Monday, October 29, 2007

American Evita?

In the U.S. coverage of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president-elect of Argentina, the fluffiness of the American mass media has been on embarrassing display: Does she wear too much makeup? Is she the Argentine Hillary Clinton? Nothing about whether she can tame inflation or her plan to reverse the ravages of globalization.

Of course, American reporters never ask whether Sen. Clinton wears too little makeup or speculate whether Hillary is the American Evita. That might suggest that the USA is not the epicenter of the world -- Zeus forbid!

In fact, the newly elected president of Argentina is a politician in her own right, unlike Hillary she has been a legislator for decades and a principled advocate even to the point of getting expelled from her party briefly for holding fast to her positions.

She has had to navigate immensely more difficult waters than Hillary.

Just take a look at her name Christina Fernández (maiden name) de (literally "of") Kirchner. It's the middle- to upper-class nomenclature in Argentina, less common today in Spain, denoting the woman as the consort of the paterfamilias (see here, starting with the 6th paragraph).

In Argentine common use, men will call their wife "mi mujer" (my woman) rather than "mi esposa" (my spouse). Perhaps it has to do with the other meaning of esposa, hand-cuff. No woman gets away with calling their husband "mi hombre" (my man).

Argentina thinks of itself as a cultural suburb of Paris, but at some level it remains locked in the mental corridors of old Spain's Escorial, Philip II's monastic palace, and in the magical archetypes of Italy, from which more than half of Argentina's population hail.

As to her challenges as president, they are many.

Since the implosion of the Argentine economy at the beginning of the decade, a catastrophe incumbent President Nestor Kirchner inherited four years ago, the country has gone from near Depression levels of unemployment back to its traditional underemployment, or actual shortage of skilled labor, heating up the economy.

The government says inflation runs at 8 percent annually, the Wall Street Journal predictably claims the "leftist" administration is halving the rate, the International Monetary Fund estimates 12 percent -- I'm sticking with the IMF figure. For a country whose inflation once ran in the hundreds of percentage points a year, surpassing even the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany, this is quite modest.

Let's also not forget the "leftist" baiting. President Kirchner, her husband, is widely hated for taking the side of the victims of the military dictatorship of 1976-83, which kidnapped, tortured and murdered an estimated 30,000 people and a precisely documented 8,900. (See here for the story of one I knew.)

He pushed for and sought the overturning of amnesty laws for military officers accused of torture and assassinations. On the 30th anniversary of the coup that launched the bloody regime, Kirchner toured the former places of torture with survivors.

Two years ago, in a spectacle typical of Peronism, Sen. Kirchner spoke at a rally commemorating Evita and asked, in the spirit of the cult of the late wife of the late Juan Domingo Perón, "What Would Evita Do?" in the face of globalization.

Can she fulfill the enormous expectations and meet the challenges? This is the question that American journalists should have explored.

Argentina, after all, has long competed with Brazil and Mexico for economic first place in Latin America and has a cultural and political influence all its own within the Southern Cone subregion.

From the pundits in Buenos Aires one can glean that this election may mark the beginning of new politics.

Cristina Kirchner's win (45 percent of the vote in a field of 14 candidates) was enough to secure the presidency in one ballot (Argentine law calls for a second round among the top two candidates when the plurality is smaller). But it's a bit of a squeaker for the undisputed majority party since 1946 when Himself was the candidate.

Still, she will pose a challenge to a fragmented opposition, which won largely in the big cities, Buenos Aires, Bahía Blanca, Mar del Plata, but lost nearly everywhere else. This represents a bit of a class divide between the educated urbanites and the poorer rural inhabitants who are still the majority.

All that lies in the future. For now, I toast to an attorney of seeming conviction and vigor, a woman who may yet show the way to her sister Hillary.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Who's to Blame?

Comments in response to Jen's heart-rending post on a homeless child, and a post by Julie that looks at related questions, prompt me to visit the crucial question of whom to blame for the worsening economic fortunes of the majority of Americans, which has a lot to do with what we do to reverse the situation.

Let me start also by noting that Americans are not the worst-off people on the planet. Most of us blogging are clearly not the worst off of Americans. However, the way the world is structured, a decline in socioeconomic equality in the United States has extremely high likelihood of spreading and worsening inequities elsewhere.

Let's also get rid of some bugaboos. Globalization is not a person and does not have a will of its own. Stop blaming globalization, corporations or even the Republican Party. Let's instead focus on the people behind these abstractions.

Start with the person in the mirror. Yes, you.

