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Friday, April 29

Marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and the reaffirmation of Christian and English values

"Fate – monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, stand malevolent, well-being is vain and always fades to nothing, shadowed and veiled you plague me ..."
-- from O Fortuna, 13th Century poem written by renegade Christian monks to mock the failures, abuses and limitations of the Christian Church

Marriage of HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, to Catherine Middleton at the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, site of British coronations since 1066


I was surprised to learn that Glenn Beck had dismissed the marriage of William and Kate and refused to watch it. ("Yawn: There was a royal wedding today ... Despite the fact that no one cares about this wedding, the news is wall to wall coverage of all the pomp and circumstance.") Of all people Glenn, who is a vociferous critic of the trammeling of Christian values in America by secularists, should have recognized the profound importance and symbolism of the marriage ceremony in Westminster Abbey today.

Pomp and circumstance were not the points of a sacred play in which the Duke of Cambridge and his bride were only supporting actors. The star of the play was the Church of England as it carried out one its most important functions: acting as symbolic intermediary in the mystical connection between the divine and British rulers. One will have to wait for the next coronation to see the function made explicit (or view footage of the coronation of the present British monarch) but the monarchy endures in Great Britain for the same reason there are few atheists on an icy road.

Those who would sniff at the monarchy and its connection with Church -- which would you prefer, a tradition upheld by centuries of practice or the eccentric ruminations of a former senator from Chicago, who was quite literally deified during the 2008 U.S. presidential election by many thousands of very desperate young Americans?

Thank you very much, the British prefer to hedge their bets on their own eccentric politicians by hewing to the atavistic idea that in this world of vast wheeling forces of fate, a leader invested with sacred rituals might have a little extra pull during the darkest times with whatever passes for a divinity. The marriage of William and Kate was a reaffirmation of this idea.

The marriage ceremony also reaffirmed English cultural values, which had been so thoroughly abandoned in the United Kingdom that by 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury -- the same archbishop who officiated at the marriage -- was calling for the formal recognition of Sharia law, and the Royal United Services Institute defense think tank was warning that the loss of British values and national identity caused by "flabby and bogus" government thinking about multiculturalism had made the country vulnerable to attack from Islamic terrorists.

The carefully directed and controlled filming of the marriage ceremony kept images of the few Arab potentates in attendance out of the live feed that was seen around the world, and the waving of thousands of British flags to the tunes of Anglican hymns by onlookers watching the marriage on huge screens outside the abbey was just one detail in the choreographed tribute to being English.

The Anglican church's tolerance was given a nod by seating of representatives from other religions in a discreet place of honor. But the homily delivered by the Bishop of London to the newly married couple served notice that a religion must set limits to tolerance. The lesson emphasized that the estate of marriage in the Christian tradition pertains to a union between male and female:
In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.
The entire ceremony was an attempt at restoring civilizational certainty, which the English had frittered away over the course of a half century.

The United States of America cannot follow the British and establish a monarchy, but one would hope that if the British find some measure of success at defending the civilization on which their most fundamental values are based that this will waft to American shores in the manner of the mini-skirt and the Beatles.

Better hope -- nay, better pray -- this will happen and happen soon, before many more thousands of American youth stare down the barrel of nihilism, with nothing to serve as their moral compass but the teaching that the U.S. Constitution is a outmoded document thought up by old white men.

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Thursday, April 28

There is no contraption: Sathya Sai Baba and the Spitball, Part 2


Preface

Part one of this essay describes the mechanics of formal darshan at the temple grounds in Prasanthi Nilayam, as it was 30 years ago. I took some trouble to detail the mechanics because the darshan was the backdrop for the story.

In the Waking the Watchmen essays I introduced two women I called "Victoria" and "Lynn" who played small but significant roles in the strange events I described. Because both women were key players in the Great Spitball Incident at Sathya Sai Baba's ashram I'm going to embark on the story by telling you enough about them to explain their roles and their significance.

And I explain the situation leading up to my first interview with Sai Baba, which also helps sets the stage.

In the account below I mention the concept of a "Leela," a divine play in the Hindu tradition. The spitball incident is an illustration of a Leela. It's also an illustration of how a genuine Tantra master teaches. Yet I hesitate to invoke the term, firstly because many Westerners associate it with the sexual act and secondly, just a glance on Wikipedia's article on Tantra is enough to convey that the term represents a cacophony of so many mystical practices and beliefs that it has meaning only as a history of practices that were called Tantra.

It's the same with the dogma connected with the wonder-working Mahasiddhas, who taught in the Buddhist tradition in India just prior to the Muslim conquests that ripped entire chapters out of Indian history.

There's a reason why it's not possible to find a clear description of the Tantric teachings and the Mahasiddhas in the authoritative texts: the only people who can teach in the tradition are enlightened. So the tradition has gotten crusted over with dogmas taught by those who weren't enlightened.

To clear away the rubble of a thousand years, Tantra teaching is based on the concept of weaving: the teacher weaves Dharma teachings into the prosaic, everyday activities and incidents.

This highly improvisational style of teaching eschews the frameworks of metaphysics, formal spiritual and religious paths, and mystical practices including the doctrine of "transmission" central to Vajrayana teachings. It also makes possible a truly egalitarian approach to teaching because the student doesn't have to first learn dogma before benefiting from the teachings.

Again, the catch is that the Tantric freestyle approach can only be taught by someone who's already enlightened in the tradition, in the manner of an accomplished sculptor who can carve with any kind of material.

Sai Baba didn't teach in the Tantric tradition to everyone who approached him; how he taught depended on many factors. But he taught me in that way even though I wasn't there to ask for teachings; as with so many others, I was there for his help with a matter I considered to be life-or-death.

Yet that he was able to deliver all at one time, from one incident, a custom-tailored teaching for three people from very different backgrounds and temperaments, and who held very different views of him, is an example of how he taught me. It's also an illustration of his ability to weave the most abstract concepts into the mundane, so that the concepts are perfectly understood. This, too, is Leela, only poured into a different metaphysical container than the Buddhist one.

Lynn

Lynn was the only person I'd ever met who was genuinely frightened of Sathya Sai Baba. She'd gone to considerable trouble and expense to arrange for a long stay in India on the hope that Sai Baba could help her solve a problem she'd refrained at first from discussing with me. Yet on arriving in India she'd taken a room in Puttaparthi village rather than rent far cheaper accommodations inside Prasanthi Nilayam ashram, then she'd avoided attending darshan and entered the ashram only for meals.

There were many written rules at the ashram but the one that really counted was the unwritten one: no matter what your mood and unless you're too ill to get out of bed, attend darshan. So how Lynn was expecting to receive help from Sai Baba if she avoided him like the plague was beyond me.

She was also the only person I'd reached out to among the people who were involved with Sai Baba. I'd seen her a few times at the canteen when I'd been late for meals. Her routine seemed to be taking her meals at the last possible moment before the food service closed. She always sat near a wall at an empty table, taking no interest in her surroundings while she ate.

In her mid-20s, I estimated, perhaps European nationality except for her gait, which seemed American. At a distance she looked for all the world like a porcelain doll; very slender and tiny in frame, alabaster-white skin, even delicate facial features set off by a shock of curly light brown hair, widely-set cornflower-blue eyes. Yet her expression was not doll-like; it was a study in grimness.

Normally I kept my distance from Westerners but when I arrived late for dinner one night I carried my tray to where she was sitting and asked if she minded if I sat with her. Clearly she minded, but she nodded curtly, then kept her eyes down while she ate, signaling that she didn't want conversation.

I said cheerfully, as if answering her, "It's so nice to eat dinner with someone who can't stand Sai Baba devotees."

In spite of herself she smiled, and with introductions out of the way we discovered we were fellow New Yorkers.

She didn't want to talk about Sai Baba or her reason for visiting his ashram but over the weeks a kind of friendship grew up between us that was centered around our experiences as New Yorkers. We generally met for coffee at Raju's coffee shop in Puttaparthi village after dinner.

One night we stayed talking so late at Raju's that I lost track of the time. The ashram gates were already closed when I checked my watch.

"Mind if I bunk with you tonight?" I asked. I was miffed at her obvious reluctance to grant my request.

I added in exasperation, "Lynn, give me a break; I'm locked out."

Without a word she led me to her room, found a bedroll and sheets, then after shutting off the top light wordlessly retreated under a mosquito net canopy over her bed. She left on a small dim light next to the bed.

Sometime in the night I was awakened by the sound of footsteps ringing out on the cement floor. In the gloom I made out a man's Western-style shoes walking round and round my bedroll, in the manner of a sentry on patrol.

For a moment I thought I might be dreaming, then I realized the phenomenon was no dream. I thought to look up, to see the owner of the shoes, but with that thought I'd fallen back to sleep.

In the morning I said firmly to Lynn, "Would you mind telling me what happened last night? Don't say you don't know what I'm talking about."

After some hesitation she replied carefully, "That's why I didn't want you to stay overnight. That's why I live in the village, so I don't have to a share a room with anyone."

This was no answer. "Who was the man walking around me, Lynn?"

"I think it's your guru."

She added awkwardly, "I've seen him around you before."

