Monday, March 31, 2008

Bowling in Bangkok

When the lights went out on Sunday around the planet, I was bowling in Bangkok. Earth Hour, the worldwide campaign to highlight climate change, was not apparent at Major Bowl, the sports emporium at Ekkamai where Pim had a discount coupon that expired the next day, although as you can see in this video the lanes were dimly lit. I read in the paper this morning that the lights on Wat Arun, the ancient temple on the river, were shut off at 8 pm for an hour. But at that time I was working on my strikes (the first shown in the video) and spares, and gave little thought to the earth's impending doom. I have been concerned about the 160-square-mile shelf of ice in Antarctica that is crumbling into the sea, but that's because Jerry and Sylvia were recent visitors to the melting South Pole outpost and I'm glad that they didn't get dunked. While Pim beat me when we bowled last in Hua Hin, this time I won three out of four games and she had to pay for our play. After finishing the match, we watched lightening in the distance from the Skytrain station.

It's not that I'm necessarily against these grand gestures. Raising consciousness about global warming is important. I think school kids around the globe have been taught to think green. The problem isn't the consciousness of common people, however. It's the corporations, military and governments that stand in the way, benefiting in one way or another from wars, hyper-consumption and the wasteful use of oil and its byproducts. Reduce, reuse and recycle is a handy slogan for simplifying our life styles and downsizing our ecological footprint. But, like the fatuous Hunger Project started by Werner Erhard's est, which asked only that people "think differently" about hunger (but not to do anything to relieve it), it will take a lot more than good intentions to avoid the apocalypse of the planet's meltdown. In an article in Saturday's Bangkok Post, Walden Bellow managed to sound an optimistic note:
Climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed or sabotaged in previous eras by the elite seeking to preserve or increase their privileges.
Asking "Will capitalism survive climate change?," Bello, a much-published analyst for Focus in the Global South, an NGO based at Chulalongkorn University, points out the conflict between elites in the developed North who do not want to give up their pollutive habits and elites in the South anxious to pursue catch-up development that is equally dirty, with a "high-growth, high-consumption model inherited from the North."
The end-goal must be adoption of a low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that results in an improvement in people's welfare, a better quality of life for all, and greater democratic control of production.
It's not likely that elites in the North and South will agree to this. But, Bello writes optimistically, "we can be sure that the vast majority [of humanity] will not commit social and ecological suicide to enable the minority to preserve their privileges." He believes that the threat of the apocalypse will result in new social and economic systems, but doubts that capitalism as a flawed system of production, consumption and distribution will survive the challenge. Although he is not specific about how this can be accomplished, I believe Bello's thinking goes beyond the grand gesture stage. Bello's full article can be read here or here.

Bello, from the Philippines, is one of a group of Asian thinkers who are engaged in theorizing radical solutions for global problems in the 21st century. Another is Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand who celebrated his 75th birthday this past weekend. Dr. Holly, Pandit Bhikku and myself were there. The party, held at the Sathirakoses Nagapradipa Foundation's compound across the river, began with a Buddhist ceremony that included chanting and continued with a feast in the outdoor pavilion below the offices which house Ajahn Sulak's NGO empire. The Foundation includes five "sister" organizations: Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development, Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, Wongsanit Ashram, the Spirit in Education Movement, and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists which Sulak helped form with Thich Nhat Han and the Dalai Lama. Nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Sulak is a gadfly who has several times been exiled from his home for political activity that crosses the line in an authoritarian society disrupted by frequent military coups. He interests me because his political and social vision is based in his Buddhist religious practices. I am reminded of the perspective of liberation theology in Latin America. He believes the sangha, or the community of Buddhist practitioners, provides a pre-European model for a democratic society in which all views are represented. Like Bello, Sulak is a forceful critic of westerner individualism which leads to harmful self-centered behavior. This takes the form of property and profit over individual rights, and results in social and environmental injustice. Since the end of World War Two, Sulak believes Siam (a name he prefers over the westernized "Thailand") has suffered from the influence of the United States which has led to the dominance of the military and an educational system where quantity is more important than quality. At his party on Saturday, Sulak circulated among the small crowd and made sure that everybody got fed from the sumptuous repast, which included mango and sticky rice, the dessert made in heaven.

The Foundation's store was open, and in addition to a tee shirt with the slogan "everyday we can change the world" on the front and a list of successful Thai social and environmental campaigns on the back, I purchased a few more of Sulak's privately printed (because he is too controversial here to find an established publisher) books, including Religion and Development and The Quest for a Just Society, a volume he edited of articles about Buddhadassa Bhikkhu, the monk who helped to form Sulak's this-worldly Buddhism which eschews superstition for social justice. I've already read his classic Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (published by Thich Nhat Han's Parallax Press in Berkeley in 1992). Last week I went in search of more books (so much for my resolution to cut back) at the 36th annual Bangkok International Book Fair at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. Pandit had told me that Thais do not read, but the mammoth crowds packing the Convention Center made that hard to believe. There were hundreds of booths displaying thousands of books and the aisles were packed with people, including a large number of children, carrying full shopping bags. Most of the publications were in Thai, but there were a handful of publishers with books in English, including the wonderful Silkworm Books which produces a sizable collection of challenging works of history, politics and economics on the region. Some are so controversial that I wonder how they escape the censor. But as long as you avoid defaming royalty, expression in Thailand is relatively free. My purchases included a couple of wall charts to help me learn Thai numbers as well as the names for days and months which I found at a booth containing children's educational supplies.

I've received the disturbing news that the men's group in Santa Cruz of which I was a part for a number of years is on the verge of disbanding. The members are all Catholics, but they differ in their views on dogma and authority, and the role of religious faith in their lives. Several, like me, have found that the old Judeo-Christian stories no longer have any relevance for them. A couple of others are dismayed by what they interpret as attacks on their beliefs. One long-time participant has resigned from the group because he found the discussions too "toxic." Apparently the Easter week topic was life after death, and for him the afterlife was an idea he found consoling and necessary. That some others did not was interpreted as criticism.

Having been in a couple of men's groups over the years, I know that there is always a struggle between members who seek a group of like-minded friends and those who want to work on issues and are not inclined to socialize outside of the group. Because our group possessed a religious theme (we would read and comment on the weekly liturgical readings), it was also important that we shared a commitment to "God talk," a discourse limited to church culture. But a few of us no longer found the terms (or the old gray-bearded "God") meaningful, and this created strains in the conversation. It seems those strains have widened into cracks and the group is breaking apart.

