Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Last Time

A longtime cyberfriend announced that today she would be walking out of a classroom for the last time. She's retiring from work as a university professor. The first thought to strike me is how rare it is that we get to know that we are doing something for the last time.

There are probably hundreds, perhaps thousands, of important activities that we ceased doing without our noticing that it was the last time.

The last kiss received from or given to a certain lover, relative, friend. The last time you fed at your mother's breast, if you did at all. While most people remember the date of their last cigarette or bottle of booze, I'd doubt they recall the actual puff or sip that was their last.

Then there are those events that you may have anticipated without knowing. I distinctly remember wondering, for no reason, whether I was seeing my father for the last time on the last moment I saw him, hale and hearty, walking to his car. At the time I regarded my thoughts as oddly morbid and told no one. Several days later he was unexpectedly dead.

Yet I don't think I can recall the last lucid conversation I had with my mother. It's all very random, as folks say these days.

Think of the many lasts still ahead. When will you last go out to the movies or drive your car? Or breathe your last breath?

Do we need to be aware and know? Or is there some hidden beauty in the way parts of life simply slip away?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Obama's B+? Maybe with Grade Inflation

President Obama gave himself a B+ on 60 Minutes this weekend. Frankly, I think he was way overoptimistic. I won't say he has an F, but he's in C or D territory unless something happens between now and Jan. 20, which is really when the year's grade should be bestowed.

Obama promised change, but in domestic terms he's given us lots more of the same ... with nicer language and a more credible persona, of course. Internationally, he's been given a lot of credit -- including an undeserved Peace Prize -- that essentially amounts to an obligation to come through with something.

Don't believe me? Let's go down memory lane ...
  • The $787 billion stimulus package is not the failure Republicans say it is, but it was too small (I'm with Christina Romer's wish for $1.2 trillion), too much went into tax cuts and giveaways and too little got in fast-spending people's wallets. These flaws were painfully bipartisan in origin, but Obama signed the legislation when his political capital was at its peak and he should have bonked heads to get a better bill out of Congress.
  • The AIG bonus fracas ... ? It was embarrassing to watch .. and it began to make me wonder whose side he's on.
  • The first Obama budget was basically identical to what Bush's would have been if sane people had been in the White House during the first eight years of this century. The cockamamie stuff was gone, but nothing was fundamentally changed (... because the Obama folks said it was all in the stimulus). Memo to the WH: the stimulus is temporary; we need permanent solutions.
  • Speaking of which ... there's the health reform that never happened. Even if Harry "Jellyspine" Reid manages to pull off an alleged health bill, at most Congress will have made minor tweaks to health insurance. Millions of people will continue to die -- yes, to die -- because they don't have enough money to pay for a doctor's or health insurance executive's third home in the Bahamas.
  • And while we're on the subject of death, those 30,000 added soldiers in Afghanistan, while we're still not out of Iraq, were a real change from Bush, weren't they?
If Obama had been John McCain, well, sure, this would be a B- or even a B+. After all, McCain never claimed to have the human compassion and verve for change that Obama did.

Frankly, I can't imagine that the end result of McCain's first year would have been that different: we'd still have double-digit unemployment, increasing poverty, health legislation (if any) written by insurance company lobbyists and war without end.

So? What's B+ about that?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's Time for Me

I've been hearing this phrase with ever greater urgency from fellow Boomers for a decade or so. When Chani, in a recent blogpost, argued that she tore up the memo that "told me I was supposed to have low self-regard and take crap from people," I felt some response larger than a comment was needed.

Chani complained about a woman who was talking endlessly about herself (another creeping Boomer affliction, but also seen at all ages). The woman was admittedly spitting out negativity best left unspoken: TMI. She had also committed the cardinal sin of showing no interest in Chani's life.

Sound familiar? Yes, folks, men and women are the worst people around. No one really cares about you; everyone, including you, is really concerned with self-gratification and survival.

We are all about "me." (Actually, younger people seem to be more about "duty," but that's another post.)

