Book Review: Tasting the Moon, by Meg Fortune McDonnell

Full disclosure: I first met Meg Fortune McDonnell in 1980 when I arrived in California to join the community that grew up around the spiritual teacher she describes in her memoir. Unlike Meg, who embraced a relationship to her teacher that lasted a lifetime, I was more of a dilettante, dropping out of the community in 1986 and, for the last ten years, re-approaching as a friend and advocate, not a full-blown practitioner. I have a profound respect for Adi Da Samraj, a teacher who has authored over 80 books of spiritual insight, as well as a prolific artist. (For a taste of both, go to www.da-peace.org and www.daplastique.com, respectively.) I also appreciate that the story Meg tells is of value not just to those who share an interest in this particular teacher, or even those who are sympathetic to the possibility of spiritual life in general, but to anyone with an interest in a different perspective on the meaning of life.

Tasting the Moon Tasting the Moon is a challenging book, 723 pages of observations on the meaning of life, death, transcendence and everything in between; fortunately it is written as a page-turner that makes compelling reading. The author, Meg Fortune McDonnell, dedicated herself to learning from an unusual spiritual teacher she met in the mid-70s and she’s stuck with ever since. She tackles the rewards and challenges of spiritual life head-on.

As a first-hand report on what one expert called “the most penetrating social & spiritual experiment on the planet” (p. 199) her story deserves to be widely read.

The things I liked about this book include:

  • She tells a story that is hers alone, with the constant reminder that “your mileage might vary” as well as a gentle admonition “not to try this at home”. The most compelling thing about the book is Meg’s voice. She writes in wonderfully clear prose that speaks directly to the reader and throughout the book she uses “Excellent Phrasing” (a playful name her teacher gives her, pgs. 85-86).
  • Her honesty. I can only guess at the discriminative choices she made as she trod the fine line between being totally honest with herself and yet sensitive to the privacy of her friends. The use of her own name is a courageous “coming out” (p. 221) in a society where having a guru is so controversial. This, coupled with the decision to use fictional names for everyone else except Adi Da is a wise move (even though many members of her community must be having a fine time second-guessing who is who.)
  • Her scholarship and learning, which she wears in a refreshingly light manner. I got a huge kick out of her early references — having read many of same books she had before she encountered her teacher (Castaneda; Kerouac; Orwell; Bettleheim) — and then enjoyed hearing about the many books I’ve not read from the list of traditional spiritual texts Adi Da introduced her to, and the way she weaves anecdotes from multiple traditions into the story.
  • Most of all, her obvious love for the guru and the many wonderful descriptions of her spiritual experiences in his company, occasions in which the power of his blessing fills the room and transports her to remarkable states of awareness.

Her story begins in small town Ohio and encompasses the experimental lifestyles of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. She shares her enjoyment of the “gob-smacking delicious” life in a rural tipi; teaching in the inner city; dance-therapy and improv theater. She followed in the footsteps of Kerouac and Kesey until, as for me and many of my friends, someone gave her a copy of a book by Bubba Free John (Adi Da’s earliest teaching name) and she landed up on Polk Street in San Francisco in 1975 where she met the “earth-mothers with big hair and slight men with big brains who greeted us and helped us get started.”

The next 30 years with her guru includes a comprehensive review of the varied considerations he engaged in with those close to him and the wider community. Topics covered include:

  • The evolution of gender roles and sexual politics as they affect empowered women
  • The challenges and benefits of monogamy, celibacy and alternative lifestyles for intimate relationships
  • Program management in non-profit organizations
  • Understanding the ways photography undermines a singular “point of view” to represent both Art and blessing
  • Public relations and crisis management in times of negative press coverage
  • Early childhood through late adolescent educational programs
  • The role of exercise, diet and yoga for optimal health
  • The importance for public speakers to first relate to people in an audience before presenting ideas: “Love comes first, information second.” (p. 274)
  • The ways by which true prayer can ameliorate global conflict and individual suffering
  • A dismissal of the Oxfordian theorists claims that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays (really!)
  • Irrefutable evidence that the Shroud of Turin is not authentic
  • Zen and the art of unicycle maintenance (again, really!)