How unfortunate that we cannot dialog across the prejudices that divide us! A faith separated from the concerns and experience of everyday life can be a badge of identity that promotes intolerance rather than integration. At its best, the discussions in our men's group confronted real issues: the death of Pat's father, Gene's wife who is descending into Alzheimer's, frustrations of political protest, the drinking problem of another man, sexual temptations: dilemmas sometimes to difficult to talk about outside of a small circle of friends. At its worst, we resorted to analysis, detached criticism, and dogmatic pronouncements. For some, it was difficult to confess personal issues; for others it was easy to talk about anything (and we often monopolized the conversation). Whatever the challenge, we continued to talk, each in his own way. Now it seems, some are more drawn to the security of religious promises rather than the comfort and understanding (and sometimes arguments) of good friends. That seems very sad to me. I hope the secessionists will realize what they will miss.

Maybe I should have called today's blog "Breakfast in Bangkok," for this was our morning feast today. The fruit Pim is peeling is almost, but not quite, a pear. Its name is sapodilla, or lamut in Thai. It was native to Mexico and was introduced to the Philippines during Spanish colonization.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Living the "Last Hurrah"

It's hard to escape the feeling that I'm a walking cliché: a fat old white man in love with a young tan Thai girl. Such couplings can be seen everywhere in Sukhumvit, the area of Bangkok where I live, a western ghetto of sorts strung between two "entertainment" complexes, Nana and Soi Cowboy, where temporary girlfriends can be hired for the night or week in dozens of bars. It makes little difference that Pim is a "good" girl, an employee of the Thai Post Office, whom I met on the internet. We are stereotyped as repulsive and disgusting by many older monogamous tourists as well as the ever-vigilant campaigners against Asian human trafficking who see rape in ever asymmetric relationship.

I am not comfortable in challenging these assumptions which follow me around like a dark cloud, for I am well aware of the problems in our May-December romance. Before I left the states, my daughter asked me not to fall in love with someone younger than her. But I did. When I came to Thailand a year ago, I met a woman in a bar on Koh Samui and we lived together for two-and-a-half weeks. I thought I was in love with her, but the relationship cracked under the strain of long-distance communication. The daughter of a poor rice farmer in Isan, she was half my age. Pim, who comes from a middle class-background in Isan, is younger. Both, perhaps for very different reasons, found me attractive. Obviously I was in search of affection and love. Is this wrong?

This blog is an attempt to answer comments made by Mark in his blog after a recent visit to Bangkok. He and his friends met Pim briefly when she joined us at the end of a dinner at Hemlock restaurant in Banglamphu. I'll admit to being a bit nervous because I feared their typical judgments, but it seemed to me that Pim's charm disarmed them. And when we left, it was hugs all around. Later, however, I read these comments from Mark:
We also met Walter, an ex-pat from San Diego, Ca. A Viet Nam vet, retired merchant marine, age 67 now living in Ko Samui, Thailand. Another middle to late aged Anglo male with a younger Thai girlfriend, a common combo we see all over Thailand. Is this a last hurrah with youth, a mutually workable "arrangement" ...or is this LOVE? Often, I have noticed, that there is minimal verbal communication... lot's of hand signals....She is the guide, he is the provider? ...and they both get a vacation out of the deal? I really don't pretend to know or understand. I do notice that after a dozen or more of these couplings are observed, there are some common threads. The male rarely gives eye contact to other male westerners when with "their" Thai females. One can guess this comes from some sense of being judged... but there are likely many other possibilities. One does see a gov't campaign posted in signs with regularity stating "sex with children is a crime!". In a conversation along these lines with Bob, he pointed out that often these particular Thai women were small and very slight of build... that perhaps there is some form of pedophilia being acted out in these couplings... obviously not in all cases. It is an interesting topic and probably runs the whole range of human emotional possibilities any relationship. To be sure, one must keep in check the tendency to be judgemental on such a foreign topic.
Certainly Mark is trying to be tactful, for I know he knows we read each other's blogs. Since I've never had trouble making eye contact, I don't know if he is referring to me or Walter the vet. Much of what he writes is no doubt true. Hand signals are useful when language differences hinder verbal communication. And in Thai culture, men and women take care of each other according to their abilities. My Social Security is five times the value of Pim's salary, so I provide the money. Pim cleans and irons, and guides me in the ways of Thai life. We both tutor each other in our native tongues. Tit for tat. Love in practice is always a kind of transaction. What's wrong with that?

I've wondered if this is my "last hurrah" with youth, my last love affair, and I accept that this is probably true. Thai women are almost all "small and very slight of build." This is attractive to me, as I find it is for most of the men I talk with here, and perhaps all males who come alone to Thailand. Does this make all Thai women children and their farang lovers pedophiles? Perhaps that helps to explain the short-time holiday sex tourists who fly in to visit the bars and fly back home. But what of the many who fall in love and stay? Love is not susceptible to such an easy diagnosis.

When my marriage ended with a crash after twenty-four years, I wanted desperately to fall in love again to heal the pain. My ex found a rebound relationship within two months, and that seemed unfair. But although I met attractive and desirable women on several continents in the ensuing years, none made my heart strings zing. My first wife was four years younger and my second twelve. The latter had entered menopause when she decided our marriage was over and I vowed to find a partner who was done with the change of life. But what man is immune to the charms of youth? We are conditioned by the gods of consumption to worship nubile beauty. I know of few men who do not appreciate on some level the fresh face, smooth skin, and smoldering sexuality of a young girl.

This does not cancel out the appeal of a relationship among equals. But I never managed to fall in love with anyone my age who could enjoy the passion of physical affection, the adventure of travel and the tussle of a challenging intellectual argument. Women of my years are struggling with the indignities of age which seem to shame them more than men. They pile on the makeup and switch styles of hair in a losing attempt to deny time's swift-moving arrow. Oh, and we men do the same! I am appalled by what I see in the mirror. Still, I would have gladly traded my role as an aging Marco Polo to have been able to grow old with the same person. A quarter century of shared experiences is not chopped liver. But that was not to be.