"Describe him."

Her description did not fit anyone I knew, and I didn't have a guru.

"How is that what you saw around me I could also see last night?"

Lynn's pale face turned even paler. Tears flooded her eyes and she began trembling.

"I'm waiting," I said coldly.

Finally she blurted, "Because I'm a reincarnation of a fallen Yogi whose karma is so bad you don't want to know how bad. I -- I abused my Yogic powers. My bad deeds have caught up with me in this lifetime. For years I've only been able to sleep in snatches because my dreams are of demons and the demons take form and attack me."

In answer to my stony silence she continued wildly, "I don't know what happened last night! All I know is I was sick with worry you'd be harmed. Maybe -- I don't know, maybe your guru appeared to me in a dream to assure me you'd be safe and somehow my thought of him made him visible to you."

I studied the wretched, trembling young woman. Whatever occult powers she possessed, she had used them to consign herself to a kind of hell.

I snapped, "Get a grip. This is only your imagination attacking you."

Lynn started to reply but her words trailed off. Her eyes opened wide in terror. Suddenly the terror was replaced with a monumental struggle to contain laughter.

She managed to choke out, "Whatever you do, don't turn around right now."

I turned my head and looked behind me. There was a replica of the monster from the campy 1950s horror film classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon, leering at me. The creature wasn't all that scary looking but understandably I was very startled.

The apparition dissolved at my shriek but as it did I had the distinct impression of Sathya Sai Baba, looking pleased as punch with himself at my reaction to his way of telling me I could be a twit.

Lynn gasped through her laughter, "It wasn't me, I swear! Those things can only happen when I'm asleep. It was Sai Baba!"

Yes I could see it was Sai Baba. I muttered, "Now I'll have to find a way to get even."

At that Lynn burst into fresh peals of laughter. Finally she said, wiping tears of laughter, "I envy your relationship with Sai Baba. I'm sorry you got a start but that was the funniest thing I've ever seen."

I hesitated. Sai Baba considered me to be at my most annoying when I lectured on matters above my head. So there had already been the lesson for the day. Yet there was also a lesson for Lynn, if she cared to take it.

I replied, "At the risk of lecturing I have a relationship with him because I work at having one."

That morning Lynn accompanied me to darshan.

Darshan did not produce a miracle cure. I learned that Lynn's fear of Sai Baba was based on her belief that he was a "Karma master" -- someone who can see all the past lives of a person -- and what he'd seen of her past was that she'd done evil. She believed Sai Baba could save her from hell but only by speeding up her bad Karma, so to speak, by inflicting punishments on her. Thus, she had arrived at Sai Baba's ashram with the attitude of a prisoner awaiting execution.

That certainly explained her grim visage.

I didn't know what to make of Lynn's view of her problems. What I did know for certain was that there was no use cowering for years in a room in Puttaparthi waiting for the ax to fall. Even if everything Lynn believed about her situation and Sai Baba were true, Sai Baba was many things in addition to a Karma master.

I thought it would be healthy if she tried to establish a relationship with him based on who she was, not on what she had been, or thought she'd been, in previous lives. That couldn't be done unless she got out on the darshan line and tried to interact with Sai Baba.

Lynn saw the logic of my argument, and from then on she attended darshan, which didn't mean she lost her fear. And there were days she drew into herself. After she met Victoria through me she came out of her shell a little more. Vicky listened with a sympathy and interest to Lynn's story that I couldn't muster.

Victoria

Vicky was another one who preferred to deal with the Sai Baba in her head rather than the man who walked out of a temple every day for the express purpose of allowing people to interact with him. As near as I could gather from her highly abstract discussions she saw Sai Baba as a mixture of the Hindu god of destruction, the God of the Old Testament, and Hegel.

She too avoided darshan; indeed she avoided Prasanthi Nilayam. She preferred to hang out in the town of Whitefield, the site of a smaller Sai Baba ashram called "Brindavan," not far from Bangalore.

A little community of expats had grown up in Whitefield over the years; it was composed of self-described Sai Baba devotees who'd been barred from Sai Baba's main ashram in Puttaparthi -- usually for smoking pot inside the ashram or because they'd refused to heed, when he'd told them they couldn't benefit from continuing to hang out at his ashrams or in India.

Some of the expats had let their passports expire; they lived in a kind of stateless limbo, avoiding deportation and supported by checks from their families back home or donations by soft-hearted Western Sai Baba devotees.

Victoria didn't belong to either category of expat and she wasn't an expat because she'd been born in India. That gave her dual British-Indian citizenship that she could never lose even if the two countries instituted visa requirements in the future (which they eventually did). That gave her advantages that many of Sai Baba's foreign devotees would have found enviable. However, it also gave her a lackadaisical attitude about pursuing her aims in India, so she'd drifted.

When I met her she'd been spending her days talking about Sathya Sai Baba and metaphysical matters with the expats, who shared her view that the person of Sai Baba was just a place-marker, something not real, at most an attraction for spiritual dilettantes. When Sai Baba visited Brindavan she dropped in for darshan as did expats who weren't barred, but she rarely visited Prasanthi Nilayam.

When she did eventually visit during my time there, I saw that she was treated with a warmth by members of Sai Baba's inner circle of administrators that I'd not seen extended to other Westerners, which made her privy to information about the ashram that was not generally known among Sai Baba's other devotees. This, despite her unkempt hair and slovenly clothing, which reeked of marijuana and nicotine smoke, and her disinterest in taking part in ashram activities.

Vicky didn't have to dress appropriately. She had an upper-class British accent.

Once I'd seen her stroll into Bangalore's most expensive restaurant at the height of the lunch hour when it was packed with rich Indian customers. There wasn't a free table in sight. She'd boomed to the maitre' d, "Table for five," and by gum a table for five was created by unceremoniously doubling up rich Indian customers who were already eating.

Then the maitre'd had ordered a waiter to hover at her elbow throughout the meal. When the waiter didn't refill her water glass quickly enough she drawled, "Straight out of the trees." He didn't so much as blink, even though he understood English.

One would think that with all the Indians went through with the British they'd have great enmity for them. Yes there is enmity but it's the kind that is be found in many families. There is a shared history built up over centuries that people from other countries can't understand or match. This was a point Vicky set out to teach me, and her theatrics at the restaurant had been the first lesson.

We had first met in Whitefield when she overheard me saying in an extremely loud voice that I'd been cut out of a room at the Brindavan ashram and that I couldn't take India or Sai Baba another minute more.

She'd strolled up to me, sized up my perfectly-pleated sari and perfectly arranged Indian-matron hairstyle then asked, "How long have you been trying to impress the snobs in Prasanthi Nilayam?"

I was too surprised and irritated to reply to the tall, raw-boned Englishwoman who'd so rudely inserted herself in my conversation.

Then she'd bared her teeth at me in a Cheshire Cat smile and asked, "How long have you been living on vegetarian food?"

"Three months," I blurted.

"What you need is a gin and tonic and a steak," she said, in the manner of a doctor prescribing for a patient. She hustled me into a taxi along with three American women who'd gathered to commiserate over my unfair treatment at the Brindavan ashram office and whisked us to Bangalore. Then, before our amazed eyes, she'd gotten us seated at a restaurant none of us were well-dressed enough to enter.

After two gin and tonics I was in a better frame of mind to absorb her point.

"You're here to see Sai Baba; forget the circus around him," she said.

Yet over the course of learning her story, I turned her advice around: Wasn't the expat community in Whitefield also a circus? If she too was here to see Sai Baba, why not make more of an effort to see him? Even if the Sai Baba form was just a place-marker, did that make it any less real than her view of him?

The form wasn't an interesting reality, Victoria had countered.

I returned, "What about the reality of the avatar?"

Was she willing to concede that Sai Baba might be telling the truth when he called himself an avatar? The idea behind the avatar was that during the darkest eras the divine takes human form to renew faith by interacting in a human way with humans. Wasn't this interaction what the Hindus called a Leela, a divine play?

What did she want? To have a role in the play or sit in the audience because that's what she'd been doing in Whitefield: sitting in the audience. Wasn't it better to be an actor? No matter how small the role there were no bit parts in a Leela.

Vicks fell into an abstracted mood. Finally she said, "One evening I was at Prasanthi Nilayam -- this was during a festival. I was getting ready to attend Sai Baba's speech in the Poornachandra auditorium. Suddenly I had the strongest feeling, overwhelming really, that I should not attend the speech. So I stayed in my room and meditated.

The next morning I spoke with a man who'd attended the speech. He told me that at one point Sai Baba had broken off, mid-sentence, looked around the gathering, then said slowly, 'Not one of you here loves me.' "

She added grimly, "There were tens of thousands of people in the auditorium that night. All them self-proclaimed Sai Baba devotees."

I studied Vicky's ruddy face, the piercingly blue eyes and faintly Nordic features. I recalled that the Normans who'd invaded England were descended from Norse Vikings. Behind the sardonic wit that had put me in stitches several times, behind the rampant intellectualism, might be a person capable of fierce loyalty. But Vicky had reasoned herself into a box, if she'd come to the perverse conclusion that by avoiding the person of Sathya Sai Baba she was demonstrating her loyalty to him.

