Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cut Off Israel Now!

We in the United States have been giving more government aid to Israel, an advanced industrial nation, than to all of Africa combined. In return, Israel goes on sporadic bombing binges -- this time to the south of its borders -- whenever it seems like good electoral politics.

The claim that Israel is acting in retaliation to rockets hurled by Hamas is
  • disproportionately absurd -- there's currently a 100 to 1 ratio between Palestinians killed by Israel and Israelis killed by rocket fire; and
  • false -- the four rockets were not hurled by Hamas but by the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The distinction that Hamas has is that the group won power in Gaza by election. That's a thorn in its side that the Israeli government can't abide.

The old argument that Israel was democratic and the Palestinians were not doesn't work here. No argument works except for a complete and immediate halt to this outrage.

We have the means to make it happen. Pull the plug on the billions the U.S. government gives Israel until Israel stops its military adventure.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Borges' Book Life

Struck by a reference by the prodigious Maud Newton to a scholarly study attempting to work out (of all things!) the literary math of the late Jorge Luis Borges, I wondered whether there wasn't a simpler explanation for his 1944 short story The Library of Babel (La biblioteca de Babel).

Like much of Borges' surreal writing, the story occurs in a "universal library" representing iterations of every possible idea ever written, a variation that one William Goldbloom Bloch, a math professor at Wheaton College estimates to yield 1033,013,740, an "unimaginably large" number. To certain mathematically masturbatory intellects reflections such as these is what Borges was all about.

In fact, however, to anyone who knows about Borges' physical relationship with books, from his early librarian assistant's job in the 1930s to his post as director of the National Library in Buenos Aires where Borges worked in the 1950s and 1960s, the point of the story is not mathematical at all.

Borges spent his life physically surrounded, and involved in the sisyphean task of overcoming the endless output of the publishing industry. In 1936, Borges' colleagues forbade him to catalogue books, as he could sort 100 per hour, making everybody else look bad. Wander through the claustrophobic aisles of the National Library and the short story that has fascinated many intellectually acquires a visceral reality.

Borges lived awash in books, a writer who went blind, lived much of his life with his mother and, despite two relatively utilitarian marriages, maintained distance from people. This story, as so many others, is a mental flight of fancy entirely devoid of emotions -- except his own.

One can see the librarian at work in this story, the man of paper and carton and wood shelves, used to a dry, somewhat stale environment and endless quietude.

Yes, there is math and brilliance and he was aware of such things. Yet the person, the experience at the bottom is the sense of living a universe made almost entirely of books. There is, perhaps, just a little claustrophobia in the aisles of his mind.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Last Commandment

Let's have a drum roll for the last of my godless commandments, albeit not the last of my ethical ruminations, and introduce it with a story about its origins.

As with the Psalms in the Bible, the numbering of the Ten Commandments is not uniform.

Catholics merge the first three biblical injunctions -- I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me, and you shall not make for yourself an idol -- into one first commandment. Anglicans consider the first injunction to be a preface, leaving the other two separate. Talmudic Judaism and Orthodox Christianity opt for two commandments, the first being the first injunction and the second containing the other two.

This is followed by seven parallel but differently numbered commandments. For example, Thou shalt not kill is the 5th commandment to Catholics, but the 6th to everyone else.

Then at the end, the Catholics catch up by drawing a distinction regarding the prohibition concerning coveting. The Douay-Rheims English translation, produced in France by exiled English Catholics during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, renders the commands as follows:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife: nor his house, nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his. (Deut. 5:21)
Obviously, the Catholics saw the colon as an important distinction, but others do not.

Catholic seminarians used to joke that to Protestants, evidently, wife and "ass" was pretty much the same thing. Ba-da-bing!

When I was constructing my norms founded in the notion of survival, I sought to focus on what might mitigate against my (one's) survival. Hence I promulgated the dictum that
Thou shalt rein in desires that give rise to hate, theft, disrespect of others, despoiling of the earth that sustains thee, and the diminishment of life.
The notion of coveting -- in dictionary definition, to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others -- has been the source of much mischief. Wrongfully? Inordinately? What is wrong? Is there an order, who defines it and what sets the order off kilter as to be "inordinate"?

No one argues much about the rights of others, any more than anyone credibly argues about "thou shalt not kill" (other than to say it doesn't apply to war, execution, abortion and few sundry other things).

The rights of others are pretty obvious; when we want to trample on them, we generally just ignore them and leave the sheriffs and deputies to argue about them.

Survival being so essential to the notion of ethics, I wanted to cover much broader, uncontested territory. I thought that any unbridled desire that could give rise to disrespect of another human being or the natural environment that sustains us, would be detrimental.

These would include envy, greed, prejudice. In action, I specified razing a forest merely to make more money, wishing an accident on someone who has a better car than ours, deriving one's own self-respect from a dim view of entire classes of people.

Let's face it: envy, greed and prejudice are toxic. They corrode inside us.

Often a home, a way of living, a job, looks, possesions or social standing that have served us perfectly well, become puny and embarrassing, simply because we see a mirage. We suddenly see in an imaginary lake the image of someone else richer or more beautiful, wealth beyond our normal imagining, a difference in appearance that we can make into something of to make ourselves look better.

Then we begin the mindless chase that disregards even our own well-being. Most of the time, if we manage to grasp the object of our desire for an instant, its gleam vanishes and we then seek it again and again, in hopes of retaining the glitter.

John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money would be enough. His reply was, "A little more."

This rule of life is about enough being enough. We can survive perfectly well with a lot less wealth, fewer possessions and a lower level of esteem than we think. We need not worry on this account.

Friday, December 19, 2008

It's a Madoff, Madoff, Madoff, Madoff World

Agence France Presse quotes Dominque Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, saying the following of the latest financial scandal, "The surprise is not that there are some thieves in the system, the question is where were the police?"

I beg to differ.

Financier Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion global pyramid investment scheme involved such gigantic servings of greed, stupidity and fraud so as to make one wonder about the moral fiber of humanity.

As in the 1963 Stanley Kramer all-star film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World about a wild goose chase for buried loot, nobody comes out unsullied in the Madoff affair:
  • not Madoff;
  • not the middlemen who solicited investments;
  • not the wealthy who put all their eggs in one rotten basket;
  • not the law enforcers who had the problem pointed to them and ignored it nonetheless;
  • not the policymakers who advocated total freedom for the "invisible hand" of the market; and certainly
  • not the whole lot of us who, in some measure, find ourselves able, from time to time, to tap our capacity for mendacity, greed, disregard for others, stupidity, laziness and cupidity.
This is an equal opportunity moral paradigm in which the issue is not who went wrong but why aren't we all in some sort of jail or at least sitting on a small chair facing a corner?

Sometime in my early childhood, at about the age of five, my obsession was to find the answer to the question, "Are people good or bad?"

My mother said people were essentially good, although in my recollection one could have said her motto was "trust but verify." She was always reserved about information that could give rise to envy, greed or pity; in some important ways, no one really knew her.

My father and many other relatives said the opposite, but their behavior was as careless as Madoff's customer list. They lived as if no one would ever fleece them; indeed, no one did, whereas my mother lived through some rank injustices.

Is that the way of the world?

Why should I care? Why does the fleecing of rich retirees in an exclusive country club evoke even the slightest sympathy in a world in which thousands of auto workers will be idled without pay for two weeks or more, and in which more than a 1,000 people have died of hunger in the last hour?

Perhaps because they are part and parcel of the same human condition.

For the first time in history, we have the means and resources for everyone, we just don't have enough of a will to share, to be fair, to be compassionate -- collectively or individually -- to eradicate extreme poverty, or extreme wealth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Solstice is a-comin'

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, a farthing will do,
If you haven't got a farthing, then God bless you!
This traditional English carol, frequently sung as a round, came to mind shortly after the first snow flurry here in Washington several weeks ago, then again upon reading Heartinsanfrancisco's blog post on the season, Oh come all ye spendful.

She is tired of the season already and no wonder.

In this economic-trough Christmas, with retail sales expectations crashing through the floor, Madison Avenue has unleashed advertising with full orchestration and four-part harmony weeks before Thanksgiving. Let's face it, in these times no one feels like shopping for anyone but children -- and then only to buy them practical things, like mittens.

In yet another piece of Christmas vitriol, 'Tis the Season To Be Incredulous by Christopher Hitchens restates, once again, his core objection to the holiday:
for almost a whole month, the United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state.
Replace Jesus with "the Dear Leader," as Hitchens does, and you'll get the idea of Christmas, North Korean style, which is a novel and humorous way of looking at it.

Sure, Christmas, from late Old English Cristes Maesse ("Mass of Christ"), is not, Heart correctly states, a particularly early Christian holiday. Still, I am unable to confirm the papal declaration from the year 320 of our era, which Heart cites, and would stay with the better known integration of the feast into the church Roman calendar around the 7th century.

Similarly, the December 25 Christmas feast coincides with the Roman sun-worship festival Natalis Invicti ("birthday of the unconquered"), which is believed to have roots in Mithraism. Still, direct links between the two are difficult to prove.

