A series of town hall meetings around the U.S. during the August Congressional recess have turned into brawls with angry mobs objecting to Obama's proposals for health care reform. The attempts of senators and representatives to explain health care needs and ideas to their constituents at many locations have been drowned out by angry hecklers who have shown up at the meetings in force. Judging by photos and videos, the protesters seem well-off and white, many of them no doubt recipients of Medicare, but none of them among the more than 50 million Americans without adequate health insurance. It is the latest battle in the war of the haves against the have-nots in the world's wealthiest country where the bloated system of health-for-profit is a scandal.
The rage against Obama and "socialist" medicine has been stoked by right-wing radio and TV commentators and supported by contributions from the medical insurance industry. In some ways it's the last gasp of the Republican Party, but what may appear in its place could be worse. The angry mobs carry posters depicting Obama as Hitler or as The Joker. The demagogue Rush Limbaugh has fueled the Nazi charge in his popular broadcasts. Some carry signs identifying themselves as members of The Thomas Jefferson Club, a new right-wing libertarian group that is drawing national attention. Others refer to themselves as "teabaggers," radical conservatives who liken their activities to the Boston Tea Party held by 18th century rebels to protest Britain's rule. I learned from Paul Krugman's "Town Hall Mob," that Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, "has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the 'Brooks Brothers riot' in 2000 — the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington." Many believe the mob scenes have been staged by radical right front organizations.
Krugman thinks the anti-health care reform brawlers are "probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is." In other words, A black Democrat president. He suggests the "driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the 'birther' movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship." This lunatic fringe, supported by commentators like Liz Cheney and Lou Dobbs and people behind the "Swift Boat" story that torpedoed John Kerry's candidacy, thinks Obama cannot be president because he was born in Kenya or Indonesia and his Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake (you can see it here, and read about this latest bizarre conspiracy theory). Krugman warns that if Obama partisans do not regain the passion that fueled the initial campaign for health care reform, then this important issue will fail. According to Mark T. Harris, former senior editor for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, "it is going to take an extraordinary mass political campaign if the American health care system is ever going to catch up with an industrialized world that has long recognized health care as a public resource similar to education or fire protection."
Here in Thailand, my internet connection is in desperate need of some kind of health care. About 70 percent of my requests to Firefox result in "Page Load Error." After a half dozen tries, I finally loaded "Thailand cracks down on Web users for royal 'slurs," an article from the Christian Science Monitor on efforts to prevent lèse-majesté "crimes" by blocking thousands of sites on the internet which may possibly pose a threat to the monarchy. "At the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology," according to author Simon Montlake, "a 24-hour war room monitors the Internet. A senior official, Aree Jiworarak, says 90 percent of the sites the ministry blocks are outside Thailand, complicating investigations of lèse-majesté." For a couple of months I was unable to look at my online banking page, but currently it's available. Connectivity comes and goes. Is there anyone at the wheel? According to Montlake, "Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in December after months of paralyzing protests, has said he wants to strike a balance between free speech and respect for the constitutional monarchy. Critics say he has failed and is unwilling to take on conservatives in his administration that are leading the crackdown."
Nan is in Phayao where her father has been hospitalized. She got a midnight call from her aunt and was on a bus early the following morning for the 11-hour trip to her village in the north. Dad has been a heavy drinker for years and this time was throwing up blood before he was rushed to the hospital 30 kilometers away. Even though she was raised by her grandmother because her parents had to live far away for work, Nan sobbed when she heard the news. Her mother divorced him long ago and remarried, and yet Nan stays in touch with her father. For Thais, family ties are sacred and eternal. She's at the hospital right now, trying to talk him into giving up drinking. The doctor told her uncle that he does not have long to live. I remember how my second ex-wife tried unsuccessfully to convince her father to stop drinking. And he was a pilot for Eastern Airlines. After retirement, he continued to hit the bottle in Florida and was taken to the hospital many times after throwing up blood (a sure sign of cirrhosis of the liver) before he died. Alcoholism is an insidious disease. Is it an illness, or a matter of choice? Its shadow has passed over my family.
