The terrifying “smart” city of the future

Cities across the country are implementing smart technologies — with grave implications for our personal freedoms

The terrifying "smart" city of the future
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Imagine a world without waste. A place where the train always comes on time, where streets are plowed before snow even stops falling, and watchful surveillance cameras have sent rates of petty crime plunging. Never again will you worry about remembering your keys because your front door has an iris recognition system that won’t allow strangers to enter. To some people, this kind of uber-efficient urban living sounds like a utopian dream. But to a growing number of critics, the promise of the “smart city” is starting to seem like the stuff of nightmare.

Smart cities are loosely defined as urban centers that rely on digital technology to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption. This happens by means of ubiquitous wireless broadband, citywide networks of computerized sensors that measure human activities (from traffic to electricity use), and mass data collection that analyzes these patterns. Many American cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already make use of smart technologies. But far more radical advances are happening overseas. Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo, in South Korea, will be the first fully functioning smart cities, in which everything from security to electricity to parking is monitored by sensors and controlled by a central city “brain.”

The surveillance implications of these sorts of mass data-generating civic projects are unnerving, to say the least. Urban designer and author Adam Greenfield wrote on his blog Speedbird that this centralized governing model is “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To further complicate matters, the vast majority of smart-city technology is designed by IT-systems giants like IBM and Siemens. In places like Songdo, which was the brainchild of Cisco Systems, corporate entities become responsible for designing and maintaining the basic functions of urban life.



Smart cities are predicated on the neoliberal idea that the market can fix anything—that companies can manage cities better than governments can. Their advocates claim that they will enhance democratic participation by relying on crowdsourcing and “civic hacking projects” that allow locals to use newly available data to solve municipal problems. But they ignore the fact that private corporations are the ones measuring and controlling these mountains of data, and that they don’t have the same accountability to the public that government does.

In the Nation last year, urban theorist and author Catherine Tumber expressed some of the principle concerns about smart tech, reviewing Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the review). Tumber asserts that “the economics of ‘smart’” are in keeping with “the ramped-up market rationalization carried out by finance monopoly since the Civil War, culminating in a minimally civic world fit only for…the unencumbered self.”

I caught up with Tumber via telephone at her office at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, where she is a visiting scholar, to talk about what the rise of smart cities means for our understanding of urban life.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Allegra Kirkland: How did you first become acquainted with the concept of smart cities?

Catherine Tumber: I had been aware of them kind of through the ether because I pay attention to cities, and I’m very much aware of what’s going on in the digital world in a broad sense. I think it’s quite dangerous actually, in all kinds of ways….

I thought Townsend did a good job laying out what the fault lines are: the big digital systems corporations like Siemens and Cisco and IBM versus what these hacker “democratic heroes” are trying to do. I found that to be useful but I wasn’t persuaded that they aren’t all part of the same sort of dangerous direction of things.

AK: These digital innovations are supposed to be all about access to information and transparency, but it seems like many people don’t even know these initiatives are going on. Like Chicago, Barcelona, and all of these other urban centers are now considered “smart cities” but I feel like most people don’t think of them that way.

CT: I think people are only vaguely aware.

AK: It seems like these major urban initiatives are being conducted largely out of the public eye, without public oversight or involvement. Maybe there are some smaller initiatives being carried out by civic hackers, but the major ones have to be implemented by corporations or the government because regular people don’t have the ability to build that kind of infrastructure.

CT: Right, these are major infrastructure projects.

AK: And there’s no means of opting out. Once a city integrates smart technology, your information gets caught up with all the rest, whether you want it to be or not.

CT: Exactly. And also what’s often not taken into account, and I guess you have to live long enough to really see it—though it’s happening very quickly in our time—is that when you introduce a whole new paradigm of infrastructure, the old infrastructure dies. So it ends up being coercive. At some point, you really have to participate in it or you are not able to execute that function, whether that function be communications or entertainment or transportation or energy.

For example, if you did not really want to be available on a cell phone at any given moment or own one, and wanted to simply rely on a landline, that was fine as long as you were home. But they stripped out all of the phone booths. That was really completed by around five years ago. So it really forces your hand quite a bit.

AK: You seem skeptical of the idea that smart cities are inherently democratizing—that they are sites of greater sociability and inclusion. Does that seem plausible to you? 

CT: I think that digital technology, aside from providing all kinds of information that is trackable, holds up the false promise of greater democratic participation. It holds out a sort of false sense of moral agency, for one thing. The argument as I understand it is that crowdsourcing provides people with a different, less curated sense of democratic participation. It involves reaching out to individuals, so it’s a version of democratic practice. I think the jury is still very much out on whether that is persuasive.

Part of what I think is important and rich about democratic culture as a living tradition is that it brings people of very different backgrounds and types together in surge spaces. And crowdsourcing tends to be consistent marketing in that it excludes whole groups of people, just because of the way it works. It’s not even intentional.

AK: Because of the kind of people who get surveyed, who are aware that these kinds of civic campaigns are going on and would get involved?

CT: Yeah. I find that to be somewhat dubious…for the long-term health of the civic project.

AK: It seems like there’s a fundamental split between people who think there is something organic and inexplicable about the ways human beings come together in cities, and those who believe that all human behavior is quantifiable—that we can rely on data to understand how humans interact. Which side of the line do you fall on?

CT: Digital technology and its use compresses experience. It tends to lead to niche cultures; it tends to lead to a sense of being untethered, as if that’s the golden pathway to real freedom. There are several traditions of political philosophy that hold that its important to be tethered so that you have a sense of the limits of yourself and of what it is that humans can do in the time that they have on this earth. This sense of endless freedom can lead to a very false sense of utopian promise that is simply unrealistic and unwanted. It’s yet another way that we’ve decided to take a pause from history and what history has long told us.

There are some things that you really don’t play with. People have acquired great wisdom over the ages—across the globe, this isn’t just a Eurocentric thing—about what it means to travel and to leave home and to come back. These are all the great stories and myths and fables. Technology kind of flattens all of that.

AK: This is sort of a related question, but what do you think are the primary things smart cities take away from the people who live there? What do we lose in these sorts of manufactured urban environments?

It makes me think of the complaints about the gentrification of places like New York City. Michael Bloomberg created new green spaces in Times Square and along the waterfront, made city services more efficient, rezoned districts, and now we have this sanitized, business-friendly, soulless city. The neighborhoods look the same; there’s no mixing of social classes, no weird dive bars. So you’d think smart cities, with their emphasis on homogeneity and efficiency, would be equally off-putting to people.

CT: I think it’s a matter of the convenience of it and the novelty of it. But smart technology is relatively new and there are so many unexamined consequences, as I think there are with any major technological change like this.

I think that we’re only beginning as a culture to wince a little and take a second look at this. … There really hasn’t been any sort of consensus about what the right manners are in using these technologies. Across the world for time immemorial, every culture had some understanding of manners, and I don’t mean that in the prim Victorian sense. But just some ways in which you convey unspoken, coded assumptions about respect and caring and common courtesy and stuff like that. We haven’t had that conversation here. …The main point is that there are real unintended consequences of this.

AK: The corporations behind smart cities throw around all these statistics about how smart technology reduces crime, reduces waste. So it makes you feel like a Luddite to say that you’re uncomfortable with these technologies because there is all of this evidence that they’re successful. But I feel like there’s a difference between using technology to fix a specific urban problem, like Rio de Janeiro using weather tracking to forecast flash floods, which are a major problem there, and places like Songdo, where you’re really rebuilding the concept of the city from scratch and dictating how people should live. 

CT: Yes, they’re riddled with totalitarian overtones, and that’s built into it, it’s part of the built structure.

AK: So do you think smart city initiatives are not necessarily problematic, and it’s just when they’re applied on the scale of an entire city that it gets out of control?

CT: I’m mainly concerned with this assumption that this is new, this is shiny, this is innovative, to use everyone’s favorite buzzword, and that we should just do it. A lot of people don’t really understand what’s involved. There’s a tendency to have it sort of inflicted on people, and part of that is the way the business model for digital technology, at least at this point in time, works, which is to make everything cheap. It doesn’t cost the public very much to say, oh, okay, because there’s not much of a pricetag on it yet. Part of the reason why it’s so cheap is that so much of the work is based on volunteer labor.

So many of these civic hackers, all these projects and apps they develop, so much of that is based on free labor. People try to frame that as a sort of revival of Tocqueville—voluntary associations and all that stuff. But instead it’s just downright free labor, like unpaid internships or something. That’s why I’m very skeptical of all of this; this is really just another variation on the sort of neoliberal business model that we’ve been using now for the past 35 years and has grown out of control. This is just another iteration of that with nice shiny technology attached to it. Americans are always suckers for technological determinism.

AK: Sure. I feel like privatization initiatives in cities have multiplied in recent years, with cities selling stakes in public housing to private developers—

CT: And all the stuff Rahm Emanuel is doing in Chicago.