Finally, gift giving is traditionally linked to the largesse to children of St. Nicholas of Myra, located in today's Turkey, whose remains were taken to Italy, where he is known as St. Nicholas of Bari.

Thus, there is some support for the idea that Christmas is a religious feast of specifically Christian origin and content, even if some early Christian writers thought the birth of Jesus -- assuming it happened -- took place in April or May. Of course, it is hard to find the original idea behind the tree-worship of the Tannenbaum, the Druidic mistletoe and, of course, the commercial and cultural totalitarianism of shopping malls' piped-in carols.

Still, to this unbeliever, there seems little wrong with a holiday that is essentially an attempt to whistle in the dark and gloom of wintry nights. The solstice is when we are furthest from the life-enhancing and light-giving sun.

Why not wassail with some abandon? Why not hurl invectives at the night and cold and deadly bareness of the season? Why not purloin cheer and hope from whatever stories are closest at hand, without worrying whether the events they recount ever happened?

Have a happy solstice, everyone!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Detroit Is Dead, Long Live Detroit!

Having had the misfortune of dealing with the United Auto Workers, I feel it couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of hacks to be blamed for the auto bailout that wasn't. Aiding the merriment were the Republicans handing pretty decent political cover to Democratic leaders Nancy "Can't Count Votes" Pelosi and Harry "Spineless" Reid.

The next president can pretty much write his ticket in the face of this bunch of losers. And, yes, Motor City has pretty much had it now -- except that bankruptcy in 2008 is a far cry from bankruptcy in 1929. The Big Three, or Big Two, or maybe just Ford, will still be making those made-to-fall-apart pollutemobiles no one wants to buy for years to come.

Let's face it. If Brooke Shields were doing a commercial campaign for U.S. automakers her script couldn't credibly have women dying to get American engineering.

The quality of American cars has never been all that great. They've been big. They've been mass-produced. They've been marketed and mythologized.

Sure, up to 1970, somewhat more than two-thirds of all cars worldwide were American. But that was because the Europeans had committed continental suicide by the hundreds of millions in two, count 'em, world wars.

Remember those blue-gray Citroën 2CVs of the late 1940s, the "umbrella on four wheels," that were France's anticipation of big-wheel tricycles? And, of course, everyone remembers the postwar VW bug! And what about the East German sputtering Trabant, an engineering miracle in a country in which even machinery bolted down was taken home to Uncle Joe Stalin?

All of those European cars were ridiculously simple, toy vehicles that lasted and lasted and lasted well after the Berlin Wall fell.

And Japan, we'd dropped the bomb on them -- no wonder they were making those tinny scooters in the 1960s. Today Honda is laughing all the way to the bank.

Yet talk about historic irony! What undid the U.S. auto industry was the same military-industrial complex that gave it a near monopoly after World War II.

This came home to me reading Robert Reich's Supercapitalism. The economist relates, almost as an aside, how the curious confluence of shipping related to the Vietnam War created a natural pathway for the entry of Japanese cars into the U.S. market in the 1960s and 70s.

The Vietnam War came back to bite the USA.

Now the auto union that created Michigan's much vaunted "little Sweden" of high pay, good benefits and pensions, by refusing a wage concession, has probably helped create a job hemorrhage. Not that they should have conceded.

I certainly would have asked that management take pay cuts first. Pay cuts? Pink slips! They're the culprits, after all.

But the UAW deserves a little blame, too. This is the union that, if you find out their press office's phone number demands to know who told you. They shoot themselves in the foot every chance they get.

So do the Repubs, and Pelosi and Reid and the whole crew. It's Christmas. How else would you get so many blowhards felled in one big stroke?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Liberal, Conservative, Democrat, Republican, Green

In a political version of American political eeny, meeny miney, moe, my headline attempts, in response to recent comment to my recent essay about conservative ideas, to count some of the possible varieties.

Individuals, of course, do not come in pure unalloyed laboratory state. We can be, as one commenter wrote, conservative in social customs and liberal politically. Or, as some (gold-digging?) Washington women claim, Democrats are fiscally liberal about the public purse, but not on a date when it's their dime.

But, careful! "Liberal" and "Conservative" have checkered histories when it comes to a social, economic and political worldview, for short, a political economy.

Conservatism, as I failed to mention, usually arises after the alleged thing to be conserved is gone or has been changed. The Counter-Reformation attempted belatedly to get rid of Protestantism ... too long after Luther had let the cat out of the bag.

Indeed, this is where it gets tricky.

In the 17th and 18th century Europe, all countries -- except Switzerland -- were monarchies of one sort or another, interrupted by occasional upstarts, such as Cromwell. The challenge came from the promoters of the industrial revolution and the new form of banking based on money traded as capital.

These were skilled, educated, city-dwelling and mercantile-minded burghers, the future bourgeoisie, who had neither land nor title but aspired to a place in society. The monarchist nobility, based on agrarian wealth, fiercely opposed the budding industrial capitalists.

The Cromwellian civil war in England might be deemed an expression of that conflict.

But note: the capitalists were the liberalizers of trade, the "Liberals," while the monarchists and agrarians were mercantilist and protectionist "Conservatives." In Continental Europe, this is still the prevailing nomenclature.

Liberal democracy is, hence, capitalist democracy, in which the government is a committee of the capitalist class -- the men of Philadelphia in 1776, the ones who penned the words "we, the people," were all male, white gentry who owned vast estates with slaves or urban industrial enterprises founded on indentured servitude.

The Whig, Federalist, Democratic and Republican parties, the only ones ever allowed to compete to win in electoral contests to see who has the biggest bankroll and the craftiest lawyers, were all only teams -- call them Harvard and Yale -- with a common ideology even to this day.

Today's conservatives, as we saw, seek a status quo ante that never existed.

Contemporary liberals, in contrast, are really social democrats, seeking to extend the democratic experiment begun for the privileged few to all classes and races, to economic power as well as civil power.

We are about to see how this plays out.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Thou Shalt Partake of Sex

What if, instead of mortification of the flesh, abstinence, avoidance, belts and locks and scarlet letters, our religions and reigning ethics had an imperative principle to seek to slake fleshly desires, to engage in carnal pleasure, to seek out every lickerishness, to open the doors of every bedroom and heap praise on the randy hearted?

You'll say that's why they invented the Internet and its seemingly endless parade of porn.

But, no, I mean an imperative: something like "remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day," yet for sex. Certainly our bodies drive us to extremely silly and oft-reckless behavior in response to the stimuli that cause sexual arousal.

To provide an example of a philosophical version of the drive was my intent in penning the ninth of my godless commandments four years ago:
Thou shalt enjoy the flesh of others, respecting their own desires as well as thine and taking responsibility for any consequences thereof.
Today these words feel as unsatisfactory as they day I wrote them, especially since the underlying notion behind this set of ethics I have proposed, is the universally agreed notion that prizes human survival.

From the point of view of survival, sex is principally reproductive. We spawn ... for what? It's not the oft-cited notion that our children are there to have someone to care for us in old age -- ha!

To my mind, the biological point of reproduction is to replace each individual within a species after death, and to provide sufficient replacements to withstand environmental pressures against the species continued existence. If we spawn in large enough numbers, the worst catastrophe won't wipe us all out.

Not for nothing individuals in some species die after reproductively successful sex. The praying mantis female bites off the male’s head immediately after, sometimes during, sexual intercourse. Perhaps it was in a related sense that the dualistic, sex-conflicted English Victorians called orgasm "the little death."

Certainly, also, reproduction was what Pope Paul VI was thinking about in 1968 when he issued the immensely imprudent encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming Catholic docrtine's opposition to artifical means of contraception.

Still, then and now critics in and outside scientific circles have noted that even animals don't engage in sex merely to reproduce. Sex also serves to cement social bonds.

Regular sex with a caring partner, or three, is also recognized among humans as a significant factor in one's happiness, one's degree of patience and tolerance toward others. Doesn't the world seem rosy when one walks out into the street from the arms of a good lover?

Remember, then, to partake, now and then, prudently, with willing and able partners of an appropriate age and suitable health.

Remember, also, that sex has consequences, from irretrievable affection to parenthood to death. Clicking sex into operation, as with software, carries with an implied end-user license agreement. Read his or hers carefully because, even if you don't, the other person's EULA kicks in immediately -- as does yours.

All this notwithstanding, dare to give yourself to another in one of life's most pleasant endeavors.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why Conservatism Was Always Doomed

In the future, when Dubya is known as the Hoover of the 21st century, it will seem obvious: the wave of conservatism from Reagan to the second Bush was sheer folly. What may not seem as obvious is the philosophical truth that all conservatism is always untenable.

The human impulse to conserve arises primarily out of illusion. We imagine that something we know or believe is either worthy of preserving or will actually last forever.

Yet if we know only one thing it's that the central characteristic of reality is change -- growth, decay and renewal, over and over and over again.

In a wide-ranging discussion of his philosophical worldview, education innovator A. S. Neill once confessed his profound doubt concerning God. People point to Christianity's two millenia, he argued, yet the cult of Isis lasted longer and where are her followers today?

Where is Rome, Athens and Sparta, the Persian Empire, the Ming dynastry?