Finally I asked, "Are you certain the man said that Sai Baba had used the first person when referring to himself?"

Sai Baba used the first person very rarely; he almost always referred to himself in the third person -- as "Swami," "Baba," or "Sai."

Vicks replied, "Yes, I'm certain."

"Do you know what the distinction is between his use of the first person and third?"

She shook her head. "I've never thought about it. I've never heard the question discussed."

"I have a theory. When he speaks in the third person he's referring to himself -- to the human form. When he speaks in the first person he's referring to God or the divine, or maybe to himself in the God-realized state. By that reasoning he wasn't saying that the people in the Poornachandra didn't love him. He was saying they didn't love God."

Knowing that her Oxford education considered me her intellectual inferior, particularly in matters of metaphysics, I didn't pursue the conversation. I concluded by saying that the distinction I'd noted might not hold true in all cases but it could be worth thinking about.

Shortly after our conversation Sathya Sai Baba left Brindavan to return to Puttaparthi. Vicky followed. She bunked with friends staying at Prasanthi Nilayam and attended darshan, in her own way. She arrived late, after Sai Baba was already making the rounds on the temple grounds. She didn't enter the grounds. She stood just outside the low wall on the women's side separating that side of the temple grounds from the rest of the ashram.

In the evenings she joined Lynn and me for coffee at Raju's.

The Spitball

When I returned to the United States from my first stay with Sathya Sai Baba I recounted my experiences with him to a friend, a former U.S. Marine who'd served in the Vietnam War. He said in amusement, "Now you know what boot camp is like."

If boot camp means every button you have repeatedly pushed until you break down or blow up, then I know what boot camp is like. Not everyone who visited Sai Baba went through the button-pushing drill but I did and one night I'd had it, for about the thousandth time. I said that we should go out on the darshan line the next morning and throw spitballs at Sai Baba. After losing the battle to keep a straight face Lynn burst into laughter. It was late, I was tired and getting silly, so at her laughter I hammed it up, imitating Sai Baba trying to duck spitballs while hanging onto his dignity.

Vicky asked, "What's a spitball?"

Still laughing, Lynn pulled a notebook from her purse then tore off a strip of blank note paper, popped into her mouth and chewed it into a spitball, then showed it to Vicky.

"This is a spitball," she told her. "You throw it at teachers who've been giving you a hard time for no good reason."

"The British do not throw spitballs at their teachers," Vicky responded with ice in her voice. "And to talk about throwing anything so disgusting at Sai Baba is very wrong."

"I was just joking," I said lamely.

She shook her head. "There are limits to joking and obviously you don't know the limits."

She didn't have to add, 'You've revealed yourself to possess a crude nature;' the thought was stamped all over her expression.

I exclaimed, "I've never thrown a spitball at anyone and I never would!"

"Neither would I," chimed in Lynn with spirit. "It's a joke; it's something we say in America when we're steamed "

The coffee shop was deserted but for our table. I could hear Raju rattling pots and pans in the kitchen; his way of signaling he wanted to close up shop for the night.

Vicky rose and curtly bid us goodnight. Lynn and I looked at each other. A pall had been cast over the evening. We said our goodnights. As I hiked back to the ashram I found myself surprised that Vicky's condemnation had wounded me. It was such a silly matter, but I couldn't shrug off the contempt in her eyes, the coldness in her voice.

"The British," I muttered.

The Human Ice-Floe Cutter

As I turned in, I wondered if I had indeed gone too far. It could be hard to remember that beyond everything else, everyone who stayed at the ashram was Sathya Sai Baba's guest. The pittance charged for room and board at the ashram barely covered the expenses.

Yet Victoria had never tried to get an interview with Sai Baba and didn't know what I had to go through to get my first one. At the time I first arrived in his ashram it was impossible for a lone Western woman to obtain an interview with him. That's because an American woman living at his ashram had started telling anyone who would listen that Sai Baba was having sex with her.

That was the excuse the Indians in the administrative circle around Sai Baba had been waiting for. They approached him and demanded that he permanently bar all Americans from his ashrams, and for good measure all Westerners -- male and female.

Those Indians acted as a kind of Greek Chorus in his life, so it wasn't a matter of his just telling them, "No." He managed to bargain them down to establishing a rule that he would only give Western women an interview if they visited his ashrams as part of a group.

But as with so much in India and around Sai Baba, it was an unwritten rule. I didn't know about the rule when I set off for my first visit to Sai Baba, and no one informed me about it until after my first interview with Sai Baba.

In the effort to get an interview I went through a scaled-down version of the Seven Labors of Hercules. My trials turned into a kind of soap opera that became a fascination to the Indians who watched it play out, month after month.

By the time I finally I hobbled toward the temple verandah at Prasanthi Nilayam -- hobbling because I'd refused to miss a darshan by going to a hospital to get treatment for every ligament in my foot being torn by a fall down cement stairs at the ashram while I tried to help a maharani search for her runaway poodle -- the Indians on the darshan line cried out to Sai Baba, "Give her an interview!"

So instead of ordering me back to the darshan line because he'd not expressly called me for an interview, Sai Baba jerked his thumb toward the temple verandah, where people chosen for an interview waited until darshan was ended before entering the temple.

A cheer went up on the darshan lines as I took my seat on the verandah. After that, the unwritten rule was relaxed, or rather Sai Baba began getting around the rule by placing lone women visitors in groups he called for an interview, or placing them in groups which he created from lone visitors who were from the same city or country, or the same Frequent Flyer club, or whatever.

Why couldn't he have done the same for me? Because before the Greek Chorus would relent, someone had to play human ice-cutter, and do penance for the sin of the American woman who started the ruckus,

The Darshan Lottery

Yet I doubted that knowing of my trials would have changed Victoria's new estimation of me. She could disrespect Sai Baba by snubbing darshans but I had revealed myself to be worse than a savage by joking that I would throw a spitball at him.

I fell into a troubled sleep.

I awakened unusually early, tried to return to sleep and realized I couldn't. I also realized that the contretemps the night before had so distracted me I'd forgotten to ask Raju to fill my flask with coffee before I left his shop. I was going to have to hike to the village in search of an open coffee shop without any caffeine to sustain my journey.

At that time the village of Puttaparthi hadn't been absorbed into the ashram and the two were separate worlds. The coffee shops and restaurants in the village were supposed to be off-limits to ashram visitors -- another unwritten rule, but one which many ignored until they got dysentery from drinking polluted water in the village. I'd already been immunized by two rounds of dysentery but by gum, I wasn't going to give up Raju's -- my one refuge.

When I got to the main street I found everything still closed. I looked at my watch. It was 4:30. I could smell cow dung fires being lit and hear other signs of the village starting to stir, but it would be at least another hour before Raju's opened, and hours before the canteen in the ashram opened.

Not caring how dirty it was on the ground, I sank down in the dust and leaned against a wall near Raju's, lit a cigarette and looked around.

"Another glorious morning in glorious downtown Puttaparthi," I muttered.

When I finally heard movement in Raju's household I banged on the door of the shop and pleaded a cup of coffee from the groggy Raju. He also took pity and rustled up scrambled eggs and toast for his best customer before opening the shop. There was more banging on the door. It was Lynn, who'd slept particularly worse than usual.

We breakfasted in silence then with nothing else to do headed to the darshan lottery area. We knew it was no use trying to be the first in line; no matter how early there were always village ladies there first.

To our surprise we were the first to arrive.

"This is luck," Lynn said brightly, after sitting down behind me to start a darshan row.

I had come to be very suspicious of the concept of luck since I'd gotten involved with Sai Baba. I had never before ended up at the front of a darshan lottery row.

Eventually the darshan rows filled up, then a volunteer brought around the bag full of chits that determined the order in which each row was to be seated on the temple grounds. I reached into the bag and pulled out a chit.

Lynn asked, "What number did you get?"

Without a word I handed her the chit.

"Number one! We're number one," she exulted. "Guaranteed front-row seats!"

I was glad to see Lynn excited about the prospect of darshan. But my alarms had gone off at so much good luck falling into our laps, and within hours of our joking about throwing a spitball at the Avatar of the Lord and boss of Prasanthi Nilayam aka The Abode of Perfect Peace.

I had a feeling that perfect peace would not be found at this morning's darshan. He was going to get even. The question was how.

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Tuesday, April 26

Corrections and update to Sai Baba post

UPDATE AND CORRECTIONS - 4:20 AM ET, Tuesday April 26
From Rediff's series of short reports on Sai Baba's death, some corrections to information I pulled from other news reports posted on Sunday and posted here. According to Rediff:

> 6,000 police (not 10,000) had been deployed to help keep order.
> Sai Baba will be buried, not cremated. The burial will be in the hall inside Prasanthi Nilayam where he gave darshan.
> Whatever unrest in Puttaparthi in the immediate wake of the news of Sai Baba's death was either exaggerated by an earlier press report or very short lived. Rediff reports:
Meanwhile, the devotees who were extremely angry with the members of the trust for withholding information on Sathya Sai Baba's health, have now made their peace with the passing of the spiritual leader.