AK: Exactly. It seems like smart cities are sort of the ultimate example of the corporate-designed urban environment. Should that inherently be a cause for concern? It goes without saying that corporations don’t always have the best interests of people in mind. And places like Songdo were designed to have minimal regulatory barriers. They prioritize technological innovation and wealth generation, so it seems like they could really deepen existing economic inequality. If you’re not part of those spheres, you don’t really have a place in these cities.

CT: To really take on wealth inequality and the kind of ravaging done by the spoiling land use policies that we’ve had in place since after World War II, we need to have a body of ideas and practices that have a clearly defined sense of what their political vision is: what the good life is and how to get there. What are our fundamental values, our limitations? All of this smart city design is apolitical. That’s the problem. The longer it seeps into our political culture, the more it will drain the public imagination of the next generation, of what a real political movement looks like and why politics are important.

AK: It also seems like the obligation of government to provide essential public services like housing is reduced. It becomes the responsibility of corporations and developers, so there’s less accountability, less control over pricing and over the data the companies acquire.

CT: Then there’s all this debate about regulations—which industries require more or less. These are all very difficult questions of practicality and philosophy. And I fear that our political discourse and understanding of the world is being degraded and coarsened by the uncritical dissemination of a digital substitute for a real politics.

AK: Another thing I wanted to bring up is the surveillance concern. I read a quote from the mayor of Rio, which is a smart city, saying “The operations center allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He meant it as a positive, but that’s a sort of terrifying statement. What are your thoughts about the surveillance implications of smart technology?

CT: All these sensors will and are being used to invade our privacy. There are good and bad things about that. You know, here in Boston we had the marathon bombers and they were very quickly apprehended, partly because that area is so rigged up with security cameras. We have to decide whether it’s worth it.

Another thing I’ve been concerned about is thinking about the difference between Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. You know, George Orwell talked about Big Brother and the authoritarian state, the invasion of privacy. Huxley talked more about the internalization of oppression, and I’m in some ways even more concerned about that. It’s a cultural critique of the way we internalize and accept the terms of our lack of freedom. We accept the deprivation that totalitarian movements end up exacting on us. So we end up being our own worst enemies. It’s almost like we don’t even need Big Brother.

AK: Sure. We voluntarily give up so much information about ourselves.

CT: When I see people walking around in public as though they’re wearing a blindfold because they’re so absorbed in another world on their devices, that has the look to me of self-degradation and degradation of the public realm that is more effective than security cameras. Because people won’t resist. They’re not even aware of their surroundings, just as animals moving through the world. So why would they be able to muster whatever it takes to resist the invasion of privacy by the state or by corporations, for that matter? It just all represents such a contraction of democratic culture to me. It worries the heck out of me.

 

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/28/the_terrifying_smart_city_of_the_future_partner/?source=newsletter

 

Noam Chomsky: “The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim”

The intellectual sat down with Jacobin to discuss ISIS, Israel and climate change

Noam Chomsky: "The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim"
Noam Chomsky (Credit: fotostory via Shutterstock)

Renowned linguist and well-respected political commentator, Noam Chomsky, was interviewed by journalist David Barsamian for Jacobin. In the fascinating and thought-provoking conversation the two touch on the origins of ISIS, America’s relationship with Israel, among other foreign policy topics. Below are a few choice selections from the interview, which can (and should) be read in full at Jacobin.

When asked about the origins of ISIS Chomsky explained how sectarian conflict derived from the Iraq war:

“There’s an interesting interview that just appeared a couple of days ago with Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer, one of the leading intelligence and mainstream analysts of the Middle East. The title is “The United States Created ISIS.” This is one of the conspiracy theories, the thousands of them that go around the Middle East.

But this is another source: this is right at the heart of the US establishment. He hastens to point out that he doesn’t mean the US decided to put ISIS into existence and then funded it. His point is — and I think it’s accurate — that the US created the background out of which ISIS grew and developed. Part of it was just the standard sledgehammer approach: smash up what you don’t like.”

Late in the answer Chomsky continues:

“Finally, the US just decided to attack the country in 2003. The attack is compared by many Iraqis to the Mongol invasion of a thousand years earlier. Very destructive. Hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions of refugees, millions of other displaced persons, destruction of the archeological richness and wealth of the country back to Sumeria.

One of the effects of the invasion was immediately to institute sectarian divisions. Part of the brilliance of the invasion force and its civilian director, Paul Bremer, was to separate the sects, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd, from one another, set them at each other’s throats. Within a couple of years, there was a major, brutal sectarian conflict incited by the invasion.

You can see it if you look at Baghdad. If you take a map of Baghdad in, say, 2002, it’s a mixed city: Sunni and Shi’a are living in the same neighborhoods, they’re intermarried. In fact, sometimes they didn’t even know who was Sunni and who was Shi’a. It’s like knowing whether your friends are in one Protestant group or another Protestant group. There were differences but it was not hostile.

In fact, for a couple of years both sides were saying: there will never be Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. We’re too intermingled in the nature of our lives, where we live, and so on. By 2006 there was a raging war. That conflict spread to the whole region. By now, the whole region is being torn apart by Sunni-Shi’a conflicts.

The natural dynamics of a conflict like that is that the most extreme elements begin to take over. They had roots. Their roots are in the major US ally, Saudi Arabia. That’s been the major US ally in the region as long as the US has been seriously involved there, in fact, since the foundation of the Saudi state. It’s kind of a family dictatorship. The reason is it has a huge amount oil.”



Asked about Congress’ unfailing support for Israel — even beloved progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren — Chomsky responds thusly:

“She probably knows nothing about the Middle East. I think it’s pretty obvious. Take the US prepositioning arms in Israel for US use for military action in the region. That’s one small piece of a very close military and intelligence alliance that goes back very far. It really took off after 1967, although bits and pieces of it existed before.

The US military and intelligence regard Israel as a major base. In fact, one of the more interesting WikiLeaks exposures listed the Pentagon ranking of strategic centers around the world which were of such significance that we have to protect them no matter what, a small number. One of them was a couple of miles outside Haifa, Rafael military industries, a major military installation.

That’s where a lot of the drone technology was developed and much else. That’s a strategic US interest of such significance that it ranks among the highest in the world. Rafael understands that, to the extent that they actually moved their management headquarters to Washington, where the money is. That’s indicative of the kind of relationship there is.

And it goes way beyond that. US investors are in love with Israel. Warren Buffet just bought some Israeli enterprise for, I think, a couple billion dollars and announced that outside the US, Israel is the best place for US investment. And major firms, like Intel and others, are investing heavily in Israel, and continue to. It’s a valuable client: it’s strategically located, compliant, does what the US wants, it’s available for repression and violence. The US has used it over and over as a way of circumventing congressional and popular restrictions on violence.”

And he says this about climate change:

“The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim. The major concern ought to be the one that was brought up in New York at the September 21 march. A couple hundred thousand people marched in New York calling for some serious action on global warming.

This is no joke. This is the first time in the history of the human species that we have to make decisions which will determine whether there will be decent survival for our grandchildren. That’s never happened before. Already we have made decisions which are wiping out species around the world at a phenomenal level.

The level of species destruction in the world today is about at the level of sixty-five million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the earth and had horrifying ecological effects. It ended the age of the dinosaurs; they were wiped out. It kind of left a little opening for small mammals, who began to develop, and ultimately us. The same thing is happening now, except that we’re the asteroid. What we’re doing to the environment is already creating conditions like those of sixty-five million years ago. Human civilization is tottering at the edge of this. The picture doesn’t look pretty.”

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

US faces historic megadrought

“The 21st century predictions make the [previous] megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden” VIDEO

Brace yourself: US faces historic megadrought
(Credit: NASA Goddard/YouTube)

According to a new study published in the journal “Science Advances“, the Southwest and Great Plains will very likely be stricken by megadroughts–decades-long periods of extreme drought–the likes of which we haven’t seen for 1,000 years. The study’s co-author Toby Ault of Cornell University says that the chances of this happening by the end of the 21st century are at around 80 percent, unless we do something to fight man-made climate change.

USA Today’s Doyle Rice reports:

To identify past droughts, scientists studied tree-rings to find out how much — or little — rain fell hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Scientists then used that historical data in combination with 17 different computer model simulations to predict what changes we may see later this century.

The computers showed robust and consistent drying in the Southwest and Plains, due to a combination of reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures that dried out the soils.

Although the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is what we generally refer to as a worst-case drought scenario, Lisa Graumlich, head of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, told Climate Central that the drought in the same region from 1100-1300 (called the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly‘) “makes the Dust Bowl look like a picnic.” The coming drought is expected to surpass these two in a major way.



“The 21st century predictions make the [previous] megadroughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden,” said the study’s co-author Jason Smerdon, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in an interview with The Guardian.