Chani's complaint that she has lived "consumed with the needs and wants of others," which in my experience is not that uncommon a refrain among women, misses the mark. Living for the needs of others is not self-effacing, it is self-aggrandizing and self-affirming.

The put-upon nurturer is in reality saying, "I am the only thing standing between these people and utter chaos." One of the big gains of motherhood and similar traditional roles that I have observed is that women who may have been self-questioning gain enormous confidence as "executives" in the lives of others.

No one does anything except for gain of some kind. The nurturer gets something from nurturing, or else he or she wouldn't do it. Maybe it is approval, a sense of importance, feeling that one is "good."

A change that sounds more appropriate to me than to tear up the memo, is to realize that doing what one is told is no longer appealing. The "oughts" of the past no longer make sense to us; there's nothing in them for us any more.

That's because all our time, from birth to death, has always been really "for me" and "about me." Let's not fool ourselves.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

No More Waiting for the Doctor

In the past month I've had about a good half dozen medical appointments and at not one of them -- not one! -- was I ushered in without a wait, even though I was perfectly on time, often early. One time it was more than an hour. This morning I put my foot down.

When the receptionist deigned to appear, ten minutes past my 8:00 am appointment, cheerily asking how everyone was, I said loudly, "You're late."

Silence. Several late-coming jump-the-line patients edged over to her desk, so I called out "You're not going to ignore the clipboard on which everyone signed in order of arrival, are you?"

"Let me boot up the computer," she said.

"If you hadn't arrived late that would be done already," I replied.

What is wrong with these people?

They can't make an appointment even if you're sick for less than three weeks later, but when you arrive you have to wait for their royal highnesses to give you the service you pay for? There's 10 percent unemployment out there and it's catching.

OK, part of it is that it's an HMO, Kaiser Permanente, to be precise. "Better than nothing," as a cab driver told me. Not much.

Kaiser is imperious and quixotic with its rates, but short on service. They remind me of Helen Hunt's famous scene in As Good As It Gets:
CAROL (HH): Fucking HMO bastard pieces of shit... I'm sorry...
DR. BETTES: No. Actually, I think that's their technical name.
Health pseudoreform or not, I refuse to wait any more. If they make an appointment, they keep it.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Write-Right Rite

This week I banged out a story late in the day, tired and rubbing against deadline, and it came back from the copy editor without a scratch. "Perfect," she said. I realized then that I had become one of the geezer reporters of yore.

I'm talking about the days in which newsroom afternoons meant work in a deafening din of manual typewriter keys hitting on the platen behind the paper, mixed in with the "ding!" of carriages returning. When I started working, such places existed.

Every newsroom had some legendary grizzled man who arrived five minutes before deadline with a cigar in his mouth and the smell of gin on his breath, sat at his desk and banged out his requisite 700 to 1,500 words without ever having to x-out anything. His story was ready to print with a minute to spare.

Of course, the rest of us -- in particular, me -- had to compose ploddingly, cross out words, replace entire pages, curse and turn out something that would go through several eyes and red pencils before it was printed.

All that is gone. The Washington Post's closing of news bureaus in several cities and The Washington Times' abandonment of paid subscriptions augur the demise of newspapers in the nation's capital, where I live.

Yet the truly ominous writing on the wall is for standards of writing and, more broadly, language. In sum, the editorial process.

Of course, fact-checking arguably went out the window not long after Watergate in the major press.

Remember the lawsuit over entirely made up quotes in no less than The New Yorker? Iran-Contra, uncovered by small and independent publications, happened because no one in the major media was actually reporting news. The self-important news peacocks in the White House and State Department briefing rooms were all transcribing press releases.

Now the guardians of language are being tossed out. To cut costs, the Post and many other papers have eliminated copy editors, the people who fussed at punctuation, style and more grammatical rules than you ever knew existed.

These people turned every wannabe-novelist's inchoate thoughts into clear and precise statements that anyone with a modicum of education -- papers used to aim for 10th grade -- could understand. Now writing by people who can't tell the difference between "affect" and "effect" sees the light of day every day.

