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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Why Reason Won’t Work

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Progressives, liberals, and other rational people view the Trump juggernaut with a variety of reactions. It’s fair to say that horror, terror, disgust, and revulsion are among the reactions experienced by normal people when they consider the idea of Donald J Trump occupying the White House. But the one reaction every rational person has with respect to the rise of Trumpery[1] is one of bewilderment. Trump is so palpably, patently unfit for the presidency that Trump singinganyone with a smattering of reason, of intelligence, of judgment knows that the world would be a much, much worse place with him as the “leader of the free world”. So what on earth is going on with those people who attend his rallies, hang on his every word (and he has lots of words, great words), wear his idiotic slogan on his cheesy trucker hats, punch out those who differ with them, speak his name in hushed tones of reverence or shrieks of adulation, and actually intend to cast a vote for him in the general election this November?

Those of us who posses a modicum of rationality ask whether it’s possible that his followers don’t see what is plain to the rest of the world. Can they not see that his promise to build an enormous wall along the Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it is simply not going to happen? That deporting over 11 million people is just cloud-cuckoo land? That refusing to allow people of one religion to enter the US is neither possible nor morally acceptable? That it is simply impossible both to raise and to lower taxes at the same time on the extremely wealthy? That printing money (as he has suggested) will not pay off the national debt?

The rational among us wonder what happened to a country that could cheer without irony a presidential inauguration JFKaddress that included the words “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country.” And then we remember…Oh, yeah. That guy was shot in the head. But surely the country, since the days of Camelot, could not have descended to such a nadir that the ideal president for a significant segment of the population is a misogynistic, racist, congenitally lying, narcissistic, ignorant, hate-spewing vulgarian.

Let us be clear. Those who support Donald Trump, in this age of access to information, have abandoned any morality they might have had. They have crossed a Rubicon and no longer have any claim to human decency. Now here’s the hard part. Donald Trump is not to blame.

He didn’t push those people across that moral line, he didn’t turn them into bloodlusting, hate-filled, violent, racist bullies. They were always there, just waiting to be mobilised by someone amoral enough to want to mobilise that violent hatred to fulfil his limitless ambition and to stroke his gargantuan ego. Trump has no politics, he has no vision for America, he

Supporters of republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally at the Myrtle Beach Sports Center on Feb. 19, 2016 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Olivier Douliery/TNS)

Supporters of republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally at the Myrtle Beach Sports Center on Feb. 19, 2016 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Olivier Douliery/TNS)

has no position on any issue, other than whatever will get him the ego fix he is jonesing for. And that ultimate fix will be the presidency of the United States. No, we can’t blame Trump alone for what is happening to America. Certainly he is clinically disturbed; he’s unquestionably a narcissist, quite possible a sociopath. The real villains in the piece are the vicious hordes that fell all over themselves to get in line behind him; they let him know what they wanted, and he responded. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship; he feeds their need for validation as victims and bigots, they feed his need for adulation.

So there is our answer to the question of why the Trump supporters can’t see what the rest of the world sees: they can; they just don’t care. As Trump himself has bragged, he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and he wouldn’t lose a single vote. They don’t need a wall; they don’t need to round up all the Muslims. What they need is someone to tell them that they have been right all along; the world has mistreated them, their financial woes are the fault of an identifiable group, that other religions are persecuting Christians, and that black, brown, and yellow people are taking what’s rightfully theirs. They are inhaling deeply on the fumes of self-righteousness, validation, and the implication that those “others” are going to be made to suffer.

crack addict            The true believers are as impervious to persuasion as crack addicts are to any rational argument that they simply put down the pipe and get a job. They don’t care if we liberal elitists call them racists; they won’t temper their language or their violence for the sake of “political correctness”.

The notion that there will ever be a moment where the Trumpies will actually listen to arguments that run counter to their vitriolic hatred is a non-starter. You can rationalise all day long with a crack addict, but if someone else comes along with a rock and a pipe to offer, you won’t see them for the dust.

All that is left is to hope that the rest of America is not so addiction prone and maintains a degree of rationality. We have to hope that they will come out and vote at this election despite their ennui and despite their declining confidence that there are any political solutions to the problems that plague us. There is no persuading a Trump supporter; let’s hope that the rest recognise that the clear and present danger of Donald Trump needs to be put down and put down hard.