"Is this LOVE?" Mark wonders in his blog. Ah, the big question. I didn't want to fall in love with Pim. We met to talk about how her heart had been broken by another farang. I offered her fatherly, even grandfatherly, advice, took her to lunch, to the movies. She wore braces and suffered from a pimple or two. I told her over and over: you are too young for me (I was looking for a woman, say, in her late thirties, slightly less than half my age). She wanted my help with her English (which already enabled us to bypass hand signals), she wanted to talk with me. And so we ended up at my apartment, and spent the night together. Still, I told her there was someone else, Nat, whom I took to Laos in October. I told her she should find a young man to love who could give her babies; my tubes were tied. But she was persistent and I succumbed to her attentions. Then in December I left for a month in India. There was little opportunity to communicate.

When I returned to Bangkok, Pim and I spent three wonderful nights together before I left for ten days in Surin to attend the wedding of Jerry's step-son. While there, we sent text messages back and forth. She had decided, for some inexplicable reason, that she wanted to live with me (which in Thailand is as good as marriage), and I felt my heart begin to melt. As we spent more time together, I began to see different sides of her personality, all appealing. She is more organized, more ambitious, and cleaner than I am. I often find myself following her lead, as if she is the adult and I am the child. Aside from Glenna, my high school girlfriend, I have never met anyone as physically affectionate. We touch each other often when not in public (Thais avoid public displays of affection) and cling to each other in sleep at night. After years of marriage when love making was an imposition, Pim's burgeoning sensuality has given me a new lease on life. Yes, this is what men and women are supposed to do together!

Is this love? In a way, it IS a "mutually workable arrangement," as Mark puts it. I am the house husband, the teacher of English, the financier of our life together. She works six days a week at the Post Office and is planning to invest some of her salary (what doesn't go to her mother in Kalasin, or the orthodontist, or friends who borrow from her) in a project to sell clothes from Thailand on eBay. At home she washes, irons and cleans. We swim together in the pool. And we have traveled together, to Koh Samet last fall and to Hua Hin last month, playing, laughing and enjoying each other's company. In this arrangement, however, I remain a secret from her family and friends (although I have met her younger sister and Akira, her five-year-old Thai-Japanese cousin). She says this is for three reasons: because of our age difference, which is almost but not quite as strange in Thailand as in the west; because she would be seen as "bad" if people knew she was living with someone not yet her husband; and because she wants to protect me from those close to her who might bother me for money. Another reason, I suspect, is that she will lose face with her friends when they realize she has not been telling them the truth for so long. Our affair is no small omission.

I am amazed that I have been a secret for so long, and I know it won't last forever. What we do next is still undecided. She has offered marriage as a way for me to secure a long-term visa. But I resist that for fear of trivializing our relationship. We are talking about finding a cheaper apartment with a bedroom and kitchen after my job begins in May, one closer to where we work (she now has a commute across town of at least an hour each way). In two weeks we will vacation in Chiang Mai and Pai over the Songkran holiday. Our lives are now inextricably intertwined. My feelings for her are very strong and deep.

But is this love? Thais seem to worry less about questions like that (and much else besides). Mai pen rai -- it doesn't matter.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Crucifixion is Harmful to Your Health

Easter is a non-starter here in Thailand. The Thais embrace just about every other farang holiday. They celebrate Halloween and Valentine's Day, and I even managed to get a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. But the Easter Bunny could be just another creature in the petting zoo. In the Philippines, it's another story. According to newspaper reports, 19 men in a poor farming community yesterday underwent a real crucifixion: steel nails were pounded into their hands and feet while at least 2,000 tourists watched the bloody spectacle, which is frowned upon by the local Roman Catholic Church. Each volunteer hung on the wooden cross for about five minutes before being taken down. Nearby, other men whipped themselves bloody with strips of bamboo attached to strings to atone for their sins. Philippine health officials advised participants to check the condition of the whip before lashing their backs; dirty whips and nails could lead to tetanus and other infections. The Church had cautioned the penitents to take anti-tetanus shots first and to sterilize their equipment. The crucifixions were organized by the village council in San Pedro Cutud, with help from the national government's tourism department. More than 80 percent of the population of the Philippines is Catholic.

Years ago, atop the dam in Sierra Madre Canyon, next to the two-story cabin in which I lived with a handful of other twenty-somethings, we attempted to reenact the crucifixion one drunken Easter weekend. To be on the safe side, we used rope instead of nails. I don't recall anyone encountering the Holy Ghost. But in the Sufi tradition, wine is divine, so I suppose the ritual was sanctified. It's a miracle no one fell off the dam.

I didn't go to church yesterday. After attending the Palm Sunday service at Holy Redeemer, I reluctantly concluded that the Christian myth no longer had a hold over me. It was just a nice fairy story, depending on your interpretation. Judging by the event in the Philippines, it certainly has its hooks into others. And that cowboy evangelical in the White House has proven its destructive power. I miss the loving community that shared beliefs (even when mistaken) can create. If I had been in Santa Cruz last night I would have attended the evening vigil mass and the baptism and confirmation of the catechumens would have brought tears to my eyes. I don't see this as a question of "truth" (whatever that is), but of meaning. If the Easter bunny story is meaningful to you, then embrace it, share it with friends, and find in it something to guide your life. If not, move to Thailand.

So on Saturday when, according to tradition, Jesus lay dead in his tomb, I gathered with my Bangkok Buddhist tribe, the LittleBang Sangha, to look at "Marjoe," the documentary of a preaching prodigy who decided to expose his manipulative techniques for the camera. About 20 gathered at the Tai Pan Hotel for a buffet lunch followed by the screening in a room upstairs. Jacques, an American who once lived in Aptos, told us of his strict upbringing by a father who shared Marjoe's Pentecostal creed. Now retired in Bangkok, the memories clearly retained their pain. We discussed whether Marjoe, trained and ordained at the age of four, was a victim of child abuse. And we explored the psychology of the religious experience in the revival tent meetings that were filmed for the documentary, which won an Academy Award in 1973. We spoke about Marjoe's obvious respect for the believers, even though he was not one of them, and of the ecstatic joy on the faces of the people moved by his charismatic Mick Jagger-style of preaching. If he was conning them, the worshippers were complicit. Besides Pandit Bhikku, the guiding light of Littlebang, we were joined by monks Phra Mick and Phra Nick, both from Australia. Toward the end of the film, Marjoe mentions that he finds religion "addicting." It is certainly that for me, despite my disbelief and skepticism, and many of the sangha members expressed a similar fascination in the different varieties of religious experience. We will have another movie gathering in the not too distant future.