Indeed, where are the absolute monarchs? Montesquieu, who lived under the last of them in France, was a precursor of the French Revolution and the ideas behind American independence.

He compared monarchy to a galleon capable of sailing the seven seas yet vulnerable to sinking like a rock if hit by a single well-placed cannonball. Democracy, Montesquieu also wrote, is more like a raft in rapids: it sometimes gets flipped over yet ultimately always floats, seeking equilibrium ... like reality itself, I would add.

Perennially seeking equilibrium in which to float, however, is not the same as achieving it. That ideal floating equilibrium is elusive precisely because it is ideal -- it is an abstraction, what could or might be, but not what is.

But surely some things must be there at the eternal point of equilibrium, you say?

Moral principles are eternal and universal, some argue. I believe that our desire to survive creates moral imperatives, but these differ markedly from the ethics of most religions.

Also, our survival, individual or as a species, is not a sure thing by a long shot. Not eternal. We're really johnny-come-latelies in our planet. Current science places our collective origin some 200,000 years ago in Africa. Contrast this with our planet's 4.5 billion years.

If you wanted to pay the Earth and humans $1 per 100,000 years of existence, the Earth would get $4.5 million and humans just $2.00. A mansion versus a fancy cup of latte.

Has the temporal insignificance of everything we hold dear dawned yet?

In such a state of reality, the only sane public policy, the only survival approach to life, is to adapt to change. To conserve is not merely foolish, it is a falsehood. Nothing is conserved, nothing stays the same.

Even change is almost never absolute and irreversible. Until it is. Mark Twain put it another way: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."

Moreover, modern conservatism, political or religious, isn't really that conservative.

In the 1950s the Republicans demonized Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson because, among other things, he was divorced. From the 1980s to the 2000s, the "moral majority" adored divorced, lapsed Catholic Ronald Reagan.

Funny how those immutable morals changed, even among the most rabidly fundamentalist Protestants in the country.

For the most part, neo-conservatives want to preserve a past that never existed.

It's a Disneyfied 1908, when everyone was white and polite and Christian. Men with handlebar moustaches concerned themselves with important matters such as business and machines, while women read poetry at their sewing circles.

Conservatism is about the illusion that time and life can be somehow jarred and pickled, or made into a never rancid jam. It's an idea that is doomed from the moment it is spoken.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Facing Hard Times

In early 1981 I purchased my co-op apartment from an older lady who had moved in with her husband in 1931. She had remodeled very little: the claw-foot bathtub that a few apartments in the building still have is gone, but I still have the kitchen cabinet piece then known as a "hoosier," which I knew only from the TV show "The Waltons."

Nostalgia, grainy photographs were almost all I knew about the Great Depression. The stories of people jumping off buildings after the crash are mostly apocryphal, I have recently learned.

From time to time, I wondered how the couple that had lived those years in my apartment had coped. Were they happy living in simplicity? Did they fight over the dollars that had to be stretched for their needs and those of the daughter brought up in this place?
I never found out.

Mr. G. was handy or knew someone who was. There's a manual can opener (still works!) screwed to the wall. When I moved in a brass plaque with their family name had been screwed onto the door. I also found a toolbox with a sturdy heavy metal wrench and hammer -- conveyed with the hoosier.

The only calamity I feared for most of my life was nuclear war. Of all the disasters that were predicted as a result, the one that seized my imagination were the electromagnetic impulses that would render all electronic gadgets useless instantly.

What would work? Technology from the 1930s, which was mostly mechanical.

Thus, I still hold onto a Smith-Corona manual typewriter (although I haven't figured out where I'll find ribbons after nuclear war) and for years I harbored the illusion that most of my life could go on more or less unchanged if technology from after the 1930s were wiped out. Indeed, back then my carbon footprint was tiny: I had no car or television. By choice.

These thoughts have come back as the prospect of a second Depression looms large on the horizon.

The adjustments we face are each very small. It is only when we account for it in the aggregate -- when we have pictured giving up our Internet connection to buy cat food for our dinner -- that we realize that we face losing a way of life that so recently seemed destined to be the future of humanity.

Interestingly enough, life goes on no matter what, in soup kitchen lines and even in concentration camps. We all cling even to what is obviously a miserable life. Even in the camps, as Primo Levi wrote in his Holocaust memoir, there was humor and inmates played practical jokes on each other.

After all, hard times are just like good times, without the pleasure.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Thank You" to GIs?

Heartinsanfrancisco's blog has provoked me again and this time, I won't cogitate, write and rewrite endlessly before responding. She proposes sending thankyou cards to the U.S. troops in Iraq.

No. I disagree. For a million reasons, none of them intending the slightest disrespect to Heart, whose posts force me to think out my views.

First of all, there's the matter of soldiering and moral responsibility: following orders is not an excuse. I already explained my views in detail in the post titled On Armistice Day.

Second, these folks weren't even drafted. They volunteered. They're being paid. When they come home they will get medical and educational benefits that Americans who have not trained to commit homicide on order can only dream of ... on our dime. We've all said and will continue to say "thank you" any number of ways, many of them against my will.

Third, the whole American love affair with veterans and the supposed patriotism of war (Dulce et Decorum Est?) is a rank falsehood, designed to con the least educated, the poorest to be used as cannon fodder for the bond traders, the jetsetting CEOs and the glitterati.

Fourth, and this goes to the specifics of Heart's post (but, again, not the author personally), the whole notion of a company paying for thankyou cards is PR. Xerox wants everyone to know how good they are, how "patriotic" -- and to keep buying Xerox products.

To say "thank you" allays our complicity in the con and the merchandising of war as good.

Yet how can we possibly take pride that our society is capable of producing amoral men and women capable of aiding and abetting atrocity committed in our name, such as Lynndie England and Charles Graner at Abu Ghraib. Their explanation? They did not know it was wrong.

Thank you? More like "you make me sick and ashamed."

Where is the military person of principle who resisted the invasion and participation in the occupation of a country that did nothing to us? Where is the soldier with courage of conviction?

Insofar as I am concerned, they are all cowardly mercenaries -- killers for hire -- and I sure as hell never wanted them hired. Not for Iraq, Grenada, Panama, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic ... shall I go on?

Yes, I did say "cowardly." When the one superpower with an intact nuclear arsenal, possessing a military that is larger than the next ten armed forces put together, takes on -- unprovoked -- a 50th-rate ragtag army of a poor country, that's called cowardly bullying.

So, no thank you from me. Yes, I am sorry for the mothers who lost their children in an insane war project that I opposed from beginning to end. I don't know how Bush can even sleep knowing he wasted thousands of lives for ... what?

But if these mothers' children had stood up for decency and principles with courage, and refused to go, they would all most likely be alive today. The ones who went and survived are no heroes to me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Christian Ecology

In the end, if the teachings of the Christian gospels were fully lived out, history would be replaced by a life of universal Zen-like, other-directed detachment. Humanity would be kind, simple, chaste and ultimately extinct, like the Shakers.
'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
                                                               (Shaker hymn)
Then war and misery and pollution would cease. Species of plants and animals would retake the space we once occupied. The world might then be a place of natural entropy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

45 Years Ago

I thought I would never recover from that afternoon on November 22, 1963. Even a year later I cried watching the USIA film "John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums." Everybody who was alive remembers where they were when they heard about the shots in Dallas.

In fact, the whole idea of remembering where you were when ... that started then.

I was on a 5th grade field trip to the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, also known as the Pink House because its exterior walls are painted in an amalgam of the fighting colors of each side in a long civil war in the 19th century -- red and white.

It was the one place sure to hear about the events in Dallas almost instantaneously. And so it happened. We were waiting to go into one of the ceremonial rooms when a man walked up to another saying, "We have to tell the president that Kennedy's been shot."

The tour ended sometime later in a blur. One of the teachers had our school bus stop by a news kiosk and bought a tabloid with the start headline that confirmed that something had happened.

The headline hedged and the paper was, from what I knew, hugely disreputable and purchased only for fun. Someone had once called to my attention a photo of a pugilist it ran with the caption "Here is [boxer I can't recall] as he will look when he climbs down from his plane from Europe tomorrow."

So, of course, it wasn't true. Right? It couldn't have happened. Right? In the United States ... then, wait ... Abraham Lincoln came into focus.

The bus stopped again at another kiosk where a teacher bought a second edition of a more reputable evening paper.

Not only had he been shot, he was dead!

"It was the Russians!" said my grandmother.

"It was the Cubans!" said another relative.

"It was the Germans!" exclaimed my mother's foot doctor, a European Jew with some reason to mistrust Germans.

We still don't know who it was and at this point it no longer matters.

The event changed all of us. A significant part of the hopeful, optimistic, can-do, largely admired, at worst envied land, verging on fulfilling its promise to do better by humanity, that USA died that day. If I ever believed in a happy ending for history, that stopped that day.

I had no inkling of what it would feel like 45 years later. At the ripe old age of 11, I wrote a letter to the pope, asking that Kennedy be canonized as a martyr. How oddly funny it seems today!