Above all, this book is a sophisticated analysis of the process of guru devotion as a path to realization for contemporary men and women. And therein, for most readers, lies the challenge. This is a controversial topic. Meg’s book is a compelling narrative that describes the rewards experienced by an accomplished and intelligent women who dedicated her life to spiritual practice. She reviews the relevance of traditional Eastern and Western religious teaching on the value of a direct relationship with a spiritual master. While she draws on extensive knowledge of the literature, this is no dry scholarly analysis. Her story is enlivened by her first-hand reports of out-of-the-body experiences; dreams; boundary-less awareness and the experience of witnessing at close quarters a being who was able to “compress infinite awareness, the eternal state of being…into a human body” (p. 628)

Her major accomplishment is to have shared what it was like to fully heart-participate with Adi Da during his life on this Earth, to “taste the Moon” and tell the tale for the rest of us to enjoy.

Good drama is surprising and inevitable

An interview with playwright David Mamet in the Weekend FT has a useful discussion on the challenges of compelling writing:

I take the opportunity of having this master craftsman in front of me to ask about writing. He commences by defining where others go wrong. “Anyone can write five people trapped in a snowstorm. The question is how you get them into the snowstorm. It’s hard to write a good play because it’s hard to structure a plot. If you can think of it off the top of your head, so can the audience. To think of a plot that is, as Aristotle says, surprising and yet inevitable, is a lot, lot, lot of work.”

So what is the basis of drama? Mamet gazes at me blankly as if the question is naive, then elucidates in one long sentence. “The basis of drama is … is the struggle of the hero towards a specific goal at the end of which he realises that what kept him from it was, in the lesser drama, civilisation and, in the great drama, the discovery of something that he did not set out to discover but which can be seen retrospectively as inevitable. The example Aristotle uses, of course, is Oedipus.”

Indeed, there are certain truths which speechwriters can heed to maximize the dramatic impact of a talk:

  • Good theater “shows” rather than “tells” an audience.
  • The audience can envisage themselves within the story.
  • A dramatic story is not just based on character and personality, but on plot. Aristotle defined this as the “arrangement of incidents” and the way these are presented to the audience is the structure of the play (or speech).
  • The speech must have a beginning, middle and end: an inciting moment, climax and resolution.

There’s a lot more about the importance of plot applied to corporate presentations in Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Guest Posting: The Global Crisis is Deadly, Dangerous – and it can be Overcome

Dennis Bumstead was General Manager of, and is now an adviser to, the Global Cooperation Project. He is an adviser to new initiatives, Four Years Go and the Green Tea Party, and a seed group member of his local Transitions Town initiative in Lake County, California. After teaching, at M.I.T., and at London and Antioch Universities; consulting to Fortune 500 corporations and working for The World Bank, for the past decade he has been recovering, by, amongst other things, working in the non-profit world – since 2006 with the Global Cooperation Project, promoting the ideas in Not-Two Is Peace by Adi Da.

The Global Crisis is Deadly, Dangerous – and it can be Overcome
by Dennis Bumstead, PhD

“The future is either going to be catastrophic disaster, or it is going to be the turnabout moment in human history, in which humankind will step out of its dark ages of “tribalism” into a new mode of human cooperative order.” Adi Da, Not-Two Is Peace, The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order.

While there are many encouraging grass roots efforts to change the monstrous trundling to destruction of the old global order, (take Avaaz, for just one), as yet there is still no widespread, really full consideration of our seriously threatening situation. Nothing seems to address the global totality of the escalating crises we are in.

Even thoughtful economist critics, such as Krugman, Stiglitz, Roubini and Sachs, who indicate that proposed economic solutions are not enough, confine most of their proposals to the economic and political sub-sectors of the total system.

We need change which is economic and political, but also social, and cultural, and psychological and spiritual. Truly transformative change.

The dire situation in the Third World

For those in the Third World, the escalating global crisis comes on top of system-endemic depredations of poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Some two billion people are trying to survive on just two dollars a day. They also suffer the effects of the many wars which are conducted, sponsored or ignored (and always armed) by the so-called “developed” nations. Globally, we are making the absurd decision to let a third of humanity starve, if wars or preventable diseases don’t get them first. This is the great civilization, which we tell each other and our kids in school, has been “evolving” magnificently since the Renaissance!

The establishment global institutions, the corporate / governmental / military and “security” apparatus, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and big media obviously do useful and even many well intentioned things. But essentially they sustain the status quo, and its accruing benefits to the “developed” nations, and principally to the 2% who own and run these institutions. There is far more reporting on the “shape” of the recession (flat, double dip, etc.) than on the daily fact that under present rules of the game, the recession is a death sentence for millions of people in the Third World. These are people who would not need to die if the global system were managed for the benefit of all, instead of for the few.