[1] trump·er·y ˈtrəmp(ə)rē/ archaic

Noun                       1. attractive articles of little value or use.

Adjective               1. showy but worthless. “trumpery jewelry”

ENDITEM…

Meditating

The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. (Samuel Johnson).

PAGUN

Content Warning

VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – All the indications are that my cancer surgery wasn’t successful. In the first place, there was more of it: the tumour wasn’t confined to the prostate itself; the seminal vesicles which (used to) be behind it were cancerous as well, as was some of the surrounding tissue. My doctor, who is young –almost Doogie Howser young – except VERY highly thought of and extremely good, and far better looking, did what he could. He took everything out that might be compromised or even at threat.

In a perfect world that would have resulted in my next PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test showing a value of zero as there ought to be nothing the produce that particular antigen.thinker

Three months after the surgery (and 2 months after the sacred day of my catheter removal) such, unfortunately was not to be to the case. My blood test showed a PSA level of .15 Two days later it was at .16. Worrisome, but .2 is considered a definitive diagnosis of recurrence.

One month later my PSA tested out at .31

Cancer. Or as the sanitary language of medical euphemisms would have it….BCR. Biochemical Recurrence.

So if I’m going to have any chance of living long enough to see my wife graduate from culinary school (where she is at the top of her class) or my four year-old graduate from elementary school, I’ve got to figure out some way that I can undergo a minimum of six weeks of radiotherapy in another city. And then survive the chemotherapy I might have to do for the rest of my earthly days. Thank goodness for the focus that immanent death brings or the logistics would be impossible to manage.

But as the logistics of treatment have to be among the least interesting subjects I could imagine…this post will be more of a meditation on life and death.

It probably doesn’t mean very much to most people, but the very fact that you were even born is probably the most astonishing coincidence you are even capable of imagining. Here’s what I mean.

Your dadLet’s face it. Your Dad whacked off. If he’s around to own up to it, he might even admit that he did it a lot. But the fact that your father was around to whack off during the last few decades of all the decades of human occupation of this planet by beings with the human genome is flat out amazing. Now his whacking off isn’t amazing; it’s anything but. But think for a moment how many spermatozoa that particular male in that particular generation wasted; on his palm, the ceiling, sheets, socks, watermelons, or beloved pets. Trillions would Human_semen_in_handsbe a conservative estimate. YOU could have been any one of those. But you weren’t…you were the lucky one. And it gets even more unlikely that you won the sweepstakes. Somehow he met your mother…the possessor of the rest of the genetic material that will ultimately define you.

Then came all the social miracles that led to them having sex in a manner that permitted conception; whether it was rape, consensual, a prophylactic failure or anything beyond wishful thinking, somehow millions and millions of spermatozoa found themselves in your mother’s vagina heading for that month’s egg in a greatly expanded but microscopic scene from It’s a Mad. itsamadworld-completeMad, Mad, Mad World. And one of those obsessed fortune hunters, Phil Silvers or Mickey Rooney perhaps; maybe Buddy Hackett, got there first and breached the citadel, slamming the door after him.

And then came nine months of sheer luck. Most pregnancies are not even noticed and end spontaneously, many are aborted or end in miscarriage; yours was one of the unimaginably unlikely few that ended in a birth. You defied all the odds and made it to that wretched state we call “life”.

Like ‘em or loath ‘em, you’ve got to look in awe at your fellow humans (and yourself) with something akin to awe just for being here. They can be stupid, venal, brutal, tiresome, or mohandas_gandhivicsecretthey can be Albert Schweitzer rolled up in Ghandi and Einstein with the sexual appeal of a collage of Victoria Secret models crossbred with Rita Hayworth, and their individual characteristics would be only microscopically more amazing than the simple fact of their sheer existence. That’s life.