Yet my own childish sentiment was very little different from those of poor and simple people living in huts in Latin America and slums of Brooklyn where they keep their pictures or statuettes of the Virgin Mary next to their picture of Kennedy, decades later still smiling, still inspiring hope.

Even this past year, we flea-bitten, media-savvy, Watergated and Vietnamed and Bushwacked Americans saw in a black senator from Illinois something "Kennedyesque" that moved us all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Human Loneliness

When Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, settled on a title for her autobiography, it was "The Long Loneliness," in part a reference to the lover she lost for her faith, in part a reflection on the human condition. We all endure the long loneliness.

This came to me last weekend when the company of a special friend was denied me and I realized that I do not have many friends at all, despite living in the same city now for roughly 30 years.

Speaking with friends and mulling this over, I also realize that part of the reason is that I am overly critical. The vast majority of people are tedious: they talk about themselves, their possessions, their trips, their lifestyle and their work.

The friends one knew in college, those with whom one could talk about politics and philosophy until the wee hours while nursing beers warm, they are all gone. Maybe they never existed.

Deep in the human heart there is instead a gaping gnawing, living hole. A black hole that tells us that, in the end, we're all on our own.

Friends will call you when they want something, want to tell you something. We know that humanity is essentially self-interested.

Lovers may assuage the loneliness, but they will never fill it. I have a broken marriage as witness.

In the absence of a God, there is nothing to fill that void that is felt most acutely when we are alone and in need. As in the story of Jesus, we will all know the experience of being deserted by everyone.

The human loneliness explains a multitude of endeavors -- religion, love, literature and art, the search of riches and power and sex -- yet none of them ever overcome that sense of living without rhyme or reason, loveless, artless, without any real wealth or security in the end, questionably or temporarily attractive, in a word, alone.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Blog Post of Laughter and Forgetting

As I forget my identification at home, or my wallet, or my head when it is not attached, I am reminded of the title of Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It occurs to me that we Boomers are entering a stage in which the Orwellian destruction of memory against which Kundera protests is inevitable.

I was always an absent-minded professor, someone who has known me since my 20s reminds me. Even I recall that I always fought against my forgetting and perennial messiness, with decidedly mixed results.

So?

About a decade ago my printer's rep died and what his colleagues most remembered with laughter was his tendency to forget to turn off his cell phone before a meeting. That was when cellular phones were new.

As I near the completion of the second edition of a family history on which I have been laboring almost all my life, it occurred to me that I didn't scan in pictures at the optimum resolution. Thank goodness I kept the photos rather than discarding them. Some grandchild will have to scan them more accurately in using the precursor of 22nd century technology.

For myself, I'm done as soon as the editing, writing and layout is finished. There are a number of projects that I now begin to realize I am unlikely ever to complete to my satisfaction.

Similarly, there are a number of achievements I will never attain. I won't grow up to be President of the United States nor managing editor of The New York Times.

So? Can't I simply laugh it off and forget these silly yearnings? Kundera wrote with a similar irony of the air-brushing-out in official photos of politicians purged from the Czech Communist Party.

Granted, in Soviet forced forgetting there was a tacit and symbolic death brought about that Kundera understandably rebelled against. Death by murder always feels like a violation.

Yet doesn't nature murder us all? Don't I face an explicit and actual death?

Oddly enough, I become less rebellious against my murder by nature's hand with every day that passes. I am getting old enough to laugh at it, to gain an indifference to whether it occurs  next week or 30 years from now.

It is almost as if life has excised a bad tooth and given me laughing gas to avoid the pain.

Having lived in a dictatorship with relative everyday ease, I wonder now whether living in a totalitarian regime was all that different from the dictatorship of nature: laughter and forgetting to ease whatever ails us, instead of the futile struggle to remember.

Soviets were paying rent at 1920s rates in the 1990s. Sure, the ruble wasn't a freely convertible currency, but I doubt it made a difference for the majority of Russians. Would it have changed things that much in America?

As one who lives and breathes politics, it might be difficult to forgo certain kind of arguments in cafes or on the Internet, but in the end, have I ever really solved any social problem with my discussions?

Most people want a few simple things. A full belly, some affection or facsimile thereof, clothes appropriate to the season, a decent place to live, something to keep us occupied. Oh, and something to complain about.

Was there a richer, more compassionate humor anywhere outside of Soviet Russia in our lifetime? Remember "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us"? I doubt there was anything like it amid the stationwagons and color TV sets of Levittown.

Sure, I could to without the wanton murder of some 30 million people under Stalin. But even people who lived through the Red Terror are wistful about it today.

In the end, it is all laughter and forgetting.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Agnostic Via Media

Anglicans like to call their faith a via media, or middle way, between Rome and Wittenberg. Much the same is the place of the agnostic, I have found.

I am not talking of those who are religionless by default but fearful of the cosmic spanking they might get in the afterlife. Those who call themselves "agnostic" to avoid the stares and frowns prompted by "atheist."

No, I am talking as someone who once believed with conviction. Not just in childhood, either. Not just as a matter of good manners or custom. Not as a cultural expression (well, perhaps a little).

I had faith and now all I have is doubt I cannot overcome. I offer this mindful of Romano Guardini's definition of faith as the capacity to overcome doubt.

The terrible thing is that I am reasonably well educated about religion. I am conversant with the salient issues in theology, biblical research and ecclesiology and the gallons of ink spilled attempting to resolve them.

Indeed, I enjoy a good discussion on these themes. I can articulate with very reasonable fidelity the prevailing consensus concerning the basic teachings of Christianity, the Catholic Church and some branches of Protestantism -- even though I do not believe in any of it.

To my mind, the question isn't even whether God exists, but whether Jesus of Nazareth ever really walked the face of the earth, which I highly doubt.

There ought to be a church in which people who do not believe can go and discuss these things. I'm not interested in socials, bake sales, services or the like. Just a good discussion in which I can speak with like minded people and broaden my understanding with the comforting knowledge that none of these questions can ever be definitively answered.

Give me the church of St. John Dominic Crossan, please.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Good Are the Churches?

Two issues, two days, two wrongheaded political interventions by churches: Mormons fund a proposal to ban gay marriage, Catholic bishops begin murmuring about opposing Obama on their micro-issues. Maybe it's time to take away the tax exemptions of churches, see if they have time to screw around with the rest of us then.

Note that they're never out in front for peace or for poverty reduction. Only exceptionally, and usually for the self-interest of their congregations, do they come out in favor of ethnic tolerance.

I won't even bother with whether their beliefs make sense. Let's look at their actions, which principally amount to wanting to carve into the stone of the civil, religiously neutral law of a pluralistic society minor quirks of their moral codes.

Let's start with the Mormons. The Church of Latter-Day Sainst opposes gay marriage; fine, no judge will force a church to perform a marriage that violates the churches teachings.

Certainly, no Catholic priest is legally obligated to marry a divorced Catholic who does not have an canon law annulment: Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of the bond created by the sacrament of matrimony trumps secular law under the U.S. Constitution.

On the issue of marriage, Mormons have their own unusual history.

In 1890, then-LDS President Wilford Woodruff claimed he received a revelation that polygamy, previously taught as consistent with "God's law," should be banned. The oracular event was instrumental in Utah's admission into the USA in 1896. Yet even then the first Mormon elected to the House in 1898 was denied a seat because he practiced polygamy.

Should the Mormons be allowed polygamy? Why not? The Catholics are allowed not to recognize divorce decrees that are perfectly legal in civil courts.

But it doesn't end there. The Mormons also banned blacks from the priesthood or their temples in 1849, a doctrine that was not altered until 1978. Note that government did not interfere in the application of this doctrine.

Much the same can be said of Catholicism, which as a matter of practice in the United States upheld separate seating, and in some places separate churches, for blacks and whites. The practice was still known to occur in 1949, I am aware, when Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle banned it in his diocese and swiftly unseated several pastors who defied him.

But, you might say that the Catholic Church gives plenty to the poor through Catholic Charities, no? Actually, no. Between 45 and 65 percent (depending on the source) of Catholic Charities' funding comes from contracts with the government.

Catholic Charities heyday as a private beneficence was when its charges were white and Irish. Once the Irish moved to the suburbs and clients began to be primarily black or Hispanic, the organization needed government money to continue.

Now comes Archbishop Francis George of Chicago, arguing that bishops should express opposition to the rumored regulatory changes that the Obama administration will make in the areas of abortion counseling and stem-cell research.

Why haven't the bishops been as vocal on other issues as they have on this? Isn't it a fact that the bishops want a law on abortion because their preaching has failed so abysmally that Catholics are statistically as likely to divorce or get an abortion as non-Catholics?

Why should we taxpayers subsidize this nonsense? The LDS and Catholic churches have plenty of money -- witness the millions paid out in damages in response to lawsuits from pedophile priests' victims.