“We haven’t seen this kind of prolonged drought even certainly in modern US history,” he continued. “What this study has shown is the likelihood that multi-decadal events comprising year after year after year of extreme dry events could be something in our future.”

Joanna Rothkopf is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on science, health and society. Follow @JoannaRothkopf or email jrothkopf@salon.com.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/12/brace_yourself_us_faces_historic_megadrought/?source=newsletter

 

How the Mindfulness Movement Went Mainstream — And the Backlash That Came With It

Meditation is more complex than some people realized.
mindfulness

In 1979, a 35-year-old American Buddhist and MIT-trained molecular biologist was on a two-week meditation retreat when he had a vision of what his life’s work—his “karmic assignment”—would be. While he sat alone one afternoon, it all came to him at once: he’d bring the ancient Eastern disciplines he’d followed for 13 years—mindfulness meditation and yoga—to chronically sick people right here in modern America. What’s more, he’d bring these practices into the very belly of the Western scientific beast—a big teaching hospital where he happened to be working as a post-doc in cell biology and gross anatomy. Somehow, he’d convince scientifically trained medical professionalsand patients—ordinary people, who’d never heard of the Dharma and wouldn’t be caught dead in a zendo or an ashram—that learning to follow the breath and do a few gentle yoga postures would help relieve intractable pain and suffering. In the process, he’d manage to reconcile what was then considered fringy, New Age folderol with empirical biological research, sparking a radical new approach to healing in mainstream medical practice.

Not exactly a modest scheme, and in retrospect, it seems astonishing that this nervy young guy—Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—would manage to pull it off. And yet, as the now oft-told origin story goes, he convinced the medical bigwigs at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical Center that this idea was worth trying. With a core body of “interns”—anybody on staff who wanted to learn about meditation—he set up shop and began putting patients through an intensive 10-week (now 8-week) program of weekly classes, yoga postures, 45-minute guided home-meditation practice six times a week, and an all-day retreat during the sixth week. The idea was to teach a set of active self-regulation skills that patients could practice by themselves to help them cope with medical conditions—chronic pain foremost—for which standard medical remedies, such as drugs, rehab, and surgery, had proven useless. The program was, Kabat-Zinn recalled later, “just a little pilot on zero dollars.”

There was just one small impediment to this plan: how was he going to persuade mainstream Americans that this approach wasn’t just New Age hokum? From the beginning, to sell his program to the masses, he decided to use what Buddhists call skillful means, teaching Buddhist principles and practices, but disguising their origin in plain American-style talk—promoting a kind of stealth Buddhism, scrubbed clean of bells, chants, prayers, and terms like dharma, karma, and dukkha, not to mention The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and so on. As he has said, “I bent over backward to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of its being seen as Buddhist, New Age, Eastern Mysticism, or just plain flaky.”

Kabat-Zinn emphasized that this was to be a high-demand program, meaning that patients would be expected to take full responsibility for developing their own inner resources. In other words, they should fully engage themselves, not just make the motions. They needed to work hard every day but without—paradoxically—striving for any particular goal, like relief from pain. They might, however, hope for healing, but only in the sense that it meant “coming to terms with things as they are.” The idea was that hard-won mental and emotional acceptance could generate an inner shift in experience that often resembled a kind of cure—or as he put it, “As you befriend the pain, it can begin to go away.” At the same time, sounding more like a football coach than a spiritual teacher, he said, “I’m a strong advocate of getting tough with yourself. ‘Kicking butt,’ so to speak, or ‘Getting your ass on the cushion.’ You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. And at the end of the eight-week clinic, you can tell us whether it was of any use or not.”

The patients, most of whom were demoralized and skeptical when they entered the program, actually did what they were instructed to do. They earnestly practiced watching their breath, following along to Kabat-Zinn’s taped instructions for the body scan, doing yoga at home, and learning to meditate, which—as he’s pointed out innumerable times—simply means “to pay attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally.” Improbably, most of these patients wound up feeling better, and in 1982, Kabat-Zinn’s first research article on mindfulness in the treatment of pain—the first such study ever in a bona fide academic journal—was published, with the ungainly title “An Outpatient Program in Behavioral Medicine for Chronic Pain Patients Based on the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation: Theoretical Considerations and Preliminary Results.” He wrote that a majority of 51 chronic pain patients reported “great” or “moderate” pain reduction, and even if their pain didn’t disappear, they experienced less depression, tension, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion.

The study was small, without a control group, based on paper-and-pencil self-reports, and rated by the author, rather than a panel of independent judges—a beginning, certainly, but no slam dunk as research papers go, and it didn’t seem destined to smash paradigms. Nor did it inspire many attempts at replication. By 1990, a grand total of 12 papers on the use of mindfulness in medical treatment had been published, with Kabat-Zinn himself producing 5. So while the fledgling program could claim a kind of success, it might have seemed a stretch to imagine it having much staying power as an intervention in mainstream medicine, or much of anywhere else for that matter.

A Movement Is Born

Thirty-five years later and my, how that “little pilot” has grown! Today, more than 20,000 patients have participated in the UMass program, which has produced 1,000 certified MBSR instructors and MBSR programs in about 720 medical settings in more than 30 countries. MBSR—or, more generically, mindfulness training—and other forms of meditation are now used for an almost unimaginable range of medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, brain injuries, fibromyalgia, HIV/Aids, Parkinson’s, organ transplants, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, and tinnitus. Mindfulness has become central to the mental health profession and is commonly used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse, and autism. In addition, it’s at the heart of psychotherapeutic approaches like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), mindfulness-based trauma therapy (MBTT), and mindfulness-based eating awareness training (MB-EAT).

Mindfulness has also spilled (or poured) out of the healthcare/psychotherapy world and into the rest of society. It’s migrated to schools, with training programs and curricula for K-12 teachers and students sprouting up like mushrooms. It’s in universities and often, but not always, attached to medical schools or psychology departments as mindfulness research and teaching centers, including at the University of Illinois, the University of California at Los Angeles, Duke University, the University of Miami, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin, and Brown University.

It’s in prisons, where different meditation styles and traditions are brought to prisoners by way of organizations like the Prison Mindfulness Institute in Rhode Island, which directs prison programs itself, acts as an kind of clearinghouse for groups or individuals providing “mindfulness, meditation, yoga (or other contemplative traditions)” to prisoners, engages in or initiates research, and publishes books under the winsome name Prison Dharma Press.

It’s in the US military, which is training soldiers in what they call mindfulness-based mind fitness training (M-fit), drawn from MBSR, as a form of “mental armor,” a kind of inoculation against post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, a nonprofit called the Mind Fitness Training Institute provides courses and tutorials not only to military personnel, but to law-enforcement officers, intelligence analysts and agents, firefighters, and emergency responders. Today, even soldiers learning how to fire M-16s are being given mindfulness training to synchronize their breathing with squeezing the trigger.

Finally, meditation has made its way into high-level sports, beginning with Phil Jackson teaching Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammates to meditate and win NBA championships in the 1990s, and continuing, more recently, to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl in 2013 after spending spring training focusing on mantras like “Quiet your mind,” “Focus your attention inwardly,” and “Visualize success.”

Of course, when any major social trend looms into view, US corporations are going to muscle their way to the front of it. Corporate culture has taken to mindfulness training avidly: not only are mindfulness programs and courses showing up in business schools (Harvard, New York University–Stern, Georgetown University–McDonough, for example), but quite an impressive sampling of corporations are bringing it into the workplace. Outside of the usual suspects in Silicon Valley—Apple, Facebook, eBay, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo—traditional corporate stalwarts such as Hughes Aircraft, General Mills, Abbot Laboratories, General Motors, Ford Motor Company, AOL Time Warner, Reebok, Xerox, IBM, Safeway, Proctor and Gamble, Texas Instruments, and Goldman Sachs (!) are jumping on the bandwagon. Naturally, teaching mindfulness to business leaders—“mind fitness corporate training” it’s sometimes called—is itself a growth industry.

But in America, the real test of whether an idea, system, service, or practice has any popular traction is the marketplace. And here, mindfulness is a boffo bestseller, both as a product and as a source of almost endless product spinoffs. Besides the centers, institutes, training organizations, retreats, workshops, courses, seminars, conferences, resorts, and travel packages, all selling various experiences of mindfulness, there’s a vast bazaar out there of mindfulness stuff. A quick look at Amazon under “meditation, books,” reveals 82,405 titles for sale, but “meditation, all departments” lists 483,672 items, including—besides books, CDs, and DVDs—all the accouterments the well-accessorized meditator could ever want: cushions, mats, chimes, timers, gongs, incense burners, prayer beads, meditation benches, prayer shawls, yoga pants, baby rompers with the Om symbol, oriental-style indirect lighting fixtures, mugs (embossed with Om), aromatherapy kits, prayer banners, statuettes, tabletop fountains, and—pièce de résistance—a Carlos Santana fedora with a pin shaped like a combination guitar and Om symbol ($37.99). Needless to say, lots of meditation apps are available for your devices, including one called Buddhify, which allows you to set your iPhone or Android on any of 16 different meditation opportunities, including eating, feeling stressed, walking around, going to sleep, being unable to sleep, taking a work break, and “just meditating I and II.”