The news business has devolved to bad blogging that comes a day late on dead trees. No wonder it's sinking.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"I Don't Want to Die"

What's with the near-obsessive repetition of this shriek of terror? It's ubiquitous. And silly.

‘Mommy, I don’t want to die. I love you,’ was the alleged plea of Louisiana nine-year-old Camille Hebert before her mother stabbed her to death.

"I Don't Want to Die of a Heart Attack When I'm 25," proclaims the title of a dieting blog.

"I don't want to die, ever," comments an anonymous blog reader in response to the post of a 95-year-old who proclaims his desire to live.

Why not die?

Were any of these people composing an immortal symphony when the thought of death came to them? On the verge of curing cancer? About to sign a treaty abolishing torture, nuclear weapons and poverty forever?

Did they think they were alone in this? By the time I started writing this, about 61,900 people had died this day on the planet.*

Life's a bitch and then you die. My preferred version of this urban saying is "life's a bitch and then you marry one." The image makes a better allegory. Life does treat us roughly and we are pretty much stuck with it, like it or not. The only divorce available is death.

So why prolong it? Are we all so rich, so healthy, so overwhelmingly happy, so virtuous that living is, itself, a philosophical good or a psychosomatic pleasure?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not proposing that we all engage in mass suicide. (The environment will take care of that, if nuclear weapons don't.) I'm just wondering if we can all just look at death in the face and behave with some semblance of dignity.

I am dying. I will die. All of us are dying from the minute we're born. At some moment in the future that we don't know, we will all be dead. Probably forgotten not long after. Our bodies will turn to dust.


When I was a believer in God I thought, of course, that there was something else on the other side. Some people do everything here thinking of that other side: they are "good" to avoid "hell." I didn't particularly care: I thought being good was worthy in itself, or being bad sounded like more fun at the time.

Now I doubt there's anything at the other side of death, at least not much more than there is on this side -- which is to say, not much at all. Cosmically, we are smaller than microscopic; in terms of the span of time in which we can estimate events to have occurred, our lives are shorter than seconds.

What's so important, precious, significant, worth defending about our particular lives?

Die. Die with some self-respect, not like a quivering fool.

* Note: as I was putting the finishing touches on this post the number of deaths today stood at more than 66,800. To paraphrase the movie disclaimer: 3,900 people have died during the writing of this post. Now there's a number that is more fitting. That would likely wipe out everyone I have ever known.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Speculator Dies, Gets Canonized

Abe Pollin may not get a Rot In Hell Award, but that's because he's too insignificant to deserve hell. Purgatory will do. In any case, what's with stiletto sharp columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times canonizing a guy whose life was essentially devoted to real estate speculation?

He owned a basketball team -- because he was rich. He invested lots of money in downtown Washington, D.C. -- because he was rich. He started, too late to live to see it, an "affordable housing" project in the Third World section of Washington, D.C. -- because it assuaged his conscience concerning how he got rich.

As Balzac wrote, behind every fortune there is a crime. I haven't investigated into the details of Pollin's particular crimes, but I'm sure nothing of what he did was charity. He had fun being a basketball owner, he got his money back and then some from his "courageous investing," that's why it's called investment.

Oh, and after making millions for how many decades in the Washington area, did he decide to set aside a portion of the land he bought, on speculation, in Southeast Washington, where health, wealth and well-being indicators are closer to most developing failed states than the USA. And what tax breaks did he get from the deal?

The land in Southeast has been cheap for years while Pollin and his friends were buying it up in expectation of the planned development that a baseball stadium near the area would bring. With the best politicians money can buy, the land he bought for chump change is becoming quite valuable.

So, excuse me, but Abe Pollin was no saint. He was merely a speculator who got rich. I'm so tired of the hagiographies of shameless name-dropping sycophants such as Dowd.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Gory Details

Should the public be spared the gory details of unpleasant things such as war or rape, asks a participant in a discussion.* Is there no role for narrative that tells us in the first person what certain horrible experiences are like? In brief, no.

Let me put this in context.

