Old Wine, New Bottle, and Hypocrisy: Starbucks CEO’s Possible Third-party Presidential Bid

More than three years ago, I wrote a letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about the disparity between the green image the company projects and the actual way their sourcing promotes deforestation. The letter followed my hearing a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on sourcing of palm oil and other agricultural products.

What is, perhaps, most telling, is that Schultz never bothered to reply to the letter. This fits perfectly with his arrogance and narcissism, characteristics that we endure daily with the current occupant of the White House. Surely the answer to the United States’ political challenges is another egotistical, power-seeking billionaire with zero political experience!


A Palm Oil plantation destroyed for the agricultural market (photograph by Hayden [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Schultz’s trial balloon has, of course, evoked the nightmarish specter of 2000, when Ralph Nader’s narcissistic run as a third-party candidate for president helped defeat Al Gore and put George W. Bush in office, leading to the disastrous Iraq War and subsequent ramifications that have continued to disrupt international geopolitics.

This morning, I heard a brief interview with Schultz on NPR–and it was apparent that he has such a profound belief in his own superiority that—unlike billionaire Michael Bloomberg—he is incapable of seeing the risk that a bid as a third-party candidate could have in helping re-elect Donald Trump. He heaped scorn on Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal–which was reviewed by Bloomberg News and found to be a proposal, that if implemented, could result in a profound transformation of the U.S. (and global) economy in a way that would help mitigate inequality, eliminate ongoing deficits, and provide resources for progressive social policies such as expanded national health insurance and more robust environmental protection and lower carbon energy production.

The proposal of course received harsh criticism from conservatives–but compared to other proposals, such as Alexandria Octavio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent marginal tax rate, the analysis in Bloomberg News found that it would be potentially far more effective in raising large sums and changing the game. While it would certainly face challenges in becoming law, Schultz’s contempt for the policy and his belief that he is the one to rescue the U.S. is reminiscent of Donald Trump. And even if the policy faces headwinds, or would require modification to become law, it is critical that bold proposals be put forth in order to focus the conversation.

Warren’s proposal, if implemented, would raise $2.75 trillion over a decade from about 75,000 families. Keep in mind that there are 325.7 million people in the United States. The proposal would reportedly cost Amazon’s Jeff Bezos $4.1 billion the first year it was implemented. Is it a stretch to think that there could be broad popular support for a tax plan that impacts 0.1 percent of the wealthiest people in the country?

Wealth and power do not, of course, gracefully concede their influence. But it may be that after the 2016 debacle and the ongoing economic rape of everyday Americans and the environment by Trump and his cronies, that a truly progressive politician with intelligently articulated policies could both be elected, and be effective. The attitude personified by Schultz–that we should timidly tweak here and there and not even consider bolder, more progressive policies, has contributed to the public cynicism over politics, and the despair of those caught in a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

Miracles… and Miracles…

The Peace of Wild Things–Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I sometimes read the conservative website National Review, and have, over time, observed something striking: nature is rarely accorded any intrinsic value—there are only “natural resources”—no acknowledgement that the multiplicity and complexity of the natural world is miraculous and profoundly moving by its very existence–or that it is essential for human wholeness, or that our failure to cherish and protect the wild world is a form of madness.

In a recent opinion piece Kevin D. Williamson waxed poetic about the remarkable miracles of human technology and initiative, while lamenting the disasters that still befall human beings. Nowhere—nowhere—was there a suggestion that–for example– the complex ecosystem of the Amazon, which gives breath to the earth, and houses an unimaginable biodiversity, is a miracle worthy of awe, reverence, and salvation.

Virtually everything in National Review–and increasingly in the vast majority of conservative thought—reflects a blinkered worldview in which human beings stand apart from nature, that our concerns are the only concerns that matter, and that prosperity is defined only in terms of narrow, material benefits to mankind. Remarkable advances of human technology, have, indeed, given millions a more comfortable life, and we are able to witness dazzling technological feats such as probing the outer reaches of the solar system. When the recent Mars Insight probe landed safely, I was awed–and grateful for our ability as a species to achieve such things.

But I have found that my sense of awe in man’s technological prowess is often exceeded by observing nature—and I am struck with profound sadness and grief over the destruction of wild places and the growing rate of extinction. In the universe of National Review and other conservative organs, the miracle that is our biological inheritance as one sentient being within a living planet is of so little significance that it warrants nary a mention. Indeed, according to Williamson: “The miracle of modern life — modern life itself, really — has one ultimate source: the division of labor.”