How many people actually meditate in America, or at least claim to? Hard to say—a 2007 census report of adults seeking complementary or alternative medicines indicated that 20 million used meditation for health purposes, but these 7-year-old figures appear to be the only ones available for the present and don’t seem remotely big enough to account for the mindfulness/meditation deluge washing over the country.

Finally, remember that little preliminary, imperfect research study that Kabat-Zinn turned out in 1982? For much of the next decade, he almost single-handedly kept the tiny MBSR research flame alive with a gaggle of articles in mainstream journals—on pain reduction, psoriasis, anxiety disorders, and heart disease. Mindfulness research didn’t really take off until after 2000—but then, did it ever! By the end of November 2014, the total number of research articles in the database of the American Mindfulness Research Association was an impressive 3,403—around 1,000 for the last two years alone. And those figures don’t take into account research articles on transcendental meditation (TM), a mantra-based technique first taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during the 1950s before catching on in the West (thanks partly to the Beatles). TM began accumulating a research base as early as 1970 with an article in Science, and now 350 or 430 or 600 (accounts vary) studies can be found in peer-reviewed journals supporting TM’s psychological, medical, social, and cognitive benefits, in both clinical and nonclinical populations.

Even these databases are undoubtedly a serious undercount, if all published “research” studies (ranging in quality from abysmal to middling to excellent) on various forms of meditation (mindfulness, TM, tai chi, yoga, and qigong) are included. In a meta-analysis of meditation programs, psychological stress, and well-being in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Internal Medicine, Madhav Goyal, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of medicine, and his colleagues identified a staggering 18,753 citations, before winnowing the number down to a paltry 47 randomized controlled trials with 3,515 participants. As to what all these studies are trying to demonstrate, a better question is what aren’t they trying to demonstrate: they explore mindfulness as a remedy for every issue that has even a passing connection to physical or mental health or general human well-being.

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

How did this all happen? In the popular mind, about the only people really interested in meditation during the 1970s were New Age hippies, Asian studies scholars, and a small population of home-grown seekers (young middle-class adults, often left-wing Vietnam War dissenters at odds with consumer capitalism and looking for a spiritual lift they weren’t getting from drugs or the rejected Main Street religion of their parents). Mention meditation to Mr. and Mrs. Regular American, and you might just get a blank look, or worse, “Why would any normal person want to get caught up with one of those Eastern cults?” What peculiar constellation of forces and factors were coming into alignment so that one day soon, millions of perfectly normal people wouldn’t just be sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed, watching themselves breathe, but would believe this was the best health intervention since vitamins?

First, to start at the outer ring of the circle, the medical profession badly needed help with its “problem patients.” In a 2010 interview, Kabat-Zinn explained that before opening his clinic, he asked doctors, “What percentage of your patients do you feel like you help?” and was stunned by their answers. At most, they thought they helped only about 10 to 15 percent, while the other 85 to 90 percent either got better on their own or never got better at all, becoming the bane of medical practice: chronic patients with chronic conditions chronically unresponsive to anything the doctors tried. So when Kabat-Zinn offered what was basically a way to take these patients off physicians’ hands, the docs responded enthusiastically, saying things like, “Well, I can think of a hundred people off the top of my head we could send tomorrow.” In short, even though he didn’t really hide the Buddhist and Yogic origins of his plan from other medical professionals, these doctors were desperate enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth, whatever its suspicious origins.

Second, Kabat-Zinn’s idea—to repackage Eastern meditation as a secular health intervention that wouldn’t frighten the locals—had already been road tested. Just four years earlier, in 1975, cardiologist Herbert Benson of Harvard had introduced millions of Americans to a kind of proto-meditation with his bestselling book (its sales aided and abetted by the indefatigable Oprah), The Relaxation Response, in which he described the stress-reducing effects of simply focusing the mind on one thing for a little while. Benson had almost accidentally made his discoveries during the early 1970s, when, much against his better judgment as a self-conscious man of science, he’d been talked by TM practitioners into doing some quick research on what they claimed was their ability to reduce their own blood pressure at will simply by meditating on a mantra. He was astounded by the study results: 20 minutes of meditation caused a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, pulse, stress hormone production, and so on, in effect, reversing the fight-or-flight response. But he was terrified that the merest taint of Eastern spirituality—particularly if it was associated with a long-haired, bearded, robed, flower-draped Hindu with the foreign name of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—might spell doom for his professional reputation.

So in his book, he made only the barest of references to TM, substituted the word relaxation for the dreaded M-word (meditation), and argued for the purely physical health benefits of focusing single-mindedly on a “mental device,” which could be almost anything at all—a mantra or a prayer, sure, but also a neutral word, nonsense syllable, or object—or the “device” could consist of concentrating on a process or “muscular activity,” like yoga or qigong, but also walking, jogging, rowing, swimming, or knitting. It all sounded so normal, so ordinary—which is exactly what made the book sell . . . and sell, and sell; it’s sold more than 4 million copies and is in at least its 64th printing.

By 1979, even though the scientific and medical communities still weren’t entirely on board with this meditation thing, the times they were a-changing. That year, the Dalai Lama made his first visit to the United States, amid a media blitz, visiting cities, houses of worship (including a visit to Cardinal Cooke at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York), and universities; giving addresses; and generally wowing people with his unexpectedly charming personality. An obvious exotic, with his shaven head and maroon robes, the master of an alien but strangely glamorous religious tradition, he also professed a totally disarming interest in Western science—since he was a boy, he said—and confessed that he’d probably have become an engineer if he hadn’t gotten into the lama biz. He was particularly interested in any scientific linkages between consciousness and matter. Bingo! Scientists with an interest in Buddhism and/or meditation in general were thrilled: here was a revered spiritual leader who was also a scientist! And here was the chance to find the philosopher’s stone—to bridge the so-far unbridgeable gap not only between science and spirituality, but between mind and matter.

One such smitten scientist was Herbert Benson (apparently no longer worried about associating with “spiritual” types), who boldly asked His Holiness for permission to visit India and study the physiology of Tibetan monks. They could, he’d heard, raise their own body temperature in the freezing Himalayan air just through the intensity of their meditation. The Dalai Lama first said no: the monks were meditating for religious reasons, not so they could have their bodies poked, prodded, and stuck with various measuring devices (including rectal thermometers) for some hare-brained Western scheme. Then, mid-sentence almost, he changed his mind and agreed, explaining to his monks later, “For skeptics, you must show something spectacular because, without that, they won’t believe.” So early in the 1980s, Benson and some colleagues made several trips to India, looking for something “spectacular.” On one trip in 1985, described by Anne Harrington in her book The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, the monks duly complied with a demonstration of “g Tum-mo,” or “inner heat” meditation, raising their own body temperature while, in this case, draped with wet sheets (which sent up eddies of steam in the frigid air for added drama).

Four years later, in 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts on behalf of Tibetan liberation from the Chinese, but also to protest the Chinese massacre of Tiananmen Square protesters), which generated a new paroxysm of infatuation for all things Tibetan. In particular, the Dalai Lama was lionized even more as somehow embodying the exotic mystery and ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism and the rational, empirical spirit of modern Western science.

Soon, it became all the rage to study Tibetan monks scientifically to discover how, through long and advanced forms of meditation, they could not only transcend the usual limits of bodily self-control—raise and lower body temperature, control blood pressure, even improve immune function—but also achieve levels of spiritual transcendence hardly known in the West. Over the next two decades, a panoply of high-tech instrumentation—body temperature sensors, calorimeters (for measuring metabolism), EEGs, fMRIs, and so on—had been used in Western research centers and lugged up Himalayan mountains directly to monks’ huts for studies of what actually happens in the brains and bodies of these adepts.

Meanwhile, back down in the lowlands of pragmatic healthcare, in 1990, Kabat-Zinn produced a book titled Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, based on the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program (SR-RP) at UMass Medical. A hefty read of more than 500 pages, it recapitulated in print what he’d been teaching for the previous 12 years, but now promoting its relevance for everybody, not just sick people. The “catastrophe” is taken from a line from the movie Zorba the Greek, when Zorba is asked if he’s ever been married and replies (in Kabat-Zinn’s paraphrase), “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!”—shorthand for the poignant enormity of our life experience.