Traditional religion is, indeed, the only wholly untaxed business in the USA. Whatever social purpose they may have been deemed to perform in the past, that role is long gone. In a country that prides itself on the separation of church and state, religion should be taxed, like pornography, cigarettes and liquor.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Hem of His Garment

Just as walking the streets of Washington besieged by beggars I occasionally wonder if this is what it might feel like to be God (imagine 6 billion supplicants), reading the post-election punditry makes me think of President-elect Obama in the role of Jesus followed by a mob seeking miracles every which way.
And they besought him that they might touch but the hem of his garment. And as many as touched, were made whole. (Matthew 14:36).
The pundits and politicians from the right are insisting that this is a "center-right" country and that the economy, meaning the plutocrats, not the uninsured, unemployed, or those simply struggling, comes first. Not to be outdone, the liberal-left insists that the 8-million-vote margin is a mandate and that President-elect Obama should beware of the Clintonite wolves in sheep's clothing who gave us NAFTA, no health care reform and the Gringrich version of welfare.

So, the magic of the Obama victory is already fading as the urgency of the problems ahead make themselves felt. We are now all supplicants with a yen to be healed.

Heal us, Obama, from the calamity of being the only leading industrial nation that fails to aid individuals in need -- those who are sick, unemployed, disabled, young, or in old age; give us a womb-to-tomb system of social insurance.

Heal us, Obama, from the scourge of war that has blighted nearly every American generation; make us a nation of peace.

Heal us, Obama, from the arrogance of thinking that we are "Number One" by right rather than happenstance; instill in us the humility necessary to accept the global responsibilities bestowed on us by fate.

Heal us, Obama, from our smugness and false pride, from thinking that our ethnicity or sex or particular manners or beliefs are the best; help us become tolerant of one another and of all others.

Amen

Thursday, November 06, 2008

To Be President One Day

The festivities in the streets on Tuesday and yesterday's elation in what I'll call "Smiling Wednesday" call to mind my feelings in November 1960, as a Catholic schoolboy, when the country elected a Catholic and my coreligionists instantly ceased being second-class citizens.

 * photo origin unknown; will credit or take down if requested

Although the "No Irish Need Apply" signs are part of myth rather than history, this country was distinctly Protestant and anti-Catholic for most of its history. Bigotry against Catholics is still socially acceptable 48 years after the 1960 election.

Evidence of past prejudice is amply in evidence in the city I live, Washington, D.C., on 16th Street, the boulevard that starts from smack in the middle of the White House. The street is also known as "the street of churches." However, when the Shrine of the Sacred Heart was built in the 1920s, it had to be placed on a spur off 16th Street because neighboring Protestant leaders found a Catholic church fronting on 16th offensive.

It is evident in the things even "cool" Protestant ministers today feel entitled to say.

I am no longer a practicing Catholic for philosophical reasons, but I still bristle at the abiding prejudice that John F. Kennedy helped, if not erase, at least mitigate. This broke the spell cast on Alfred E. Smith, the Irish Catholic four-times-elected governor of New York, only to lose to Herbert Hoover in 1928 due to what a contemporary journalist described as "the three P's: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity."

A Catholic could grow up to be president starting in 1960, just as an African American can grow up to be president starting now.

It's a wonderful feeling when something that characterizes you or your family, something not easily changed, something incidental to character, no longer stands as a bar to your dreams.

This week that happened again.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President-elect Obama

What a fine ring those words have! Otherwise, I am speechless, basking in the moment's glow.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Why I am voting for Obama

Time to make the last ditch push with anyone who is still undecided. This is probably the most important election of my lifetime, which spans a bit more than half a century. It's time to decide.

Why Obama?
I originally came to Obama by process of elimination among the Democratic candidates.

The Clinton coterie bothered me. Biden didn't strike me as quite right. I liked the insouciance of Dennis Kucinich (and, yes, his wife), but i didn't thnk he had a snowball's chance in hell.

Then, I found myself watching Obama speak shortly after winning South Carolina and I knew I was in the presence of someone Kennedyesque for the first time since the Boston-accented, first and only Catholic president, whose inauguration I had lived to witness. Whatever might be said about Kennedy today, after we know more than we ever wanted about the darker side of Camelot, his gift was an oratory that mobilized and first set me dreaming.

Obama had that.

Then I began to examine his positions and what his aides said and I came to the conclusion that this was a man who acted with deliberation. There was nothing improvised about him.

When gas prices went up and McCain and Hillary Clinton launched their demagogic call for a gas tax holiday, Obama said the sober "no." He was right. Gas prices woke the country up.

When he had to choose a running mate, Obama displayed the wisdom and humility to choose someone who had criticized him sharply, but was, without question, experienced in policy and statesmanship.

When the bottom fell out of the economy, Obama laid out four crisp principles and they are embodied in the legislation authorizing the $700 billion bailout of the finance sector.

That's three for three.

Hillary's health plan was more generous and innovative, but it probably would never pass. Biden wanted to withdraw too quickly from Iraq (although his trial balloon on partition -- which worked for Yugoslavia, a country similarly artificial and divided -- was very good).

Yet every policy proposal of Obama's that I have heard -- and I have listened to his economic advisers at length -- has a crispness, sobriety and focus on the majority that is sound and actionable. When he says we can recover, I trust that he will use the proper tools to get there.

In sum, I have confidence that Obama will be not just a president I can agree with, but one who will be great and may convince me to change my views in a number of areas. That's a leader.

Why not McCain?

It's perhaps a sign of how far to the right the United States shifted since 1981 that John McCain was even a viable candidate. Yet, like his fellow Arizonian Barry Goldwater, I long knew McCain to be an extremist.

Here is a man so besotted with private enterprise as to disdain the environmental and urban traffic benefits of Amtrak, which he has repeatedly attempted simply to abolish.

Why not privatize rivers and mountains? (Oops, in a reality-trumps-satire turn of events, they've just announced from the Bush White House that they're considering opening federal lands in Utah for mining.)

McCain is not merely conservative; he's almost to the right of the libertarians. Study his record and you will discover a man who saw Ronald Reagan as failing to damage government enough and George W. Bush as a patsy.

While I think Obama might be a tad too critical of some programs I like, and Hillary's people too uninformed about them, given a free hand McCain would simply abolish every domestic program that was not connected to law enforcement and security, starting with social security.

Imagine what would have happened to the retirement of millions this year if policymakers had listened to McCain and social security had been turned into privately held stock market investment accounts!

McCain is simply unthinkable for anyone who is honest about electing the head of state of a 21st century, complex society such as the United States.

Monday, October 27, 2008

But, What is Art?

The cliché in the title most often refers to the ultra-precious art critic who superciliously hides behind posturing to avoid the risk of a definitive stance. It is also a phrase that evokes effete wine and cheese gallery show openings, with competing artists' and patrons' bitchy gossip about each other. All of these have recoiled in horror whenever I have made the philistine suggestion that the art of our time is commercial.

Think of it for a moment.

Recall three or four posters on buses or billboards, selling whatever it was. Couldn't you connect immediately with what the images were about, with the thousand subtle messages in every detail? Couldn't you do that without Sister Wendy explaining what each item meant?

That was how the contemporaries of Leonardo or Giotto reacted to the paintings that today are in museums. The contextual message was obvious.

In the Italian Renaissance, the established (though weakening) worldview was European medieval Christianity, a world of Christs and Madonnas and of ferocious biblical events. That view was propagated in a largely illiterate society through artifacts sponsored (as in paid for, just like modern commercial sponsorships) by the Church.

The maecena, or patron of the arts, shared this worldview. The world had been created by God, who had called certain patriarchs and prophets until Jesus Christ, who had then called upon certain saints to give witness to the truth. All art illustrated the commonly held narrative.

But that's not all.

Renaissance art rarely attempted to be historically realistic. People from antiquity are dressed as Florentines or Parisians dressed in the 1300s, 1400s and 1500s. There's some interpretation, often veiled for fear of the Holy Office of the Inquisition: Michelangelo painted on Hell's denizens the faces of some cardinals he found obnoxious.

What's the difference? Our narrative is about our god, money, and the power, pleasure and freedom it promises to give us all. Every commercial poster, every TV commercial is really selling the uniquely American mythology that everyone can be and have all they want.

Get X (a BMW, a certain deodorant, a certain credit card) and you will be a beautiful woman or be surrounded by them, on a beach near crystalline waters and be envied and admired by all. Note that I used "BMW." Does any reader not know what a BMW is?

And the technique!

The modern, sophisticated television commercial conveys a whole contextual storyline in seconds: we know immediately she's his wife or he's her father. There are emotions: women fall in love with their cellular telephones, or think that their "chocolate" color is appetizing.

Andy Warhol, perhaps one of the first people to recognize commercial art, where he started, as art, and put the message in the following way:
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
That is why you can go to some foresaken village in the Peruvian Andes of the mountains of Afghanistan and find, somewhere in or outside the general store that red circle with 1890s lettering that reminds everyone in whatever language that the product offered is "the pause that refreshes."

Sure, in our current economic crisis, those who did not realize that mythologies are, well, myths, are suddenly discovering that, just as God and theist religions have their shibboleths, inadequacies and downright fantasies, Mammon will not, in reality, solve all your problems, or even be there when you're in trouble -- any more than God will.