The division of human labor, specialization, and human enterprise is worthy of appreciation. Yet I am struck–again–that this worldview has no place for the miracle that is 300 species of hummingbirds, or the fantastic capacity of chimney swifts to migrate thousands of miles, while doing almost everything on the wing. [See Charles Foster’s “In Which I Try to Become a Swift.”] I suppose that the feeling of awe that religious folks get during worship is something like the feeling I get when I see hundreds of swifts gather in the late fall and then suddenly form an avian cyclone as they drop into a chimney without colliding with each other.

Hyacinth Macaws seen from a blind (July 2001, Piaui, Brazil)

On a trip to Brazil in July 2001, I found myself overcome with tears of wonder as I stood in a blind watching dozens of Hyacinth Macaws swoop in to feed on palm nuts. There, is apparently, no place for such emotions in a culture where nature exists only as an extractive resource to be mined, logged, monoculture-farmed and otherwise exploited with value only found in what can be gained from its destruction.

In “What Is Conservatism,” published in National Review in October 2018, the authors put forth their manifesto: “The market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand, is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government; and… it is at the same time the most productive supplier of human needs.”

What if those “human needs” include the need to seek meaning in wild places, in beauty, in solitude and the knowledge that even in places unseen diverse life thrives–and the market system has failed to find a way to value that which is priceless? In an essay in Orion Magazine titled “Down with Descartes,” author Charles Eisenstein wrote:

Black Marsh at North Point State Park in Maryland (August 2017)

  “…..Looking out upon the strip mines and the clearcuts and the dead zones and the genocides and the debased consumer culture, we ask, What is the origin of this monstrous machine that chews up beauty and spits out money? The discrete and separate self, surveying a universe that is fundamentally other, understandably and logically treats the natural and human world as a pile of instrumental, accidental stuff. The rest of the world is fundamentally not-self. Why should we care about it, beyond its potential to be useful to us? So it was that Descartes, a pioneering articulator of the modern sense of self, articulated as well the ambition to become the “lords and possessors” of nature. And so it was that we built the infernal machine.”

Have You Thought About Genghis Khan Today?

I meditate every day and also frequently listen to a podcast called “Insight Hour with Joseph Goldstein,” in which Goldstein, an early proponent of mindfulness meditation in the West and founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, discusses key topics related to mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy.

Fisherman on Inle Lake in Burma (2014)

One of my favorite episodes is titled “Compassion and Equanimity in Difficult Times.” In the talk, Goldstein, making a point about establishing perspective, relates having read a book about the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. He notes that Khan, in his time, shook the globe, creating a vast empire with consequences for tens of millions of people. Goldstein then asks: “How many of you have thought about Genghis Khan today?” The question is greeted by laughter–but the point well taken. Khan is now thought of only in historical context.

As we face the constant barrage of news surrounding Donald Trump, it is helpful to remember that it will not be very long—a matter of a few years– before he becomes an historical oddity.

The news about Trump, war, famine, ecosystem collapse, climate change and other distressing events may at times feel overwhelming, spurring a tendency to withdraw and retreat into indifference. In his discourse, Goldstein carefully distinguishes between “equanimity” and “indifference”—which in Buddhist thought is called “the near enemy” of equanimity. By maintaining equanimity, we are able to remain engaged and compassionate.

The photograph of the Inle Lake fisherman, which I took on my visit to Burma in 2014, is a symbol of balance–equanimity. As 2018 comes to an end, and we look forward to a new year, it is critical that we remain engaged—not indifferent–and like the Burmese fisherman, stay carefully balanced as we move across the surface of time.

Nylah Burton’s Moving Commentary on Alice Walker’s Antisemitism

I recently commented on the controversy over acclaimed writer Alice Walker’s vicious and deranged antisemitism, previously little known but brought to light in a “By the Book” author interview in The New York Times. Walker, it turns out, has a history of antisemitism, revealed both by her admiration of a bizarre antisemitic conspiracy tract by David Icke, and by a poem she wrote titled “It Is Our Frightful Duty to Study the Talmud.”

Jewish Amulet by David Elias Krieger (Wikimedia Commons)

While the NYT author interview was widely criticized, the most poignant critique was written by Nylah Burton in New York Magazine on December 28, titled “Alice Walker’s Terrible Antisemitic Poem Felt Personal–to Her and to Me.” The NYT also wrote a followup on December 21 noting that in her blog, Walker subsequently doubled-down on her praise for Icke, calling the author “brave” and asserting that the book was not antisemitic.