The real big break for mindfulness came in 1993, when Bill Moyers featured Kabat-Zinn’s SR-RP in a 40-minute segment of a five-part PBS television series, Healing and the Mind, which included a look at Chinese traditional medicine and other examples of alternative healing methods. The series won an Emmy Award and turned Kabat-Zinn’sFull Catastrophe Living into a bestseller. While Americans were clearly warming up to Easternism in whatever form—tai chi, yoga, meditations of various kinds—the show substantially boosted the stock of mindfulness. Here were regular people—teachers, truck drivers, carpenters, schoolteachers, business executives, stay-at-home mothers—trying to find the inner stillness beneath the turmoil of their life with bemused tolerance and growing trust. And here was Kabat-Zinn, an intense, good-looking man, whose tough-minded candor and deep kindness to his students made this mindfulness thing look okay. Even better than okay! Who could watch the interaction between patient and teacher—a woman obviously struggling through severe pain to do a simple yoga position and Kabat-Zinn on his knees, speaking softly to her, resting a hand gently on her back, tenderly wiping tears and sweat from her face—and not be moved?

The McMindfulness Backlash

The explosive growth of mindfulness in America has inevitably triggered a backlash—a low, rumbling protest, particularly from Buddhists claiming that mindfulness has increasingly become yet another banal, commercialized self-help consumer product, hawked mostly to rich and upper-middle class white people who still wouldn’t be caught dead in a real zendo. While few critics quarrel with using MBSR as a way to alleviate suffering in mind or body, they’re disturbed by how much meditation in America appears to have been individualized, monetized, corporatized, therapized, taken over, flattened, and generally coopted out of all resemblance to its noble origins in an ancient spiritual and moral tradition.

In a 2013 blog for The Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness,” Ron Purser and David Loy—American academics and well-known Buddhist teachers—declared that enough was enough. The effort to “commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique,” they wrote, required engaging in a kind of bait and switch, branding mindfulness programs “‘Buddhist inspired’ to give them a certain hip cachet,” but leaving out the heart and soul of the original practice. As a result, what was once a powerful philosophical and ethical discipline intended to help free people from greed, ill will, and delusion becomes just another mass-marketed self-fulfillment tool, which can reinforce the same negative qualities. People can, in effect, use mindfulness to becomebetter at being worse. “According to the Pali Canon (the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha),” the authors reminded readers, “even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness.” A terrorist, an assassin, and a white-collar criminal can be mindful, Purser and Loy tell us, but not exactly in the same way as the Dalai Lama.

Further, mindfulness in America is so relentlessly marketed as a form ofpersonal stress reduction that it tends to blind adherents to the larger conditions that create and perpetuate widespread emotional and physical stress in the first place. Stress originating in social and economic arrangements is, the author wrote, “framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments . . . re-fashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam—a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”

Google, for example, has developed a now famous mindfulness/emotional intelligence training program, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI)—led by Chade Meng Tan, who has the supercute nickname Google’s Jolly Good Fellow—which it offers to employees and scores of corporate and institutional clients. According to the SILYI media kit, “We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.”

A peculiar example of a corporate leader’s “optimizing” what might have been an embarrassing situation occurred early in 2014 at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, a huge yearly Silicon Valley glamorfest, where stars from high-tech firms, academia, science, and show biz come to be inspired by each other and listen to “mindful living” luminaries, including Kabat-Zinn, Roshi Joan Halifax, Jack Kornfield, and Eckhart Tolle. During a panel discussion (with Jolly himself on the panel) titled “3 Steps to Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way,” a group of activists infiltrated a hall packed with attendees, mounted the stage in front of the speakers, unrolled a banner reading “Eviction-Free San Francisco,” and handed out leaflets to protest the frequent evictions of low-income local residents from the city so landlords could jack up the rents for well-heeled employees of Google and other area corporations.

After the security guards had managed to disrupt the disruption, a Google senior manager on the panel solemnly asked the audience to “check in with your body [to] see what it’s like to be around conflict with people who have heartfelt ideas that may be different from what we’re thinking. . . . Take a second to see what it’s like.” The crowd dutifully closed their eyes and settled right down. Critics pointed out that rather than even consider what and why the activists were protesting, Google tossed the attendees some vintage mindfulness pablum, exposing what Christopher Titmus, a retired Buddhist monk and teacher, called “the shallowness and absurdity of corporate mindfulness.”

Recently, even the scientific foundations of mindfulness have been the subject of increased critical scrutiny. After all, the science of mindfulness is what got it in the door of the healthcare system; the science that impressed academics, therapists, educators, prison administrators, and corporate honchos; thescience that made millions of Americans not embarrassed to say they were taking up meditation. Science is what makes meditation different from Eastern faith healing techniques and New Age woo. So how solid is all that science, anyway—those thousands of studies attesting to the empirical evidence of its power to help heal or relieve just about any physical or mental ailment to which human flesh is heir? There’s little doubt that mindfulness and other meditative discipline are genuinely useful to many people in many ways for many conditions. The question is what discipline, for what conditions, under whatcircumstances, how helpful, for whom, and when? At this point, the issue gets a little gnarly.

There’s a reason why Madhav Goyal and colleagues, the authors of the massive 2014 review and meta-analysis, found it necessary to winnow nearly 19,000 trials down to 47—or three percent of the total. Mindfulness/meditation-based interventions are inherently difficult to study and compare, like trying to pin down clouds in a gale. Variables of different approaches—TM, MBSR, tai chi, yoga, qigong—are hard to compare. Simply defining what meditation is or what it’s supposed to do tends to devolve into a word-salad of mix-n-match terms, like awareness, nonreactivity, openness, curiosity, describing, acceptance, nonjudging, and self-transcendence. The thousands of trials represented a mishmash of programs, which varied widely by type of meditation, length of meditation practice (three weeks to six years), training duration (roughly 12 to 39 hours), experience and training of the teacher, whether or not physical techniques (tai chi, yoga, qigong) were included, and population (how experienced participants were in meditation, what their complaints or ailments were). Most trials have been small before-and-after snapshots—uncontrolled and unrandomized, with no predetermined criteria, usually no long-term follow up, and high dropout rates.

From the saving remnant of the 47 good (or at least okay) randomized, controlled studies, the authors focused narrowly on research showing that meditation alleviated psychological stress (including pain) associated with medical problems. They came up with some mildly encouraging results, finding “moderately strong evidence” that mindfulness/meditation had a “small but consistent benefit” in relieving anxiety, depression, and pain (though what kind of pain—chronic, acute, or both—couldn’t be determined). The depressive symptoms were improved by roughly 10 to 20 percent, similar to the effect of antidepressants. As for the rest of the literature extolling the healing properties of mindfulness for all kinds of other specific conditions or its ability to improve the overall quality of life, the authors don’t reject these claims; they simply explain that the scientific evidence is insufficient to draw firm conclusions about them one way or the other.

These authors suggest that one reason for the low-to-middling results (compared to the hype, that is), and for the difficulties of doing this sort of research at all, may reflect a profound division between Eastern and Western attitudes toward meditation in the first place. The West, and particularly the research world, views meditation largely as a pragmatic, expedient, short-termintervention, comprising specific behavioral steps, intended to achieve clear, observable goals—such as relieving anxiety, pain, and depression. But historically, Goyal and his colleagues remind us, meditation was conceived as a lifelong practice, a hard-won skill within a rich spiritual, ethical, and social framework. It was never intended to be a quick-acting mental Ibuprofen/Xanax, but a long-term discipline that increased awareness, resulting in deep insight into the subtleties of existence itself—something that perhaps can never be measured or quantified without access to some wizardry for measuring the “subtle energy body” the Tibetan Buddhists describe. As the authors put it in a laconic understatement, “The translation of these traditions into [Western] research studies remains challenging.”

Even if the research doesn’t—can’t—live up to its popular media hype, the hype keeps on expanding. In an interview with Tricycle magazine, Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, who directs translational neuroscience for Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, points out that the problem is twofold. First, the media cherry-pick newsworthy scientific results and ride roughshod over cautiously worded research findings, typically reducing them to a one-sentence factoid, “a circulating meme that people put up on their Facebook pages and that becomes ‘true’ through repetition alone.”

Kerr knows of which she speaks: she was herself a coauthor, with Sara Lazar, on the famous 2005 paper “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness,” which led to countless articles suggesting that you can engineer a complete brain makeover with just a few weeks of mindfulness. As she recalls, “The typical headline in the popular press was ‘Mindfulness Makes Your Brain Grow.’” The problem was that all this took place in the absence of other replicating studies showing genuine evidence for some kind of structural brain change following mindfulness training and without any explanation of what physiologically was causing the apparent change and how it was affecting people’s experience and behavior.

Carefully parsing the results of her own study in the cautious language of science, Kerr will say only, “There are some clues from brain science that meditation might help enhance brain function. That is an evidence-based statement. The mistake is investing 100 percent in a result and not holding a probabilistic view of scientific truth or risk and benefit.”