My point is not about money or religion, but about art. When archeologists of the future come upon your skull or mine and mutter, "ah, primitive man!" they will find ubiquitous among our artifacts a circular red metal emblem.They will thereafter write endless papers on the meaning of the words "Coca Cola" in the art of the ancient past.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Joe the Plumber -- the economics

A correspondent has asked me a question about the assumptions underlying the whole Joe the Plumber discussion in the last debate between Barack Obama and John McCain: how much must a company take in before the owner takes home $250,000?

Keep in mind that companies, unlike individuals, are taxed on profits, not on income (unless it's capital gains from investments). From everything a company receives as revenue for the goods or services it sells, one must first subtract the legitimate business expenses (materials, labor, overhead, etc.) that for the purposes of the tax code are deductions.

What's left is profit. Since Obama said he is exempting businesses with taxable income (profit) of $250,000, that means, assuming a low profit margin of 10%, that the company had to have revenue of $2.5 million. That profit can be plowed back into the company, after it is taxed, or distributed before taxes as a dividend to the owner(s), then taxed as the owner's income.

But wait! The owner can still have made $250,000 from the business with a smaller revenue.

Say Joe's business makes $1.25 million, or half of what we just said. If 10% was profit, that would be $125,000 the company could pay him as a dividend, assuming he's the sole owner. Joe could, in addition, have paid himself $125,000 in salary throughout the year.

This is not typical for a plumbing business of that size and I understand that the real Joe makes about $40,000 a year.

Moreover, at that level, the business would not pay additional taxes, according to what Sen. Obama said, because the profits were not $250,000. If Joe took $124,000, he would still be below the $250,000 at which his personal taxes will not be raised.

Last thing. The real median household income in the United States was $50,233 in 2007, the last year for which data are available. This means that half the households made more and half made less.

Want to know what percentage of households earned $250,000? About 5%.

The great myth that John McCain is selling is that Obama raises your taxes. If you are like 95% of all Americans, including me, that's just not true.

Sure, Obama will raise taxes on 7-home households like those of John McCain and his buddies. People at that level will not go hungry.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Shivers

Ever since my late teens I experienced for many years a psychosomatic phenomenon I dubbed "the shivers," for lack of a better term. An unbidden unpleasant memory would pop and I'd shiver to shake it off.

The memories were not necessarily the stuff of novels and melodrama. Most of them were tiny, tiny embarrassing moments.

It was the sort of thing that, had it referred to wrongdoing, people brought up in Catholicism might have called "scrupulosity," in the old traditional language: an obsessive concern with one's personal sins, including "sinful" acts or thoughts usually considered minor or trivial.

A few typical ones of mine:
  • As a teenager my mind used to drift during the Gloria at the point when the congregation says "Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father." While my mouth said the words, my brain would rebel and say to me "son of a bitch." It bothered me. The thought was sacrilegious.
  • Another one that haunted me for years was when I finally earned my Second Class badge in the scouts. I was a Tenderfoot, in some countries Third Class, for the longest time of anyone in my scout troop and, who knows, maybe in the history of scouting. At the ceremony I was given the prized neckerchief and clasp. Being awkward and perhaps unprepared, I didn know what to do with the clasp and kept it in my hand as I attempted to shake hands with the dignitaries present at the podium. I still remember the look of disgust on the face of Father Jean, the stern French-born pastor, as I attempted to shake hands with the clasp awkwardly between our hands, almost like one of those practical joke joy buzzers.
  • Then there are the innumerable times at which I have given answers to superiors that have left me looking either stupid, or plain uninteresting or simply unimaginative. Three seconds outside their door the brilliant response would flood into my brain. Too late. Years of too-lates, I suspect, kept me from becoming James Reston.
OK, so I beat myself up a tad too much. I know. I hated the shivers. I taught those who knew about them to ignore them and let them pass; eventually I learned to hide them.

Several years ago, the shivers finally went away. Well, not exactly. I reasoned them away.

I relaxed and told myself that the moments were not that shameful, or if they were, no one was going to arrest me for them; in fact, no one knew about them but me. I bet Father Jean would not have known what I was talking about if I shared my recollection the scout ceremony.

The point is I haven had them for years.

Then, yesterday at lunch, I found myself running through one after another after another, almost like an uncontainable multiple orgasm of shame, embarrassment and regret.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Save Our Souls

The soul, known in antiquity as anima (Latin) or psyche (Greek), is an imaginary abstraction meant to enfold all that the ancients did not know about human behavior and the psychosomatic functioning of the body. The international nautical distress call, SOS (Save Our Souls), is a modern figurative expression of traditional thinking on something that does not exist.

This, I have realized, is much more important and far easier to demonstrate, than whether there is a god.

While I do not know the science in any technical sense, I have had enough experience with pharmaceutical end-products to convince me that everything I have always thought as uniquely individual and metaphysical within me simply does not exist. I am merely an animated biochemical object that has developed certain properties, such as speech and "thinking," as a result of evolutionary pressures and random happenstance.

That human beings cannot replicate me, cannot fully control the psyche -- indeed, cannot offer me or anyone else the definitive psychological silver bullet in a pill -- is merely a reflection of the limitations, imperfections and underdevelopment of human properties.

The soul does not exist.

Everything you and I feel is, the ancient Greeks put it, a "state of the liver." Everything you and I want and desire is the result of a mixture of genetic coding and social influences.

All thought, all religion, all philosophy, even this blog, amounts to nothing more than the output of a complex biochemical mechanism we do not yet fully understand, but we are learning to influence biochemically.

The will is not free, it is a set of impulses directed by the double influence of nature and nurture. I have wasted my time with ethics: at the core, we are not moral agents.

The soul does not exist.

The music we like and the films we enjoy, the prayers we have uttered with fervor, the love we have soaked in and the utter, weightless, immaterial happiness we have experienced from time to time, all these are mirages, shadows in the cave. Nonexistent.

Of course, the same is true of our dislikes and fears and even loathing. One day there will be a pill to cure them. One day there will be a pill to make us all behave in a way that is best for us collectively -- at least according to those who have power.

The soul does not exist.

We have no need to save what doesn't exist. We will cease to exist, to have consciousness once our animating biochemical processes -- longhand for "life" -- grind to a halt.

Once you begin to look at the world from this perspective, the inanities and stupidities, the sheer greed and cruelty and selfishness of human beings, their destructiveness of everything around them, especially our own kind, makes eminent sense.

We are little different from dogs and cats. In reality. We are not intelligent and feeling and potentially moral. We are merely sentient in a somewhat more complex way.

The soul, if you insist, is merely a convention, a way of talking about seemingly ineffable things that appear to move us and within us, things that are really atoms and protons mating with one another.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Socrates to the Rescue

I made a huge mistake at work, involving a misunderstanding of economic research. I've been covering this for decades now and I still make beginner's mistakes. All I know is that I know nothing. Thank you, Socrates.

I feel I should stop blogging about grand things like the economy and foreign policy. No one cares, anyway, and who am I to say anything?

So instead I'll crawl back into my personal philosphical corner. No one cares about that, either, but I can at least clarify things to myself. I don't talk out loud; I write.

Don't Believe It's Over

Monday's "rally" bargain hunt on Wall Street is not the end of the economic crisis nor of the downturn, by any means, given that we are living in times of records beaten only in 1933.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thinking Toward a New Economy

We're accustomed to thinking of money and possession as real, tangible things, when in reality both are imaginary. Until we face up to this and reconsider the implications, we will never be free of the lazy habits of mind that trap us all in our present economic predicament.

Money simply does not exist in and of itself. It doesn't have a fixed value. It doesn't represent anything.

Until 1971, true, all convertible currencies were ultimately backed by an international monetary system that rested on the U.S. dollar, which in turn was theoretically backed by 35 ounces of gold bullion. When Richard Nixon devalued the dollar, the international system put in its place a parallel purely symbolic unit, the Special Drawing Right, which was initially supposed to represent the theoretical value of US$ 1,00 = 0.888671 grams of fine gold.

Of course, the dollar value of gold (and conversely the gold value of dollars), is a moving target in actual living experience. There is no such thing as an SDR.

In brief, in and of itself, money is a fiction. We all work for and dream of and believe in (our national religion is really the worship of the dollar) something that, in reality, doesn't exist.

The second customary thought we must abandon is the notion of the right to possess. No one really owns anything.

Sure, if I go into your house and take your computer, you can call the cops, have me tried and put in jail. In theory, society gives you have the power of coercion to your computer as yours and not mine.

Note, however, that in some less safe neighborhoods, where cops are not in evidence, your chance to exercise your property claim is highly suspect. Everything belongs to whoever can seize it first and hold onto it by brute force.

The reality is that those who possess the most have access to the most powerful forms of coercion, from thugs to cops to the atomic bomb. They gain that access by convincing the thugs and cops and military to accept the fictional item known as money, in exchange for protection of their right to possess.

In fact, all of this is always temporary. Even the rich get feeble and die. We possess nothing, not even our bodies.

Everything that has happened in recent weeks on Wall Street and in the financial sector is merely the dawning of these two truths: money does not really exist and no one really owns anything.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Time to Rethink the Economic System

"We're all socialists now, comrade," blared the star columnist of Britain's Telegraph newspaper yesterday, mocking the precipitous fall of major banking institutions into government tutelage. Perhaps this is the way capitalism was destined to synthesize its contradictions into socialism, rather than what happened in 1917.