Al Gore has been a sustained and effective communicative voice for environmental change. But that is only part of the problem and environmental challenges are not soluble without radical change in other arenas. Many alternative writers and activists like Hazel Henderson and David Korten likewise address critical sub-sets of the issues. Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest suggested some years ago that there is a mostly invisible movement already tackling many of the issues. That is encouraging. But most of us who have been part of that world for years or even decades know how frustrating and difficult it is to move on to the level of change needed.

A full alternative: The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order

In Not-Two Is Peace Adi Da addresses the issues comprehensively.

The book spells out:

  • what the problems are
  • why the existing global system cannot and will not continue
  • that it will be determined, by our understandings and actions, “in the next handful of years” whether catastrophe or regeneration ensues
  • a proposal for the formation of a Global Cooperative Forum, functioning on the basis of “prior unity” and managing the globe for the benefit of all instead of the few.

(The book does not spell out a detailed action program. That must come from intelligent, creative and necessarily cooperative response and action.)

Adi Da points out that the world’s political economy simply cannot continue, built as it is on a model of growth for the developed and depletion for the “developing”. The system as is simply unsustainable, as more and more nation-”tribes” try to get in on the so-called “good life”.

These ideas make sense to “early adopters” – those who are already have noticed that attempting to reinstall the status quo is not working and who are already exploring and engaging real alternatives.

The book is fundamentally very clear. But its offers plenty of challenges to us all – because it calls for change we all fear is impossible and it addresses the way-deep conventions of global life that we all carry into the fray.

“Something new must emerge”

Adi Da spoke and wrote about these issues all his life. Beginning with a speech on prejudice and tolerance that he gave in high school in the 1950s, in various books, and summarily in Not-Two Is Peace. He spoke about the seriousness and urgency of the global situation on the last day of his earthly life, November 27, 2008. What he said was recorded and appears as the last chapter in the current edition of Not-Two Is Peace. These are the last paragraphs :

Civilization is in crisis. The human world altogether is in crisis. The notions of security, longevity, freedom from need, and enjoyment of life are showing themselves to be illusions–very tentative, and able to be enjoyed by only a relative few. And the relative few who enjoy such life-conditions do so at the expense of others–and, in fact, on the basis of the suffering and exploitation of others.

Something new must emerge. That something new is not going to emerge from the pattern of nation-states, or even from the gathering of nation-states (in the form of the United Nations). That something new can only emerge from everybody-all-at-once–the power of humankind as a totality.

Humankind as a totality must relinquish the old civilization. It must accept that the old civilization is dead, the old civilization is gone, useless, non-productive. The old civilization can no longer provide security, longevity, freedom from need, and life-enjoyment for people. Less and less can the old civilization do anything useful at all. The old civilization is now profoundly degraded, and will only get worse with time.

A new mode of social contract must emerge–a mode of social contract not founded on egoity. There must now be an egoless mode of social contract–based on cooperation, tolerance, and universal participation and accountability. Such is the nature of the necessary global cooperative order.

In order for such a global cooperative order to come into being, there must be a core institution based on the universal participation and accountability of everybody-all-at-once. I call that core institution the Global Cooperative Forum. The Global Cooperative Forum is the necessary transformative movement on Earth. (pp307-8)

So……

We have some time – a few years – and we need to act, boldly. Immediate global catastrophe (as predicted frequently in the blogosphere) is not likely – in the short term. For just “a handful of years”, we will see continuing economic recession together with “moderate or localized disasters” (oil spills, local wars etc.) not in the least moderate for those directly affected, of course, but not yet the complete local and global catastrophe. For now, since the South American economic crisis of ’97 and on other occasions including the global crisis of ’08, the powers-that-be have demonstrated some significant, if last minute, capacity to prevent total global meltdown and sustain some functionality, in the interests of …. the illusory status quo.

Of course, it’s true that “in the long run, we are all dead” as Mr Keynes famously said, (and as Buddhists and other wise traditions have been saying for 2,500 years or so), but if the Global Cooperative Forum, as proposed in Not-Two Is Peace, is launched within a few years, significant improvements in global functionality can be made including some, like climate management, which will take an extended time for effective reversal of damaged systems.

There are thousands of large and small efforts underway, all working for global change. Efforts like Transition Towns, to give just one example. Many of them are collected together on Hawken’s Wiser Earth site. These efforts can come into effective cooperation through a Global Cooperative Forum. No utopias are to be expected, but there are much better ways than business as usual! If we take such cooperative action the planet can reach a state of equanimity so all of us can begin to live truly human lives.