The big news in Thailand is that people are stealing metal fixtures and selling them to scrap metal dealers. Thieves stole the nuts and bolts in a power pylon and it partially collapsed. Hundreds of manhole covers are missing in Bangkok, along with metal gutter grates. They have even pilfered water gauges and faucets outside houses and the residents awake to find water gushing out of their pipes. The poor must be resourceful and in Thailand this takes the form of larcenous creativity. Today I read in the paper that rice farmers in the central region are rushing to harvest their crops before they're stolen. Because of the escalating price of rice, apparently the thieves have been sneaking into paddy fields at night and making off with the crops.

Strawberries are almost as expensive as Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Thailand. I brought a few from a street vendor but they gathered fuzz before I had a change to eat them. They are available in all the markets. And some strawberries are imported from Watsonville. I've seen Driscoll's strawberries in South America as well as in Asia and it always makes me feel a bit proud, even if I can't afford to buy them. Another familiar brand here is Martinelli's apple juice, in the apple shaped bottle. I remember going there on a school field trip with my daughter years ago. The other day in Villa Market, I took a sample cup from a clerk, thinking it was lemonade. It fact it was corn juice, and it tasted just like buttery corn. I'm a traditionalist and prefer my corn chewed on the cob. Liquified, it was disgusting.

I've been feeling a bit frustrated lately by gadgets. The ethernet connection I use for the internet became unreliable and my access to the world of information I've grown accustomed to was severely restricted. I grumbled and frowned, and Pim encouraged me to cultivate a "jai yen," a cool heart. Thais do not like to see expressions of anger and frustration. Letting it all hang out is not a Thai habit. The simplest of chores seemed to taunt me. I remember the time I put a dent in my car when it refused to understand my commands. Of course, it's not technology, but rather something else.

In two weeks, when my visa expires, I'll fly to Vientiane, Laos, for a few days to get a new one. I liked the tiny capital when I visited there last fall, and look forward to French bread and cappuccino and strolls along the Mekong. The following weekend, Pim and I are taking a getaway holiday to Chiang Mai and up to Pai where Eric and Get have recently opened a new hotel. It will be her first airplane trip. The Songkran festival is April 13-16 and we'll miss the worst of it in Bangkok where laughing Thais, Jerry tells me, are known to dump barrels full of water on a farang. Songkran marks the end of the year for Thais. Besides going to the wat, Thais celebrate it by throwing water at each other (and unsuspecting tourists).

After dinner with Mark Levy, and Bob and Vivian Vaughan, they headed for beaches in the south. But I've been able to keep up with their travels by reading Mark's very interesting blog, which includes some wonderful photos. Julie Esterly from Santa Cruz, and her friends Kate and Julia from Portland, have just returned from a spiritual retreat in Bhutan. In Bankok on the way there, we toured the city together, stopping at the Golden Mount and Wat Pho before taking a trip down the Chao Phraya River. I hope I get to hear their stories about Bhutan, which just held its first election, before they leave for home. Dr. Holly played host to her friend Crispy this month. He got off a boat, his natural environment, to come here to Bangkok for major teeth repair. I met him last at a party in Glen Ellen where the lovable Lee lives. He recovered quickly, with the aid of copious quantities of local beer, and when he smiles he will give testimony to the Bangkok as the capital of dental tourism. George returned to Bangkok this week after a period of recovery on the beaches of Vietnam after retiring from his stressful job in Cambodia as a social activist attorney. He will be here until his around the world voyage begins next month.

Turning on the TV the other day, I happened upon the Dirty Harry sequel made by Clint Eastwood in Santa Cruz. I watched the chase down the old pre-earthquake Pacific Avenue Mall and enjoyed the scenes from the Boardwalk. Eastwood no doubt chose Santa Cruz because it was an easy commute from his home in Monterey. I seem to recall that Peter and Diana were in the scene on the Mall but I didn't spot them or any other familiar faces.

The news from the U.S. is always entertaining. The governor of New York gets caught with his pants down and his successor, a legally-blind black man, confesses that both he and his wife have had affairs. Bush brags about five years of success in Iraq on a televised address that I happen to catch live on CNN. That man destroys any "jai yen" I have managed to cultivate. The papers in Asia are crowing that the American century is over and they are probably right. Perhaps the dollar will never recover (which means I will be dependent on the piddling amount I can earn teaching English to the monks), and maybe even Social Security will soon go bankrupt, its funds plundered to kill terrorists. I've heard good reports of Barack Obama's speech about race and saw and read enough about his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to realize that his views and opinions about the U.S. were right on target. I would be happier with Obama were he to embrace them in his campaign.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Palms, St. Patrick and a Pentecostal Preacher

For the last six years, Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter has been an important date in my life. After the double whammy of a cancer diagnosis and the breakup of a 24-year marriage, I returned to the practice of Catholic Christianity with a vengeance, becoming active at Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz in variety of ways. Under the influence of Thomas Merton's writings, I had converted to Catholicism in the mid-1980s but lapsed when I found my liberal, left-wing perspective on spirituality was uncommon among local parishioners. Upon returning to the Church, however, I began to meet a number of faithful Catholics who put social justice (which I considered the core of the Gospel message) first. And when I helped Fr. Cyprian Consiglio organize Sangha Shantivanam, I was pleased to learn that many devout Catholics were open to a universal contemplative religiosity that honored non-Christian traditions.

The center of the Church year is not Christmas but Holy Week during which elaborate and ancient rituals mark the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Last Supper with his disciples on Holy Thursday with its foot-washing ceremony, his death by crucifixion on Good Friday, and his resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday. New members are initiated into the Church at Easter Vigil. On Palm Sunday, palm branches are distributed (a year later the ash from their burning is used to mark foreheads as a sign of penitence on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-days of Lent before Easter). Every year I have done my best to follow the stories and the tradition and participate in the rituals.

