The Left/Right Paradigm and How We Are To Blame For It

You are to blame for the current bipolar state of society. I am responsible for crazies that seek political office. We all created Ann Coulter (and I shutter). That’s right we have collectively created and framed our current society of simplistic black or white thinking. We have all allowed ourselves to be spoon-fed a system of dualistic thinking that we tacitly asked to have impose upon us. This is why we are currently divided as a nation between two candidates for President that are in fact remarkably similar to one another. The entire electoral process is steeped in the tenets of a binary system. One candidate is black, the other white. Romney the conservative versus the liberal Obama. It is the political equivalent of Coke or Pepsi – both are still cola.

But, why do we eagerly grasp for this extreme dualism in society and let it disease our thinking processes? The answer is that it is comforting and easy. Binary thinking provides comfortable absolutes that do not require any investigation. The other side is always wrong and evil, while you can go to bed at night knowing that you are good and reasonable. Nuance and critical thinking are virtually eliminated in this system of thought. You are not required to have a reasoned opinion. You watch the news channel or blog that re-enforces your already installed worldview, thereby further relieving you of the responsibly for engaging in contemplative thought. You become a simpleton that parrots the preordained talking points of your political team. You stop reading/watching the supposed opposition in an effort educate yourself about their views, rather you grant the power of decision-making to leaders and their mouthpieces. This why Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, Rachel Maddow, and their compatriots exist and dominate the discussion in the realm of public opinion. They are the electronic placards and blow horns for one team or the other. They offer a prepackaged set of values, thoughts, and fears that the public is all too eager to install into their mentality. Subscribing to absolute values makes life less complex, easier to deal with, but it is a fake comfort. Plainly put, it allows us to be lazy political participants who can be justified in our passion, indignation, and hatred. It is WWE wrestling for supposed adults. Our need for certainty leads us into making poor unreasoned decisions.

Dualistic or binary thinking is essential to controlling a populace in a presumed democracy. The state can easily perpetuate itself be delivering the binary paradigm of us and them. Evil Communism versus God-granted Capitalism or the class Conservative/Liberal dualisms represent examples of this control. By delivering two diametrically opposed views with no in between, we feel compelled to adopt into one view to exclusion of any value being present in the other option, and therefore we are herded into a group in a small corral. We essentially give up  our individual thought processes in order to belong the right team, the team of our “choice”. The opposing side comes to represent an increase in your own suffering. For example, you have chosen the conservative team, you are convinced that allowing a liberal government will invariably result in economic turmoil  thus increasing suffering. Your perceived decisions come out of a sense of belonging and righteousness, and out of overwhelming terror. For the state and by extension its political parties, it is vastly easier to control two aggregations of political expediency than thousands of ephemeral coalitions of diverse thought. The state/party uses your fear of suffering to lead you by the nose to the water they want you drink.

The current US Presidential election is the ultimate example of dualism run amok. Millions of people bought into the right/left paradigm with reckless abandon. They view the candidate of their choice is the next coming of Christ himself, while the opposition are nothing short of evil incarnate. Romney supporters thinking that Obama is a secret Muslim communist is a commonplace notion. Obama backers view Romney has the quintessential narcissistic corporatist who will do nothing but enrich those already own his own economic class. The country is divided into two opposing camps that support candidates that are presumably polar opposites of one another. However, are the candidates truly that differentiated? Looking at the unlimited corporation contributions to their campaigns, it becomes obvious that their political pursuits are funded by the same elite, wealthy class. The presidential candidates both represent the best interests of this class, and these interests may no and most likely do not represent the interest of common good. They are two sides of the same gold coin. Dualistic thinking is reasonable for erosion of our political discussion into slogans and adamant proclamations of supposed fact, while it truly serves the perpetuation of the current political power structure.

Even dualism as its own dualistic opposite, relativism. Relativism is not a cure for dualism, rather it institutes a system of thought were distinctions and clear judgement are not possible. Ethics become a wash of muddy gray compromises. Actions or inactions are done in an effort to not offend or appear open-minded. Relativism eventually becomes the absolute, and thereby implodes into the vacuum of its own valuelessness.