In the followup the Times cited readers who saw Walker’s recommendation as a “dangerous endorsement of bigotry and hatred,” and who contended that in the current environment, where conspiracy theories have led to antisemitic crimes and violence, publishing the book recommendation without context or explanation was irresponsible.

On the other hand, in a recent email conversation, my nephew Ben made a spirited defense of the Times decision to publish the Walker interview without comment or context–and I will let Ben have the last word: “The Times is right: inserting editorialization into their interviews would achieve nothing but the gradual erosion of their reader’s trust [that the Times will] portray the world without ideological filtering or distortion.”

Alice Walker’s Lunatic Antisemitism and the New York Times

Shhhh….. it is Christmas and we are supposed to set aside for at least this day all thoughts of religious strife, bigotry and—of course—antisemitism. Peace on earth, good will towards men (and presumably women). On the other hand, we need to be on the alert for those mainly Jewish shape-shifting lizards that walk among us—at least according to a book endorsed and defended by Pulitzer Prize winning author (“The Color Purple”) Alice Walker.

An antisemitic street poster from Nazi-occupied Poland says: “Jews-Sucking Louse-Typhus” (Wikimedia Commons)

A furor arose when Walker was interviewed by The New York Times for its “By the Book” section. Since the interview was published, a great deal of ink has been spilled decrying the Times‘ decision to print the interview without comment—or print it at all. The short version is that Walker, asked what books she keeps by her bedside, mentioned an antisemitic tract by conspiracy theorist David Icke titled “And the Truth Shall Set You Free.” The book is both ridiculous and viciously antisemitic and it is clear that Icke is a raving lunatic. Among its assertions are that Jews funded the Holocaust, that the Holocaust may not have occurred, and that the world is run by a shadowy cabal of Lizard People, many of whom are–of course–Jewish and wish to turn all of humanity into slaves.

In less interesting times, the best response might be to ignore this patent lunacy, however profoundly infused with hatred, and however prominent the acolyte. But in the era of never-ending prevarications from the President, and a web-driven spawn of hateful conspiracy theories with real-world consequences, it is both impossible and irresponsible to shrug this off. That said, I think interviewing Walker for that section of the New York Times was appropriate and that not running the interview would be an affront to free speech.

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the Walker interview is that the book is only one of many that the author mentions having read—forever disabusing me of the notion that being well-read is a firm defense against madness and hatred. Walker defended herself and the book, contending that neither she nor Icke are antisemitic. An in-depth discussion was written by Vox.

This is not the only instance of patent antisemitism by Walker, who has published a poem, “It is Our Frightful Duty to Study the Talmud.” A short excerpt follows:

Simply follow the trail of “The
Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness

Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.

The poem is primarily a critique of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians—and Walker’s defense of the poem is that charges of antisemitism are merely an attempt to silence such critics. But while there are, indeed, critics of Israel who are antisemitic, the majority are not. (I count myself among those—I hold duel Israeli-American citizenship and served in the Israeli infantry when I was in my late 20s.) There is an unfortunate tendency among the right-wing pro-Israel community to dismiss all critiques of Israeli policy as antisemitism, which is both unfair and dangerous. An op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes: “When the right-wing pro-Israel community completely writes off all pro-Palestinian advocates as ‘antisemites’ it cheapens the charge of antisemitism. That’s not only unfair — it’s actually dangerous for Jews.”

I long ago stopped being offended by casual antisemitism. But when a celebrated and beloved author, intellectual and activist proudly endorses such views, push back is not only reasonable but necessary. Incidents of antisemitism are on the rise, and the blood is barely dry from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Ideas matter.

Earthrise, the Wall, and the Government Shutdown

Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore
on Christmas Eve 2018

Fifty years ago today—Christmas Eve 1968–the crew of Apollo 8, the first humans ever to reach the moon, read the first 10 verses of Genesis to earthlings below. It is hard to imagine that even the most tough-minded atheist or the biggest grinch were unmoved. Later the astronauts recalled how seeing earthrise—our planet breathtakingly beautiful, lonely and fragile in the star-splashed blackness of space—was a profound experience that changed forever their view of the planet and of life. The image has been credited with galvanizing the environmental movement.