And then there’s death.

death

That, we don’t know shit about; except that in a few unsubstantiated cases, once the threshold’s been crossed, there ain’t no comin’ back. Hamlet was wrong in the first part of his big soliloquy: “To be or not to be?” Really short term thinking, for the Great Dane. NOT to be is where we’ll all end up. He had it right, though, when later he referred to “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And we are all travellers with a one way ticket to that bourn.

twain censorship

THIS IMAGE WAS SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN FOR ALL OF YOU WHO GOT UPSET AT THE PICTURE OF MY DICK

Mark Twain occasionally spoke of death. (There was very little he didn’t occasionally speak of. More than writing, that’s what he did for a living.) Although his correction of mistaken news reports of his death (actually, it was his brother who was very ill, but alive in London at the time) he is often misquoted. What he actually wrote: ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’ was every bit as witty. He was somewhat more philosophical but no less witty when he also said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Twain was making an implicitly atheistic observation. The one quip dismissed the nonsense of the promised Christian afterlife, either the glory and eternal boredom of sitting at the right hand of god, the greatest underachiever and mass murderer the universe has ever spawned, or the sick theories concerning the conditions of eternal damnation. And speaking as one who can’t lower (despite years of trying) his intellectual standards to accept one jot, let alone a tittle, of the religious dogma force-fed to him by a succession of nuns, priests, and other bullies, anything resembling an afterlife holds no fear whatsoever…for much the same reason as expressed by Mark Twain.

That, of course says nothing about the other religions and their versions of the afterlife; but that means nothing either. Not one of their “theories” has the slightest evidence to support its contentions and there is no reason whatsoever for accepting their bald statements as anything more than delusion and wishful thinking. No, the truth is, the truth has to be that death is exactly like the other billions upon billions of years we spent NOT being alive. Oblivion. Nada. Niente. Rien. Kosong. And that is not to be feared.

For me, death, especially if it comes soon, is to be regretted. I have a four your old boy I love to distraction, and oblivion will rob me of the opportunity to see him grow; to graduate from school; to have his first girl or boyfriend; to marry and have a family and be successful. Moreover it will rob him of a father; a father’s support and guidance and love. I won’t be aware of this while its happening, of course, but as I shuffle off this mortal coil, you can be sure that it is those thoughts that will be the source of any tears I shed.

But before I leave this meditation having definitively concluded that oblivion, blessed nothingness, is the inevitable end of life, I should point out where my doubts lie. I have had a classic “near death experience”.

On a canoe trip, when I was about fourteen years old, I was turned over and caught in some rather treacherous rapids. Being a strong swimmer, I was at no time afraid. I even recall enjoying the underwater ride, looking through the surface and at the dim and filtered sunlight above as I followed the river at breakneck speed. Eventually I felt myself in need of a breath and calmly turned and swam steadily toward the surface. A little surprised, but not frightened to find that my efforts to climb to the surface produced absolutely no upward progression, I redoubled my efforts. Still nothing. I recall making one effort after another and continuing to find myself pulled inexorably downstream, several feet below the river’s surface. Oddly, I felt no fear at any time. Nevertheless, there came a definitive moment. I realised all at once that I was not going to survive. I knew, I knew with certainty that reaching the surface and life was no longer possible. With a more profound conviction than normal life is capable of providing, I knew and accepted that my life as I knew it was over. And I was right.

It was at the moment of acceptance of what appeared to be inevitable, that life as I knew it ended and I began my short-lived journey into another realm. I experienced all the characteristics of a near death experience; I left my body and could see my former shell sweeping downstream, I began to dissociate from common reality; I felt my second or astral body hurtling upwards; I saw the intense light and was just about to enter it. But this is the important aspect: it was the most joyful, peaceful, total happiness I can even imagine. The bliss included an absolute sense of certainty and anticipation of what was to come and that what was to come was good, positive beyond any possibility of description. Thus when my (physical) feet hit a rock and I stood up and inhaled earth’s atmosphere my first reaction was: “SHIT!” For several moments I experienced a wrenching, profound sense of unbearable loss. Friends tell me they held me up but had the sense that I was actually trying to dive back into the river. Then the fear hit. I realised how close I had come to dying and suffered the usual shock; in a few hours I was back to normal. But that other realm never left me…it’s still there and it’s always with me.light

I have experienced that precise sense of otherworldliness, certainty, joy, and anticipation at other times at a somewhat more diluted level; this has almost always been under the influence of hallucinogens. Part of me insists that there’s something to this, and that there is a realm beyond this one, and that realm is characterised by spiritual beauty and joy.