Like that cheap shirt, iPod, pair of sneakers, etc.? Like that 15%, 25% your mutual fund adds to your investment account? Guess where it all comes from? Low wages and widening income inequality, not just U.S. inequality but global.

The Indians are not becoming rich. The Chinese only contribute labor to most of the electronics made in the People's Republic and they get less than the U.S. licensing company from each sale.

Am I going too fast? My point -- borrowed heavily from Robert Reich's new book Supercapitalism -- is that as investors and consumers we are part of the skein that makes all this inequality yawn widely.

The only people who can change this is the other side of us, the citizen side, the part of us that rejects a permanent state reflecting the U.S. reality that in 2006 the middle class lost ground, the poor stagnated and only the top 20% of earners gained ground, carving out more than half of all income for themselves.

We need to demand that Democrats stop being major wusses and sellouts -- or we have to look for Greens or something else. OK, not Republicans; they basically want a return to the gilded 1907 when there was still child labor, segregation and a myriad of social ills that made life very, very comfortable for those at the top at the expense of everyone else.

We need to focus on raising wages, lowering unemployment, making basic needs such as food and health care available to all people, just because they are people. We need to remember that silly social issues such as gay marriage are the adversary's way of baiting us into losing political debates.

The Larry Craigs (the men's room toe-tapping, partition glad handing GOP gay-bashing senator) will always make hay of the horrors of ... gasp ... homosexuality. Yet no one went hungry because there are gays and lesbians, any more than the divorce rate has anything to do with gays.

Let's also not vent on people who can't change things. The low-paid caseworker who seems insensitive, the teacher whose students never study and thus never learn, the cop who has to flash his presence amid open-air drug markets lest the poor drug dealers become entrapped. There are lots of government employees who lead quiet lives of desperation because the jobs they once took up with pride have been hollowed out by budget cuts, corruption and stupidity at the top.

So go ahead, get mad and say you won't take it any more. Encourage everyone you know to vote for change, to write letters to elected officials for change, to write letters to the editor, to blog for change.

Don't waste your time on economic processes, legal fictions (corporations, for example) or powerless people.

Let's instead work together to make representative decisionmaking in government really representative of the majority of us.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Outrageous Fortune

When my father first bought me Hamlet, he told me pointedly that I should memorize several of the soliloquies (Hamlet's, Polonious', etc.). No phrase seemed more vivid to me at 11 than "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and I return to it whenever I feel a rain of mishaps.

Imagine it. You're at the Battle of Hastings. Hundreds of arrows and slings cast into the air, they arch up until gravity exerts its pull, then turn downward, bound straight for you. You crouch and hold up your shield and hope to heaven that it is sturdy enough to protect you, so you can arise, run and attack the cursed Normans.

Misfortune doesn't seem to come unaccompanied. Not devastation, misfortune. Scraping my car while parking (and cracking the glass of the headlight), not being told one has cancer.

It falls like a fall shower, out of nowhere, with wind. You might get wet, lose you hat, get hit by a flying branch. Like Friday. (Fall comes late to Washington.)

You lose your peppy stride. You wonder what your next slip will be. You go lead a support group meeting and you nearly kill yourself and your passenger not once but three times. Because you just can't pay attention.

You're unshaven because you've had an office emergency and volunteer teaching and now this. You've had coffee but it was weak and you've never woken up.

You get home and resolve not to darken your doorway on the way out ever again! No socializing. No driving. No activity that requires good reflexes, self-control, patience, sanity.

That's when you know you've been hit by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

Saturday, October 20, 2007


They probably don't remember the T-shirt that said, "No, Regina, you fool!" I have fallen in with a crowd of wicked 30-something Saskatchewanians (Schmutzie swears this is a word) and, ready or not (hell with milk money!) here I come ...

Regina, we all know (don't we?) was (is) the capital of the province of Saskatchewan.

Why the temporal doubt? Because, of course, Canada hasn't really existed since my trans-Canadian trip to Kamloops, B.C., in 1978. Has it?

Don't let the Web site fool you: all they do in Kamloops is drive drunk, steal from the till drunk, rape drunk and, oh yes, get drunk.

I had graduated from university in Quebec from a province increasingly hostile to speakers of the Queen's language and my best friend happened to be covering court as a local news reporter in Kamloops. What is a Kamloops? I have no idea.

All I know is that I spent three weeks experiencing its tawdry side in court. Court as theater.

But back to my dear Saska ... what was that word, Schmutzie? (I am falling in with bad Kamloopsians tonight.)