Despite the fact that for a number of reasons I have gradually shed my Catholic identity during the past year, I attended the Palm Sunday service yesterday morning at Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok. At the beginning of the service, Fr. Anthony Sirichai called the congregation outside where he blessed the palm branches (above). Back inside, the Gospel reading for the liturgy of the word was the entire passion story from Matthew with the congregation, lector and priest taking different parts. The second reading was that wonderful passage from Philippians where Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave." This always signifies to me the radical emptying of self, the transcending of the ego which is the goal of Buddhism as well as of a global contemplative spirituality.

The pews at Holy Redeemer were packed, with electric fans doing their best to circulate the hot and humid air that can become oppressive as the "dry season" here in Thailand turns into the "hot season." The words and the responses of the liturgy were familiar and I sensed the tug and pull to join in. But the ritual felt empty. It was form without content. I could not put myself in it. Missing was the confirmation and encouragement of close friends. Without a supportive community, the claims of Catholic doctrine seem hollow. I found the exclusive language jarring. It seemed as if the mix of Asian religions outside the door were excluded from this very private club. I wondered if I lacked a ritual gene which would allow me to take part in a deeper sense, or if my critical faculties would always get in the way of full participation. Even during my years of membership in the Church, I could never commit totally to the truths signified by the rituals.

Even my conversion was an intellectual process. What I lacked was religious enthusiasm. In its original Greek sense, "enthusiasm" meant the inspiration or possession by a divine spirit. Up through the 18th century it pointed to intense religious fervor or emotion. Today, washed of all religious connotation, the word "enthusiasm" merely means devotion to an idea, cause or pursuit.

Another ritual, perhaps equally empty (unless you're Irish), is the celebration of Saint Patrick's Day -- today. I'm wearing my pale green Luang Prabang tee shirt because when I was young you got in trouble with the kids at school if you didn't have on something green (but not if it was Thursday which meant that you were gay. In Thailand green is Wednesday's color -- go figure). Patrick supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland, but apparently there weren't any there after the glacial period. So it has been explained that "snakes" metaphorically stood for the Druids who practiced their native animism until Christ's missionaries arrived. I'll be looking for some Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew to celebrate this afternoon. Happy St. Pat's Day to one and all.

The subject of rituals and religious enthusiasm came up after watching "Marjoe," the Academy Award winning documentary film from 1972, directed by Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith, that followed former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner on the Pentacostal tent revival circuit as he exposed the preaching techniques that his parents had drilled into him at the age of four. Marjoe (a combination of Mary and Joseph) in the film is a curly-haired Adonis who later had a brief career as a rock singer and actor. He explained to the cameras that he was "bad but not evil" as he used the strutting style of Mick Jagger to bring souls to Jesus. Called a "preaching machine" by his father, who confiscated most of the millions he made as a child, Marjoe today laughingly calls himself a "Holy Hustler" as he conducts "celebrity sports invitational events" and charity auctions.

What impressed me in the film were not so much the con man techniques that Marjoe used, and which have been elaborated by today's televangelists (their cynical hypocrisy exposed in numerous scandals). What I found moving was the religious enthusiasm of the believers at the revival meetings that was captured on film by Kernochan and Smith. These Christians were both men and women, young and old, black and white, and Marjoe's charismatic preaching, however fraudulent his words might have been, induced in them an obvious ecstatic trance state. Many walked up to receive a blessing or a healing from him in the laying on of his hands, and quite a few collapsed in what can only be described as an epileptic-like seizure. Others began babbling in tongues, nonsense words in no known language which the intellectuals call "glossolalia" and the faithful see as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Eyes closed, hands waving in the air to praise God and Jesus, the smiles on their faces look real. This was an experience of joy that seemed to elude me.

Years ago, My Aunt Nan and her family joined a Pentecostal church in Washington, D.C., where her husband Sid worked in the Air Force at the Pentagon. Uncle Ted, my father's gay twin brother, used to tell the story of once attending church with them in a converted movie theater, their blond hair and blue eyes in stark contrast to the preponderance of blacks in the audience. When the children, his nephews and nieces, started speaking in tongues he was horrified. Later the oldest son left college after seeing, he said, a devil sitting on the shoulder of one of his professors. While their beliefs were moderated later in life, the father, a severe and humorless man, died an unrepentant Pentecostal Christian.

Let me say that I fear religious enthusiasm, or ecstasy, as much as I envy those whose spirituality is a total bodily experience and not just a head trip. When I opened myself up to the possibility of religious conversion by entering the spiritual path in the early 1980s, I cringed at the thought that God might strike me with lightening and that I might become one of those obnoxious born-again Christians. It didn't happen. Even the Roman Catholic Church now has charismatic services where faith healing supposedly takes place. I have avoided them like the plague. But Marjoe's followers fascinated me. And I felt a teeny bit envious.

After the film was first released, Marjoe was interviewed by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman for a chapter in their book, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change (1978). The authors define "snapping" as : "An experience that is unmistakably traumatic...Sudden change comes in a moment of intense experience that is not so much a peak as a precipice, an unforeseen break in the continuity of awareness that may leave them detached, withdrawn, disoriented - and utterly confused." For Marjoe, the divine moment of religious ecstasy has no mystical quality at all. It is a simple matter of group frenzy that has its counterpart in every crowd. "It's the same at a rock-and-roll concert," he told he authors. "You have an opening number with a strong entrance; then you go through a lot of the old standards, building up to your hit song at the end." The hit song, however, is spiritual rebirth, or what I am calling religious enthusiasm.

According to Conway and Siegelman, the difference between Marjoe and some of his modern-day fellow preachers and pretenders is that "Marjoe has always held his congregation in high regard. During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards." Marjoe told them:
The people who are out there don't see it as entertainment, although that is in fact the way it is. These people don't go to movies; they don't go to bars and drink; they don't go to rock-and-roll concerts -- but everyone has to have an emotional release. So they go to revivals and they dance around and talk in tongues. It's socially approved and that is their escape. It was my duty to give them the best show possible.
But this experience doesn't last. And Marjoe was disheartened when he observed the hardening of the arteries of religious enthusiasm.
When I was traveling, I'd see someone who wanted to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I'd return and that person might be a hard-nosed intolerant Christian because he had Christ. That's when the danger comes in. People want an experience. They want to feel good, and their lives can be helped by it. But then as you start moving into the operation of the thing, you get into controlling people and power and money.
Marjoe was taught to preach at the age of 4 (his parents claimed he underwent a baptismal experience in a bathtub at 2), but never to believe in the God he professed in the revival tent. In his teens he ran away and lived with an older woman in Santa Cruz where he went to high school. In the early 1960s he attended San Jose State College and dabbled in sex, drugs and rock and roll. He returned to the preaching circuit because he was broke and his reputation gave him entré. But disgusted by the commercialization of salvation and the power trips of the preachers, he contacted the film makers and offered to expose revivalism on camera. Later he made a record and acted in films and TV shows, but none of it brought him the kind of success he had enjoyed as the Shirley Temple of the Bible Belt.