BUT

That is anecdotal evidence. Others have experienced it and described it similarly. Still anecdotal. I have unquestionably experienced it and I can testify to it. Still anecdotal.

So let me leave this meditation at this….I will die. So will you. But I see my inevitable death as a rest, a dreamless sleep in which nothing happens. It is not specifically a good thing unless it relieves suffering. But it cannot be described as bad for the person who is dead.

On the other hand, there is the off chance that the anecdotal evidence is accurate (and I lean toward my anecdotal experience rather than that of others, only because I trust my memory of the experience more than other’s memories and then their descriptions). In which case: JACKPOT! Off chance, but who knows? Either way….no harm.

But before I go, let me offer the following: If there is such a thing as infinity, and we can expect to confront infinity when we die, let us remember that a working definition of infinity is “that amount of time during which everything that can possibly happen will happen”.

That means that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, you will be born as Casanova, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, or Mick Jagger. It’s just a question of a near infinite number of atoms randomly achieving that configuration. And in an infinite span of time that’s inevitably going to happen. With my luck I’ll be born as Stuart Sutcliffe.

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Psychedelics: Part 1

Rethinking the locks on the doors to perception

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – I have an immense pride and sense of tenure and belonging when it comes to the decade of the 1960s, the time during which I came to age, and I’m enormously glad for it. While there is some truth to the observation (variously attributed to Paul Kantner, Robin Williams, Paul Krassner, Pete Townshend, Grace Slick, Timothy Leary, Charlie Fleischer and others,)  that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there, I have to say that with some effort, a little detective work, some reading of my diaries, scrapbooks and journals, combined with interrogating some other survivors of my acquaintance, I may not be in a position to recall those years with perfect clarity, but I sure as hell remember them enough to state that I wouldn’t have chosen to miss them for any other time I can think of.

When we look back on that seminal decade, we are often inclined tend to focus on one or another single aspect of what amounts to a watershed period in the history of civilisation. Some see nothing but unwashed radicals protesting everything that had brought us to that advanced historical state. Others remember race riots, while some see the civil rights

Your grandmothers

advances; some see a lazy generation of pot smoking draft dodgers while others see a courageous youth movement that rejected war that had no good justification and risked everything to fight it. Some see it as the end of the mythical Ozzie and Harriett period that the Republicans still moon over while rational people see it as the period we actually resolved to and succeeded in landing on the real moon. Some see it as the death of art and music, while some of us see it as the birth and adolescence of a form of music that has never been equaled and may never be surpassed. 

There is, of course, some degree of truth to every one of those perspectives, because the 1960`s was no more a simplistic decade than was the 1940s or the1850s or the 1900s; influences were nearly infinite and a simplistic overview with a trite summation fails to give anything resembling a fair assessment. 

There were some things that emerged from the 60`s that were and continue to be enormously beneficial; they have become so much a part of our lives that is hard to imagine what life was like before them. A presumption of racial and sexual equality is one legacy that we mow accept as our birthrights. Plurality versus homogeneity has enriched all of our lives. And we are no doubt sick of hearing how everything from computers to Velcro are direct collateral results of the 1960s space efforts. 

Not all legacies of the 60`s are to be celebrated, however; there are some serious regrets, too. Our current mistrust and cynical dismissiveness of government that reached its apotheosis with Nixon`s resignation and lingers today isn`t something to celebrate; I cringe every time I think of war protestors hurling abuse at returning Vietnam vets and calling them baby-killers. A lot of things could and should have been done differently. (Don`t even get me started on awarding Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973). 

But just as we are making some real efforts to redress some of the unfair and brutal treatment and neglect meted to Vietnam vets, we can put some effort into getting right some of those things that we fucked up as we were feeling out ways forward in a period unlike any other in the history of the civilised world. 

I believe that one of the most serious mistakes we made during the 60s was abandoning and the then demonising any serious research into the potential benefits of psychedelic substances. Hallucinogens had been around for thousands of years before they were re-discovered in the early ‘60s and used broadly as recreational aids. Throughout the world, truly mind altering substances have grown in form of mushrooms, cactus flower, weeds, and even toad sweat; most of these have been in use by one culture after another as recreational enhancements like the more dangerous alcohol and the milder and benign marijuana, and most have also been used in quasi-religious fashions as serious attempts to enter into altered forms of perception in an effort to understand the nature of reality and the ineffable aspects of the sensual and even non-sensual understanding of the universe that seem to be shared by sentient creatures across cultures, millennia, and even species. 