Then how do we create a society beyond dualism and relativism where reasoned thought provides the direction of the culture? I believe the answer lies with the three-fold prescription of compassion, wisdom, and happiness. If one views the entire world with compassion, you understand that there is no real other, no outside threat. You realize that everyone simply wants peace and happiness, to be free of their own suffering. You come understand their base intentions. With the practice of compassion, you drop the notion of belonging to a group, rather you strive to relieve the suffering of yourself and others. The application of wisdom, rather than punditry, allows one to construct solutions based on compassion while still drawing distinction between beneficial and harmful actions. Wisdom is the preventative for sliding into relativism. Cultivating a happy state of mind re-enforces the ability to act with compassion and wisdom. With a happy mind, the tendency to react out of fear or hatred is lessened, if not eliminated.

Imagine an election in a democracy where you knew that every candidate was completely well-intended and there was respect for divergent worldviews as we were all working towards the elimination of suffering. I know that it is an Utopian wet dream, but if I didn’t dare to envision of a perfect society, there would be nothing to strive toward.

Just as the grammarian makes one study grammar,
A Buddha teaches according to the tolerance of his students;
Some he urges to refrain from sins, others to do good,
Some to rely on dualism, other on non-dualism;
And to some he teaches the profound,
The terrifying, the practice of enlightenment,
Whose essence is emptiness that is compassion

Nagarjuna (c.100 – 200 AD)

Review: Birds of Central Asia

Birds of Central Asia cover

Birds of Central Asia cover

The Stans (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan)…those mysterious enclaves in the heart of the Asian continent have been somewhat of a natural history mystery for ages. Communism, radical jihad, conflicts, and just plain tribal shenanigans have all conspired to hindered the unfettered access of those wishing to chronicle the region’s unique wildlife and birds. There have been an intrepid few that dared enter into the heart of the continent. Grigory Grumm-Grzhimaylo was one of those hardy few. The Russian naturalist explored Central Asia between 1884 and 1890, and he covered at least 5400 miles. He traveled the Silk Road into the Alai Mountains and the mighty Tien Shan range. Grumm-Grzhimaylo collected over 1000 bird specimens and almost uncountable insects. His contribution to the natural history of Central Asia cannot be overstated, and his adventure is one that I dream to experience for myself.

Now with the release of the Birds of Central Asia from Princeton University Press, I began to dream of the high plateaus, deserts, forests, and jagged peaks of the region (all of which remind me of Montana). I imagine working hard to catch glimpses of Himalayan Snowcock, or spotting regal Steppe Eagles circling overhead. Birding along the Silk Road, a modern-day Marco Polo with binoculars, such are the nature of the daydreams.

The guide itself follows the standard Princeton format with informative text on the left page, and accompanying illustration printed on the opposite page. The text is generally concise with key identification attributes in bold text. As far as the voice subsection goes, I have never been a fan of phonetics, but how else can you describe the vocalizations of a bird in print? The illustrations, for the most part, are adequate, although they can appear to be cartoonish at times and too granular in other circumstances.

My minor quips aside, I found the Birds of Central Asia to be another excellent field guide from Princeton University Press. You may never get to the Tien Shan, but you can always dream, and this text is this dreamer’s new friend.

Northern Saw-whet Owl banding with ORI and Five Valleys Audubon

Northern Saw-whet Owl in hand

Northern Saw-whet Owl in hand

Every autumn, a massive migration goes largely unseen. It follows the river corridors and through the adjacent riparian habitats. Hundreds of birds pass by my home during the ever darkening nights. Waves of Northern Saw-whet Owls head southward as the lean times of winter near. One of the rivers that they utilize is the Bitterroot River that passes by my window as I type this posting and along the Maclay Flat National Recreation Area as well. This past Saturday, as the quarter moon arced over the Missoula Valley, the Five Valleys Audubon Society and the Owl Research Institute hosted a gathering of folks who were interested in seeing this small elf of the owl world.

Not all of the Northern Saw-whet Owls migrate, but many do undertake the task. A considerable segment of the migratory population are young birds. This makes sense as they are still seeking territories and are somewhat transitory and more apt towards migration. This scenario is seen in many other owl species and other raptors as well.

It suddenly occurs to me, what the heck is a saw-whet anyway? According to Merriam-Webster, the name saw-whet comes from the resemblance of the owl’s call to the sharpening of a saw using a file. The first known use of this name occurred in 1834. Seems to be plausible to me.

Denver Holt addressing the owl-seeking audience

Denver Holt addressing the owl-seeking audience

The Owl Research Institute is run by Denver Holt, who is a more than capable researcher and public speaker. He and his field team discussed the biological particulars of the Northern Saw-whet Owl and its migration, and fielded a barrage of eager questions from the crowd of around ~50 folks, which is a tremendous turn-out for an event on Party Night. Once the evening is free of the Sun’s last twilight gasps, the field team headed out to check the mist nets, and ten minutes they returned with…well, empty-handed. We waited for an additional half an hour, and this time they returned with a small, big-eyed owl.