Christopher Hitchens, in his diatribe against all religion, god is not Great, finds fodder for his argument in the "mind-numbing story" of Marjoe, the "'infant phenomenon' of American evangelical hucksterism." He was obviously the victim of child abuse, Hitchens' major complaint against childhood conversions. The author writes that
[Y]oung Master Gortner was thrust into the pulpit at the age of four, dressed in a revolting Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, and told to say that he had been divinely commanded to preach. If he complained or cried, his mother would hold him under the water tap or press a cushion on his face, alway being careful, as he relates it, to leave no marks. Trained like a seal, he soon attracted the cameras, and by the age of six was officiating at the weddings of grown-ups.
Hitchens relates the "whole racket of American evangelism" to the selling of indulgences, like pieces of the "true cross," during the Middle Ages. "But to see the crime exposed by someone who is both a victim and a profiteer is nonetheless quite shocking even to a hardened unbeliever."

Based on the film, Hitchens presents his own description of religious enthusiasm: "People weep and yell, and collapse in spasms and fits, shrieking their savior's name." Perhaps he could have said the same about people at Rolling Stones concert during the British group's heyday. Or about the screaming teenagers at a Beatles concert in the 1960s or a Frank Sinatra show in the 1940s. How different is the secular enthusiasm of shrieking crowds at a football or soccer match? Ecstasy is a component of many non-Christian religious rituals, such as Sufi dancing, or the extreme ascetic practices of yogis (seen in the excellent documentary about Kumbh Mela in India, "Shortcut to Nirvana.") And I do NOT want to argue that religious enthusiasm cannot be analyzed critically. The induced hysteria of children pictured in the documentary "Jesus Camp," and the revolting beliefs of Baptist preacher Fred Phelps (his sole message is "God Hates Fags") documented in "Fall From Grace," are to be equally condemned.

But what, I want to know, is the function of religious enthusiasm? I do not see it just as irrational behavior (the rational-irrational dichotomy is too simplistic). Philosopher Michael Polanyi argues for the term "nonrational" to avoid an automatic negative connotation. The appreciation of beauty, and even sexual pleasure, is largely nonrational and disappears when you apply an ethic of calculation. The existence of religious enthusiasm does not guarantee a dogmatic religious explanation. Happiness and joy, for example, might be conducive to health, no matter what their cause.

Marjoe, according to Conway and Siegelman, "displayed tremendous respect for the experience as an expression of spirituality and fellowship." He told them, "I don't have any power. And neither do any of these other guys. Hundreds of people were healed at my crusades, but I know damn well it was nothing I was doing."

Our LittleBang Sangha in Bangkok will view the Marjoe film next Saturday, March 22, and discuss the issues it raises, about fundamentalist Christianity and about the role of religious enthusiasm in other religions, including Buddhism. For more information about this event, if you're in the neighborhood, click here.

WISDOM OF THE WEEK: Jack Nicholson's aging character to Morgan Freeman's in "The Bucket List" (written by Justin Zakham):
Never pass up a bathroom, never waste a hard-on, and never trust a fart.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Quietening of Passion

My friend Ted writes that from reading my blog he senses "a subtle quietening of passion for your new 'adventure.' Let's hope the teaching leads to some stability." This raises for me a number of questions to ponder. Like, for example, what is the relationship between passion and stability?

It is certainly true that my consciousness of my surroundings is constantly changing. I am no longer living out of a suitcase and the new is slowly becoming habitual. I live in Bangkok now as I wait to exchange my tourist visa for one that will allow me to teach English to monks in a Buddhist university. I nod to my neighbors on the way to and from the shops up on Sukhumvit. Each day I read the English papers and watch the TV news. Pim and I together are turning a small studio apartment into a home, and last night we bought meditation cushions and a toaster at Carrefour, one of the many "hypermarkets" here (French-owned and the second largest retail chain in the world next to Wal-Mart). But my initial reaction to Ted's comment was: "Oh no! The thrill must be going, going gone!"

Passion always seems to wax and wane. It's not a steady trajectory. On the whole, my enthusiasm for life remains high. Even when I'm sidetracked by random worries and fears, I find the city infinitely fascinating, and diverting. The pastel-colored taxis make the traffic jams an abstract painting. Cross the road, even when the light is in your favor, is always a challenge. While Jerry finds the cacophony of construction sounds across the street from his apartment a nuisance, I delight in the four new buildings going up on my soi and wonder what they will be -- a new hotel, serviced apartments, condos, a massage parlor, perhaps? If I want to get some exercise, I walk the 10 minutes to the top of the soi (where I would see this female construction worker with a drink in a bag), but if I want to baby my feet, I'll ride on the back of a motorbike taxi for 10 baht. (Most women ride side-saddle, but not all -- see the above photo.) Pim pointed out that I always walk fast (because you're short, I said), but I've been noticing the leisure pace of most Thais and have been trying to moderate my own speed (not always successfully). Why hurry? I've been asked, along with: Why worry? Why indeed.

Little triumphs make me smile. Like finding a special container for the microwave at Villa Market that will let me make omelets (and, Pim discovered, a nuked version of a "fried" egg). The plant I bought at Chatuchak Market is surviving, and Jerry potted some aloe cuttings for me that sit atop the air conditioning unit on the balcony, soaking up healing vibes from the atmosphere. I finally printed up photos from the wedding in Surin and put the two sets in albums for the bride and groom and Jerry and Lamyai.