We live in a world soaked in portrayals and testimonials of gore, human, animal, plant and possibly even mineral. We are so overloaded with these sounds, images and words that there is a surfeit of Holocaust jokes, Christa McAuliffe jokes and dead Kennedy jokes.

I confess I told a September 11 joke while the towers were still smoldering (something to do with the World Trade Center's architectural design, or lack thereof) and George W. Bush told another one to his budget chief in the next few days (something about hitting a presidential disaster "trifecta").

We joke about these things because it is part of the human condition. Nothing new.

There is nothing about war, rape, genocide, hunger or suicide airplane hijackers (aka "terrorists") that we haven't heard of, seen replayed umpteen times on television, read the book, the novel, the film treatment of the novel, the T-shirt and the bumper sticker. Anyone beyond the age of 11 (and quite a few below) who denies this either (a) has been sequestered in a jury panel since 1963; (b) lives on another planet; or (c) is lying.

Want war gore? Read "Johnny Got His Gun" by Dalton Trumbo. Get off on genocide? Oh, where to start ... ? Try "Eichmann in Jerusalem" by Hannah Arendt. Rape? Try 2 Samuel 13:1-21.

There is nothing new about this. Nothing worth retelling. No one will stop war, genocide or rape because of a good first-person narrative. The only thing more "literary" or "artistic" gore serves is the narcissism of the writer or artist, who fleetingly gets attention for work that is utterly unoriginal.

Don't feed Narcissus.

* See Son of Polanski or Abandonment vs Rape for links to the discussion.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Catholic Charities? Not!

Thursday, my busiest day, I couldn't write a post on The Washington Post front page news that the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington threatened to discontinue the services to the poor provided under contract with the city if the Washington, D.C., City Council approves a gay marriage bill. I howled with laughter.

Funniest of all was listening on the radio to the spokesman of the local Catholic Charities talking about tenets (I swear it sounded like "tenants") in syntactically awkward statements that conveyed the distinct impression that he didn't know what the word "tenets" means -- let alone what the tenets of Catholicism are.

There is no tenet on which to hide behind in this case. No one is asking the Catholic Church to declare that a civil marriage between people of the same sex is sacramental, much less to host such a ceremony. In fact, archdiocesan officials are standing on the quicksand of hypotheticals (see their own Web site) that, precisely in the light of their own alleged faith, simply do not wash, as follows:
What if an employee wants medical benefits for his or her same-sex partner?

You mean the Catholic Church even hires gay people? (Indeed, yes; more secretly guarded that the pedophile files -- pedofiles? -- is the number of supposedly celibate priests who have died of AIDS.)

All right, let's keep a straight face here. Where is it forbidden to provide the insurance benefits as required by law, even if it is more than you think you should pay?

Even in the direst Catholic condemnations of homoeroticism, of which there are many, the teachings are consistent in calling for charity (that is, loving kindness), always well beyond one's minimal duty. It's not like the Church has ever confronted massive and uncontrolled altruism and had to stop the excess of kindness.

What if a gay couple wants to adopt a child?

So? Do Catholic charity groups only promote adoptions and foster parents among people who subscribe to the entire code of Catholic Canon Law?

No Muslims, Jews or Protestants, whose standards of marriage and coupling, and a host of other moral and doctrinal ideas differ radically from those of Catholicism, may ever adopt or become foster parents through a Catholic agency?

What if same-sex couples want to use a church hall for for non-wedding events

You mean, like the Knights of Columbus in Silver Spring, Md., and several Catholic churches, a stone throw from the bishop's residence, rent their halls for dances for divorced people who obviously have the intention of coupling?

These three hypotheticals come from their Web site.

Allow me at this point to interject that I was once a board member of precisely the D.C. area Catholic Charities, during the tenure of Archbishop Hickey. I knew then and know now that these charities are only nominally "Catholic." Nationally, Catholic Charities USA estimates that between 45 and 55 percent f their funds come from the Catholic Church; and much the same is true locally.