Here in the United States, as in Iceland and elsewhere, de facto nationalizations became the prevailing response to the present economic emergency -- with more apparently to come. Karl Marx certainly believed socialism would be the outgrowth of developed forms of capitalism.

The Leninist state need never have occurred, save for two things: the obduracy of Russian monarchic despotism and its industrialized Western capitalist backers, on one hand; and the backwardness of the nations that adopted it, on the other.

Much more natural is the bloodless, so far seamless movement this autumn with Fannie, Freddie and several European banks: a simple takeover by the only social institution financially able -- knock on wood -- to do so, the government.

Was the historic slump in Wall Street trading last week the plutocrats' reaction? Do they still think, despite their egregious failures that, as one trader put it, "capitalism ought to be allowed to work things out"?

Does anyone? Does anyone really expect that the "free market" (which is free only some) can resolve the allocation of resources needed to fulfill all of society's basic needs?

Think of a few of the most urgent needs looming in the United States alone: the retirement and aging of the huge baby boom generation, the growing underclass without access to health care, and the deteriorating physical infrastructure. Consider, in global terms, the pervasive conflicts abroad fed in large part by gross economic inequality and unimaginable suffering.

Can anyone really pretend that the free market on Wall Street is no more than a select garden club for a very tiny few, entirely disconnected from the real needs that exist in the nation and abroad?

Isn't it time to begin thinking of democratizing the economy, of enshrining economic rights on a par with the civic rights already in the U.S. Constitution? Shouldn't it be that just as every citizen is entitled to political equality in the eyes of the law, that every human being is entitled to the basic material conditions that make for a dignified life?

Americans are accustomed to dreaming of being rich, without bothering to think much of those outside their immediate family. Isn't it time we dreamed of living in a society where no one is poor?

Couldn't the Human Dream become the hope of shared freedom from want?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Deserve?

In a random remark at a recent dinner, one person was being offered support for deciding not to work for a while with the justification that "you deserve time off." Ever since McDonald's told us via Barry Manilow, that "you deserve a break today," the American penchant for claiming right to care for No. 1 has taken off. But is it justified?

To deserve is to be worthy of, qualified for, or have a claim to a reward or punishment. Most of us eagerly claim rewards and just as enthusiastically decline punishment. What do we really deserve?

We cannot claim very much of who or what we are as our own individual merit. We did not choose, despite the pseudopatriots who are "proud to be American," to be born in the United States. We did not elect to be born to households with running water and electricity, a given educational and income level.

Much of who we are or have become is an accident of birth.

Then there's luck. Happening on an idea when a society was ready for it -- or not. Imagine being Nelson Mandela in 1964 and having the idea that apartheid should end. Yes, in the end (in the 1990s) he triumphed. But he could be forgiven for wondering where he had gone wrong as he languished in his prison cell in the interim. So should we ponder where luck has helped or hindered.

Finally, there is the matter of free will. Are we really free, or are we a mass of socially and genetically determined impulses that predictably propel us down a course marked for us before we were born?

Sure, as humans we claim "inalienable rights," meaning that our fellows may not deprive us of a fair share of resources and social "bandwidth." Yet, how do we really know that humans are inherently endowed with such rights and not, say, cats or bees or rocks?

In the end, it is very difficult to claim we deserve anything, good or bad.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Palin's WinKKK to AmeriKKKa

Remember where Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 general election presidential campaign? Philadelphia, Mississippi. Odd place to start, unless you were trying to wink to Southern racists that you were one of them, just as Sarah Palin is doing, to judge by the performance reported during her appearance at a Clearwater, Fla., rally.

There, while she launched a red-baiting false accusation against Barack Obama, and blamed "the media" for the fact that her campaign is losing traction, an African-American cameraman had racial epithets shouted at him, concluding with the order to "sit down, boy."

At another moment, as Palin declaimed her falsehoods, the crowd booed and someone called out "kill him," unquestionaby meaning to encourage an old-time lynching of Obama.

Palin did not criticize such taunts, any more than Reagan took time to honor the three civil rights workers murdered there by white supremacists in 1964. The murders were recalled in the film Mississippi Burning.

Indeed, just as Palin threw the red meat of political slurs at a black political candidate, Reagan told his audience in 1980 that "I believe in states' rights ... [I] believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment ...," promising to "restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them."

We all know that "states rights" is Southern white racist code for bringing back the Confederacy and keeping out federal troops and the FBI from efforts to keep the South racially segregated and unequal.

Is there any mistaking Palin's egging on an ugly crowd representing the un-American worst and failing to curb enthusiasm for political murder for the lowest-common-denomination, hate-filled demogoguery it is?

I wish there were a way to strip Palin of U.S. citizenship. I wish there way a way to expel the South from the Union, or at a minimum, to reoccupy militarily the miscreant region again, back to the status it richly deserved in 1865 and from which it has yet to show recovery.

Palin and the South represents everything that is embarrassing and horrible in this country.

Let's hope it can be driven to a well-deserved, ignominious defeat in next month's presidential election. In the coming bad times, an administration of right-wing hatemongers could easily rip up what's left of the Bush-disregarded Constitution that represents the greatness of the United States.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Palin Con

Someone I met on a train told me that Sarah Palin was up to something: the Katie Couric interview and all her other flubs were just a way to lower expectations for her debate against Joe Biden. When the time came, my conspiracy theorist proposed, Palin would spout Hillaryesque wonkery the likes of which we had never seen. Palin didn't quite manage to catch up to Hillary Clinton last night, but she showed herself to be a bit of a con artist: will the real Sarah Palin please stand up?

Despite her terminally cute act with Couric and her "aw, shucks" approach last night, Palin is not "average."

The Palins had a 2007 household income of $166,000, which put them in the top earning 10 % of all households. This year she is expected to make very close to $200,000 and we don't know what her husband will bring in.

She was a beauty queen, meaning that she was willing to exhibit her physical wares in exchange for money; but she is also a moralist, meaning that she has very definite opinions about what you and I should do behind closed doors. This puts her in a self-contradictory category best described in Slate as "sexy puritan."

But most of all, like George Bush, she is a dissembler. Like, Bush, a man born with a silver spoon and a keen mind who likes to pretend he is a hick, Palin likes to pretend to be a simpleminded "hockey mom" as part of her demagoguery.

In sum, Palin salvaged her political career by not behaving like a total idiot on national television in a controlled format that allowed her considerable latitude. However, the achievement is pyrrhic, as we now know that she is smarter, and probably a lot meaner, than she lets on.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wing Nuts are Right -- and Left

The House failure to pass the bailout plan has evoked images of lunatics in charge of the asylum. Yet there is one sense in which the wing nuts, most of whom are right-wing, are right and, ironically, also left: a traditional bailout of financiers by the committee of capitalists we call the government is certainly not the answer to what ails the United States -- or the world.

Any solution to the problem of a burst bubble of snake oil mortgages has to begin where the problem began. One cannot perennially expect that an economy whose ever greater productivity is relentlessly squeezed out of service and production-line workers, but whose rewards flow only to the top, to be based on a firm grounding.

Why is there a credit crisis? Because Americans have overborrowed. Why have Americans overborrowed? Because the nation's vast economic engine depends on consumption and, since the incomes of average Americans have stagnated for the last five years in a row, purchasing has had to occur on credit.

Don't believe this? Consider that between 2005 and 2006, the top 1 percent of households (with incomes above $375,000) added $73,000 to their incomes, the next 9 percent gained $16,000 and the bottom 90 percent (below $105,000 a year) increased their incomes by just $20.

That's a finding that is consistent with data for all of the current decade, as examined by two economists who also found that income disparity is the largest it has ever been in the United States since ... wait for it ... 1929. (See a paper based on the research, Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States by Emmanuel Saez.)

And who is finding themselves unable to pay their mortgages? The stagnating majority, who have reaped only a quarter of the wealth generated by their labor in the past economic expansion.

Unless we collectively make it possible for the 90 percent to increase their incomes, no amount of lending to financiers will solve the problem. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this calls for answers remarkably similar to -- gasp! the salts! -- socialism.

Americans hear "socialism" and their McCarthyist muscle makes them see Soviet Gulag prison systems. Yet socialism has been very successful in Sweden, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, where not everything is government owned, as in the old Soviet Union, but the society as a whole guarantees everyone's basic well-being.

Indeed, the capitalist class in this country has always believed in socialism for corporations and the rich, of which the proposed bailout plan was a perfect example. I am just suggesting that all of us get a bit of that socialism, instead of their doling out capitalism for the middle class and the poor, while taking our tax money to subsidize themselves.

Specifically, this moment in history calls for a top-down revision of the American economic system, for a vast democratization of the economy similar to the democratization of civic life begun in 1776. I can think of two basic principles that would undergird such a new society:
  1. All people have the inalienable right to the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, schooling, work and life itself.
  2. Beyond what is needed for the bare necessities, all earnings must bear a direct relationship to work making something or delivering a service.
With those principles in mind, housing becomes an essential that no one in a country with the resources of the United States should ever lack, rather than a luxury which a hardy few can obtain, and, on the other hand, investment, inheritance and manipulation of assets does not amount to work.