What is it about 30-something Canadian women? So unsure they know nothing save their own experience, when in fact ... they know a thing or three.

Call me smitten, a word I reserve for my own Elizabeth Bennet. I just wanted to call some attention to them. Give them the old Saskatchewanian cheer (just a little north of the Bronx one).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Midriffs and Breasts, Oh My!

Just a day after my fellow blogger Julie wrote about acceptable and unacceptable breasts, I found myself on the subway observing a young woman baring her midriff in a way that I found disturbing. Julie and the barer set me thinking: What is it about the baring of the female body that summons up complex, often contradictory feelings in all of us?

Allow me to explain that Julie compared reactions to a model's near nudity in a perfume ad with a bare breast feeding a baby on a parenting magazine's cover.

The subway barer in question was wearing unusually informal clothes for work: jeans with probably false rips, which probably cost a mint just for that studied "casual" look, along with a pink T-shirt a size too small emblazoned randomly, in silver, with the word "Breasts" and the names of European capitals.

How do I know she was underdressed for work? She was on a commuter line at quitting time, carrying a brief case and accompanied by a man who was very obviously from her office. She was flirting with him outrageously, grimacing seductively and performing a nearly lewd dance on a subway hand-pole, almost in the face of her office mate, who looked on with what seemed to me stolid -- and unwarranted -- disinterest. Perhaps he was very married.

What was disturbing? OK, I found her attention-seeking a bit much. But that's not it.

She was slim, attractive and had a tight, small body that could have been a model's. Except for the bare midriff, which showed a slightly protruding stomach. At first I wondered whether she was pregnant -- just barely showing, if so.

Then it hit me.

Julie's model stood naked in half light with a bowler hat covering her breasts. She was, in essence, promoting the notion that she possessed the equipment needed to perform what the nursing woman of the parenting magazine did with alacrity: nurture a child, be a mother. The advertiser is highjacking that message to proclaim that the perfume will allow its wearer to convey to a man the atavistic biopsychological message -- ingrained in us since we lived in caves -- that she is a desirable mate.

The woman on the subway was saying something similar: look, here's my uterus. I'm sure she would be horrified to hear this. She probably was flirting without quite intending to lay out such a graphic message to the public at large. Yet there it was.

I am of two minds in my reaction.

The Torquemada in me wants to banish and ban all this display of nudity. Pornography comes from the Greek pornographos. This word combines two ideas. First, porne "prostitute," a word rooted in a much earlier term meaning "something purchased," which probably referred in antiquity to female slaves sold for prostitution. Second, graphein, "to write."

In the modern meaning pornography conveys the notion of salacious writing or pictures that are deemed to be obscene, which itself means "offensive to the senses," from the French obscène, in turn probably derived from Latin obscenus (ob "onto" + cænum "filth").

Legally, in the United States we define obscene as material that "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would regard as appealing to "a prurient interest," subject to many and changing refinements and qualifications -- all emanating from the need to balance social taste with the First Amendment.

Clearly, the obscene is not meant to be, or should not be, seen in public, according to society, and its subject matter often reduces women to objects, instead of thinking, feeling people. The model and the midriff barer could arguably be seen as promoting the objectification of women in a pornographic, obscene way.

But why -- speaks up my other mind -- am I getting my knickers in a twist?

When women choose freely (no one put a gun to Keira Knightley's head, did they?) to display physical attributes that are beautiful, they are performing art. Some day, the ad will be in a museum -- as all well-designed advertising will be -- alongside the Venus de Milo and her disturbing chopped off arms.

When the woman on the subway decided to bare her midriff I'm sure she never thought -- or did she? -- that she would prompt a little essay about her. I assume that, yes, she probably would plead guilty before a jury of her peers of premeditated, attempted seduction of the man with whom she traveled. So? All's fair in love.

Besides, I don't really wear knickers. (Real men don't wear knickers, right?)

In the end, call it art or call it obscenity, human nakedness calls out from us the most sublime and at the same time terrifying responsibilities and ideas: childbirth, commitment, bonding.

Childbirth, frightening enough, is at least a temporary experience, something women forget (else we would all be only children). Then think of trying to master the art of sharing daily life with another for, as the World War II phrase had it, "the duration." It's enough to make Peter Pans and Wendys out of all of us.