The contracts with the District of Columbia are a way to raise revenue. Much the way most nonprofits actually make handsome amounts of money that results in the occasional scandal when some official gets too greedy, Catholic Charities, like the Catholic Church, is, in strict financial terms, a business.

Pace, Catholics! The same is true of every other religious organization or church. Some are more baldly money making, other less so.

Now if the Archdiocese of Washington wants to demonstrate its purity of belief in the evangelical counsels (feed the hungry, give to drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick, etc.), let it do so without government contracts. Let it give out of its community's generosity, not that of the rest of us.

Let's go one step further: let the Archdiocese of Washington renounce the exemption that allows it to sit prime land and buildings for which it pays not a penny in real estate taxes. The church exemption diminishes the funds available for services to the poor -- and D.C. is a leader in generosity to the unemployed and poor.

Now those are policies and principles directly traceable to the words attributed to a Galilean woodworker of two millenia ago. Archbishop Wuerl may have heard of the man, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Honoring the Other War Veterans

The story has been repeatedly told of a visit by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry David Thoreau when the latter was in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War.

“Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked. Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

In that spirit, let us honor on this Veterans Day those who fought for peace by resisting war. The heroes who preferred disobedience, punishment and opprobrium, rather than wholesale murder in their name by their own countrymen.

In the United States scarcely any generation has lived without being sent to war, into conflicts that on the whole served the profiteering rich far more than the many in the common citizenry. Yet it is still rare to stop to consider the tradition of peace.

Benjamin Franklin foresaw such a history in the choice of the bald eagle as a national symbol:
"I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest of America."
Franklin preferred the native turkey. Thomas Jefferson offered the dove, a symbol of peace since biblical times.

Opponents of the 1846-1848 predatory war against Mexico included John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Giddings. In his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau called it "the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool."

Roughly a half century later, no less a figure than Mark Twain was a founding member of the Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the Spanish-American War and the subsequent settlement. Twain voiced the following sentiments:
I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
Even as the ranks of pacifism thinned by 1914, when the United States entered the Great War in 1917, socialists raised their voices in opposition, echoing their brethren in Europe, who saw no benefit in workers shooting other workers for the benefit of capitalists. Eugene V. Debs was jailed for merely speaking against the war. On his side was Helen Keller, who was left alone because she was a sympathetic figure.

Even the "good war," World War II, had its share of U.S. opponents, including Catholic figures such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Finally, there's the Vietnam peace movement of the 1960s and 70s, in the aftermath of which no U.S. president felt comfortable launching a full-fledged war until this century's invasion of Iraq -- opposition to which led to the election of the nation's first black president.

So, as military veterans of war are served up a pageant to their participation in state-sanctioned, industrial-scale murder, let us recall those brave veterans of war, who resisted belligerence.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Interests vs. Ethical Values

The same people who will cheer a single-payer or public option health reform, will fall silent when the suggestion wanders toward abolishing the gambling system known as stock exchanges (even if individual stockholders get a refund), and will likely voice outrage at the proposition that the inheritance laws that are the pillar of our financial caste system has no real philosophical basis.

Similarly, it is easy to find the veritable legion of "family values" advocates who are multiple divorcees, middle-aged prudes who committed "youthful indiscretions," or reformed drug users who want to lock up teenage experimenters and throw away the key.

Greed? Hypocrisy? Fear? Individualism? Not really.

At the heart of all this is a vast confusion between one's own interests and a moral philosophy that emerges out of disinterested reasoning. It's the difference between nominal Christians' churchgoing for fear of hell and Emmanuel Kant's notion that what is good is worth doing for its own sake.

When people cite a "principle" that obviously feathers their own nest, rather than an ethical imperative, they are giving voice to an interest, not an ethical value.

Interests are all about what is convenient and consistent with one's way of life. Ethical values are what is good, whether or not we like it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Son of Polanski or Abandonment vs. Rape

How did we get from an arrest on a 30-year-old bench warrant to the airing of emotionally charged personal experience as the basis for judging "l'affaire Polanski"? I plead guilty to having been drawn in, but I do think it is time for the mind to overcome feeling.