The little owl was measured and weighed in at a hefty 99 grams (nearly a quarter-pounder). It also was relieved of 4 undertail coverts, which have material that will be DNA sequenced and analyzed. A small aluminum band with an unique identification number was attached to its left leg. If the owl is ever recaptured, then researchers will know from where it was first banded and any subsequent captures as well. Denver related a story where one of their Northern Saw-whet Owls was actually recaptured in Chico, California, a journey of some 600 miles over several mountain ranges. The audience was allowed to take images of this more than cooperative owl…he was ready for his close-up.

After all the pokes, prods, and flashes, the star of the show was release into night. I watched as it flew into the dim silhouettes of the ponderosa pines, and I imagine it continued on down the Bitterroot River towards its final destination.

Leg band being attached

Leg band being attached

The owl seems a bit pissed, no?

The owl seems a bit pissed, no?

Measuring the wing and determining age from feather condition

Measuring the wing and determining age from feather condition

Awaiting its release from these intrusions

Awaiting its release from these intrusions

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Thoughts on the Bridger Raptor Festival

Rehab Swainson's Hawk from the Montana Raptor Conservation Center

Rehab Swainson’s Hawk from the Montana Raptor Conservation Center

It has been a week plus since I give a couple of presentation at the Bridger Raptor Festival, which is held appropriately at the Bridger Bowl ski area outside of Bozeman, MT. The festival was widely attended with setting a record for the Saturday activities. I know that I had the best audiences that have attended any of my ramblings. This year’s topic was the impact and reasoning behind the record Snowy Owl numbers last winter.

This is a wonderful event with dozens of exhibitors and presentations. You can spend a few hours pursues the exhibits while the kids get their owl or hawk face paintings. Why do kids love that paint on their chubby little faces? Back to the point, the Raptor Festival continues to grow each year, and I hope to see you there next year.

Crowds gather for the live raptor presentation from the Yellowstone Association

Crowds gather for the live raptor presentation from the Yellowstone Association

Hiking up towards the ridge...and the raptors

Hiking up towards the ridge…and the raptors

Sand mandala creation at the Montana State Capitol

Venerable Ngawang Chojor creating the sand mandala

Venerable Ngawang Chojor creating the sand mandala

This past Friday, we were traveling through Helena, and as luck would have it, the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) was sponsoring the creation of a sand mandala in the rotunda of the Montana Capitol Building. TCEF dedicates itself to the preservation of the Tibetan culture through education and assistance, raising awareness of the culture, and by empowering Tibetans to carry out these goals. TCEF is wonderfully staffed by two friends of mine, Karma Tensum and Valerie Hellermann, and the mid-day was marked by being in their graceful presence. When we arrived in the rotunda of the Capitol, a local elementary class was present and observing the mandala creation. They ask many questions of Karma and the monk creating the mandala.

The mandala was being made by the Venerable Ngawang Chojor. Ngawang Chojor studied at the Namgyal Monastery in Lhasa where he mastered the meanings behind and making of sand mandalas. He has also perfected the ritual arts of butter sculpture and lama dance costumes. In my short time with him, he was warm, concentrated, and patient, which is saying something when you are surrounded by a class of elementary students who are allowed to ask questions. His precision and diligence in his task was something to be emulated in any endeavor.

The work is incredibly meticulous

The work is incredibly meticulous

Sand mandalas are circular forms containing many precise, often symmetrical  geometric patterns and images. Mandalas can be made of sand, stones, or rice, drawn, or present in the mind of the meditator. Mandalas aid the meditator as they represent a Pure Buddha Realm or the entire universe, and if properly envisioned, it acts as foundation for enlightenment. There are many different mandalas, each of them possesses their own unique aspects with common elements present in every one, such as the outer ring normally representing wisdom. The mandalas are not meant to be impermanent as they are swept away after they are completed, a lesson in impermanence to both the creators and observers of the mandala.


Delicately he funnels the colored sand into place

Delicately he funnels the colored sand into place

The precision of the sand mandala

The precision of the sand mandala

The sand mandala slowly approaches completion

The sand mandala slowly approaches completion

The many colored sands that are used

The many colored sands that are used

View of the sand mandala from high in the rotunda

View of the sand mandala from high in the rotunda

Visitors look in on the work being done

Visitors look in on the work being done