Yet nakedness also takes our breath away, expressing the possibility of nurturing and love, of unity and companionship, of beauty and solidarity. We are marvels to behold, with all our imperfections, and we can barely survive without one another.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What Makes Pedophiles Look Good

The title is not a riddle, but perhaps it should be. The Buenos Aires Herald reports the sentencing to life imprisonment of a Catholic priest charged with participating, under the guise of providing spiritual assistance, in the torture and murder of prisoners during the 1976-83 Argentine military dictatorship that kidnapped an estimated 30,000 people.

As with U.S. pedophile priests, I had heard for years that there was muck in the ranks of the Argentine Catholic clergy that would one day come to light. No one who spent as many years as I have reading the Catholic hierarchy's tea leaves and observing the peculiar sociology of Argentina could have remained oblivious to the obvious existence for generations of "funny" priests and fascists in Roman collar.

My wonder is that it has taken so long for the first of the Argentine latter to find himself in richly deserved prison.

My astonishment is compounded by the operetta name worthy of The Producers of convicted priest Christian Federico von Wernich, whom I almost expect to leap up into a high-kicking stage parade to the tune of "Springtime for Hitler in Germany." I couldn't have made him up if I had tried.

That he is not being executed is a tribute to the absence of a capital penalty in Argentina -- a legal nicety that did not deter the military goons of the last dictatorship.

Time in prison will afford the former police chaplain the solitude needed to confront the heinous nature of his deeds.
Von Wernich approached him and, standing up, offered his left hand. The prisoner took it with his two hands and clung to it, pleading: “Father, Father, please, I do not want to die, I do not want to die.” The priest watched him with a mix of pity and disdain, and soon enough he offered a solution: "Son, you know that the lives of the men who are inside here depend on God and the cooperation they can offer. If you want to continue living, you already know what you have to do."

-- my translation of an extract from Maldito Tú Eres: Iglesia y Represión Ilegal (Cursed Thou Art: Church and Illegal Repression) by Hernán Brienza
The testimony of tens of survivors from the clandestine detention centers set up by the military regime certainly has not chastened the priest's lawyer, Juan Martín Cerolini, who told La Nación that: "There's disparity in the treatment of the victims who died unjustly in the 1970s. There's a closeness to one sector, which is subsidized, financed and placed in public office, while toward the other victims there is neither warmth nor concern. Each time that there has been a public act of remembrance of those killed by subversion they have been minimized."

He added: "We're not fatuous. We recognize that tortures, kidnappings and murders in that terrible time were committed in the name of the State, but we cannot accept the application of cosmetics to the past. That's not history but propaganda, just like what the Nazis disseminated."

Of course, where would we be without an application of Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies? To boot, by the party most analogous to dear old Adolf's cronies.

Somewhat greater circumspection has come from Von Wernich's bishop, who asked vaguely for forgiveness and even suggested that some canonical action might be taken. Don't hold your breath on even that loophole-riddled pseudo-promise.

Surprised? Von Wernich is still technically a priest in good standing.

Given that the Vatican is hiding the chief child-rapist hider from Boston, one Bernard Cardinal Law, from the reach of U.S. law, what chance is there that they're going to throw out a priest who helped anti-Communists, no matter how murderously? I've got a nice bridge in Brooklyn for those who expect decency from the Catholic hierarchy.

What makes pedophiles look good? Father Christian Federico von Wernich.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Electronic Emotions

For years people have been telling me that they can't tell emotions from e-mail and now The New York Times is enabling them. I beg to differ.

The writer in this case, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence, is completely wrong. The problem with communication via e-mail is not that it lacks a voice, "body language" (now there's a bogus notion!) or visual cues. The real unspoken problem is that most people know neither how to read nor how to write.

This is exasperating to me, as someone who communicates most comfortably through the written word.

Oh, sure, everybody can write a shopping list and the simplest of declarative sentences: See Spot run. Run, Spot, run! But beyond that, the vast majority of people are lost.

Punctuation is a lost art.

When people want to pause they insert ellipses (...) because they're never sure about the function of the comma and the semi-colon. When they hold two adjectives in their mind and can't decide which should be used, they toss out a slash: "I am so happy/sad." Then there are emoticons. (:-P) Please!

Of course we don't understand one another: most people can't write. Yet that's only half of the equation. Because most can't read, either.

We read e-mails -- and blogs -- all too quickly. We scan because they are often poorly written. We make mistakes because we miss a crucial word.

Some readers invest their e-mail with sentiments that the words simply do not express. Many people will not settle for the plain meaning of words if they can imbue them with hidden meanings the average writer is not imaginative enough to have considered.