They now say that it was Baba's wish to stay on at the hospital for this long so that his devotees would not be shocked at the news.
Rediff also reports:
The manner in which the trustees, police personnel and volunteers have managed the rush of devotees -- who have flocked to the town to pay their last respects to Sathya Sai Baba -- is commendable. Not a single incident of unruly behaviour has been reported so far.
[...]
Inside Sai Kulwant Hall, where his body lies in state, at least 100 volunteers are managing the crowd skillfully. They are dressed in white shirts, trousers and a blue scarf inscribed with Om Sai Ram. These volunteers constantly urge the devotees to stick to their queues.
This comports with what I recall about the work of the volunteers at Sai Baba's ashram. There was never an incident of violence during even the largest festivals, and that the volunteers managed to feed and otherwise serve the huge crowds without incident during those times was something to behold.

Also of note is that the Dalai Lama has expressed his condolences about the death of Sai Baba; although his message is brief, that he made it public is extremely important for reasons that would be of interest only to those who keep tabs on the rocky course of Tibetan Buddhist-Hindu relations.
*********************

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Monday, April 25

There is no contraption: The Tale of Sathya Sai Baba and the Spitball

UPDATE AND CORRECTIONS - 4:20 AM ET, Tuesday April 26
From Rediff's series of short reports on Sai Baba's death, some corrections to information I pulled from other news reports posted on Sunday and posted here. According to Rediff:

> 6,000 police (not 10,000) had been deployed to help keep order.
> Sai Baba will be buried, not cremated. The burial will be in the hall inside Prasanthi Nilayam where he gave darshan.
> Whatever unrest in Puttaparthi in the immediate wake of the news of Sai Baba's death was either exaggerated by an earlier press report or very short lived. Rediff reports:
Meanwhile, the devotees who were extremely angry with the members of the trust for withholding information on Sathya Sai Baba's health, have now made their peace with the passing of the spiritual leader.

They now say that it was Baba's wish to stay on at the hospital for this long so that his devotees would not be shocked at the news.
Rediff also reports:
The manner in which the trustees, police personnel and volunteers have managed the rush of devotees -- who have flocked to the town to pay their last respects to Sathya Sai Baba -- is commendable. Not a single incident of unruly behaviour has been reported so far.
[...]
Inside Sai Kulwant Hall, where his body lies in state, at least 100 volunteers are managing the crowd skillfully. They are dressed in white shirts, trousers and a blue scarf inscribed with Om Sai Ram. These volunteers constantly urge the devotees to stick to their queues.
This comports with what I recall about the work of the volunteers at Sai Baba's ashram. There was never an incident of violence during even the largest festivals, and that the volunteers managed to feed and otherwise serve the huge crowds without incident during those times was something to behold.

Also of note is that the Dalai Lama has expressed his condolences about the death of Sai Baba; although his message is brief, that he made it public is extremely important for reasons that wouldn't interest anyone who doesn't follow the rocky course of Tibetan Buddhist-Hindu relations.
*********************
In the Two Codes of Silence essay I tossed out a couple clues for American journalists if they ever decided to investigate the real problems underlying the worst aspects of Mexican society. Then I turned away from the situation. But after I received a request from a reader I decided to look a little more closely at the issue of racism in Mexico, which I'd only touched upon in the essay.

That's how I ended up at 2 AM on Saturday reading a summary of a speech that Noam Chomsky had given in Amsterdam in March. He'd gone nowhere near discussing racism and only mentioned Mexico in passing but that's the potluck aspect of internet search engines. I decided to read the speech anyhow.

I don't agree with Chomsky's politics or his unrelievedly negative view of American defense/foreign policy but I have a soft spot in my heart for him because of what he did decades ago to the Behaviorists and in particular the followers of B. F. Skinner. He didn't just give them a pounding, he ran them out Dodge. And not a moment too soon.

You would need to have lived through that era in the United States to know how close the Behaviorists came, with the cooperation of U.S. public school educators, at turning American public school students into Stepford Children. The Behaviorists, building on the research of Pavlov, had found the Holy Grail for Totalitarians: they'd discovered how to condition their human test subjects into adopting just about any kind of behavior they wanted to produce. Then they'd peddled their findings to the U.S. government and school systems.

Ayn Rand fought the Behaviorists tooth and nail in her writings. L. Ron Hubbard, who'd somehow gotten hold of classified material on brainwashing and deprogramming techniques (by one account he saw the material while he served in the U.S. Navy during World War Two) also fought the Behaviorists. He did this by devising a simple method for deprogramming people who'd been conditioned to adopting machine-like behavior -- a method he later turned into a religion as a battle tactic in his war with the government.

It was close to a real war, I might add. Once, when the FDA confiscated tin cans and other harmless stuff he used in his deprogramming on the grounds they were medical devices, Hubbard led a commando raid on a FDA office in the dead of night to retrieve his tin cans.

(I don't know whether the present generation of Scientologists knows about the incident but it was a hilarious footnote to Americans' unending battles against bureaucracy gone berserk. I don't remember whether FDA officials pressed charges against Hubbard for breaking and entering; they might have been too embarrassed to do so.)

However, Rand and Hubbard didn't have academic credentials. Noam Chomsky had the credentials and he also had clout in academia. By the time he finished taking apart the theories of the Behaviorists, the field they'd come to dominate -- psychology -- had turned on them, and the U.S. government and school administrators had backed away from them.

So I was alarmed while reading his Amsterdam speech to discover that Chomsky, the very antithesis of machine-like behavior, had in his old age constructed a kind of mental contraption in which the vast varieties of human experience were reduced to the Oppressed and the Oppressors.

Under ordinary conditions my reaction would have been to dash off a cutting essay for this blog but because of the inestimable service Chomsky rendered American schoolchildren I couldn't bring myself to do that. Yet I didn't want to let my observation go without remark. Chomsky is one of the most influential intellectuals in the world, and if he'd drifted into echoing the mechanistic Behaviorist outlook was something that needed to be pointed out in the public sphere.

So I put on my thinking cap. Suddenly I recalled a prank Sathya Sai Baba had played on me many years before. I burst into laughter. The recollection had come from the outfield but it would be a way to illustrate my point about Chomsky without hauling out the steamroller.

After I'd slept on it I decided to ditch the idea. I had enough on my plate without receiving emails from devotees of Sathya Sai Baba informing me I was being disrespectful to him, Hindus who told me I was insulting their religion and clowns telling me Sai Baba was a fraud and a pederast. Noam Chomsky would just have to wait until I came up with a less incendiary way of driving home my points.

Around 2 AM Sunday I checked Google News one last time before calling it a day. One particular headline caught my eye. It referred to Sathya Sai Baba in the past tense.

"Must be a typo," I muttered.

That's how I learned Sai Baba had been gravely ill for weeks and had died that morning.

He'd died at the age of 84 yet he'd said years ago that he would die when he was 96. I'd held him to that prediction because I'd planned to visit him again when he was 95.5 years old to tell him in person that I'd learned he'd been right about many things we'd debated and I'd been wrong, that I was sorry I'd lost my temper so many times while I'd been his guest, and that I knew he'd saved my life on more than one occasion since I'd left him even while I'd asked 'Sai Baba who?' whenever his name had come up conversation.

When I returned to the internet several hours later I'd found that a parade of Indian notables including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had already given condolence speeches and that a media circus had broken out, replete with accounts of every controversy about Sai Baba reporters had found on the internet and rumors of struggles to gain control of the $9 billion charitable trust in his name.

A four-day period of mourning in Sai Baba's home state of Andhra Pradesh had been declared by the government; Puttaparthi, the small village in AP state that had morphed over decades into a city around Sai Baba's main ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, had been put on lockdown during his illness; on the announcement of his death 10,000 police had been called up to control the crowds of mourners trying to get a glimpse of Sai Baba's mortal remains. There were reports of near riots as ashram administrators and volunteers, still reeling from the shock of his death, scrambled to provide food and water for the tide of humanity flooding into Puttaparthi and the ashram.

All that while his body was barely cold, with the cremation ceremony and funeral -- with full state honors -- still to go. I tried to imagine what the scene would have been like in Puttaparthi if he'd died in the appointed year. Some press accounts estimated the number of his "active" devotees at 6 million with 33 million "passive" devotees while other accounts simply pegged the estimate at 50 million worldwide.

I think one could quadruple that estimate and still have a conservative figure if one pushed forward the year of his death to the predicted date, when hordes of people around the globe would act on the same idea I'd had: Just before he was about to die get your butt to Prasanthi Nilayam to apologize and thank him.

In this way you could hang onto your excuse for not practicing his teachings ('I'm not a Sai Baba devotee') while at the same time asking him to please continue saving you on an icy road in his next incarnation.

Yet even a million visitors at one time at the main ashram during major festivals srained the region's water supplies, electricity and waste treatment facilities, and made the logistics of feeding and providing security and medical care for so many visitors hard to pull off. From that viewpoint I could forgive Sai Baba for bowing out before the hour he'd originally appointed for his exit.

But now it was decision time. I didn't deserve to give him a proper eulogy and it would be up to others to attempt to detail the millions of humanitarian projects done over almost a century in his name or inspired by his example and teachings.