Let me replay what has happened in my neighborhood of the blogosphere. About a week ago, novelist Helen DeWitt posted on her blog Paperpools an excerpt from an opinion piece by one Jenny Diski in the London Review of Books concerning the Polanski rape charge.*

Diski admits to the same initial yawning ennui I felt when Polanski was arrested. Then, a coterie of self-important intellectual celebrities (oxymoron intended) signed a petition arguing that "good sense, as well as honour" required the release of Polanski, citing, as the proverbial kitchen sink, the film director's alleged suffering under the Nazis and the Soviets in Poland.

Merely appealing to Godwin's Law (aka Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies), namely, that the first person to call another a Nazi automatically loses the argument, would have served Diski well. Bernard-Henri Lévy, the author of the missive, is a well-known, attention-seeking buffoon who won't accept mere foolishness when total lunacy can be had.

But no. Diski had to regale us with a blow by blow narrative of her own experience of being raped. Perhaps the article brought some cathartic relief to the writer, but you have to wonder what demons still lurk in Diski's mind to provoke this pornographic act of self-exposure.

What appalling desensitization has occurred in Western society that Diski feels justified in recounting every gory detail of her violation to get a showstopping reaction?

I know rape. I understand it. I don't need to know what orifices were involved to feel horrified by it. You will have to trust me here because I will not add my personal detritus to the blogosphere.

Indeed, abandoning all good sense, perhaps under the influence of Diski's boundary smashing, I replied on DeWitt's blog with a comment that described an equally illegal and heart-rending experience of my own abandonment -- albeit without Diski's gusto for clinical detail --  only to be met with derision by someone who didn't even bother to read carefully.**

I'm not interested in a contest to decide who is more victimized. Diski apparently has a column in a well-known British periodical and has not, that I can tell, spent her life on a grate or in a slum in Latin America. Neither have I. We both had terrible experiences while young, but we are also both lucky far beyond what either deserves.

My point is that, while what happened to Diski inspires sympathy (not so Diski's lurid retelling), should the feelings of someone who experienced such a thing be the chief basis on which judgment is rendered by a civilized society?

Or should the rule of law and the development of moral philosophy spring from a somewhat more detached, less self-interested, source?

We have courts of law and rules for due process precisely because society rejects the lex talionis and judgment by the aggrieved as uncivilized. We accept empirical observation and logical discourse as sources of, at a minimum, approximate truth. We know we can express them in universal terms that, while never entirely devoid of subjectivity, fairly distinguish their a priori biases from their findings.

Such conventions do not arise out of disdain for sentimentality or nonrational discourse -- not, at least, on my part -- but because feeling, intuition, nonlinear thought and the like are all ineffable and extremely subjective, to the point that it is impossible to separate conclusions from prejudice.

This is why feelings and experiences cannot be called upon to serve as a basis for deciding what to do with Polanski, or to enunciate principles.

* WARNING: the texts are graphic and raw. If you insist, read the blog here and Diski's piece here.

** As the immortal Felix Unger once taught, "when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME." See the exchange at the bottom of this page.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Beyond Forgiveness

It's a pleasant surprise in middle age when you run across something you have never heard before, something that stops you dead in your tracks to make you ponder. This happened to me with this ethical counsel:
Be like night when covering the faults of others.
We are asked not merely to forgive, but essentially to forget. When we see or suffer someone else's wrongdoing, not only must we avoid calling attention to the wrongdoer, or seeking revenge or justice for the wrong. This encomium advises us to conceal the wrong and spare the other person embarrassment or penalty.

This is obviously way beyond Christian forbearance. Way beyond our Western sense of tit for tat, dressed up in fancy legal codes.

The source is one of seven counsels attributed to a famous Muslim poet and mystic Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), known to most of us in the West simply as Rumi, a saintly jurist and theologian who wrote in Persian and lived in what today are Afghanistan and Turkey.

Everybody claims Rumi as his own; and, yes, possibly Virginia Woolf, too.