Others are faced with nonsense whose meaning is undecipherable. Who can blame them if they guess?

In the end, we think we can't communicate.

Horsefeathers! To assume that it is impossible to communicate unless words are accompanied by inflection and gestures is to suggest that we start burning every John Cheever short story, every Cervantes novel, every line ever written by Geoffrey Chaucer. These authors are all dead and there is not the slightest chance that anyone will ever get to "read" their body language.

Yet who has read Tess of the D'Urbervilles without becoming breathlessly overcome at the key rustling leaves scene that hints at (very offstage) lovemaking? Victorians were shocked by even Thomas Hardy's mild suggestion.

Language can be implicitly so clear that Moses Maimonides' Masoretes were able to insert vowel notations in Hebrew texts written thousands of years before their own time.

We need not grunt and signal what we want. We have language. Words and punctuation, the suggestion of sound and visual form. We are not animals.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Unsecured World

Few things concentrate the mind, security-wise, than traveling the threatened U.S. skies during a "code orange" alert, as I did this weekend. After duly presenting government-issued ID, taking off shoes and watch and dropping coins into bins, I began to wonder about the security of the world one enters after leaving the airplane bubble and why there is no security check to allow people back in.

It may be fallacious reasoning, as I've been told by my younger son, but indulge me.

Is it we who are outside Guantánamo and Fort Leavenworth, or who were outside Long Kesh, the prisoners, or is it they who are inside? After all, how easy is it, really, to escape being in the general "free" population, in the society outside the prison walls and airport security scanners?

Aren't prisoners more consistently fed and clothed and even cared for medically than we are? Isn't the airborne population more carefree of drug-crazed crime, prostitution, slum lords and fetid smells than the rest of us?

Perhaps we should at least be debriefed upon deplaning and walking out beyond the air-travel security bubble, along the lines of the following:
Ladies and gentlemen, you are now returning to the real world, full of speculators and shysters, crystal meth addicts and undereducated people, bureaucrats and people who overuse sirens, people, people, people, most of whom seem unable to avoid, prevent or bring an end to war and pestilence and famine.

You will need to lock doors, luggage, cars. To secure your names and details about your identities and even your computers. To drink water if you give blood. To mind the gap. To avoid stapling, folding or mutilating.

We are sorry, but you are very much on your own beyond the security perimeter.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where Do I Belong?

The title question was crucial to me through my adolescence and young adulthood. In response to Chani's post of a few days ago, I'm willing to do a little archeology of the soul -- the Greek ψυχή (psyché), not the Latin anima -- in public.

Because my father happened to leap in the 1940s from political prisoner to government official, in one of those tales that was all too common for Latin Americans of his generation, I am the most accidental of native New Yorkers.

Thereafter I grew up in a number of countries. By the age of 8 I had been exposed to five languages, of which I now speak and write two indistinguishably, two more with many grammar and pronunciation mistakes and one, German, just to enough to ask for the bathroom, sing Deutschland Über Alles and occasionally to answer the phone in a faux command tone, "Achtung!" (It sure throws off the sales callers.)

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse," the Belgian-born Charles the V of Germany and I of Spain is reputed to have remarked on the subject of languages.

Growing up with many languages has its drawbacks as well as advantages. A boyhood friend whose mother was Latin American and father Czech ceased talking altogether at about the age of five. He only began again once his family followed the advice of a psychologist to speak to him only in one language, English, since they were in the United States.

Of course, Czech is an utterly baffling language that looks Western but has no obvious cognates -- taxi, restaurant, etc. -- to the speaker of Western European languages. No wonder my friend had this problem. My sons grew up monolingual, due in part to my recollection of that experience.

Another side of languages is that you're always translating and making puns across linguistic barriers so that only childhood trilingual friends can get your jokes. Adding Latin and Greek to the melange makes meaning come together. Words carry customs and history. You can guess at the meaning of almost any Western word.

From about the age of 7 to 10 or 12 I could barely finish a sentence in one language before switching somewhere in the middle, so that I really spoke in macaronic until monolingual teachers browbeat me into speaking one language per mental paragraph at least. Now I do this habitually, switching only when my interlocutor switches -- or for fun, verstehen Sie? The same goes for manners, foods, customs, national perspectives and so forth.

Somewhere in the middle of my adolescence, however, I found myself feeling stranded in many ways that are beside the point here, in another country. In my journals I spoke of myself as an "exile."