What better to do with the next couple of years?

Not-Two Is Peace: The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order, by Adi Da can be read on-line at http://www.da-peace.org/

Book Review: Sum – forty tales from the afterlives

Mental Floss

You don’t have to be conventionally religious to be curious about the afterlife. Anyone reading this blog must know they will wake up dead one day. Then what? All religions have their stories about what believers should expect. And many people are comforted by such beliefs.

But for others, open to conjecture, the possibilities of the afterlife are limited only by our imagination.

Sum - forty tales of the afterlives - coverDavid Eagleman has written a wonderfully imaginative and quirky collection of vignettes describing possible afterlives. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is a whirlwind tour of possibilities for all kinds of life after death which I found to be a wonderfully stimulating read.

There’s an afterlife where you find yourself in a world exclusively populated by people you’d known while alive:

“The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose while you were alive.”

There’s a free-market afterlife of “fast cars and charisma and drinking and lovemaking” which stands in contrast to the Heaven where “the harp music is maddeningly slow”. There’s a wide range of Sci-Fi afterlives where human beings are data gathering machines created by a race of subterranean beings to roam freely and map the world; or one where a race of dumb creatures who engineered us as smart machines to discover the answer to ultimate questions de-brief us by repetitively asking “Do you have answer?”.

Each chapter teases, provokes and, implicitly, pokes gentle fun at the binary options often presented by the fundamentalist afterlives of mainstream religions.

I read it, entranced, in one sitting. The one caution is that you should be prepared for acute mental whiplash as each of the 40 chapters challenges us to imagine an alternative future.

If you’d like to think outside of the box and come up with alternatives to commonly held beliefs, read a chapter or two of Sum. Then apply the same creativity to the topic of a business presentation or Toastmasters speech.

Life Caching

Candid Camera

Vicon RevueSpringwise reports that a wearable camera has been developed in the UK which can document a person’s life. Promising “Memories for Life” the Vicon Revue has been created as an aid for people with memory loss.

The device can operate either on a timer—taking photos every 30 seconds—or it can be set to take photos automatically when triggered by internal sensors, which can detect body heat as well as changes in temperature, light and motion. Along with images, the camera also stores a time-stamped log file that can be enriched with GPS traces. Its 1GB of flash memory can typically hold around 30,000 images, or approximately 6 days’ worth of capture.

The appeal of the Vicon Revue is expected to broaden from Alzheimer’s patients who need a photographic record of events they might otherwise forget to anyone narcissistic enough to want to record as much about every moment of their life as possible.

So, if you were to stick one of these devices on a newborn and they lived to be, say, 70, then 4.3TB of disk storage would hold their entire lifetime in pictures. You can actually buy that much storage for around $700. What are you waiting for!

Life Caching

Springwise terms this emerging trend Life Caching and notes:

Thanks to the onslaught of new technologies and tools, from blogging software to memory sticks to high definition camera phones with lots of storage space and other ‘life capturing and storing devices’, an almost biblical flood of ‘personal content’ is being collected, and waiting to be stored to allow for ongoing trips down memory lane.

One possible future is that all of us will soon have enough of our lives recorded that no-one, least of all ourselves, will have the time or inclination to review the data we’ve collected. If you cache 100% of the life you lead for 24 hours, and proceed to review it, then the next 24 hours would be a cache of you reviewing your cache. Our lives would recede like reflections in a hall of mirrors, as we viewed ourselves viewing ourselves. Our self-obsession would become magnified.

Technology is already causing this to happen to some of us. I’ve collected 27 days worth of music on my iPod, most of which I’ll probably never listen to. I have countless folders filled with digital photographs I never look at and a blog with over 500 articles that I hardly ever read.

So what’s your point (of view)?

The end-game of this technology might well be a time when each of us holds a cache of our separate lives and yet is unable to make any more sense of it than we do of our unrecorded life. In fact, if everyone did this, life would become infinitely more confusing.

eyeballsWhat would it be like to play back all the images from even a half-dozen lives, lived wearing a Vicon Revue? Imagine a group of people in the same family or people who worked together all recording their separate points of view. What would this tell us? How would we even begin to make sense of it? Imagine they spent time together in the same room—what would it look like?