Earthrise from Apollo 8 December 24, 1968 (NASA)

The year 1968 was, like 2018, dizzying and perilous, with war, violence, anger and division across the nation and the globe. But the mission, with its iconic photograph of earth, gave people a brief respite. At 66, I can remember the continual sense of disorientation that year—and the sweet relief of the Christmas Eve broadcast and successful return of the crew. In an interview with NPR, author Robert Kurson, who earlier this year published “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon,” recalled: “At the end of 1968, when Apollo 8 splashed down, you saw hippies hugging old men in the streets – something that was unthinkable just six days before that.” The spirit of that time—of hope against the backdrop of an increasingly absurd war in Vietnam and civil unrest– is captured in this clip of the song “Good Morning Starshine” from the movie “Hair.”

It strikes me that no image since has done as much to raise consciousness–a much overused term—than that picture of our lonely planet floating in space. But the iconic image this December 24 is of national monuments shuttered by Trump’s insistence that a “wall” must be built, other priorities be damned. A wall to keep others out and shut us off from the world is, sadly, a perfect metaphor for our current state of being.

Human beings continue to ravage and warm the earth, kill each other over land, religion and ideology, and perpetuate cruelty against humans and other sentient beings. I do not, however want to end on an entirely bleak note. The current political administration has done far more to awaken people to the importance of political and social involvement than any other political event in decades. And that is certainly something for which we can all be grateful.

Amy Klobuchar and the Insect Inferno

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar uses an experience she had visiting a company called Insect Inferno to drive home the point that politicians must be willing to go where it is uncomfortable—not avoid localities where they lack a natural constituency. The business is housed in a truck that uses heat to kill bedbugs. In a May 2017 address to the Polk County Iowa Democrats Spring Dinner, she recalled visiting the business, and mentioned it again in a recent interview with The New Yorker‘s Susan Glasser. Democrats “have to show up where we are uncomfortable, even when they turn up the heat,” she remarked. As Democrats ponder and declare their interest in the 2020 presidential race, she is emerging as an intriguing possibility. And it is certain that the path to victory will go through Trump Country.

.

Klobuchar distinguished herself during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation spectacle by remaining calm and courteous despite a verbal attack from Kavanaugh. While it is, indeed, very early to speculate about a possible Democratic ticket, my experience campaigning for Beto O’Rourke in Texas has led me to ponder the possibility of a Klobuchar-O’Rourke ticket.

At 58, Klobuchar is an ideal big sister for the 46-year-old Beto. Further, Klobuchar’s unflappable, calm demeanor contrasts nicely with the high-energy Beto, who, after all, was, in his (even) younger days, a punk rocker. The broad appeal of a Klobuchar-O’Rourke ticket is obvious–it is geographically attractive by covering the mid-western state of Minnesota and the special southern state of Texas, which together have 48 electoral votes, and further checks off the boxes for women and millennials. Both are extraordinarily likable—and disarming—and popular in their home states. Klobuchar won in conservative rural areas, not just suburban and urban areas, drawing more than 64% of the vote, and Beto, despite losing, galvanized a new generation of Texas voters with his energy and youthful enthusiasm. Further, while progressive on a range of issues, neither is so far to the left that they would scare off centrist voters.

In contrast, it is hard to imagine a Biden-Beto ticket having anywhere near the appeal. There is a huge age gap, and Biden is not a new, fresh face. Despite his appeal to blue collar voters, he does not intrigue. While the Platonic ideal of a ticket will never exist in the real-world nitty gritty of political life, it is hard to imagine a more dynamic duo that covers such a broad base of critical supporters than Klobuchar and O’Rourke. Neither have affirmatively declared their intention to run–at this point both are just floating the possibility. Stay tuned.

The “Evil Landlord”

Updated January 2, 2019

I am an accidental landlord—“accidental” because I ended up becoming a landlord when the real estate bubble burst in 2006 and a few houses I had purchased (with hopes of renovating and selling for a profit) became unsellable as home prices plummeted. This is how I came to co-own 4 properties (and a vacant lot), and since some of the properties are in a fairly poor section of East Baltimore, which was rapidly improving before the 2006 real estate crash and then abruptly stopped, I have had a real-world education in the challenges of retaining compassion while dealing with people who are either unwilling or unable to meet their obligations as tenants. Experience, it is said, is what you get when you didn’t get what you had hoped for.

There are bad tenants, good tenants, and bad landlords and good landlords. I own one solidly middle-class house in South Baltimore, and despite having been fleeced by building contractors (it was my first major renovation project for a rental property) it has gradually paid itself off and is now close to going from being a net negative to even.