Nor could I be the one to explain what India was like in the year of his birth or tell about Sathya Sai Baba's single-handed resurrection of religious traditions that centuries of British and Mogul influence had wiped out. His contributions in those areas would be for Indian historians to document.

What I could do was what I'd thought of doing: tell a story from my experiences with Sathya Sai Baba to illustrate that this realm is not bound by the laws of political discourse and that the human spirit is not circumscribed by victimhood.

To tell the story, however, I would need to turn back the clock to about 30 years ago, to a time when Puttaparthi was still a sleepy little village; a time when there was no airport, train station and "super-speciality" hospital serving Prasanthi Nilayam ashram; to a time before the grounds in front of the mandir (temple) at Prasanthi Nilayam had been expanded to the size of two football fields and paved over with marble and roofed.

This wasn't the earliest era at the ashram, when guest accommodations were just large sheds and Sai Baba freely walked the grounds and casually dropped in to chat with visitors. But it was a time when the formal, twice-daily darshan (in this context "seeing the ultimate truth, especially in the form of a holy person or divine figure") on the mandir grounds was a simple affair, and the crowds during the non-holiday times were small enough that Sai Baba could easily interact with people sitting crosslegged on the ground in the darshan rows on the mandir grounds.

It was also a time after the lottery system of darshan seating arrangements had been instituted. Before that, sharp elbows and scrimmaging determined who got to sit in the coveted front rows on both the men's and women's side of the temple grounds during darshan.

One morning Sai Baba, who lived at that time on the top floor of the temple when he was in Prasanthi Nilayam, asked the ashram administrators, "What is that thundering herd of elephants outside my bedroom window every morning?"

Thus, the lottery system, to the great relief of the foreign devotees -- and in particular the Germans, who could not bring themselves to battle for seating position outside a temple and so never got anywhere near the front of the darshan line until the lottery system.

The Indian villagers for their part were philosophical about the new system; after hogging the front line ever since darshan on the mandir grounds was first instituted, they were willing to put the matter of darshan seating into God's hands.

I never took a camera to the ashram but I've found two photographs on the internet that to my memory seem pretty much the way the temple, the darshan area outside the temple and the darshan lottery area looked like while I was at Prasanthi Nilayam. The photos help set the stage for my story so I include them here. Because the temple grounds and the process of darshan played a significant role in the story of Sai Baba and the spitball I'll go into some detail to describe both.


The circular construct in front of the temple is ornamental grillwork enclosing greenery; it separated the men's and women's side of the temple grounds, a gender division that was only observed during darshan.

The area to the right of the circle was reserved for women; a part of the men's area, which isn't shown in the photograph, had some shade. The women's side had no shade no matter what time of day.

It's not clear in the photograph but there was a verandah running the length of the temple front. It was there that schoolchildren and sometimes visiting VIPs were seated. People chosen by Sai Baba from the darshan line for an interview inside the temple were also directed to sit on the verandah until darshan ended.

The brownish stuff on the ground is packed sand that was swept by volunteers before people sat for darshan. Although Sai Baba left Prasanthi Nilayam during the hottest months of the south Indian calendar, by the time the sun rose on the darshan grounds the sand was hot so, at least on the women's side, sitting on it with nothing but the sun above was not unlike sitting in a toaster oven.

(A situation for elderly women which prompted me to write a letter of complaint to ashram administration, which resulted in small roofed structures being built along the wall that marked off the darshan area on the women's side from the rest of the ashram. The structures were not yet built when the above photograph was taken.)

People were allowed to bring cushions and folded blankets with them while seated for darshan, which gave a little relief to one's bottom. However, such comforts were abused by some Westerners, who brought cushions as wide as boats in the attempt to eke out space on either side of their place on the darshan row; this so they didn't have to sit what was for a Westerner uncomfortably close to others.

The counter-tactic was the Indian volunteers, who walked along the darshan rows, glowering at the worst offenders and making scooching movements with their hands and hissing, "Move over to make more space for others."

"More space" meant that a few more people were able to sit in the front lines; if the space hogs didn't like being squished they always had the option of decamping to the back of the darshan rows, and the real wimps could sit on chairs at the very back.

All this adjusting and measuring of millimeters around one's personal space, which could result in minor squabbles particularly when small children used the back of the person in front of them as a foot rest and people in rows behind tried to advance their position by sticking their knees into the backs of the people in front of them -- or, a favorite tactic -- simply leaning on the person in front -- sometimes resulted in Sai Baba not coming out for darshan.

Then everyone got to go through the entire routine the next time around and the next, until enough people drew a connection between their rowdiness and Sai Baba's refusal to leave the temple for darshan.

I add that the veterans eschewed cushions, preferring to endure scorched bottoms for the chance to quickly advance if someone nearby gave up a choice position on the darshan line.

Just another day at the office at Prasanthi Nilayam, "the abode of perfect peace."


The low curving wall in the foreground of the above picture marked off the entrance to the darshan grounds. People left their footwear along the wall before proceeding to the darshan; this practice of shoe removal was only done in relation to the formal darshan periods.

The sandy area, which stretched back much farther than the photograph shows, is where the lottery lines formed for the women's side. (I can't recall where the men's side formed their lines.) When there were so many people in the ashram that the lottery area couldn't accommodate them, which happened during festivals, the darshan on the mandir grounds was suspended. Then the vast Poornachandra auditorium was opened for darshan; seating there was on a first-come, first-served basis with hordes of volunteers present to maintain order.

The lottery system was simple: as people entered the area after breakfast or the afternoon snack they sat behind the person who'd entered before them. When one line stretched back so far, a volunteer directed the next person entering the area to start a new line.

When all the lines had been established the person sitting at the head of each line drew a chit from a bag held out by a volunteer. The number on the chit showed the order in which the line would proceed onto the temple grounds.

Because the formation of the darshan rows was split into two -- with one formation of rows facing the temple and the other facing the opposite end of the mandir grounds -- this provided the opportunity for two front rows. Thus, it could be hard to tell during the lottery drawing which number on the chit meant a front row seat.

Only those in Line 1, the first to enter the mandir grounds, were guaranteed a front row seat. This line made up the first row in the formation that faced the opposite end of the grounds. I'll call this formation Block A. Much else depended on the number of people in the ashram on that day and how long the lottery lines were. When the crowd was small, sometimes people on the Number 2 line hit it lucky and got to sit in the first row in Block A if there was still enough space in the front row to accommodate a few more people.

When the first formation filled up, the line with the next number got to form a first row in the formation facing the temple -- Block B. And so it went until the Block B formation filled up. Then everyone settled down to wait for Sai Baha to emerge from the temple.

His darshan walkabout varied, but in general he stopped first to speak with the people seated on the verandah. Then he proceeded to the men's side of the temple grounds, stopping sometimes to chat with a man, taking letters offered to him, blessing books or other objects held out to him, allowing some in the front row to touch his feet, and sometimes materializing vibhuti ("sanctified ash)" or objects such as rings and religious medallions, and choosing people for an interview.

The routine was repeated on the women's side. There were complaints from the women about being visited after the men, although sometimes Sai Baba reversed the process and visited the women's side first. But the women's side could take twice as long to visit as the men's side because the babies (both male and female) were with their mothers on the women's side.

Women would hold up their babies for a blessing, no matter how far back they sat on the darshan lines. Maneuvering the babies and their mothers to the front or side of a row where Sai Baba was standing could take time. And often he'd materialize talismans for the babies and mark their foreheads with vibhuti and talk at length with the mothers about the babies. Then he would talk with the mothers about their home situation in general, make vibhuti for them, and so on.

By visiting the women's side last Sai Baba could take more time with the women without keeping the men waiting -- a point the complainers didn't tend to consider.

That's all the technical details I can recall of the darshan process on the mandir grounds and I think that's enough detail for the purposes of my story. I'll add two points, the significance of which will become clear when the story gets underway:

> The person at the head of lottery line who drew the Number 1 chit would enter Block A first and would have no one seated on her right.

> The low curving brick wall in the foreground of the second photograph was repeated on the Block A side; again, it separated a side of the temple grounds from the rest of the ashram. It was behind this wall that a woman I'll name Vicky was standing during a part of the story. So while she could see Sai Baba when he approached Block A she couldn't see what was happening amongst the women in the first row of the block who were facing Sai Baba. Nor could she readily hear what was being said on the front row of Block A.

The details I've provided about the mandir darshan suggest that Prasanthi Nilayam wasn't so much a melting pot as a clash of cultures that was kept to a dull roar by Sai Baba's oversight and a small army of dedicated Indian volunteers. Prasanthi Nilayam 30 years ago was a microcosm of every problem arising from 'East meets West,' every problem encountered in rural development and humanitarian aid work, and every problem arising from the clashes between modernity and traditional societies.Indeed, one way to describe Prasanthi Nilayam in those days is to say it was in the vanguard of the globalized society.

But as more foreigners from myriad societies took their place among Sai Baba's devotees, the Indians had to learn to "move over and make more space." This caused great resentment, particularly among the villagers, who didn't see why the foreigners couldn't get their own Avatar of the Lord and leave theirs alone.