The second problem is that the science of mindfulness itself isn’t immune to hype and distortion. Researchers need to generate a certain amount of buzz about their early research in order to get grants to carry it on. Observes Kerr, “To get things going, get collaborators, and gain NIH interest, you need to be a little entrepreneurial. . . . Researchers have to strike a tricky balance between expressing genuine enthusiasm and cautioning about limitations.” Scientists, like everybody else with something to sell, increasingly need to advertise, to do the kind of PR that will get them noticed.

And meditating scientists aren’t necessarily less inclined toward bias and overstatement than their non-meditating colleagues—possibly the reverse. “When we first started research on meditation, there was this principle that the scientists should be meditators because they understood it,” says Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown. “But we are all also incredibly biased! Meditation is not just a practice we do, like ‘I like to run.’ It’s an entire worldview and religion. I worry about this kind of bias in meditation research.”

Finally, meditation isn’t without risks of its own. Marketed as a kind of warm bath for the psyche, Britton says, meditation has a shadow side, familiar to experienced meditation teachers but almost never mentioned in the popular media—that is, the not uncommon tendency of some people when they begin practicing in earnest to freak out (lose ego boundaries, hallucinate, relive old wounds and traumas, experience intense fear, and even have psychotic breaks, as well as exhibit strange physical symptoms, like spasms, involuntary movements, hot flashes, burning sensations, and hypersensitivity). These effects are well documented in Buddhist texts as stages along the long, hard path to inner wisdom, but they haven’t been studied in the West and aren’t featured in mindfulness/meditation brochures. Britton is one of the first to begin researching these phenomena seriously, in an undertaking she at first called the Dark Night Project. But since that name wasn’t attractive to funding sources, she renamed it The Varieties of Contemplative Experience Project. Along with the mass enthusiasm for meditation, Britton says, has come “an epidemic of casualties,” which needs to be recognized and incorporated into the promotion and study of these disciplines.

In short, while meditation has been acclaimed and sold as a quick, no-risk, easily mastered technique to achieve just about any conceivable desired goal—health, happiness, freedom from physical or mental pain, relaxation, self-confidence, career success, sexual success, inner peace, world peace!—it’s, in fact, a far deeper, more complex, and less well-understood process than many people realize. For one thing, whatever the measurable effects of meditation on behavior or physiology, the cognitions and feelings it arouses inside are entirely subjective—which makes it inherently unfriendly to the necessarily objective methods of empirical science. But these conscious experiences are as real as the people having them, and, quantifiable or not, they’re as much a part of mindfulness meditation as the mind and brain that produced them. The fact that meditation is fundamentally a matter of consciousness is exactly the problem: what, exactly, consciousness is or why we have it has been called “the hard problem” by many scientists and philosophers precisely because it resists cogent scientific explanation.

All of which doesn’t mean that scientific research into meditation isn’t improving and producing more genuinely valid studies, which will help us better understand what meditation is and how it changes our brains, experience, and behavior. It’s simply that, as both Kerr and Britton argue, a little caution would be advised. After all, we still know precious little about the neurophysiology—and not so much more about the psychology—of love, sex, anger, fear, learning, sleep, feeling, emotion, and thought. How much less do we know about that quieting of the mind, so unusual for Americans, called mindfulness?

People still aren’t entirely clear about what mindfulness is, Britton argues, or what distinguishes the different practices, or “which practices are best or worst suited to which types of people. When is it skillful to stop meditating and do something else? I think this is the most logical direction to follow becausenothing is good for everything. Mindfulness is not going to be an exception to that. . . . If we think anything is going to fix everything, we should probably take a moment and meditate on that.”

What Purity?

To the outpouring of complaints by some Buddhist practitioners that secular mindfulness is basically a fraud dressed in bodhisattva clothing, the response of many others is essentially “Chill out, people.” Meditation, these critics of the critics say in effect, is a good discipline that’s helped suffering people all over the world. And if it isn’t always done in a perfect spirit of selfless “right mindfulness,” or doesn’t always produce better, more compassionate, wiser human beings, well, this is Planet Earth, inhabited by the same imperfect human race that lived here 2,500-plus years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama wandered around India preaching the Dharma. To the accusation that Buddhism has lost its purity to the crass ravages of modern corporate America, for example, antipurist critics respond cheerfully, “What purity?”

Jeff Wilson, author of several books on Buddhism in the West, includingMindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, has pointed out that there has never been just oneBuddhism, but a welter of Buddhist practices, organizations, ways of life, and opinions in a never-very-centralized tradition that’s moved from India to China to Burma, Japan, and finally the West, picking up accretions along the way. Whatever anybody said about Buddhism, somebody else could say the opposite. What you had, Wilson said, was just “a great big mess called ‘Buddhism,’” which adapted itself to an astonishing variety of social and political circumstances everywhere it landed.

As to the question of whether poor, innocent, little Buddhism can withstand the withering pressures of the marketplace, there never was a time when it wasn’tdeeply connected to the political and economic realities of the world. “The truth of the matter,” says Wilson, “is that Buddhism has not ever at any point from its very beginning, or at any stage of its evolution, been apart from economic matters.” The ideal of the master sitting alone in his cave or high on a mountain, isolated from the nonspiritual hoi polloi, is essentially a myth. Buddhism has long been deeply embedded in the larger political economy. Monks have often exchanged spiritual goods (chanting to produce merit for a donor or a donor’s family) for economic support by the community.

Furthermore, the benefits people hoped to achieve by supporting the sangha (but not meditating; that was the prerogative of the monks) were often less spiritual and more worldly, practical, personal, and even selfish: success in love and business, good health, relief from pain, protection from evil, safe childbirth, better karma for the next go-around. This makes what most lay Buddhists in historical times wanted from their religion no different from what most people in most eras have always wanted, including people today: protection from disaster and harm, hope for the next life (however conceived), and a sense of peace in the security of knowing that there was some greater meaning to the unpredictable, often frightening, frequently miserable ebb and flow of mortal existence.

In a deeply stressed and stressful society, the basic, general mood du jour seems to be some variable mix of depression, anxiety, fear, rage, self-loathing, loneliness, alienation, yearning, envy, and other items in a much longer catalog. So what are we to make of the purist critics of the mainstreaming of mindfulness practices? In a blog last year, Seth Zuiho Segall, science writer forMindfulness Research Monthly and editor of the blog “The Existential Buddhist,” asked himself the question that seems addressed to the purist critics’ concerns: “Is mindfulness guilty of making people happier without making them enlightened?” His answer? “You bet. Guilty as charged.” And then he went on, “Down through the ages, most nominal Buddhists have chosen to pursue better karma and rebirth rather than aiming for enlightenment. If mindfulness only results in happier human beings, then . . . so be it. Those of us who choose to pursue awakening and transformation can still do so, happily untroubled by the sight of all those cheerful, mindful people milling about in our vicinity.”

Now if that’s the worst-case scenario for the vast majority of those who take up mindfulness training (with appropriate psychiatric attention to the freaker-outers, of course), wouldn’t most people be more than willing to make a deal? Mindfulness? Bring it on!

 

http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/how-mindfulness-movement-went-mainstream-and-backlash-came-it?akid=12743.265072.UI53-e&rd=1&src=newsletter1031195&t=7

He’s not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let’s not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet

Populist State of the Union with a fiery tone has liberals excited. They’d be wise to remember Obama’s true nature

He's not suddenly Paul Krugman: Let's not morph Obama into Elizabeth Warren quite yet
Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Credit: AP/Reuters/Bob Strong/Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Charles Dharapak/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech capped an epic political makeover. In two months he went from the living avatar of the political and economic establishment to a self-styled populist scourge. It’s as if he walked into a plastic surgeon’s office after Election Day and said “make me look like Bernie Sanders.” No president has ever tried to alter his image so drastically or so fast. I wonder if he’ll pull it off.

His campaign began emphatically on Nov. 5. Instead of the ritual submission the media demands of defeated party leaders, Obama used his post-election press conference to renew his vow to enact substantial immigration reform by executive order. Days later, he announced a major climate accord with China and finally came down foursquare for net neutrality.

These were big moves, but Obama was just warming up. In December, he announced the surprising end of our miserably failed Cuban trade embargo. Earlier this month, he unveiled a bold bid to make community college free for millions of students all across America.

Still not impressed? On Tuesday night he called for paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, a minimum wage hike and a tripling of the child tax credit to $3,000. He’s also pushing a $500 “second earner” tax credit and wants to give college students up to $2,500 apiece to help with expenses. The best part is how he’d pay for it all, mostly by taxing big banks, raising capital gains rates and closing loopholes that allows rich heirs to avoid capital gains taxes altogether.

A not-so-subtle shift in tone followed. Gone, for now, is Obama the ceaseless appeaser. He’s been replaced by a president with a more combative stance, as befits a true people’s champion. At times on Tuesday Obama even seemed to taunt his tormentors. In the last two months he has threatened five vetoes. In the previous six years he’d issued just two; that’s the fewest since James Garfield. Garfield, by the way, was president for six months.