I often read columns by ivy-league educated pundits in the major media and wonder if any of these folks have ever had to actually deal with tenants in a neighborhood that is struggling to hang on. If they do, they will learn something: that they have always taken their own “middle class values” for granted–and that these values are often foreign to people who live close to the edge. (If you are upper class you will never bother with being a landlord in a tough neighborhood—or if you do, you will be like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner—distant from the day-to-day life of the neighborhood and the lives of your tenants. Perhaps you will nonetheless promote a positive environment–and not become a slumlord like Kushner.)

When you buy an old house, you will invariably need to renovate. Regardless of the neighborhood, the cost of labor and materials is consistent. If you put $80,000 into a house you purchased for $60,000 and all the comparable houses in the neighborhood are selling for $60,000, the value of your house will be only what someone is willing to pay for it—probably not much more than $60,000–no matter how lovely the renovation. On the other hand, if you purchase a house for $160,000 and put $100,000 in renovations into it, and the neighborhood homes are averaging $300,000, you are already $40,000 ahead when you complete the renovation.

After a decade of having nearly everything happen that could happen with my rental properties, and learning that I can manage my properties much better than an outside property manager, I have found that from day one you need to establish a strong understanding with your tenants—namely that if they saddle the landlord with a large debt, they will be held accountable. At the same time, you need to decide when there is a legitimate hardship that requires making an exception to your own rules. And you need to treat the tenants as you would like to be treated by taking care of repairs and other quality-of-life issues promptly.

I once worked with a tenant in arrears to try and help her stay in the property. She was the grandmother and caretaker of four children whose mother had lost parental rights due to heroin addiction. The grandmother’s husband, a forklift driver, lost his job, and they became unable to pay rent. When I went to the city’s eviction prevention office, they said they had never seen a landlord work with them before because landlords with tenants in arrears simply want to resolve the situation by evicting the tenants and moving on. Ultimately, this tenant could not pay and stay, despite getting assistance. When the sheriff came to evict her, the tenant put her arm in my arm and said “I know you tried to help me and I appreciate it.” I never pursued payment (the tenant left owing more than $3000).

Now imagine how this might be portrayed by some pro-tenant organizations (and I do not even like the term “pro-tenant” as that implies that if one is not “pro-tenant” one is “anti-tenant.”) The trope would be something like this: “Evil Landlord Evicts Grandmother of Four Children After Husband Loses Job.” Anyone who thinks like this has never actually been a landlord in a poor neighborhood.

What I have learned as a landlord in a poor neighborhood (albeit a neighborhood that has real potential due to its location and affordable, well-built housing), is that ALL the problems of society come to rest on your doorstep. Drug addiction, crime, unequal educational opportunities, and low wages—since nobody else has been able to solve these problems, you, the landlord, are the place where they all come to rest. [Yet another example: Several days after the federal government shut down on December 22 over an impasse on Trump’s border wall funding, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) posted a letter telling furloughed workers that they should offer to do chores for the landlord if they were unable to pay the rent. OPM later claimed that the letter had been posted by accident.]

I am writing this because today a tenant who has struggled to live in one of my rental properties for a year moved out just ahead of eviction. This tenant works as a CNA at a nursing home—and the employer will not even pay her a living wage—after three years she makes $13.37 an hour. If you know what it costs to have someone in a nursing home, you understand that this is due to a power imbalance, not an inability of the institution to pay a living wage. Further, the tenant’s 29-year-old boyfriend, who is unemployed, moved into the house in violation of the lease, and at some point, the tenant’s mother (also apparently unemployed) as well. This ran up the cost of the water bill, which the tenant then stopped paying. This is not an unusual situation.

Programs to promote home ownership in such neighborhoods are one solution—but there is also a need for small landlords to provide nicely renovated livable homes where people who cannot own can live. It will take a combination of state, federal and private money to turn these neighborhoods around—and when they do improve, it will be critical to set aside affordable housing. In the meantime, absent the input of large scale private or governmental resources, it will be the small landlord with a few properties who remains one of the key, positive elements that keep such neighborhoods viable.

Beto O’Rourke is Either Too Liberal or Too Conservative….

Beto at a local record store in Dallas a few days before the 2018 mid-terms with his typical overflow crowd

I go through various news websites daily—and have recently noticed something striking–namely that Beto O’Rourke aka Beto—is either not “progressive” enough or is much too progressive to be a unifying figure should he choose to run against Trump in 2020.

Within the last few days  there have been a deluge of headlines declaring that Beto was not progressive enough to stand for the new Democratic party in 2020. Here are some of the headlines: “The Left Blindsides Beto” (Politico); “Beto O’Rourke May Look the Part, but he’s No True Progressive” (The Independent); “Beto O’Rourke is not the Progressive some Imagine” (The Chicago Tribune.)  You get the picture.  Beto himself shrugged off the critics, remarking that he is “not big on labels” and did not know if he would consider himself “a progressive.”

