicians could take a step back and disappear from sight, into the smoke and the blackness behind the illumination. At another point later in the show, Trent stood alone at the front of the stage while a sheer curtain dropped over the backing band, who were then illuminated from the back so that their silhouettes were visible as they performed. All very impressive stuff that perfectly accentuated the mood of the music.

My only complaint was that the show felt a little rushed. Trent's interaction with the crowd was minimal, as one song would start only seconds after the last one finished, almost as if the band was hurrying to get through the show. I felt as if the music stepped on our applause several times during the show. But near the end, Trent did take the time to introduce the band and thank the crowd for sticking with him through the years. So that was a nice touch.

I don't know that I'd go to see NIN again, but it was an enjoyable evening -- and not a bad way to wrap up my concertgoing fun for the year. I was fortunate to have some extra cash to spend on a lot of concert tickets this year, and I'm lucky to have an indulgent wife who doesn't mind sitting home with the little one for the evening while I go off and rock out for a couple of hours. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do anything like this again, but even if not, it's been a great year for live music in the Puget Sound area, and I'm grateful I was able to take so much of it in.

We'll see what next year brings.


Copy of A
Terrible Lie
March of the Pigs
All Time Low
Came Back Haunted
Find My Way
In Two
The Frail/The Wretched
A Warm Place
Somewhat Damaged
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole


All the Love in the World
Even Deeper
While I'm Still Here/Black Noise