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.