The Sufis and the Shia and Sunni Muslims have regarded him as their own. Because he wrote in Persian, a variety of nations today claim him as theirs, as does Turkey. Even many Americans -- except me, of course -- have long regarded him as a favorite poet.

Yet, of course, although his poetry and sayings are quite ecumenical, he made plain that he believed in Islam. Indeed, this teaching goes back to a hadith* (verse) in the Quran that goes something like this:
Allah will cover up on the Day of Resurrection the faults of the one who covers up the faults of the others in this world.
This comes reasonably close to the reciprocity asserted in the Christian Lord's Prayer: forgive us our sins as we forgive others. Yet again, there seems to be a crucial difference between the Islamic idea and the Christian.

In Islam, it seems to me, an admitted non-Muslim ignoramus, the deity isn't even seeing the faults. There's some sense in which the moral defects of a person are treated almost as if they were private parts, to be covered by a robe of sorts.

Don't let other people's moral warts show and no one will look at yours. This is not merely the Christian "do not judge lest ye be judged." The whole idea of judgment is skipped over and replaced with a moral imperative to allow everyone to save face ethically.

Note also the quiet ease in which Rumi puts us while thrusting upon us a moral norm that is momentous and, insofar as I can see, runs against the grain of our Western common sense, at least. "Be like night ..." Make sure no one knows that there ever was anything deserving forgiveness!

So, now, for your enjoyment, the Seven Counsels* of Rumi:
Be like a river in generosity and giving help
Be like a sun in tenderness and pity
Be like night when covering others' faults
Be like a dead when furious and angry
Be like earth in modesty and humbleness
Be like a sea in tolerance
Be as you are or as you look like
And relax. I haven't converted to Islam.

* I do not claim to have translated these. I cannot seem to find the exact bibliographical information to identify the Quranic verse or the precise source of the "seven advices" [sic] widely attributed to Rumi. I will properly source them if someone has such information.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Romance as Estrangement

Sunday, reading The New York Times I came across a gem of an epigram, within a question, quoted in a book review, from what seems to be a very experimental, deeply philosophical novel. This gem follows:
‘Strangers become intimate, and as intimacy grows they lower their guards and less mind their manners until errors are made, which decreases intimacy until estrangement exceeds that which existed before the strangers ever met,’
Notice the comma at the end? That's because it is sandwiched inside the question “If the observation were made to you that [epigram quoted above] would you be inclined to agree?” The full quote is from The Interrogative Mood - A Novel? By Padgett Powell, as reviewed by Josh Emmons.

Ok, so this is not my idea. But wouldn't you agree with its profound truth?

We become intimate in the flush of infatuation and lust that we call "falling in love." For a time we are in paradise and there has never been another person or another state like it in the entire history of humanity remotely similar to our beloved, our love, our lovemaking.

Who cannot recall becoming inflamed in languorous multilingual conversation over a glass of red wine, then waking up next morning by a pale white body, a naked Greek statue enfleshed, at rest after crests of passion uncommon to the species in their depth and palpitating frequency?

Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled, speaks of men at the point of orgasm declaring love to a prostitute -- or more commonly, a one-night stand -- as a phenomenon having to do with a temporary collapse of ego boundaries that, absent the spike of brain chemistry, keep our emotions within certain prescribed social limits.

Intimacy. Fused inside and out. Then confidences. Then the slow unpeeling of the knight's armor and the lady's veil. I drink too much. I nag. I have this teensy-weensy habit ... but it's OK, because you love me, no?


No, it's not OK, and it gets worse when, without thinking, you say or do something the knight or the lady would never do. The cat's out of the bag: I am me, you are you. The bag is slowly emptied of all the psychic detritus lying there, sometimes causing unspeakable pain in the other and unfathomable guilt of one's own.

Eventually, it is better to be apart, to erase every last vestige of the other until things are back ... no, until you are in a new primordial universe in which the other person never existed and you never met. Of course, we are as if made of wood: the nail's been taken out but the hole remains.

So we try to fill it again with a new shining lover on a hill. A new rush of what we think is love.

We are doomed.