Pandit Bhikku began his eight-week series of talks on "This is the Way of Wisdom" last Thursday at Planet Yoga in the California Wow exercise complex on Sukhumvit at Soi 23. The mirrored room in the basement was packed with expats and tourists eager to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. This is the third series of lectures under the auspices of the Little Bang Sangha during the rains retreat period. The first coincided with my arrival in Bangkok two years ago and I've been a friend of the 40-year-old British monk and an active member of the sangha he started ever since. He says the first talk always attracts a number of Thais who want to see "the farang monk," but that attendance will be smaller next week and beyond.
Pandit presented "the way of wisdom" towards the goal of enlightenment as a form of "inlooking" as opposed to "outlooking" which involves an object. He told the crowd that the Buddha first tried the way of concentration, which is like "chaining a wild animal to a post." This method, however, is driven by desire. Next he tried the way of asceticism, but starving himself did not lead to enlightenment. Finally, by sitting down under the Bodhi Tree and watching "the effervescent bubbling of sense data," the Buddha discovered that "nothing has stability" and that "nothing in this world is worth clinging to." If you try to be wise, you are already failing. Then Pandit switched metaphors and said the way of wisdom, conditioning the mind, is like tidying up a messy room. First you throw away what is not useful, and finally you throw away everything. "You can't make yourself wise," he said. "Your job is to keep watching."
And also to stop thinking. "Thinking will get you into trouble," he said. "It can justify anything." But this denigration of thinking troubles me. Planet Yoga was full of thinking people, trying to decide if the speaker's advice was useful to them. You make these decisions by means of thinking, by using reason to choose between alternative choices. I'm not sure how to give up thinking, without having a frontal lobotomy. "Wisdom arises by itself," Pandit says, and all we have to do is stop, watch and see. Watching involves withdrawing the mind from the six senses, which for Buddhists includes the mind. All of this seems very paradoxical to me. Of course, I can't write this blog without thinking. The counsel to "stop thinking" raises thoughts of totalitarianism, a universe of mindless robots, blissed out by choice rather than an alien invasion. I'll have to think more about this. (For more on this talk see Marcus' Journal and Pandit's notes.)
Next Wednesday is the Queen's birthday. It's also Mother's Day in Thailand. And I've just learned that it is also a school holiday, which means that once again my two classes will be canceled. I only taught two days in July due to various cancellations. It's hard enough trying to improve the English of my monks in only three hours a week. But when the schedule is interrupted so frequently, I despair. Still, I love my students. Last week I began the first of two afternoons of interviews, speaking with each student for fifteen minutes about their progress. I returned their midterm exams and went over corrected homework to see where they were having problems. I think they enjoyed the opportunity to talk with their "ajahn" face to face. One student gave me two books on Buddhism, and another brought me two apples (red and green), a piece of cake and a bottle of iced tea. Last term I took photos of each student during the interviews and they can be seen at my Flickr site. They may look alike, but each is an incredible person with unique memories and hopes. Last week I taught them the terms for giving advice, "should" and "must," and their homework assignment is to write a letter to a younger relative making suggestions about how to become a good person.
For my birthday, Nan gave me a case of "Essence of Chicken." She said that it was "good for your brain." Now, I was taught never to look a gift horse in the mouth by my mum. Plus, the gift was given with care and concern for my health. And at the age of 70, I can use all the help possible. So I accepted the gift in the spirit with which it was given and downed a little bottle of the bitter stuff while she watched. It tasted of course like concentrated chicken broth. I mentioned it at our weekly discussion round table and learned that Essence of Chicken is an extremely popular Thai gift, and one that is typically offered to people in the hospital. Once my eyes (and brain) had been opened, I began to see ads for it everywhere, including a huge banner in a Skytrain station. According to the Brands web site, "By increasing your metabolic rate, it helps to relieve fatigue and to restore both your mental alertness and physical energy (within 15 to 30 mins!). It has even been proven to help your body absorb and use vital nutrients like iron. You can be sure of all the benefits you’ve come to expect of BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken, and more! Simply put, BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken is your trusted friend, “For Mind. For Body. For Life.” Brand's products are manufactured by Cerebros, a large diversified corporation in Malaysia. According to one source, the company is run by accountants and lawyers rather than scientists and natural health specialists. Whatever. It's time for my daily swig.