Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

July 19 Movie Massacre


Movie Theatre Massacre, July 19, 2012

This morning I woke up to another television breaking news story of human brutality.  As the reports came in about the bloody attack at last night’s midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado, of the third Batman film from Hollywood, “The Dark Knight Returns,” I learned more and more about the event itself, and the young man who was the agent of the bloodshed.  I tried to explore the dark scenario in my mind and speak to myself about how it might have happened.

We’ve lived in Japan so long that the notion that a person can go to a store and buy a whole arsenal of high-power weapons seems insane to me.  Many of our Japanese friends have asked us incredulously where we keep our guns.  They know how we Americans love our guns, along with the Second Amendment to our Bill of Rights. The fact that I was born in Oklahoma, famous for real and pretend gunslingers, makes our friends’ question to us about our guns quite reasonable.

Ironically, I come from a long line of pacifists, who were opposed to violence of any kind, even to the spanking of children.  My father and some of my uncles were conscientious objectors during World Wars I and II.  I never went hunting or had a gun of any kind.  But I always knew how violent I could be.  My passions always were right on the surface of my life. I knew I could kill.  In my dreams I did it with pleasure.  

My Church of Christ upbringing kept me from acting out my fear and anger, although I was pretty sure God sympathized with me and protected me from my enemies, just as He had with the Jews in the Old Testament.  Stories of His punishment certainly kept me in line.  I was transfixed at the gory scenes of torture (including the crucifixion) in the illustrated family Bible.

By third grade I had just about figured out that the stories in the Bible were just that, stories, and I was determined to enlighten all my playmates about what was actually real. (They were especially disappointed to hear there was no Santa Claus; and some parents were ready to burn me at the stake as a heretic!)  Nevertheless, I loved the Abrahamic stories and Grimm’s fairy tales dearly, or at least the morals they taught about living.

I learned about death at eleven, when my grandmother Taylor died of a heart attack and my best friend Robert died of polio.  Death became a constant puzzle in my life from then on.  I was a child piano prodigy, and was locked in a competitive and stressful career as a concert pianist until I collapsed backstage after a performance, when I was seventeen, and I thought I had died with my career.

It was at that low point in my life that I began to consider whether I should “be good” or do whatever I felt like, which often was not good.  Fortunately the impulse for goodness was stronger than the one for evil and depravity.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps out of fear, even though I had pretty much erased the vengeful God of my youth from my consciousness.

Until I was introduced to sitting quietly in Zen Buddhist temples in Japan (which was a requirement for getting my hands on documents necessary for my doctoral research) I think I thought I could think things through.  What I had done was to get clear on how I could do whatever was legal and get ahead in life.  My lying, manipulative and violent self whispered in one ear and my peaceful, reasonable and legalistic self spoke loudly into the other ear.  But the two selves were one me. 

That two-sided me was gradually and gently quieted by a sound and perception that emerged after I first glimpsed my “death” on my sitting pillow.  I didn’t know what to call it.  I knew it wouldn’t be accurate to call it God, because a lot of my Christian and Muslim friends have “God’s will” on their side (after the death of a loved one or in a contest to find a parking space, etc.)  That is not what I heard and perceived. It was not even a voice, in the usual sense of that word.

What I experienced (and continue to experience) is a genuine sound (of both sorrow and joy) that seems to come from all sentient beings.  The perceptions are likewise composed of all form, distinct and yet perfectly combined in time and space.  Notions of right and wrong, self and other, heavenly and devilish, up and down, light and dark, past and future dissolve into nothing. 

I sometimes describe this indescribable sound+perception as the voice of the universe, when I’m gone.  It’s not very practical, so I have to do the best I can to “translate” it in my everyday life.  In any case, my translation could never be a set of rules to force on anybody.  But I think I am most useful when it is in control of me.

If I were not controlled I would do whatever it took to buy stuff I want.   Nobody would matter.  I would be the master of my domain.  Occasionally I might give something to charity, but that something would never amount to the something I gave to myself.  Never!  And my stuff would be the envy of everyone.

I would also chew up people I disagreed with and spit them out.  They wouldn’t have a chance.  My sense of outrage at evil would equip me with the ability to rip it up every time I saw it.  My killing skills (learned in Asian martial arts) would be working overtime.  I would be Superman, Spiderman and Batman (even Wonder Woman) unleashed.  Ayn Rand herself would have to get out of my way.

I would bask in the acclaim from those who approved, but I would squelch any criticism before it had a chance to grow.  Anyone who disagreed with me would be nailed to the wall by my tack gun.  Rendered harmless.  Tongues and hands (and a few other parts of the human anatomy) would be hung on my walls like trophies. 