Gradually, I became convinced that my life would only come together when I moved back to New York City, where I would be met with open arms by my childhood friends, a Henry Mancini film score playing in the background as the yellow cab went from JFK to Manhattan. Add the closing-circle transition to the end title. The End. Das Ende. Fine.

Naturally, you guessed, it didn't work. Life is what happens when you had other plans, isn't it? This is how I ended up going to university in Canada -- which became my country, in the sense that I alone in my family "discovered" it.

In fact, I recall listening to the radio in Montreal, watching the snow come down -- what else? -- as Helen Reddy belted out "I Am Woman." I was so convinced she was balladeering about Canada -- at the time, separation between Quebec and the anglophone provinces seemed imminent -- that I heard "I Am One," as if she were riffing on Gordon Lightfoot's "Nous Vivons Ensemble."

OK, Canadians, enjoy this. Picture the Beaver, the Maple Leaf and a bottle of Labatt (I preferred Brador), then think of the following words describing your country:
Oh yes I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am O-o-o-o-ne
Apologies to Helen Reddy, wherever she is. O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux ...

All this, in sum, goes to say that I'm agnostic concerning the idea that living in a particular country makes you happy. At least it's not my experience.

True: because of my choice of the United States, I was spared horrifying political and economic times endured by many with whom I went to secondary school in my parents' homeland. I also find North American English to be an economical, precise tongue in which I can more or less organize my craziness. Spanish is less so, certainly not a good language in which to philosophize.

I feel I am in every sense a U.S. American, although I am a little Canadian and European and Latin American, too.

But I also lost a whole emotional range that is not understood in the anglophone world as anything but insane. A couple of years ago I fell madly in love with a woman from Argentina because I felt a part of me touched that had never been touched before. It was a temporary fever. Yet it spoke to the existence of a whole personal subcontinent.

U.S. Americans sometimes see a "Latin" in me and Latin Americans see a Yanqui. I know I am really neither -- and both. I am a citizen of the republic of me, a nation without a territory, much the way many Jews found themselves until 1948.

What if I had ended up elsewhere? I did live abroad as an adult. It didn't make much of a difference. I always carried me and my neuroses with me.

So it really doesn't matter where you are. It only matters who you are. Sometimes only the state of your liver matters.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Few things are more irritating to one who has lived outside the anglophone world than its shibboleth that it is somehow unseemly to be the object of pity. What is so wrong with the emotion that stirred Michelangelo to sculpt the Pietà?

Of course, and thank you Max Weber, the opposition to pity is all part of the Calvinist-capitalist construction that your own good fortune is the fruit of your virtue and God's wise finger in selecting you as one of the select few. Should you fall from grace, it's your own damned fault -- so goes the theory, which settles on evidence of those it calls utterly "undeserving" poor (essentially all poor people).

The corollary to "if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is "if your poor, it's your own stupid fault."

This is one of the absurdities that remind me of George Bernard Shaw on patriotism.

But there's more. Ever since the end of romanticism in art and society, and I'll place the moment the last nail was driven into its coffin as the fall of 1914, every effort has been made to squelch every possible emotion as hollow, mawkish sentimentality -- except to sell war bonds or long-distance telephone fees.

Feelings, however, are a lot of what make us human -- even if they all come from a chemical compound in the brain. Altruism and humanitarianism is based on the feeling of empathy.

This is what allows me to see that, even though your skin is a different color, or you are of a different sex, if I pinch you, it hurts. I know because if you pinch me it hurts me. You are like me; when you suffer, a measure of your suffering spills onto me -- if I am humane and allow myself to feel.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," said John Donne in reference to the death knell, "it tolls for thee."

But what if I am the dead or the dying, physically, emotionally or in any of the myriad of ways in which we die before our body becomes stone cold dead? Am I not worthy of my fellows' empathy?

Might I not expect a respectful removal of the hat when my casket passes by? Or a kind word when I am in pain, even if that word is only inspired by pity, because the other person cannot remove my pain?

Given that we are not, ultimately, in charge of every element of our destiny, even though we are responsible, for a few decades, for some aspects of our behavior, do we not all deserve and need pity? Isn't pity a gift, to be received gracefully and gratefully?

Imagine our desire to banish pity come true. We wake up shivering, dazed, stiff-jointed and uncomfortable, on a sidewalk grate and passers by let us know we are pitied by no one. A few mutter, "Get a job!"

Luckily, right now I do not feel in any way in need of my fellow humans' pity. But the day I stumble, the day my energies begin to flag, the day I am poor and hungry. That day, please, pity me!