Not knowing what anything IS

This question has been addressed by Avatar Adi Da Samraj, who writes:

If each person’s “point of view” were replaced by a camera, and you collected photographs of all those “points of view” in the room—up, down, sides, all different orientations—and if you put them all together, you would wonder what you were looking at. Ten such photographs would be enough to make the room unrecognizable. In any case, no single photograph represents the room in its totality. Any single photograph is a portrayal (or an abstract representation) only—and the same is true of your perception. Your perception is only a portrayal (or an abstract representation) of the room. Your perception is not the room As it Is.

The Way of Zero Bargaining, The Aletheon, p. 1590, Avatar Adi Da Samraj.

Adi Da discusses the profound implications of this fundamental truth. He explains that neither a single room, nor the whole universe, can be accurately described, since “knowledge” about anything is limited by a “point of view”:

“Point of view” defines everything about conditional “knowledge”, whether it is “knowledge” of “self” or “knowledge” of the universe. That is the purpose served by “point of view”. That “knowledge” is the power of “point of view” – its presumed ability to escape bad luck, misfortune, confinement, death, bad results, negative destiny, and so on. That presumed power (or ability) is the purpose of the effort of introversion. It is also the purpose of the effort of extroversion. It is the purpose of all seeking.

— The Aletheon, p. 1591-2.

Understanding Life

So, perhaps a better option than obsessive life caching and a concern with squirreling away the minutia of every moment, is working to develop an understanding of life as it really is; not as an archive of separate images, but as a totality that transcends all possible “points of view”.

As The World Turns – A video of the known universe

Here’s a nice way to celebrate the end of one year and the start of another. This awe-inspiring video of the known, material, universe deserves 5 minutes of your time to watch in HD and full-screen mode (click on the second box from the right in the menu bar below.)

The Known Universe video takes viewers from the Himalayas through our atmosphere and the inky black of space to the afterglow of the Big Bang. Every star, planet, and quasar seen in the film is possible because of the world’s most complete four-dimensional map of the universe, the Digital Universe Atlas that is maintained and updated by astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History. This new film, created by the Museum, is part of an exhibition, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan through May 2010.

Happy New Year!

Recommended reading: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - coverI’ve just finished reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work an enjoyable and uniquely insightful book by Alain de Botton.

In de Botton’s own words, he wrote the book to “shine a spotlight on the working world,” exploring both its beauty and its beastliness. By turning a philosopher’s eye on the intricacies of labor and trade, de Botton has produced a compelling series of essays that focus on life’s hidden minutiae, offering insights into working people as well as the taken-for-granted structure of the world around us.

The Poetry of Work

The essays are compelling reading – and not only because the approach is novel and the writing superb. De Botton takes us to places most of us have never been, showing us the vast global framework of cargo ships and warehouses, delving deep into their particular logic and strange beauty. He takes us to anonymous structures on the outskirts of the urban core, where:

“…vessels slip in continuously, during humid summers and fog-bound winters, night and day, to deliver the bulk of London’s gravel and its reinforced steel, its soya beans and coal, its milk and its paper pulp, the sugar cane for its biscuits and the hydrocarbons for its generators – an area as noteworthy as any of the museums of the city, but about which the guidebooks are silent.”

De Botton sees poetry in areas others overlook, such as the food distribution facility in the British midlands, where, in early December:

“…twelve thousand strawberries wait in the semi-darkness. They flew in from California yesterday, crossing over the Arctic Circle by moonlight, writing a trail of nitrogen across a black and gold sky.”

It’s a Small World, After All

In his chapters on the global supply chain, de Botton bridges the divide between the First and Third Worlds, detailing how cold-eyed, lifeless fish are transported around the globe by an assortment of humanity. His single-minded pursuit of the journey of a slab of frozen tuna – from the ocean off the Maldives to an eight-year-old’s supper plate in a Bristol kitchen – takes the form of a stark photo-essay.

Eccentricity Generation

The book skirts the edge of pathos when it teases the poetic from a Monty-Pythonesque cast of eccentric characters:

  • The man who painted multiple pictures of a lone oak tree for two years, come rain or shine;
  • A three-day journey by the founding member of the Pylon Appreciation Society from the Kent Coast to East London, cataloging the 542 pylons that provide illumination for Oxford Street shops;
  • An independent career counselor whose conducts business with clients in a house that smells of cabbage; and
  • The inventor of a pair of shoes that walk on water.

And if you want to know what Japanese day-time television, French Guiana, the freezing point of hydrogen and the fragile ego of a Hong Kong journalist have in common, read the chapter on Rocket Science to find out.