Recently I visited with Douglas (AKA Meath) Conlan, a Catholic priest from Australia whom I finally met at Shantivanam last December after carrying on a long email correspondence. We were instant friends and I regretted having so little time to talk with him in India. We made up for it with a long coffee break followed by lunch by the Ari Skytrain station near the house of his hostess in Bangkok, Emilie Ketudat. Dug, whose home is in Perth, is on a long-term leave-of-absence from his priestly duties. During that time he's received a Ph.D. in counseling, has a practice as a spiritual counselor, and leads tours to India (see his web site at Diverse Journeys). I was thinking of going to north India this year but my bank statement dictated otherwise. During the 1970s and 1980s, he studied meditation with the celebrated monk Buddadhasa Bhikku in Thailand. When Bede Griffiths traveled in Australia, Dug was his host and guide, and he recently published Bede Griffiths: Friend & Gift of the Spirit (Templegate, 2006). In Perth he leads retreats with Ajahn Brahm, one of Bangkok's favorite farang monks (I learned they have been called the "two abbots"). Emilie joined us for lunch and I discovered that the local World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) group meets weekly at her house. They will host a visit next month of WCCM's leader, Fr. Laurence Freeman. She has also come to Little Bang Sangha talks and described herself as "a Christian and a Buddhist." Emilie came from the U.S. in 1961 to teach chemistry at Chulalongkorn University. She is the widow of Sippanondha Ketudat, a prominent Thai scholar, scientist and statesman, and she is currently coordinator for the Campaign to Ban Landmines in Thailand. Dug should be back in Bangkok in June, after circling the globe to give talks and lead retreats, and I hope he will speak with our sangha on his experiences with, and knowledge of, vipassana meditation and Christian mysticism.

A week ago I participated in a discussion of "Hollywood and the Buddha" at the World Buddhist University organized by Bangkok raconteur and tango dancer, Richard Rubacher. I read the stage direction from a short scene in "As Good As It Gets," with Nui and Matt taking the roles that won Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson Oscars in 1998. In the scene Udall, a neurotic writer, insults Carole, his favorite waitress, and her angry and hurt response prompts his journey back to rejoin the human race. Remember the classic line (I'm sure a lot of studs used it): "You make me want to be a better man"? Richard, an ex-New Yorker, author of Thai Girl, a book of essays, and a retired social worker, spoke about character-driven films that exemplify and inspire the "taming of the ego," Buddhism's goal. Examples he gave, besides "As Good As It Gets," included "Forrest Gump," "American Beauty" and "Tootsie." A number of the members of our Little Bang Sangha are film buffs, and last week we met for a lunch buffet at the Tai Pan Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 23 to plan more discussions. We're renting a conference room at the hotel on Saturday afternoon, March 22, to show "Marjoe," the Academy Award winning documentary that exposes the techniques of a young charismatic preacher. The challenge will be to relate its message to the teachings of the Buddha (transgression of Right Livelihood, etc.).

I met Peter Driscoll a while back when Jerry took me to hear the British rockabilly singer and his band at the Soi 8 bar. Playing hits of the 1950s and 1960s, he channeled Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, the Everley Brothers, Buddy Holly and a number of others. The son of a musician who gave it up to support his family, Peter did not make that mistake. He has been singing and playing guitar for over thirty years, and back in England performed with Cochran, Vincent, and Jerry Lee's sister Linda Gayle, among others. But it's his knowledge of rock musicology that makes his appearance more than a Greatest Hits night. Each song is introduced with a complete history, but you've got to listen carefully because he speaks softly. The Cruisers, Peter's band, includes the tall and stylish Billie Cuthbertson on bass and Leon Triffic on drums, both from Australia, with a young Thai guitarist, Prin Thonglor, who has all the classic licks down pat. When the Soi 8 gig ended, they moved to the new Jameson's Bar in the Holiday Inn Silom where Jerry and I heard them debut a week ago. Hopefully the crowds will follow. You can hear and see Peter (nattily outfitted in one of his many rock and roll costumes) on his MySpace page.

How passionate can one get about a tooth cleaning? Not happy with the work of the periodontist at the Dental Hospital on Sukhumvit Soi 49 (he was more interested in selling me dentures than in keeping my teeth pearly white), today I went to the clinic at Bumrungrad International Hospital up the street on Soi 3 for my six month checkup, and was told once again that I should floss more (and spend $600 each on two needed crowns). The cleaning by a periodontist took about twenty minutes and cost approximately $50. I miss Lyn, my dental hygienist in Boulder Creek and later Santa Cruz. She would spend an hour on my teeth and make me promise to come back every four months. Such thoroughness and loving care is not a part of dental hygiene in Thailand, I'm afraid.

I continue to follow the news from the U.S., reading of the death of conservative pundit William Buckley (the shadow side of Gore Vidal), the shooting down of a spy satellite about to crash (don't believe that nonsense about wanting to keep people from being hurt), the Hillary and Obama show, Bush's stubborn defense of torture in the service of freedom and democracy, the rising cost of gasoline, and the Britany Spears soap opera. But it stirs little passion. I wonder if Americans realize how little the rest of the world cares about its psychodrama (unless, of course, it impinges on them)?

As my life settles down, with fewer surprises, there is less to write about here with an "oh wow!" flavor. I've checked most of the must-see sites in Bangkok and much of Thailand off my list. This should be the time to go inward and explore what I always meant to say in this blog. What has driven me to articulate the importance of the spirit, and religion, in my life? Why do I want politics to pursue the twin goals of social and environmental justice? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the place of love and friendship in my life?

Sex, now, is the most difficult of my trilogy to write about, for my father always told me that it was "a sin to kiss and tell." In the last season of my life I have achieved the miracle of falling in love, no doubt for the last time. I pinch myself to wake up, but it's real. Much of what I would like to say must remain veiled in this most public of forums. But I can tell you that I've been living with prostate cancer for seven years now, having chosen "watchful waiting" rather than the slash-and-burn treatments given to most PC patients, and it doesn't get in the way. Thank God for chemistry, in particular the blue diamond-shaped pill that has given new life to millions of older men like myself. Sex at my stage of life is a blessing rather than a transaction. This is one place where passion shouts.

Friday, March 07, 2008

"Holocaust" in Gaza

I was going to write a blog questioning Thailand's reputation as "the brothel of the world" (based on this analysis which disputes inflated statistics from NGOs on human trafficking and child sex slavery), but the overwhelming human tragedy in Gaza has captured my attention. I want to scream, but words will have to suffice.