The word psychedelic was first used by British- Canadian psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley and later in a scientific paper published in 1956. It is of Greek derivation and it refers to the opening up of the mind (Psyche-= soul or mind while Delos = visible or clear); it was used as noun to identify certain substances, principally mescaline and psilocybin which Hudson had been investigating professionally. and which Huxley had been approaching as an artist. Lysergic acid 25 was by far the most powerful and synthesised by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1935 although its hallucinogenic properties were only accidentally discovered five years later. Right up until the demonisation and subsequent illegalisation of hallucinogens there was little question that the changes wrought by psychedelics were not only profound, but of extreme importance to psychology, philosophy, epistemology, and quite likely the more esoteric aspects of physics. LSD was perfectly legal until it was banned 1966 in California, and the rest of the world followed suit immediately on their coattails. 

Much of the blame for the mainstream fear and loathing of these profoundly interesting and

Timothy Leary, PhD

promising substances can be placed at the door of a great man – an eccentric, deeply flawed, egocentric, and ultimately a victim of his own legend – Timothy Leary, a man who, early on, saw their significance and made every effort of which he was capable both of studying their effects and of popularising their use. Leary was a West Point drop out, who had taken psychology almost on a whim. becoming well known as a clinical psychologist. In some ways he was a typically upwardly mobile early 60s young married professional; he could have passed for a character in Mad Men. As a Berkley rising star, he indulged in martinis by the quart and lived the life of half an early 1960s young couple in California, throwing himself into a lifestyle of drinking, poolside flirting, swinging, and decadence until the suicide of his young, beautiful, unstable wife. 

Finding himself teaching graduate psych courses at Harvard, he was introduced to psilocybin in Mexico and utterly astonished and fascinated by the effects and what he immediately saw were the potentialities of the drug. 

sacred mushrooms

Far more eloquent writers than myself have zealously tried to put into words the subjective experience of the internal reality to which one is introduced  in a psychedelic ; I have no intention of trying to outdo Aldous Huxley or Timothy Leary himself (who was no mean writer). And as Leary specifically sought out the cutting edge poets, writers, musicians, philosophers, and other creative and influential people of his time to persuade them to attempt the psychedelic experience, paeans, poems, and polemics, treatises, treatments and tales, essays,  epics, and odes have been written about the specific subjective experience. I will confine myself in the next installment of this series to some brief personal descriptions of my experiences with the various drugs. 

Genuine psychedelics, whether they are the naturally occurring alkaloids like peyote, which

The holy peyote

is the natural form of mescaline; or psilocybin, the active ingredient in the most powerful (and sought after) of the sacred mushrooms; or the pure laboratory compounds, notably LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, specifically batch #25)  have a qualitatively different effect upon the human brain and psyche from the more common brain altering substances from caffeine and nicotine to alcohol and marijuana (or its active ingredient THC).

 

The legal, quasi-legal, and common drugs listed above, among others, have, for the most part, a depressive effect, They reduce the level of awareness of the world we inhabit or they

acid blotters

blunt the sharp edges, making the unpleasantness with which we are confronted daily somewhat more tolerable. As such, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with those ameliorative effects. Their side effects and addictive potential make them less than ideal, however. Some drugs, meth-amphetamines, ephedrine, cocaine, and others have an initially exhilarating effect that provides energy, euphoria. But it is short lived and, almost without exception are either tremendously addictive or carry devastating side-effects, or both. But what is key to everything that I am going to say about psychedelics is that this is all utterly different – not in degree, but in kind – from the use of the common recreational drugs. 

Before I close this section of what is to be a deeper exploration of the psychological benefits available by the employment of psychedelic compounds, let me say this…I advocate their use. I have used most of them at one time or another and I am a much better person for having done so. I will be making a case that their value is far beyond their simple recreational value; I believe, with others who have thought deeply on the subject, that they have unexplored possibilities and that they may be the key to a quantum leap in the evolution of mankind.

 

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