This priority-reordering scale of values would mean that any bailout plan would seek first to perform the tasks the failing institutions are performing.

In the case of AIG, for example, instead of securing the firm itself, the goal would have been to secure the insurance policies while seizing the money and firing the entire management. When IndyMac was seized, regulators first froze all foreclosures, then began an analysis of the outstanding loans, one by one.

This may take trillions and many years. But only a framework to deliver help first at the bottom and only secondarily to the top, a framework that would be gradual, one that recognizes that the current structures simply don't work, will ultimately solve the many problems facing the United States and the world.

So the obstructionists of George W. Bush's 9/11-style call for a blank check were right. We all need to sit down and think our way out with a little deliberation. Perhaps we need to wait to after the presidential election, so we can start from scratch to build a new economic democracy from scratch.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Death Comes to the Comic Character

This picture appears to have gone viral (origin unknown). Enjoy!

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Suit for the American Psyche

In every era the United States has chosen a leader that represented some key aspect of the national psyche, or else the nation has stumbled until one could be found. In 2008, we have already tried on three -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin -- in the political dressing room. Although I see the excitement about the third fading as beachwear after Labor Day, I'd like to stop and dwell about what these choices say about our favorite topic -- ourselves.
Palin, the candidate we now know as the hypocrite who ... is really an apt reflection of the inherent contradictions Americans collectively embrace.
We want a green planet, but we also want our very many, often enough hugely unnecessary cars. We claim equality but, deep down, we're all a little racist (or even a lot, as Palin's cover for white women who can't abide a black man amply shows). We want to think of ourselves as law-abiding and church-going, but we cheat on our taxes, jaywalk, commit adultery and ultimately want everyone else to be barred from doing certain things, so long as we can secretly sneak in a poach after hunting season is over.
Hillary Clinton, the Clinton I would have voted for in 1992 had I been given the chance, represents the spirit of generosity that we Americans are so capable of individually and yet so pigheadedly averse to as a society. The contradiction kills us, undoes us, paralyzes us and keeps our society looking like an industrial museum piece from the 1940s.
Clinton dropped the ball on her own presidential campaign, just as she did on health care reform in 1994. My gut sense is that she thought having her heart in the right place and the genius to conceive of grand ideas was enough to make it happen -- just as the American Dream is for the majority of us.
This leaves us Barack Obama.
In the 1950s, the United States was in the middle of a baby boom and predictably chose a president who looked like the Gerber logo's baby, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike was likable and he had been the referee-commander of a global military coalition by virtue of that quality, rather than because of military genius.
Next decade we tried John F. Kennedy, who looked the very picture of health, youth and American altruism, but we now know he was physically very ill, aging all-too-rapidly and capable of breathtaking selfishness.
There has been a lot of myth and falsehood, but there were also some home truths in those experiences.
Obama cannot possibly be the Olympian figure captured delivering a photogenic Berlin speech even before the formality of an election. He will surely disappoint those who think so. But we don't need to have a crush on Obama.
In this most serious season in the history of U.S. political economy, we just need to decide just what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to rise to the challenges or satisfy our complacencies?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I

The following is my shameless adaptation of a post by Savia, "Do Re Me me." Consider it belated beach reading.

I am ... me.
I think ... slowly, ponderously, systemically.
I know ... the instant of peace at life's apex.
I have ... Liesl, my beloved C230.
I wish ... I had a million dollars (or should that be a billion?).
I hate ... unfair criticism.
I miss ... what might have been.
I fear ... ending up poor and homeless in a Third World country.
I hear ... the bells on Christmas morn.
I smell ... like aftershave in the morning.
I crave ... salt.
I search ... for my glasses when I don't have my glasses on.
I wonder ... what will happen to my remains after I am dead.
I regret ... I can't do it all over again knowing what I now know.
I love ... you!
I ache ... to become Albert Schweitzer.
I am not ... who I am.
I believe ... in no one.
I dance ... with angels on the head of a pin.
I sing ... the song of the three young men, who ran down streets naked in estival frenzy.
I cry ... when I am very sad.
I fight ... with words.
I win ... with history questions in Trivial Pursuits.
I lose ... angrily, ready to bring down everything with me.
I never ... open other people's mail.
I always ... forget something when I am going out the door in the morning.
I confuse ... colors -- that's because I'm colorblind, silly, not because I didn't learn my colors.
I listen ...to women intently.
I can usually be found ... at the computer.
I am scared ... of a million things going wrong.
I need ... about a million U.S. dollars, in unmarked, non-sequentially numbered $100 bills.
I am happy about ... my sons.
I imagine ... introducing my grandfather to my sons.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Have Sex

Our text today is, yet again, one of my godless commandments(1) namely: Thou shalt enjoy the flesh of others, respecting their own desires as well as thine and taking responsibility for any consequences thereof. Some people may argue that we don't need a philosophical imperative to have sex, but I would argue that we humans could use a positive and universal imperative about sex.

Let's face it: without sex we're very likely to end up screwing someone else in any number of unpleasant, non-sexual ways. Ever wondered whether the history of Iraq might have been different in the last four years if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had gotten laid, but good? Besides, none of us would even be here without sex!

All right so the matter of principle is not so much whether, but how one should have sex. The commandment puts forth two conditions that I suspect are universally necessary for ethical purposes:
  1. We must engage in mutual pleasure giving as well as receiving.
  2. We must take responsibility for the consequences, such as pregnancy and disease.
These two exhaust the totality of ethical requirements that apply universally to all men and women of all religions or degrees of non-belief.

In the first, your pleasure is equated to the pleasure of another. You have a legitimate claim to receive pleasure and there is nothing wrong with desiring sexual pleasure and obtaining it; but the consequence of that is the duty to be concerned with and desirous of giving pleasure -- which is a pleasure all its own.

In other words, sex is not just for you: it's for you and the other person -- who is a person, not a toy (except, obviously, in the case of masturbation with toys, about which ... later). This also excludes all forms of sex for power (this is the definition of rape), money, or anything other than giving and receiving of pleasure.

There's something about us mammals that is relieved and assuaged in the feeling of full frontal nudity, skin to skin, with someone we chose to so so voluntarily -- nay, eagerly. This is why masturbation with toys falls short, except in times of necessity, other than to provide temporary release -- in a sense, it's not really sex.

Secondly, sex is a path to reproduction and a way to get diseases and even a way to express particular feelings about another, to the point of sometimes being called "making love." When we have sex we risk becoming parents, becoming ill and even dying, or becoming sentimentally entangled with another person.

We can be called upon to give a response -- in other words, responsibility -- for our action, by stepping up to motherhood or fatherhood, which is usually a role that lasts a lifetime. We can be faced with giving or receiving a terrible disease -- and telling all others who may be or have been exposed to us in similar ways, "get checked for X because I have it."

Last but not least, I've been told there are hormones similar to those that induce bonding between parents and children. These are stimulated with sex to the point that all sex has some emotional and psychological consequence.

None of this draws a straight line to the altar, nor to deciding whether to have or abort a child, nor does it cure a single disease or broken heart. The point of responsibility is not some formal piece of paper or law nor a textbook answer. Responsibility is needed because, precisely, we live in an uncertain world.

In such a world we must answer to ourselves and our fellows, especially those with whom we have sex, for our actions.

------------
(1) PS to George, this is the ninth (there are ten).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

If American Voters Aren't Stupid, What Are They?

All the while I was having a laugh over bumperstickers proclaiming that some village in Texas was missing its idiot, George W. Bush was having his Machiavellian laugh on me: he's not an idiot, he's simply a consummate dissembler. A similar lesson dawned on me upon reading Rick Shenkman's piece in The Washington Post, 5 Myths About Those Civic-Minded, Deeply Informed Voters.

OK, so if the American public isn't stupid, what are they?

I mean, a society in which half of the population makes about $50,000 or less voted twice for Reagan and three times for a Bush, despite the fact that these men abundantly showed in their policies that they only cared about the top 5 percent of all earners, those who make about $175,000 a year -- or much, much more. Something's wrong, no?

How can Americans consistently support the pauperization of single mothers and children? War? Greed? Sucking oil and other resources from other countries at exploitative and polluting rates?

Far fetched, you think?  How about the many instances in which bystanders in America did nothing to help someone being victimized? How about the cities in which ignored beggars have become the norm? How about a public that is always keen to see the rights and the suffering of white Americans and oblivious to their trampling on those of everyone else?

American history is, when you think of it, one rape and pillage and looting after another: from the swindled Indians to the kidnapped Africans to the conquered Mexicans to the abused women to the exploited and overworked working majority. Who stole the land and enslaved and stole again and put down and underpaid? Martians? Who was complicit in all this? Venusians?

If American voters really aren't stupid. If the Rush Limbaugh dittoheads score unassailably high on intelligence and general knowledge tests, as Shenkman credibly proposes, then the venom they endorse is really in their hearts of hearts.

Now there's a scary thought. Close to half the population, or enough to make up a convincing show of being a majority, are mean enough to actually want truly bad stuff to happen.