Lese Majeste

All of de Botton’s characters are treated with gentleness and respect. The one time de Botton seems to be peeved by a subject of his inquiries is, unfortunately, the one place in the book where the cloak of anonymity fails him. His long chapter on ‘Accountancy’ profiles the European headquarters of “one of the world’s largest accountancy firms,” and his interview with the chairman of the operation is singularly bad-tempered. De Botton notes that the senior executive has forsworn the trappings of authority – sitting in an open cubicle, asking people to call him by his first name – yet, as the author scathingly notes:

“…power has not disappeared entirely; it has merely been reconfigured. It is by posing as a regular employee that the chairman stands his best chance of preserving his seniority. His subordinates admire the sincerity with which he pretends to share their fate, while he privately recognises that only a convincing show of normalcy will prevent him from ever having to be normal again.”

Say what?

More convincing are the comments on the frequent internal presentations the top guy delivers “against a backdrop of PowerPoint slogans”:

“It is evident that success in his job will ultimately depend less on anything he might do than on his relative luck in aligning his reign with auspicious currents in economic history. He is like a general on a battlefield vainly striving to maintain an appearance of control amidst the chaos of sporadically exploding munitions.”

‘Nuff said.

The one problem with the supposed ‘anonymous’ critique is that the company chairman is photographed in front of a PowerPoint slide where the logo of the major accounting firm is clearly visible. Curious which firm it is? Turn to page 253 to find out.

John Berger

A Fortunate Man - coverde Botton’s book reminded me of another of my favorite authors. John Berger is a Marxist art historian best known for Ways of Seeingand the wonderful coming-of-age novel G.

His examination of the life of a country doctor A Fortunate Man is a great companion to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

Berger examines the daily life of the country doctor with an art historian’s and sociologist’s perspective. The working life of one man is situated in the broader framework of the social relationships.

The book is full of insights like this on the structures of social intercourse:

The easiest – and sometimes the only possible – form of conversation is that which concerns or describes action: that is to say action considered as technique or procedure. It is then not the experience of the speakers which is discussed but the nature of an entirely exterior mechanism ot event – a motor-car engine, a football match, a draining system or the workings of some committee. Such subjects, which preclude anything indirectly personal, supply the content of most of the conversations being carried on by men over twenty-five at any given moment in England today. (in the case of the young, the force of their own appetites saves them from such depersonalization.)

Both authors show depth of meaning and discover truth when they focus on the everyday. As writers, we should always look deeply into the world around us.

Guest Posting: The Global Crisis

Is anyone really addressing the global crisis?

By Dennis Bumstead, PhD

I’ve just returned to the USA, after some weeks in the Third World, in part on a spiritual retreat. I’m struck more than ever by the lack of productive address to our multi-toothed-and-clawed Global Crisis – and by the lack of any comprehensive critique in the mainstream media.

The dire situation in the Third World

For those in the Third World, the escalating global crisis comes on top of long-established deprivations caused by poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation. They also suffer the effects of the many wars which are often conducted, sponsored or ignored (and always armed) by the so-called “developed” nations .

Yet the mainstream media seems unable to connect the dots in global crisis. For example Dean Baker writes in The Guardian on Economics in a bubble: The cheerleaders for America’s toxic boom want us to bail out US banks. They were wrong then – and are wrong now.

Baker offers an intelligent critique of a significant aspect of the mainstream view of current economic problems. But his critique is very much limited to a litany of economic woes in advanced economies (the housing bubble; financial institutions; government response and so on) and never mentions the broader global implications, or anything beyond the confines of the dismal science itself.

The Financial Times reported on 22 April that the IMF sharply cut back their outrageously optimistic and inaccurate world economic forecast of only three months prior. Doubtless the revisions are still optimistic. The IMF continues its role of trying to prop up the status quo, and accruing benefits to its masters in the “developed” nations. The report does not point out that, even if the IMF’s revised optimism were to prove justified, their forecast signals a death sentence for thousands, perhaps millions more Third World people. These are people who would not need to die if the global system were managed for the benefit of all, instead of for the few.

Millions in the Third World are already sentenced to death by the effects of disease and malnutrition.

Cynics in the mainstream western media seem to assume that a few hundred thousand more during a recession is collateral damage as the system is fixed. Calling the Third World the “developing world” is supposed to make us all feel better about these depredations visited on poor countries by our systemic global “fixes”.

