Friday, September 05, 2008

politics and prayer

Competitive Democracy; Reliability; Morning Chants and Midnight Yowls

By John Taylor; 2008 Sep 05, 17 Asma, 165 BE

In this morning's email was the daily mailing from the New York Times. As a fan of Noam Chomsky I gained an appreciation for what he calls the "elite press." How bracing to be subtly -- and as often as not not so-subtly -- lied to. What a fun game to pick out which garden path you are being asked to stroll down. Here is the quote for the day from today's electronic edition of the New York Times:

"Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second crowd: change is coming." - Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.

This stirring call for change signals a shift in tactics on the part of the leader of the Republican party. The headlines are full of it:

Headline One: McCain Vows to End 'Partisan Rancor'; "Seizing Theme of Change From Rival, Senator John McCain sought to move from a convention marked by an effort to reassure the party base to an appeal to a broader electorate." Headline Two: The Party in Power, Running as if It Weren't; "Partly by his nature and partly by calculation, John McCain is sounding a call to topple the establishment." Headline Three: The Resentment Strategy; "The G.O.P. is selling the politics of resentment; you're supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it's better than you."

This third article, by one of my favourite economists, Paul Krugman, is notable for coining the Spiro Agnew-esque expression, "raging rajas of resentment." Whether the rajas are raging or not, the trick is to take a step back and ask: how did this situation come about? How is it that resentment of the political process is being made into fuel for political gain within that very system? This is like trying to build a car that shoots forward a tube to attach to the tailpipe of the vehicle in front in order to use its wasted heat and other emissions as fuel. Can a system get more corrupt than trying to run on anger against its dominance? As a remedy for this, allow me to suggest the writings of an American Baha'i lawyer by the name of Michael Karlberg. I came across this refreshing fellow in the latest volume of the Baha'i World,

Michael Karlberg, "Western Liberal Democracy as New World Order?" in The Baha'i World 2005-2006, Haifa, World Centre Publications, 2007, 133-156

Carlberg opens by suggesting a re-think of the entire rotten structure of democracy.

"But there is an alternative perspective. Could it be said that Western liberal democracy -- or what might more accurately be called competitive democracy -- has become anachronistic, unjust, and unsustainable in an age of increasing global interdependence? "The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned," wrote Baha'u'llah, "inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective."'

This term "competitive democracy" is perfect. There it was in front of our noses all the time and we did not think to come up with a name for it! Carlberg continues,

"Western liberal democracy, at its core, is based on the premise that democratic governance requires individuals and groups to compete for political power. The most recognizable form that this takes is the party system. Political competition also occurs without formal political parties in many local elections, and when independent candidates run in provincial (or state) and national elections. In all of these cases, however, the underlying competitive structure is the same, and it is this underlying structure that has become anachronistic, unjust, and unsustainable." (p. 134)

I hope in the near future to examine the rest of this article, and Karlburg's other works, in more detail.


"O people! The goodliest vesture in the sight of God in this day is trustworthiness. All bounty and honour shall be the portion of the soul that arrayeth itself with this greatest of adornments."

This is today's selection from the Writings from a "reading for the day" email service that I subscribe to. In spite of what it says about trustworthiness, this service does not bother to give you chapter and verse. From a scholarly point of view, very untrustworthy. Very irksome. Normally I would look the source up for you and include it here, but this summer has been my first "Oceanless" summer in many years. That is, I switched over to this iMac and, because Ocean is Windows-only, I no longer have that indispensable database of the Writings at my beck and call. Not that that is an entirely bad thing. Like a wino whose life revolves around the bottle, I had become overly dependent on Ocean. It owned me, I did not own it. It was a relief to get away from it all and change my methods for a while.

It took a lot of time and struggle to get this iMac working as a writing tool at all, and although I overcame a dozen obstacles, several niggling annoyances remain, some insuperable. For example, portability. We do not have air conditioning here and I would like on hot days to move this writing operation to our deliciously cool library. Otherwise I am caught in this slowly warming oven of a house like a fly on flypaper; I end up in a semi-stupor, often sleeping away my afternoons entirely. Grampa recently gave my daughter a laptop, but she prefers to use this larger iMac. Maybe a swap can be arranged.

Anyway, we were talking about trustworthiness. Going through the Virtues Guide together with Silvie and Tomaso this summer, a series of questions about trustworthiness was asked, one of which was: "Name somebody you know personally who you think is trustworthy." To my surprise, nine year old Tomaso named me. "I wish..." was my reply, but I took the compliment to heart. Maybe there are some respects in which I am trustworthy. It is true that I am the world's most unreliable administrator (migraines unpredictably excoriate me, leaving me afterwards disinclined to think about, much less follow up on whatever it was I was doing when the attack hit; this explains why this blog jumps around in subject matter so randomly). Still, when it comes to these kids, I guess I am reliable. No matter how bad the migraine, their needs are urgent and love pushes me back to serving their needs. If only my response to love of career and service to God were that immediate and stable!

I responded to Tomaso's encouraging word about reliability by being thorough in daily tasks, praying for strength, by preparing assiduously for our vacation and courage in carrying out the thousand other little jobs that this household demands. Each morning I pray for strength and steadfastness in the face of the assault of daily burdens, plus the even more insidious assault of that all erasing squeegee that wipes away every emotional tie to life's challenges, the periodic migraine attack.

That is why, perhaps, I was so affected by the chanting at the morning prayer sessions at Louhelen. What a strange, haunting thing these chants are. They change you, deep down. These monotonous intonations are utterly counterintuitive to the Western mind. They are haunting, distant, beautiful. Like - if I may say so without insulting anybody - the night-time caterwauling of cats or the chorus of wolves in the wilds of Algonquin, this no happy sound but an utterly lonely cry, the utterance of one deprived, bereft, longing for God, the One True Beloved. To me the cry of cats and the howl of dogs and wolves is an utterly demonic sound, the utterance of lost souls writhing in the fires of hell. And why not? Dogs and cats are intelligent creatures. Of all animals they have had the most intimate contact with humans; they co-evolved with us, so why should not their sounds reflect our agony, we who are spiritual beings stuck in a world of materiality?

Yes, I know, Arabic and Persian chants are not just the result of nameless, animal longings. They are a direct response to the Law of God, a clever invention devised to allow obedience to a peculiar set of rules put in place for Islamic holy places. Some of these restrictions are carried on into the Baha'i Faith, in our Mashriqs and at the Feast. Specifically, no instrumental music is allowed in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar and no repetitions are permitted while intoning the Holy Word in the spiritual section of the Feast.

We are blessed with a singer in our community who supplies us with music for the spiritual part of the Feast. Over the years it has become obvious that the only way for us to have Western music then is systematically to ignore the law about repetitions. So that is just what we do. With our musical repertoire of Holy Writ put to music there is simply no other alternative to repetitions other than to remove music completely. Repetition seems utterly ingrained in everything musical that we do. Actually, there is an alternative, the down and out, Eastern "intone O my servant" chant. That and nothing else that I know of will legally stand in the spiritual section of the Feast.

In any case, having listened to these lonely intonations every morning for several days, I no longer listen to the night cry of wolf, dog and cat with the same ears. Now I think not of lonely agony but of the wonderful relief they must feel afterwards, and the effect the sound has on their surroundings. The same must be so for us. "...the scattering angels of the almighty will scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth and cause the heart of every created thing to throb..."



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