And the emerging urbanized Indian middle class of Sai Baba devotees, traditionally more tolerant of foreigners, also had to struggle with resentment, as its members saw Sai Baba becoming less and less available for interviews. They struggled, too, with worries that Prasanthi Nilayam and Hinduism itself would be overtaken by Westernization.

For their part the Western devotees, whose ideas of the divine and monotheism were vastly different from the Hindu ones, were put off by the way so many Indians treated Sathya Sai Baba as a household Hindu god.

Such Westerners didn't understand that Sai Baba was acting not so much in the manner of a Hindu god as in the manner of the ideal kings in the ancient world, who were bound by duty to grant a reasonable request put to them by any subject who approached them for help. Those kings did double duty as judges, as a reading of the Old Testament makes clear.

Although I don't think it was clearly evident, one of Sai Baba's most important functions among the Indians was to resolve disputes. Aside from the requests for healing from physical ailments, which were put to him by foreigners and Indians alike, one line separating the Westerners from the Indians was that Westerners tended to approach Sai Baba in a quest for 'answers,' -- whether answers to personal problems or spiritual questions -- whereas many Indians wanted his help in settling disputes.

There were striking exceptions; e.g., Westerners who'd made Sanskrit a lifetime study or were scholars of Indian history, but most of the Westerners who visited the ashram simply didn't have the knowledge base to put the historical and religious significance of Sathya Sai Baba in proper context.

That was okay with Sai Baba, who placed his teaching emphasis on character and 'universal' values. But the Westerners' dearth of knowledge about the ancient traditions that Sai Baba represented meant they tended to supply the context for Sai Baba from their own experience. For many of the American Westerners this worked out to a concept of Sai Baba made of New Age philosophies, pop American psychology and Judeo-Christian theology. This version of Sai Baba made no sense to the rural Hindus and even to many urbane Hindus, which also contributed to an undercurrent of tension at the ashram.

These gulfs in understanding say nothing about the resentments among followers of different religions or Hindu sects who'd found in Sai Baba a personal teacher but stayed with their own religion or sect and its dogmas.

Add to this caste prejudices that lurked in even the most prosaic situations at the ashram, and which foreigners rarely noticed. Even the darshan lottery system had upset the caste ecosystem. No longer could a group of Indians simply shut out members of a lower caste from 'their' part of the darshan line.

Yet all the above doesn't begin to describe what the ashram was like. One part Canterbury Tales, one part Tales of the Arabian Nights; the human drama at its most sublime, wretched and silliest, all worked into a tapestry of the mystery of the divine and its intersection with human affairs.

It's against this backdrop that my tale of Sai Baba and the spitball unfolds. Here I'll break off and take up the story in the next post.

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Friday, April 22

Adm. Mullen CYA as Rana prepares to rat out ISI. Meanwhile Rawalpindi rats out Obama and Cameron.

"Adm. Mullen has long been the most outspoken member of the U.S. government in support of Pakistan's military efforts. Adm. Mullen has used his close relationship with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief of staff, to prod the military to step up its actions against militants."
- Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2010

On April 20 America's top military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemingly turned on a dime. In Pakistan to meet with senior military officials, he told Pakistan's largest-circulation English language newspaper, Dawn:
"It's fairly well known that the ISI has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network. Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen. So that's at the core -- it's not the only thing -- but that's at the core that I think is the most difficult part of the relationship."
Long War Journal's Bill Roggio is skeptical about the strength of Mullen's grasp of the concept of sacred obligation; Bill points out that Mullen had stopped short of addressing the key point, which is that Pakistan's military actively supports the Haqqanis:
"Pakistani officials of course denied supporting the Haqqani Network, and claim they haven't taken on the Haqqani Network due to the focus on the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. This of course is untrue, and Admiral Mullen of course knows that."
Yes. Bill adds: "Despite his 'sacred obligation' to stop US soldiers dying at the hands of Pakistan-backed terror groups, Admiral Mullen cannot bring himself to call Pakistan to account for its actions. And as a result, more US soldiers will die as the dyfunctional 'alliance' between the two nations is nursed along."

True, true, all true; however, that Admiral Mullen would risk the close relationship he's cultivated with General Kayani by publicly uttering an implied criticism of Pakistan's military is an eyebrow raiser; that he did this at the worst juncture in U.S.-Pakistan relations since 2001 and while a guest of Pakistan's government was confounding. (1)

I don't think one has to dig deep for the solution to the mystery. On April 12, the day after ISI head Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha spent four hours dressing down CIA chief Leon Panetta and Admiral Mullen about CIA activities in Pakistan, the Times of India reported that court documents had been made public indicating that a conspirator in the 2008 Mumbai massacre was prepared to rat out the ISI in U.S. courtroom testimony. According to the Times of India:
David Headley aka Daood Gilani and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, the two Pakistani expat footsoldiers who allegedly planned and conducted the Mumbai recce before the 26/11 terrorist carnage, have implicated the Pakistani government and its intelligence agency ISI in the ghastly attack.

In court documents that have surfaced ahead of his upcoming trial in Chicago, Rana says his acts of providing material support to terrorists in the Mumbai attacks as alleged by US prosecutors "were done at the behest of the Pakistani government and the ISI, not the Lashkar terrorist organization."

The documents also cite Rana invoking his friend David Headley's Grand Jury testimony in which the latter too implicates ISI.
A report filed in today's edition of the Asia Times Online about the upcoming trial underscores the seriousness of Rana's claim:
What observers believe could be the most significant outcome of the trial is an irrefutable evidence of ISI complicity. The jury, according to the documents, could have Rana and Headley confess that they were with the Lashkar and the ISI.

Headley has already admitted that he worked for the ISI, but it was a secret testimony heard by a grand jury. "I also told him (Rana) how I had been asked to perform espionage work for the ISI," Headley had reportedly owned up.

Some time ago [Headley] had turned an FBI informer, primarily to escape the electric chair, and at the Chicago hearing he is expected to make a clean breast of his involvement in the Mumbai bloodbath. His anticipated account of the surveillance plan for the Mumbai attacks could lead to clinching proof against Rana.
I interject that the report refers to the ISI as having "alleged" ties with the Pakistani army but that's an error. The ISI is a branch of the military and despite the compartmentalization of the two agencies to provide deniability for the military, the ISI does nothing of substance without the knowledge and orders of the military.

However, the key point is there's clear indication that within a matter of days, when the Rana trial gets underway, the shit is finally going to hit the fan. In my view that means Mullen is scrambling to cover his ass. And if Rana really does sing like a bird, Mullen won't be the only one in Washington scrambling.

Yet to illustrate just how sincere the U.S. military command and the Obama administration are about taking Pakistan's military to task, it surfaced today that under pressure from Rawalpindi the Obama administration had agreed to provide Pakistan's military with 85 'Raven' surveillance drones.

That the drones are small-sized versions of the ones the CIA uses in Pakistan and aren't armed is not the central point. The point is that Pakistan's military doesn't need drones to monitor activities of terror organizations in Pakistan under its control. And in any case it has its own drones -- not as nice as the Ravens but still serviceable. Pakistan's military and ISI want the Ravens to help monitor organizations in Pakistan that are unfriendly to Rawalpindi and to monitor India.

That's not the half of Washington's insincerity. On the same day Mullen was in Pakistan to chastise the ISI the Asia Times Online was reporting:
Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani led an unprecedented entourage, including Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani and Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the director general of the Inter-Service Intelligence, to Kabul last week to officially inaugurate the peace reconciliation process with the Taliban under the auspices of Washington and London.

The decision had already been made that the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments will occupy a central role in a reconciliation process that could bring the Taliban into the mainstream Afghan political process.
[...]
There is a long-held understanding within Pakistan's military that any reconciliation process with the Taliban would require a whole package dealing with the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the affiliated group on one side and another with the Western coalition, India and other regional players. The job requires credible leadership.
According to the report's author, Asia Times Pakistan Bureau Chief Syed Saleem Shahzad, the leadership is being supplied by Imran Khan; the report provides considerable detail to explain why this is so and why Khan is the next likely civilian leader of Pakistan.

With some understatement Khan is not U.S.- or NATO-friendly. At the time Shazad filed his report Khan was leading a two-day sit-in outside Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, "planned for Saturday and Sunday to block supply convoys ferrying goods to North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan."

Here I'll interject that last year Shahzad's sources inside Pakistan's military allowed him to scoop the rest of the press about the Saudi government's central role in backchannel negotiations between Karzai and the Taliban.

In the wake of Shahzad's bombshell report the negotiations were hotly denied in Kabul and Washington. Then the hotly-denied negotiations were ostentatiously abandoned with much fanfare to the press. But while details of the negotiations that Shahzad recounted sounded like Rawalpindi's wish list, the gist was true as had long been rumored. Many months prior to the Asia Times Online report in 2010, which they published on September 11 as their cute way of twisting the knife, John Batchelor's radio show had mentioned the deep involvement of the Saudi government in backchannel negotiations with the Taliban and Karzai's regime.

I bring up that history to underscore that Shahzad is not sitting around in his office in Islamabad making things up. He has good sources.