Last week, Israel’s deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, issued a chilling warning that Palestinians in Gaza faced a “holocaust” (using the term shoah in Hebrew) if they continued to fire home-made rockets into Israel. Over the weekend, Palestinian leaders exploited Vilnai's use of the term, with both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal charging that a "holocaust" was unfolding in Gaza. Israeli spin-doctors tried to explain that shoah also meant "disaster," but the word has been used for fifty years to explain the Nazi attempt to exterminate all the Jews.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living through their worst humanitarian crisis since the 1967 war because of the severe restrictions imposed by Israel since Hamas took over, according to a report released yesterday by a coalition of groups including Oxfam, Save the Children and Amnesty International. "The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion" details the impacts of the Israeli blockade: Movement is all but impossible and supplies of food and water, sewage treatment and basic healthcare can no longer be taken for granted. The economy has collapsed, unemployment is expected to rise to 50%, hospitals are suffering 12-hour power cuts and schools are failing. The report called on the UK and EU to condemn the Israeli blockade.

The 16-page report details how more than 1.1 million people, 80% of Gaza's population, are dependent on food aid, up from 63 percent in 2006. Close to 70% of the 110,000 workers in the private sector have lost their jobs. Over 40 million liters of sewage are pouring into the sea daily. "Punishing the entire Gazan population by denying them these basic human rights is utterly indefensible," said Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty International. The report concluded that Israel's blockade of Gaza was unacceptable and that collective punishment is illegal.

Responding to Israeli claims that Hamas is responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Michael Bailey of the Jerusalem Oxfam office, said "because Israel is still in control, it is still the occupying power even though they (Israel) are not inside Gaza; they control all the borders, the air and the sea space," Bailey said. "Therefore whoever is in charge inside Gaza, they are really powerless to control an economy that depends 90 percent on imports for any manufacturing or productivity."

The NGO report parallels a recent study for the UN by John Dugard on Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories, in which he described Palestinian terrorism as the "inevitable consequence" of Israeli occupation and laws that resemble apartheid. Palestinian terrorist acts are to be deplored but "must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation", wrote Dugard, whose report accused Israel of acts and policies consistent with all three. Israel of course dismissed his conclusions as one-sided and inflammatory.

In most of the stories I have read from the western press, Hamas is said to have "seized power" in Gaza. But in fact, they won a surprise victory in parliamentary elections held in January 2006, taking 76 of the 132 seats , while the ruling Fatah party took only 43. After gaining power fairly in the election, Hamas announced it was giving up suicide attacks and "offered Israel a 10-year truce in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Palestinian territories. Hamas also declared a unilateral ceasefire with Israel, but after Israeli air strikes into Gaza began, it was formally renounced

And now, in the April issue of Vanity Fair, it is revealed that President Bush, Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice and their neocon cronies, most notably Elliott Abrams, immediately set about to undermine that electoral victory. Acording to Suzanne Goldberg in the London Guardian, "The 2006 election result was seen as an affront to the central premise of the Bush administration's policy in the Middle East - that democratic elections would inexorably lead to pro-western governments." So much for the ideology of "democracy." Abbas was pressured into outlawing Hamas and attempting to "seize power" in Gaza. When that failed, the Israeli troops went to work.

And they've done their job well. According to a heart-rending report in the London Guardian on Wednesday by Seumas Milne, "More than 120 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces in the past week, of whom one in five were children and more than half were civilians, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. During the same period, three Israelis were killed, two of whom were soldiers taking part in the attacks." Milne charts how this disproportion of deaths has increased: "At the height of the intifada, from 2000 to 2005, four Palestinians were killed for every Israeli; in 2006 it was 30; last year the ratio was 40 to one. In the three months since the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference at Annapolis, 323 Palestinians have been killed compared with seven Israelis, two of whom were civilians." The US and Europe’s response, according to Milne, "is to blame the principal victims for a crisis it has underwritten at every stage."

And what do the major Democratic contenders have to say in America's charade of a primary campaign? Nothing. " Search as one might at mid-day," John Nichols writes in The Nation, "but you won't find a statement on the exploding crisis in the Middle East."
That Obama and Clinton are not inclined to look up from their campaigning for long enough to address an international crisis is probably to be expected. But that doesn't make it any less unsettling. And if their current disengagement foreshadows things to come, then the talk of "change" that has so energized the 2008 presidential race will almost certainly turn out to have been just that: talk.
And now the internet headlines scream that a gunman, no doubt a Palestinian, has killed eight students and wounded nine others in a conservative Jerusalem seminary, one where theology has been used as a prop for justifying illegal settlements on the West Bank. Based on the ratio of revenge deaths uncovered in his research by Milne, that means the blood of near 375 Palestinians will be demanded by Israel to compensate for the eight students. In the streets outside the seminary, yeshiva students and residents chanted "death to Arabs!"

Before this latest violence, Milne, responding to a question about what could be done about the rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, said,
The answer could not be more obvious: end the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and negotiate a just settlement for the Palestinian refugees, ethnically cleansed 60 years ago - who, with their families, make up the majority of Gaza’s 1.5 million people. All the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, accept that as the basis for a permanent settlement or indefinite end of armed conflict. In the meantime, agree on a truce, exchange prisoners and lift the blockade.
If not, he wrote, it is likely that "a lot more blood is going to have to flow" before the U.S. and Israel come to their senses.

All of this just confirms my belief that religious states are inherently undemocratic and dangerous (that of course goes for Muslim religious states as well). The only solution for the Middle East (and the Palestine conflict is at the base of anti-western "terrorism") is to democratize Israel by dismantling the Jewish state. Many secular Jews would support this. But of course America under Bush is also a religious state, following the agenda of the religious right since Ronald Reagan declared himself a believer in the Apocalypse (which requires conflict in the Middle East). If Obama and Clinton cannot free themselves from the financial power of the (well-documented -- I'm not being anti-Semitic here) Jewish Lobby, there will be no change, no peace in the Middle East (which includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, not to mention Iran) and the bloodshed will continue.

It is the Israelis who are "eyeless in Gaza." Perhaps it is their very strength (funding by the US.) that will bring the religious state down, like the blind Samson's destruction of the Philistines.

I'm not very hopeful.