A very sanitized explanation of the effects, all price statistics and no dead bodies, is found in a UN News Center report on food prices in developing countries:

High food prices persist in developing countries despite an improved global cereal supply situation and a sharp decline in international food prices, FAO warned today in its latest Crop Prospects and Food Situation report. This is creating further hardship for millions of poor people already suffering from hunger and undernourishment.

In all the acres of newsprint dedicated to the current crisis, nothing I am seeing in the mainstream media addresses the global totality of the escalating crisis we are in. Nothing.

An alternative: The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order

However, in the newly published edition of the book Not-Two Is Peace, The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order (2009), the author Adi Da has spelled out in detail:

  • what the problems are,
  • why the system cannot and will not continue – and that
  • it will be determined, by our understandings and actions, “in the next handful of years” that

“The future is either going to be catastrophic disaster, or it is going to be the turnabout moment in human history, in which humankind will step out of its dark ages of “tribalism” into a new mode of human cooperative order.”

Adi Da points out that the world’s political economy simply can not continue, built as it is on a model of growth for the rich and depletion for the poor. The system as is simply unsustainable, as more and more nation-“tribes” try to get in on the so-called “good life”.

Can we expect the “G-establishment”, (the G8, G20, GSacks, GM etc etc) and creatures thereof, (the World Bank and IMF) and personages thereof (the Geitners, Summerses, Gordon Browns, Sarkozys et al) to lead us anywhere except toward the vain attempt to re-establish the status quo / business-as-usual?

The mainstream economist critics I read, such as Krugman, Stiglitz, Roubini and Sacks, indicate that proposed solutions may not be enough, but also confine their proposals to sub-sectors of the total system.

Many propose change. But who is proposing real change? Change which is political, and social, and cultural, and psychological and spiritual, not just economic?

Al Gore has been a sustained and effective communicative voice for environmental change. But that is only part of the problem and environmental challenges are not soluble without radical change in other arenas. Many alternative writers / activists like Hazel Henderson and David Korten likewise address critical sub-sets of the issues. Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest suggests there is a mostly invisible movement already tackling many of these issues.

Adi Da is the only writer I have come across who fully addresses the issues that others treat in isolation. He proposes the formation of a Global Cooperative Forum, functioning on the basis of “prior unity” and managing the globe for the benefit of all instead of the few.

These ideas are likely to appeal to ‘early adopters’, those who are already beginning to notice that attempting to reinstall the status quo is very unlikely to work and interested in exploring real alternatives.

The book is fundamentally very clear. But it’s a challenging read none the less. In part because – well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? It addresses the conventions of global life that we have all been taught to assume but really no longer make sense.

Not-Two Is Peace :The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order, by Adi Da can be read on line.

Take a look, and let me know what you think in the comments area below.

Dennis Bumstead

Dennis grew up on three continents and studied economics, sociology and psychology, at Cambridge and Manchester and M.I.T. He taught at Manchester University, M.I.T., London and Antioch Universities, and was a consultant for Shell companies, for I.C.I., British Airways, J. Walter Thompson, Motorola and on the staff at the World Bank. For the past 10 years he has been working in the non-profit world. Since 2006 he has been the General Manager of the Global Cooperation Project.

Book Review: Counselor, by Ted Sorensen

Counselor, by Ted Sorensen JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s book Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History is required reading for anyone calling themselves a speechwriter. Sorensen witnessed many historical moments in his 11 years as JFK’s chief speechwriter and Special Counsel to the President. This book reveals the challenges and rewards of such unparalleled access to one of the greatest American presidents.

As I reported in February, Sorensen gave the closing keynote at the Ragan Speechwriters Conference. I purchased my signed copy at that event and have finally finished it.

There’s over 500 pages of compelling narrative in his striking honest autobiography. It covers his Unitarian origins in the soil of Nebraska, to Washington DC and the Kennedy years, to the recent past. While it does not include his endorsement of Barack Obama there is no doubt that his political sympathies are on the left of the Democratic Party.

Speechwriting Tips

The book contains a fascinating number of insights into speechwriting and the role of the speechwriter:

  • Speechwriters should have a “passion of anonymity” so as not to diminish the principals’ stature by accepting any credit for the speech. (p. 131)
  • Sorensen writes speeches in longhand, with painstaking precision, requiring uninterrupted time, with piles of notes gathered on the floor around him, each pile reflecting a different topic in the outline. (p. 136)
  • The six basic rules of speechwriting (p. 138-141) are:
  1. Less is almost always better than more.
  2. Choose each word as a precision tool.
  3. Organize the text to simplify, clarify, emphasize.
  4. Use variety and literary devices to reinforce memorability, not confuse or distract.
  5. Employ elevated but not grandiose language.
  6. Substantive ideas are the most important part of any speech.