Of course one doesn't have good sources inside what's in effect a military dictatorship without acting as a conduit for the regime's propaganda. So elements of Shahzad's latest report, and I think in particular his talk about al Qaeda running rings around the ISAF, can be taken with a grain of salt. Yet even if Pakistan's military is simply using Imran Khan as a pawn in its chess game with the CIA, and even if his report overstates Pakistan's ability to cow Hamid Karzai, Shahzad raises an alarm that should be heeded.

His report as much shouts that Barack Obama and David Cameron are pussyfooting around, this time under cover of the din from Libya, still trying to toss the hot potato of Afghanistan to Rawalpindi.

The only way they could possibly pull off the feat is if Pakistan's military cooperated and put on a show of being a good NATO puppet. The show is threatening to flop before it gets to opening night if Rana spills his guts in a Chicago courtroom. And I think to bring this home to Washington, or maybe in the spirit of revenge, someone in Pakistan's army or ISI decided to point out the tracks of little cat feet.

As to how the pussyfooting helps General David Petraeus persuade Taliban and al Qaeda fighters that there's no use trying to wait out the ISAF, let's ask President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron for the answer.

(1) The Washington Post's David Ignatius, whose opinions in my view track with thinking at the U.S. Department of State, tried to downplay the seriousness of the disagreements between Islamabad and Washington in his April 11 column. But while there was an element of horse-trading in Rawalpindi's high dudgeon about the Raymond Allen Davis Affair and CIA activities in Pakistan, the New York Times report I linked to above, titled, Pakistan Tells U.S. It Must Sharply Cut C.I.A. Activities, is not as overblown as Ignatius portrayed it.

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Tuesday, April 19

Two codes of silence support Mexican crime cartels operating in the USA

Denzel Washington as John Creasy in Man on Fire


"You know what happens in Mexico if I start talking. You know what they will do [to my children]."
-- Sinaloa cartel member Frediberto Pineda to FBI agents after his arrest in South Carolina

The story of Mexican cartels in the United States is not news but the Los Angeles Times April 17 report, written by Richard A. Serrano of the Times Washington Bureau, fills in some blanks and underscores that the cartel operations are by no means limited to U.S. southwestern border cities. This excerpt from the report conveys the scope of the Mexican cartels' reach in the United States:
Atlanta has become a major cartel hub, where cocaine is stored in lockers, storefronts and homes, then trucked to cities such as Columbia, according to federal officials. The Tijuana cartel has set up shop in Seattle and Anchorage, they added. Elements of the Juarez cartel have been busy in four dozen cities, including Minneapolis. The Gulf cartel has reached into Buffalo, N.Y.

When the FBI started looking into the South Carolina drug trade, agents never imagined the investigation would lead them to a Mexican cartel. In all, the effort here has led to charges against 116 people in eight separate indictments, 33 firearms seized, four vehicles impounded, 27 wiretaps approved, and $600,000 in cash and well over $1 million in drugs confiscated. So far, 111 of the defendants have been convicted, while one suspect awaits trail and four fugitives are on the loose.

No one believes Columbia has become drug free, but the city is the first in the nation to have successfully disrupted a cartel that was so deeply ingrained in a U.S. community. The success is being hailed by law enforcement officials as a major victory. "We've been standing at a dam and putting our fingers in the holes," said lead prosecutor Asst. U.S. Atty. Stacey D. Haynes.
The FBI is going to many need more fingers to dam the tide of Mexican cartels operating stateside. In Mexico, the crime syndicates retain their power through a code of silence, enforced by a reign of terror. In the United States, a code of silence is enforced by a reign of unacknowledged, unofficial censorship in the American news and film industries, which refuse to portray Mexican society as it really is.

The only major-release film in the United States to show the real Mexico was the 2004 Man on Fire. On one level the film is a revenge tale that's so stomach-turning it makes Death Wish, the 1974 classic revenge flick, look like a school picnic. On another level Man on Fire is the only clear-eyed portrayal of Mexico to make it into movie theaters across the United States in the modern era. Yet the film couldn't be produced today in America because it shows in graphic fashion that Mexican civil society is itself stomach-turning.

Even Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant criminal gangs have been scrubbed from Hollywood's list of acceptable film topics. The 2005 remake of John Carpenter's 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 had to switch the locale from Los Angeles to Detroit and substitute a group of corrupt white police for Carpenter's zombie-like gang and its clear reference to Mexican-American gangsters.

The chickens came home to roost on Sunday night when the Hollywood superstar couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore admitted to CNN's Piers Morgan that they'd had a hard time garnering support among their circle for the foundation, which they started this year to combat the child sex trade.

Even after a CNN graphic flashed on the screen showing that 63 percent of child sex slaves were in the United States, and even after Kutcher had described how the U.S. Department of State had taken Moore and him to the Mexican-U.S. border to let them see firsthand the victims of the cross-border trade in kidnapping children for sex, Kutcher's dicussion skated around any allusion to Mexico. Even the innocuous name for their foundation and its vague mission statement ("DNA Foundation, which stands for fundamental right to freedom for every person because it's within our DNA.") skirts the issue of Mexico's role in the child sex, kidnapping, and slavery trades that have spread like cancer into the United States.

So while DNA Foundation stands for the fundamental right to freedom, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore are not free to publicly discuss the role of Mexico in human trafficking. Not with all their wealth, not with all their international fame and star status are they free, not unless they want to risk being blacklisted in Hollywood and watch their foundation become untouchable.

Thus, one of the most painful interviews I've watched on national cable television, as Piers Morgan patiently waited for an answer while Kutcher cast around for a reason to explain reluctance on the part of many Hollywood celebrities to support DNA. The transcript for the interview doesn't fully convey Kutcher's discomfiture; only the video (not yet posted to the CNN website) of the interview shows it. But the reason he finally summoned is painful enough to behold:
MORGAN: The campaign, obviously, has been gathering a little momentum and you launched it big time this week with a big series of videos involving lots of famous people. It wasn't the easiest sell reading some of your comments [at Twitter] about this. A lot of people, famous friends of yours, didn't want to get involved.

Why was that, do you think?

KUTCHER: Well, I think that there's -- I think that there's a subsect of what we're looking at it and it's sort of dangerously bleeds over into something that people are very accustomed to. You know --

MORGAN: Prostitution?

KUTCHER: Right. So what we're focusing on is child sex slavery. Right? And when the line bleeds into prostitution, people have a little bit of trepidation because they say to themselves, what, if you're 18 years old, 19 years old, 20 years old, and you decide that this is what you want to do with your life, you should be able to choose that.

And none of us are sitting here saying that that's not -- that we don't respect someone's right to choose that. But at the same time, when you look at it and you say, all right, if the average age of entry is 13, what 13-year-old girl is choosing this as their profession and does a 13-year-old really have that choice? [...]
For Ashton Kutcher's benefit here's the key subsect; the drug routes shown on the May 2010 STRATFOR map below are also human smuggling/slave trafficking routes.


As for the American news media, last year CNN eased out Lou Dobbs after his relentless daily reporting on Mexican drug-war violence brought forth a crescendo of complaints from organizations purporting to represent the "Hispanic vote."

CNN's investigative report, Murder in Mexico: What Happened in Falcon Lake, premiered on April 16, goes nowhere near confronting the realities in Mexican society that underlie and fuel organized crime in the country.

As to reports on Mexico's child kidnapping industry it was left to NPR, which is not a mainstream news outlet, to do the heavy lifting in its report about the missing girls in Ciudad Juarez. (H/T Caledoniyya) But that was two years ago.

The last time a major American press outlet clearly addressed racism in Mexico, a topic which is masked in the Mexican and American news media by references to 'poverty,' was in 1995. I would be surprised if the topic has ever made it onto American national television. Wikipedia has a very short article on the topic although it does manage to scratch the surface:
Almost uniformly, people who are darker-skinned and of indigenous descent make up the peasantry and working classes, while lighter-skinned, Spanish-descent Mexicans are in the ruling elite. Because of this, many of the Mexicans of indigenous descent in poverty are left to join one of Mexico's drug cartels as their only means of survival. [...]
Not to understand Mexico's racism and that the country simply never transited from its Spanish colonial era is to understand nothing about the forces that shape Mexico's criminal culture and the code of silence that supports it.

A government can only do so much; until the U.S. news and filmmaking industries do their part to educate the American public about the real Mexico, the U.S. federal government won't feel enough pressure to really stand up to Mexico's government. It will continue to resist U.S. state governments that want to take stronger action to limit cross-border human and drug trafficking. And it will continue to uphold a code of silence in the United States that allows so much horror to work itself into the fabric of American society.

I realize breaking the code of silence in the American news and entertainment media would take courage, including a willingness to endure boycotts. But maybe, if the editors of the major newspapers, producers at the major cable and TV broadcast networks and heads of major film studios sat down together in a room, and said, 'Let's do this,' there would be a little safety in numbers.