On the other hand, right after his narrow loss to Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, The Atlantic ran a number of stories pointing to Beto’s liberal stances on some issues—for example Medicare-for-All—as a reason both for his loss and his unsuitability as a 2020 presidential contender. (See earlier post in this blog: “Dreaming in Dallas.“)  

While Beto remains non-committal—and may ultimately decide that he could do more for Democrats by running and winning a Senate seat in 2020–a poll of support for likely Democratic presidential contenders taken from October to December shows that only Beto and Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar have gained substantially, with Beto going from 4% in October to 9% in December, and Klobuchar from 1% to 3%. (Bernie Sanders went from 13% to 14%, while former Vice President Joe Biden dropped from 33% to 30%.)  It is, of course, too soon to know how things will shake out—but intriguing nonetheless.

The New Paganism: Ross Douthat, Sam Harris and the Need for Ritual

 Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote about something other than the myriad scandals and absurdities forming the ballast of opinion and news writing these days. The column,  “The Return of Paganism,” reflected a thoughtful analysis of some emerging trends in the religious-spiritual practices of Americans, and whether those trends may be cohering into a new religion.

It was spurred by a new book from University of San Diego  law professor Steven D. Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars From the Tiber to the Potomac.” The thesis is that the term “paganism” may describe an emerging, post-Judeo-Christian American religion.  The idea is that divinity is of this world, not outside of it.  My mom was way ahead of these guys. When I was about 10 years old I asked her the sort of questions a 10-year-old asks about “God” and “Heaven” and was gently advised that it was up to us to find heaven ourselves in this world rather than looking to something beyond.  This occurred within a family where basic Jewish traditions and rituals were observed. My family embraced, albeit informally, the Reconstructionist approach to observance (I only realized this later), which evolved from the work of Conservative Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the 1930s.  (Kaplan wrote several influential books including “Judaism Without Supernaturlism,” and “Judaism As a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life.”)

But back to the new paganism.  Douthat takes issue with Smith’s thesis  that a new combination of intellectual pantheism and civil religion is evolving into a new paganism as “a faith unto itself.”  This is wrong, writes Douthat, because this new paganism lacks “a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance.”  The fundamental weakness of this new paganism is that it asks people to “commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only a sense of wonder from their spiritual lives” but help. This brings to mind the old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

I think he is on to something here. I have, over the  years, sought to find a community where my own scientific worldview and deep sense of wonder at the miracle of Creation as seen in nature and in human creativity is wed with ritual,  and where acting to make the world a better place is a central value. And, I am sorry to say, I have never found a community where science and the spirit of scientific inquiry is integrated into an activist pantheistic paganism.  Rather, I have repeatedly bumped up against people who embrace superstition, have no grasp of how science, particularly epidemiology, works, and who are prone to conspiracy theories and political apathy. My experience with psychedelics, including on one occasion 5-MeO DMT under the guidance of a shaman in Mexico, have caused me to take very seriously the idea that consciousness is something inherent in the cosmos, not merely an emergent phenomenon of the neurons in our brain.  While this has strengthened my conviction that we are morally obligated to act for positive change, many others seem only to engage in more intense naval-gazing after such experiences.

Atheist neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris, author of “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion,” is a materialist who nonetheless sees consciousness as a conundrum that may be inexplicable within the current reductionist paradigm.  Philosopher David Chalmers posits panpsychism–that consciousness is an irreducible property of the universe–that everything has an element of consciousness.  While he has gone head-to-head with other philosophers who disagree on this point, all agree that consciousness is what makes meaning possible. (Here is Chalmers’ TED talk on this topic and an illuminating podcast with Harris and Chalmers.)

I think human beings are hard-wired for ritual, and we are hard-wired to seek a sense of connection and community.  In the past, many Americans met those needs within traditional religious observance. In the closing paragraph of his column, Douthat expresses relief that the new paganism has continued to fall short in providing a coherent set of rituals and community that can displace traditional religion. Until a new “harmonized paganism” emerges, writes Douthat, “those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it–and who have a certain fear of what  more immanent spirits have to offer us–should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.”  While I can empathize with this sentiment, I do not share it.  A new, coherent spirituality that embraces science, a sense of wonder in the natural world, and a moral framework for caring for the planet and all sentient beings is much needed. Let us hope that is, indeed, emerging.