What should we make of this new Obama? Are he and his new agenda for real? For liberals, these are tender questions. When Obama first appeared, their response was almost worshipful. Even today, many liberals treat Obama’s progressive critics as apostates. Given their deep investment in him, the vitriol of Tea Party attacks and the looming specter of GOP rule, it’s easy to understand why. But it’s crucial now for his liberal critics and defenders alike to see him as he is.



Obama’s new program seems real enough. We can’t gauge its full impact without more numbers, but this much is clear: Do it all — equal pay, minimum wage hike, community college tuition, family leave, middle-class tax credits and taxes on big banks and the superrich — and we’d make a very big dent in income inequality. Add the financial transaction tax Ralph Nader and Rose Ann DeMoro’s California nurses have long been pushing — and that some House Democrats now embrace — and you have enough money on the table to reverse decades of wage stagnation.

It may seem a big claim but the numbers are close to consensual. The transaction tax would raise a trillion dollars in 10 years, in which time a modest minimum wage hike would put $300 billion in the pockets of the working poor. Equal pay for equal work could do as much. Even without Obama’s numbers, we know the ideas gaining ground among Democrats could solve one of our biggest problems. As the president said apropos of just about everything, “this is good news, people.”

So what’s not to like? The bad news is there’s quite a bit. The problem is that Obama’s deeds so often contradict his words. Indeed, examine his actions over these same two months and one could also construct a compelling counter-narrative to this tale of populist transformation.

Consider climate change. While negotiating his China deal, Obama was also busy auctioning off drilling rights to 112 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the deal was done, he was on the phone urging Democrats to back a bill that cut EPA staff, let the Export-Import Bank fund coal-fired electric plants and blocked enforcement of new rules for energy-efficient light bulbs.

In his first term Obama passed the word to his top hires to quiet down about global warming. He likes fracking and brags about increasing oil production. He won’t let Congress approve the Keystone pipeline, but he may approve it himself. In short, he’s a study in mixed climate messages.

The net neutrality story is even more confounding. The statement Obama released was one of the more thoughtful of his presidency. But he’d already made Tom Wheeler, CEO of the most powerful lobby opposing net neutrality, head of the Federal Communications Commission. And they decide the issue. It’s an independent commission that does what it wants. Its members may be moved by Obama’s eloquent words, or just confused.

Perhaps the most troubling contradiction lies in foreign policy. Obama began his speech on Tuesday by saying “tonight we turn the page.” As evidence he cited our newly reduced role in Afghanistan. As he put it: “For the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman… who has served to keep us safe.”

Obama’s relative restraint is such an improvement on George W. Bush’s bellicosity that we can’t help but judge him on a curve. That he’s bogged down in Afghanistan is no surprise, as these wars are always easier to start than finish. (It’s why they call them quagmires.) But in fact there are more than 15,000 Americans still left there. There are, for instance, the private contractors, whose number tripled under Obama. In early 2014, the last time figures were reported, there were 24,000. Obama says the “combat mission” is over — but the combat isn’t finished and neither is the mission.

On Wednesday, Mother Jones ran a story by Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com reporting that in 2014 Obama deployed U.S. Special Ops forces to 133 countries. That’s more than two-thirds of all the countries in the world; it’s a disturbing number and one that also grew exponentially on Obama’s watch. Even more disturbing are the drone strikes Obama has authorized, more than 10 times the number authorized by George W. Bush. American drones have now killed an estimate of more than 4,000 people. At least 20 percent of them were innocent civilians; less than 2 percent were high-value military targets.

In case you thought our combat mission in Iraq ended, buried in Obama’s speech was a call for Congress to pass a “resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” That was it — no explanation of vital interests at stake or limits to set. It was strange coming from a man who wouldn’t be president but for a speech he once gave against a war into which we were tragically conned.

Our war with ISIL proceeds under cover of our original Iraq war resolution, the exhaustion of which Obama concedes by implication. Someone should tell him the same resolution is used to justify drone strikes in nations we’re not at war with. Someone might also mention that use of “private security contractors” — the word “mercenary” stirs indignation — ill befits a democracy; that sending special ops forces to 133 countries also requires authorization and that if you declare an end to combat operations in two wars, your next budget should declare a peace dividend.

Obama’s failure to reconcile words to deeds detracts mightily from the grab bag of ideas he offers under the catchy title “middle class economics.” As noted, these policies could really improve people’s lives. But while he’s out thumping for them, he’s in hot pursuit of what he hopes will be his last coup, approval of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. It’s such a popular idea he chose not to breathe its name in his speech. What he did say was worth sampling if only to savor its cleverness: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. We should write those rules… That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

He doesn’t want another free trade fiasco like that awful NAFTA, just “trade promotion authority to protect American workers.” Surely we can all be for that.

Nearly all left-leaning Democrats oppose the TPTP: Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Bob Reich, Elizabeth Warren. One can’t imagine Obama changing his mind on it any more than one imagines him asking any of them to help craft his new populist agenda. As he likes to reassure his donors, “I’m a market kind of guy,” meaning he comes as close as a Democrat can to being a market ideologue. And yes, there is such a thing.

Market ideologues aren’t the sort to throw bombs or ruin dinner parties but they’re ideologues nonetheless. Their solution for every problem known to mankind is to adopt “market principles.” Their influence on Obama’s generation of Democratic elites has been profound. It’s why so many of them apply market theory to issues to which it is ill-suited, such as carbon reduction, health care and public education.

Obama doesn’t get that free trade can be as good as he says for business and still be a terrible deal for workers. He doesn’t get that markets by their nature do a great job of creating wealth and a poor one of distributing it; that absent a strong government to encode and enforce a social contract there is no middle class; that pitting our workers against those lacking such support will eventually impoverish them. It’s why he opposed raising the minimum wage when he had the votes to do it in his first term. It’s why he bailed out banks but not homeowners, and abandoned the public option.

Missing from Obama’s speech, as from his presidency, was any mention of public corruption. Countless polls attest to the depth of public revulsion at the domination of government by moneyed interests. Obama’s silence allows the Tea Party to fly the flag of “crony capitalism.” Most progressives miss the criticality of this issue that social change movements the world over put at the very top of their agendas.

It makes it really hard to enact new government programs, which is one reason Obama didn’t propose any new federal programs, just tax cuts, private sector mandates and grants to states. There are things the federal government does better, but voters won’t hand over the keys to a car with a cracked engine block. A real populist would fix what we all know is broken.

Betting on what a politician truly thinks is a high-risk business. Some say Obama has changed. Perhaps so; maybe a friend gave him a Krugman book for Christmas and midway through it he had an epiphany. Others say he feels liberated; that’s a popular hope among liberals in that it implies he really did love them all along. Still others say he wants to shape his legacy or the next debate.

But in studying Obama, one discovers a man of markedly fixed views. His take on issues has barely budged over a lifetime. Once he sets a course he sticks to it. We saw it in 2008 when Hillary Clinton rose from the dead sporting a new populist persona. It surprised many to see her peddling her wares to the working class. It shocked them when she won the Pennsylvania primary. John McCain shocked some by running even with him up until the Wall Street crash. We don’t know if either shocked Obama, but we do know he never once changed course.

On Tuesday he devoted an astonishing 20 percent of his time not to global warming or “middle-class economics” but to a defense of his 10-year pursuit of the holy grail of bipartisanship. For six years Obama played Charlie Brown to the Republicans’ Lucy in budget battles. In December he took another crack at the football. Is his new populism such a far cry from his 2008 rhetoric of transformation, or just a bit more specific to satisfy the hunger still rising for change? Do we really think it arose from somewhere other than the usual focus groups and polls?

There’s good news in all this. Someone changed, and if it isn’t Obama it must be us. It isn’t any politician but the power of public opinion that drives this debate. Republicans feel it. Hearing just an outline of a populist message scares them. Pundits say they won’t pass any part of Obama’s agenda but if they’re smart they will; perhaps a lesser minimum wage hike and something just for women. But we’ll never win the victory we must win without a strong progressive movement because neither this system nor those who run it will ever really change.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/25/hes_not_suddenly_paul_krugman_lets_not_morph_obama_into_elizabeth_warren_quite_yet/?source=newsletter

Delusion and deception in Obama’s State of Union

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By Patrick Martin

21 January 2015

Two weeks ago, the WSWS published its initial review of the results of the year 2014 and the prospects for 2015. We wrote, “In examining the strategies and policies of the ruling elites of one or another country, it would be a mistake to either underestimate their ruthlessness or overestimate their intelligence.”