This unified approach would help all concerned withstand the wrath of the Mexican government, the U.S. Treasury and Department of State, U.S. Congress, the most powerful labor unions and 'humanitarian' and immigrant activist organizations, the American agribusiness and construction industries, major American banks doing big remittances business with Mexico, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

To help shore their determination, the standard-bearers of American journalism could watch Man on Fire and focus on Mariana Guerrero, a newspaper columnist for Diario Reforma, and AFI Detective Miguel Manzano. Whether or not the characters are based on real people or composites of such, Mexicans of almost superhuman courage and tenacity really do exist and make it their calling to stand up to organized crime. To maintain the code of silence in American journalism about the real Mexico is to betray such Mexicans and the profession of journalism.

If American television wants to start its reports on the real Mexico with a less incendiary topic than racism, it could investigate the remnants or evolution of Mexico's old camarilla system, inherited from Spain, and try to determine how the present-day cliques feed into government corruption supporting the crime cartels. To my knowledge no open-source investigation has dealt with this very important and complex subject.

The best information available in English on Mexico's camarillas and ways they might have evolved in the past two decades is found in David Ronfeldt's admittedly dated examination in the late 1980s. (H/T Zenpundit)

Ronfeldt spent 20 years working on U.S.-Latin American security issues with emphasis on Mexico and Cuba; he believes that what remains of the camarillas, or what they morphed into, could explain the country's amazing ability to keep lurching along despite the rule of the crime cartels.

Scroll past the updates in Why Mexico May Not Fall Apart (which contain several excellent discussions of Mexico's present security situation) to get to Ronfeldt's discussion of Mexico's camarillas.

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Metacognition, pie-making, and metaphysics of the U.S. federal budget


I'm proud to announce that Mark Safranski, the Zenpundit author, included in his latest roundup of recommended reading and viewing my attempt to pry loose from the spirit world answers to the mystery of Nicolas Sarkozy. The roundup also highlighted a wonderful short essay on the U.S. federal deficit by Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye. The essay, published on April 15, is titled Deluged With Budgets, Overwhelmed With Questions.

I wish I'd seen the essay before I wrote about Donald Trump because Dave brings out the essence of what I struggled to say in my criticism of the Tea Partiers and the Democrats and Republicans. I realized while reading his essay that all these people had turned a fiscal topic into a branch of metaphysics.

Dave first quotes economist Paul Krugman's observation that radically different approaches to dealing with the federal budget, as exemplified by the theories of Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, weren't just about visions of society. "There was also a difference in visions of how the world works." Then Dave observes:
Indeed there were, and I found them visions that varied from mistaken to delusional to demagogic. But it likely explains why the 2011 budget was so late: there are conflicting and irreconcilable visions of how the world works and all parties finally came together on the single point they could agree on (getting re-elected).
Eureka! That's just why I ran screaming to Donald Trump for refuge. If Trump becomes President he plans to let them all continue arguing about the number of budget cuts that angels can fit on the head of a pin, while he goes out and scares up revenue streams for the USA that don't depend on the federal budget.

Official Washington really has gone bonkers, you know that? I didn't realize how far gone Washington was, until I took in Trump's real-world approach to dealing with America's financial crisis.

Anyhow after Dave nailed the situation he deconstructed some of the daffier theories about the budget. I'll grant that part of the daffiness is rooted in political survival, but my question is whether any of the politicians can make sense when they're not trying to appeal to voters. That I should think is the litmus test.

So while Mark's roundup only mentions in passing one of his own recent posts, I think we could all do with a review of our thinking processes, which Mark recommends in his post:
Something I try to impart in my students is the practice of metacognition. Not that I expect them to execute a precision analysis of their thought process the first time through, or even the fiftieth.

Instead, I am trying to break them of habitually moving on mental autopilot, running “tapes” in their head recorded by cultural osmosis, to stop and ask themselves, what do I really think here? With skepticism and active, focused, attention. For more than a few it is the first time in their lives experiencing what it is like to be intellectually awake and in control of their own thinking.
Yessireeebob, unless we remember to think about how we think, we always run the risk of making the data we analyze conform to what we think it should mean. Dave Schuler properly terms this very human trait "epistemic closure;" I call it "pie-making."

Think of a pie pan as your agenda and the data you collect as the dough, with your analysis of the data as the pie filling. The data that don't fit into the agenda you exclude, in the manner of a baker slicing superfluous dough from around a pie pan.

You can get away with this approach sometimes for years; you bake wonderful pies that are considered delicious by those who see things from your point of view. Then one day you look up and ask, 'Where did all these Black Swans circling above my head come from?'

The catastrophic events appearing out of the blue are made from all the dough you sliced from your pies -- all the data you considered to be out of whack with your agenda and thus, having no validity.

So the biggest problem with the agenda-driven approach to data analysis is that it eventually conditions what the brain 'sees' -- and doesn't see. And that, I submit, is how so many people in Washington came to act like the townfolk in The Emperor's New Clothes.

One might blame the susceptibility to cognitive blindness on the very severe pressures Washington lawmakers and the executive branch have been under because of America's fiscal crisis. But when that many people are blinded in such fashion an additional psycho-epistemological phenomenon, well known in scientific research, could be in play: your ability to continue seeing the value in a loopy working hypothesis is in direct proportion to the funding you receive to continue your line of research lol.

Bad Pundita! Don't laugh! Ah well, I can't help it; I get such a bang out of watching the genius we call human nature being itself. Damn the neurons and synapses, full speed ahead!

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Sunday, April 17

Barack Obama wants to make me a better person. Donald Trump wants to make me rich. Guess who'd get my vote for U.S. President?

Trump Tower Chicago, 10th tallest building in the world


During his presidential election campaign Barack Obama promised Americans that his administration would reflect hope; instead we got a bunch of pall-bearers. He promised us change. We got a dirge for America.

It's not possible to socially engineer a nation out of a debt crisis and I'm tired of hearing Obama say it can be done. I can't stand politicians who mix up concepts to argue a position. Ending a debt crisis = being a better person. Ending a debt crisis = being healthier. Ending a debt crisis = bouncing balls off the moon. A high school debating club could shred Obama's nachos-and-grapes comparisons but no, Congress wastes millions arguing about the nachgrape.

Enough already.

I've had it with anal-retentive Obamaviks telling Americans to ask for less, to sacrifice more. And I'm tired of Tea Partiers demanding small government and Republicans talking about debt reduction as the road to prosperity. I've come to despise the words "reduce" and "small" as much as the term "social justice." I don't want to be a victimized anymore by compromises in Washington that amount to political anorexia.

For years Donald Trump ran a budget deficit larger than the GDP of many nations but instead of trying to reduce himself, make himself smaller, he made himself bigger: he expanded and kept expanding and got richer and richer in the process.

Don't lower the boat, bring in the tide. That's the Trump philosophy. Translated into a governing philosophy it means making the United States an attractive place to people who know how to create real wealth. Then see where America's budget deficit stands.

As to Karl Rove's claim that Donald Trump has become a "joke candidate" by asking to see Barack Obama's birth certificate -- Rove is a political strategist, not a negotiator, and from his criticism I question whether he'd recognize a negotiation tactic if he tripped over one.

There is an alternate theory about why Rove tried to discredit Trump as a GOP candidate, and which Mediaite spelled out:
Rove and the Republican establishment have an added reason to keep Trump at bay: if he does, indeed, land the nomination, Trump has made enough connections and kept enough of his money over decades to depend significantly less on the party structure to fund his campaign. In other words, a President Trump would owe significantly fewer favors to Republican fundraisers than other candidates of less luxurious backgrounds.
But if Karl Rove takes in the first 15 minutes of Sean Hannity's interview with Donald Trump on Friday night, April 15 on FNC, maybe it'll dawn on him why Trump is harping at this time about the birth certificate and several other questions about Barack Obama and his associations -- questions that Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and the mainstream media avoided asking during the presidential primaries and campaign.

Or Rove can resolve the mystery simply by waiting; if Trump runs against Obama in the presidential race it'll be clear by then that by asking early on about the birth certificate, Trump had offered Obama and Obama's political strategists a deal. They could run a reasonably clean campaign against Trump. Or Trump could bring into the national presidential debate every question about Obama that's ever been raised and the results of every investigation into the questions. The latter would mean a hollow victory for Obama if he squeaked out a win. It would also mean that if Obama lost, he'd be lucky to land a job lecturing at a college in Mashed Potato Falls, Wyoming.

As to whether I'm so desperate for a Trump presidency I'd support what seems to be his position on Afghanistan (immediate and complete U.S. pullout) -- I think I could demonstrate to him that the United States has a right to a piece of Afghanistan's fabulous natural resources, and that we get to there from here first by abandoning Obama's Afpak strategy, then by pulling off a fast, decisive and lasting victory in Afghanistan.

The way to work the seeming miracle is almost childishly simple: install Amrullah Saleh in Hamid Karzai's stead, then order the U.S. military command and Department of State to do everything Saleh recommends about dealing with Pakistan.

Shazam! Easy as pie -- except for having to wear body armor when breaking the news to State that its social engineering experiments in Pakistan were over.

However, I don't want to think about all that stuff right now. I just want to get to the part where President-elect Trump is sitting in his boardroom at Trump Tower Fifth Avenue on the morning of November 7, 2012, and he looks into a TV camera and says to President Obama .....

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