I would outlaw music that makes me sick (most everything except Mozart and Brahms), and the esthetics I espouse (too complicated to characterize here) would rule supreme.  People would not be executed for their religious beliefs, but I would kill them myself if they killed anyone in the name of their particular idiotic faith.

When the universe speaks, the “myself” that I know so well turns out to be everything, everyone, every idea, every act, and every sound, smell, image, and dream that anyone has ever imagined.  What a revelation!  All the people and things I hate are me.  Along with all the people and things I love.  Now I have to consider who it is that hates or loves them.  Could it be me?  But who am I? 

First I must begin with the me that religion or reason shaped.  There is right and wrong, good and evil.  Of course!  I must be on the side of the right-and-good; so I must fight the wrong-and-evil axis.  I and they, me and them … it’s all so clear.  But to do all this I most surely will have to kill, punish, imprison, maybe even torture.  There are just wars, after all!  My resentment (over whatever has wronged me) may indeed cause me to walk into a crowded theater and kill people.  The blowback from my actions (a concept developed by the CIA and truly explained by the late Chalmers Johnson in his books Blowback and Nemesis) will most certainly result in more and more conflict and bloodshed in the world. 

And that is why I am a Democrat:  because Democrats have less faith in human nature than Republicans.  “What do you mean Democrats have less faith than Republicans in human nature?” 
This is the response some of my friends and students have had to my “A Fair Balance” essay (posted on Facebook and my blog.)  They ask me, “How do you know?”  And my response is simply, “Because I know myself.”  

GTW

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


A FAIR BALANCE

Democrats say the super wealthy 1% of Americans do not pay their fair share of taxes.  Republicans claim the wealthy pay more than their fair share.  I hear both sides.  The whole question revolves around what is fair, regardless of who is right about the amount of taxes paid.  Both sides agree on fairness.

Where do we get that?  Why do we think a society should strike a fair balance when it comes to economic and social welfare?  Did Karl Marx poison our minds?  I don’t think so.  I would point out that the answer to why we believe in fairness (if not a welfare state) can be found in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In Exodus 16 we have it spelled out, when Moses led ancient Israel out of Egypt and down along the east side of the Gulf of Suez, around the tip of the peninsula and up the western coast of the Gulf of Aqaba.  Imagine a society of up to two million people trekking along that long desert coast, carrying tons of equipment, and treasures made of gold, silver and bronze. 

After crossing the Aqaba side of the Red Sea into what is today Saudi Arabia (at the straights of Tiran, according to most reckoning today), and spending three days on the run without water, God and Moses finally brought them to the springs of Elim for a brief respite, only to leave them in trouble in the Desert of Sin, where the famous story of manna from heaven played itself out.

 On their first night there God covered the ground with flocks of quail (alive, presumably, but quickly killed, cooked and eaten by God’s children.)  In the morning the Israelites found a white covering on the ground, which turned into a crusty bread-like substance that they named “manna”, and which Moses told them to eat.

God warned his children (through Moses) that each of them should collect only as much of the manna as they actually needed.  On that first day some of them collected more, so as to have leftovers for the next day.  But that manna became rancid overnight.  As a result, the ancient Israelites learned their first lesson from God about money. 

Scriptures tell us that  “no one who collected more had too much, and no one who had collected less had too little.”  Just enough for one day, and not so much that anyone got short-changed.  This went on each day until the sixth day, when God told them to collect two days’ worth of manna, because on the seventh day they should rest and keep the Sabbath holy. 

We sometimes forget the significance of this story, I think, by focusing on its miraculous side rather than the elephant in the room, which is that we need to keep a lid on our greed and never forget those around us. Marx may have gotten his notion from God, but he clearly didn’t have God on his side when it came to making people do what God told them to do.  People who believe in God need to be reminded.

I think that is just what the Apostle Paul set out to do, some 1300 years after Moses, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 8, when he referred to the book of Exodus in his warning to the people of Corinth (and us) that there must be a fair balance between rich and poor. 

800 years after Paul, the Islamic Imam, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj of the Sunni tradition, reminded us of God’s teaching on the fair balance we must maintain, in Chapter 26 of his record of the Prophet Mohammed’s words concerning the story in Exodus, when he identified manna as desert truffles, a delicacy equal to the unleavened bread of the ancient Jews. 

If indeed we all agree that a fair balance must be maintained, surely we can come to some mutual understanding about how to follow God’s law on this subject.  That law is quite clear on the matter of giving all your wealth to the poor:  don’t do that.  But it is equally clear that you must not keep all your wealth for yourself.  If you are wealthy beyond reason you are duty bound to work on a solution that will allow us to spread the wealth in society in some balanced way that does not leave it up to personal whim. 

We in the United States have not found that solution yet.  And as long as one side says we have and the other says we have not, a fair balance has in fact not been struck.  Our economic system is based on the notion of more is better.  But God says we need to think again.  Lots of us agree.