The State of the Union speech delivered by President Barack Obama Tuesday night confirms this assessment in the case of the United States. The US ruling elite exhibits a determination to stop at nothing in the defense of its wealth and privileges, and pig-headed blindness and stupidity, both on a colossal scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Obama’s hour-long address, riddled with tired clichés and empty rhetoric, was the sheer unreality of the picture he presented of America, totally at odds with the actual experience of tens of millions of working people: mounting social and economic crisis, escalating attacks on democratic rights and the growing danger of world war.

“The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama claimed, declaring that the US has successfully emerged from the economic slump that followed the 2008-2009 financial crash. “At this moment, with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”

No one not hypnotized by the ever-rising share prices on the New York Stock Exchange can accept that as a serious description of American social reality. A few figures released in the past month make this clear:

* Nine million workers are officially unemployed, another six million have dropped out of the labor force, eight million work part-time when they want full-time jobs and 12 million work for temporary employment agencies.

* Real wages have fallen steadily for American workers since 2007, dropping another five cents an hour in December 2014. The real income of the average working-class family is now back to the level of 2000—15 years of stagnation in living standards.

* The US poverty rate has risen from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 14.5 percent in 2013. Nearly half of all Americans and more than half of all US school children are poor or near poor.

* One fifth of American children do not get enough to eat, while the overall rate of food insecurity has jumped from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2013. One million Americans will be cut off food stamp benefits this year.

Obama evaded any discussion of such figures, substituting instead the proposal for “middle-class economics,” a term deliberately chosen to conceal the ongoing attack on jobs and living standards of American workers. It is the latest brand-name his speechwriters have concocted for the policy of both capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican alike, of promoting the interests of American corporations and banks against their foreign rivals and the working class at home.

The State of the Union speech made a brief reference to the monstrous growth of economic inequality, where “only a few of us do spectacularly well,” but Obama passed over in silence the connection between the growth of the fortunes of the super-rich and his own policies. Skyrocketing wealth for the few and mounting social misery for the many are not merely coincidental. They are product of a deliberate policy, spearheaded by the Obama administration, of handing trillions of dollars to the banks while orchestrating a coordinated attack on jobs, living standards and social programs.

Equally unreal was Obama’s depiction of the state of American democracy. “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened,” he said, “which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”

The formal prohibition of torture, however, has been combined with a lengthy rearguard action against the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, in the course of which Obama blocked any prosecution of the torturers. The White House is directly implicated in illegal activities, including the CIA’s spying on the US Senate and its efforts to withhold documents implicating the highest levels of the state in clear violations of national and international law.

As for “constraints” on the use of drones, there are none. The Obama administration has declared that the president has the unlimited right to order the assassination of any person on the planet, including American citizens, using drone-fired missiles, without any judicial review and without regard to US and international law.

Similarly, Obama claimed that “our intelligence agencies have worked hard … to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.” In fact, the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies carry out unlimited surveillance on the population of America and the world, vacuuming up all electronic communications, telephone and Internet, and creating massive databases and political dossiers.

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, the threat of terrorism has been used as the pretext for building up the structure of a police state in America. This process will only accelerate in the wake of the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the attacks in Paris January 7. Obama declared, “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office.”

This was only one of the many occasions in the State of the Union speech where the US president asserted his willingness to use force to insure the primacy of American imperialism over all its rivals. Half his speech was devoted to such threats, including against Russia, a nuclear-armed power, over Ukraine, and against Iran, where Obama, for the second time in five days, threatened to go to war to destroy the country’s nuclear technology program.

Perhaps the bluntest assertion of American supremacy came when Obama discussed negotiations over trade practices within the Asia-Pacific region (including China and Japan, the world’s second-largest and third-largest economies). “We should write those rules,” Obama declared, as though no other country mattered.

While Obama claimed that he had brought the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close, reducing the total troop deployment in the two countries from 180,000 to 15,000, this represents a shift in focus to a more extensive, not scaled-back, imperialist intervention. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deployed forces to 133 countries in 2014, more than two thirds of the globe.

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to the Republican Party, which now controls a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for bipartisan collaboration over the next two years. He warned against “always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.”

This language was chosen, not so much to urge the Republicans to resist the pressure of their ultra-right Tea Party faction, as to urge the Democrats to get on with devising bipartisan attacks on the working class, regardless of the popular reaction among workers, particularly the poorest and most oppressed who, if they go to the polls, generally vote for the Democratic Party.

Obama proposed a handful of measures aimed at sustaining the threadbare pretense that the Democrats still adhere to policies of liberal reform—free tuition for community college students and a child care tax credit for working families, to be paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy and the banks. But no one in official Washington takes these seriously for a minute. They are window dressing, while the policy of the US ruling elite moves further and further to the right.

Aside from the delusional character of the speech, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Obama’s remarks was the fact that, for the vast majority of the population, it was a non-event. Obama stands at the head of a state apparatus that, increasingly, is talking to itself.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/21/sotu-j21.html

State of the Union: Twenty Pounds of BS in a Ten-Pound Bag

Wednesday, 21 January 2015 11:11

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, in the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, in the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Let me be perfectly clear from the jump: It was a fine speech, one of the best of President Obama’s political career, which makes it automatically one of the best in the State of the Union’s august history. The last fifteen minutes, in particular, were absolutely soaring, not just in rhetoric, but in the delivery as well. The man parked it as deep as it can be parked, like a majestic David Ortiz line drive deep into the bleachers at Fenway, thanks for coming, turn out the lights when you leave. No one does it better that Barack Obama when the bright lights are on.

…and when it was over, my immediate thought was of Steven the Irishman, the self-declared madman from the film Braveheart. Mel Gibson had just given his rousing speech to keep the Scots from fleeing before the battle at Stirling Bridge.

“Fine speech,” said Steven. “Now what do we do?”

Indeed.

You see, apparently we’ve “turned the page” on the economic wasteland created by our Neo-Con/Neo-Liberal brain trust in Washington. The shadow of crisis has passed, and we’re on a new foundation.

How many people do you know who actually feel that way?

Just about everyone I know is economically scared to death, and most of them are living paycheck to paycheck…and brothers and sisters, I know a whole hell of a lot of people, in all fifty states and most of the territories. I ain’t Pew or Gallup, so take this with as many grains of salt you need to choke it down, but here’s the hard truth: No pages have been turned, and the new foundation is just as porous as the old one…because it’s the same old God damned foundation. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The President of the United States gave a speech on Tuesday night that would, in parts, have gone over like gangbusters at any Occupy rally in the country, and then he turned on a dime to brag about our massively impressive oil and gas production, i.e. fracking and maybe the Keystone XL pipeline, and then went on further to give an impassioned aria about climate change, at which point my brain crawled out of my ear and slithered into the bathroom, where it wept piteously into the cold porcelain truth of the base of the toilet.

Stephen King, in several of his books, deployed a line I’ve never forgotten: “So full of shit you squeak going into a turn.” Between his cheerleading for fracking and his full-court press for the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which he championed again on Tuesday night out of the other side of his mouth – I honestly don’t know how the president sleeps at night, especially after coughing up so many demonstrably phony hairballs about protecting the environment.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” but gods be good, this is a bridge too far.

And then it got worse.

“Now America thrived in the 20th century,” said the president on Tuesday night, “because we made high school free, sent a generation of G.I.s to college, trained the best workforce in the world. We were ahead of the curve. But other countries caught on.”

Caught on?

Caught on? To what? To this nation’s deliberate defenestration of its manufacturing infrastructure and loyal Union work force, all in the name of a quick buck? Never mind the implication that other nations are incapable of their own innovations, but have to “catch on” to what we do. Yeah, that’s exactly how we wound up in this ditch.

No, you serial apologist, we signed on to trade pacts like the TPP you’re begging for and sold our economic strengths to the lowest bidder. We gave away the best of what we were to serve the people paying your bills and cut our guts out in the process, and you don’t have the courage to tell it like it really is.

It was a fine show on Tuesday night, a masterful performance, and a comprehensive waste of time. Leaving aside everything I’ve said, there is the stone-cold fact that absolutely none of the progressive ideas President Obama proposed on Tuesday night have the vaguest chance of seeing daylight in this new GOP-dominated congress…which begs the question:

Why did he wait until now – when everything he proposed was demonstrably doomed before the words even passed his teeth – to uncork the kind of rhetoric so many of his voters have been waiting for? Was it to poke a stick in the eye of this new assemblage? Perhaps to lay some rhetorical groundwork for the 2016 presidential race?

Or did he never mean any of it in the first place, and said it on Tuesday night secure in the fact that none of it would ever come to pass?

As I said, it was a fine speech. Soaring at points, in fact.

Now what do we do?

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT

William Rivers Pitt is Truthout’s senior editor and lead columnist. He is also a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of three books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know, The Greatest Sedition Is Silence and House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America’s Ravaged Reputation. His fourth book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with Dahr Jamail, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in New Hampshire.

 

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/28649-twenty-pounds-of-bs-in-a-ten-pound-bag