Nevertheless, Sorensen warns, “Saying it so doesn’t make it so” :

Rare is the speaker who has the power to make others listen, and, if they listen, to act, and if they act, to do so in the manner he advocates. Nevertheless, I do not dismiss the potential of the right speech on the right topic delivered by the right speaker in the right way at the right moment. It can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world. I know, I saw it happen.

Kennedy’s impact on the world

As fascinating as the ‘inside baseball’ view of speechwriting is, the real value of the book is Sorensen’s role as witness to the defining crises of JFK’s Presidency. Supreme among these was the Cuban Missile crisis, the thirteen days in October 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of destruction. Sorensen had a ring-side seat as a member of the ExComm group who met daily in the White House as the situation unfolded. Many senior advisers encouraged Kennedy to invade or bomb Cuba. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson advised bombing both Cuba and Soviet missile sites in Russia.

Kennedy, as we know, chose the option of blockading Cuba against that of gung-ho military aggression. Sorensen notes that “It is not difficult to amass public support for a belligerent policy against a national adversary… (but)… I believe that a president who refrains from going to war may actually be showing more courage than one who follows the more politically popular course and launches military combat.” (p. 296)

Sorensen’s role as trusted policy adviser during the crisis elevates him far above that of any other speechwriter in history. His drafting of key communiques to Khrushchev helped save the world.

The chapter on Kennedy’s assassination is heart-wrenching for any of us alive on November 21, 1963. More than anyone except Kennedy’s immediate family he felt the loss which robbed him of his future.

Sorensen’s view of 21st century politics

His epilogue reveals his utter contempt for the Bush/Cheney policies. In early 2004 he stated:

The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us.

Nevertheless, he remained optimistic that “a one-man aberration, however disastrous, is not permanent…Inept political leaders can be replaced.”

He’s lucky to have lived to see the replacement take office. It remains to be seen if Obama fulfills the promise that Kennedy heralded.

Virtual JFK

Coincidentally, the weekend I finished the book, I saw a remarkable movie in San Francisco which was a nice visual coda to many of the highlights in the book.

Koji Masutani’s compelling movie Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived emphasizes the contrast between Kennedy’s approach to international relations and that of LBJ and every President since, save perhaps the current one. It examines the challenges Kennedy faced, from The Bay of Pigs to Berlin and the crescendo of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We are shown documentary footage of press conferences and speeches which all confirm Sorensen’s eye-witness accounts in Counselor. The movie implies that, had Kennedy lived, we might well have avoided the loss of 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives in that conflict.

The movie is on very limited distribtution, if it’s not showing in your area, at least take a couple of minutes to view this trailer on YouTube:

Bards in the Boardroom?

Back in August 2006 I speculated if we’d ever see bards in business class to entertain airline passengers with poetry and epic stories on long-haul flights.

I was pleased to read in Tuesday’s FT that Yorkshire-born poet David Whyte is helping stir imagination in the workplace. He has made it his mission, through corporate speaking tours and seminars, to help businesses harness the insights and metaphors that poetry can offer to broaden their language, improve interaction within the workplace and stir imaginations.

He’s worked with blue chip companies like AT&T, Microsoft, NASA, Boeing and Kaiser. Thus his muse has helped people reach out and touch someone; know where they want to go today; reach for the stars, line their dreams and thrive.

Of interest to corporate communications staff and speechwriters, Whyte stands for precision in language “listening and talking to a group until he is able to articulate an uncomfortable and unspoken truth.”

As I noted in my article on The Medieval Speechwriter, aspects of modern corporate life recall life at Court. Whyte agrees:

“All these organizations are like Shakespearean plays writ large, with the nobles telling their truths from the podium while the gravediggers are telling it like it really is in the bathroom. And every epoch ends with a lot of blood on the floor”.

He sees real value in poetry as a tool to help managers make sense of their work. It enables novice managers, overwhelmed, desperate, hungry for some ground in a world gone mad, to analyze things:

“The idea is to get deeply into experiences where they have different images and metaphors to use out of the poetry. A lot of the images will have to do with being lost, with not having the usual bearings, and therefore looking at the world in a different way.”

Whyte has a new book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. In it, he explores three commitments we have in life: to our partner; our work; our self. He calls for perspective to keep grounded in oneself.