Wouldn't you agree?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hitting On and Getting Hit: It Takes Two

There's a disturbing one-sidedness among women blogging and commenting about public, unwanted, but perfectly legal male attention in a way that paints the man as a figurative predator and the woman as a figurative victim. The truth is that genius and stupidity are abundant in both sexes and this leads to plenty of misunderstandings.

The two most recent examples of which I am aware are my cyberfriend Heartinsanfrancisco's So Many Fools, So Little Time, which tells a vignette of an overheard street approach to a "very attractive young woman" by a young man on a bicycle, and Schrödinger’s Rapist, which purports, amid much frothy giggling, to dispense advice to young men in such a situation.

In both instances, there was a chorus of unanimity from women canonizing the notion that in these situations men are always willful and wrong, not merely mistaken, and that women are innocent and hapless, not merely inconvenienced. An approach on the public street that does not involve physical contact or profanity is not morally equivalent to rape no matter how you slice it and dice it, and there are two players in that scene.

Sure, some men are cads. But some women are foolish.

The woman in So Many Fools gave her name to the stranger, first thing, instead of ignoring him. A commenter told of a "friend" (herself?) who allowed a total stranger, a man who was not a professional photographer, to take her picture. Not a day passes, particularly in the summer, that I see young women in variations of near-undress in the public sidewalks of my city.

Why are women surprised that returning the attention of an unknown male contemporary, giving a stranger of the opposite sex a physical image of yourself or walking around half-naked convey messages that they are open to a conversation, to being objectified or to inspiring fantasies of naked activities?

I'm not endorsing the men.

The young man on a bicycle didn't take the hint when the attractive woman clearly attempted to break off the conversation some moments later. The "photographer" was apparently arrested for masturbating in the public company of a whole batch of photos of foolish women who had let him take their picture. And, yes, many men do undress women in their heads due to a huge swath of anthropological reasons that, I agree, do call for change (a whole other post).

Yet in the case of casual, public approaches by men who are obviously physically attracted to a woman -- they do not know whether she has read T.S. Eliot -- the responsibility for decorum falls upon both the man and the woman.

I cannot think of a reason for a woman to let a stranger in a metropolitan area photograph her, other than sheer narcissism. Um, what could that be for? What is being photographed here, her PhD thesis on Francis Bacon? Similarly, I cannot find any excuse for "photographer," other than pathology.

However, if the attractive young woman was slow to convey her disinterest -- Heartin deems that acceptable -- then perhaps we ought to cut the young man some slack for being slow to get the message.

Similarly, if an adult woman wears a low cut dress that does not exactly draw attention to her frontal cerebral lobes, the men might be excused if their fantasies get away from them, so long as they stay as mere fantasies.

Still, might there not be a woman who dresses attractively to attract and, indeed, meet the man of her dreams unexpectedly? Is it not possible that a suggestively attired woman is actually seeking to inspire fantasies in at least one particular man?

MIght we all simply relax a little about the mishaps and miscommunications between men and women? Isn't it possible that women, as well as men, bear the burden of mixed and missed signals?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Afghanistan: the Next Step

Since the President is in a listening mood, I thought I'd throw in my three cents regarding what to do with Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the single, clearest goal in all military and security efforts since 2001, and from now on, had to be, should have been, and should be, to bring to justice those responsible for 9/11 and those conspiring to bring about similar crimes.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan had decent prospects of achieving that goal in short order. However, the military execution raised the question of credibility: why was Osama bin Laden cornered, then allowed to escape? Moreover, the invasion of Iraq was a distracting error that should never have happened.

The mission in Afghanistan should never be confused with stabilizing or in any way changing or influencing that country's internal functioning.

Afghanistan is, after all, a country slightly smaller than Texas, with only 12 percent of its territory containing arable land. No one quite knows the population of Afghanistan (estimates range between 28 and 33 million) and it is easily one of the three or four poorest and most backward nations in the world. This is not a country with a few minor problems.

One journalist who was there recounted that Afghan villagers asked why U.S. troops had arrived. He explained 9/11 and people laughed at him in disbelief: airplanes flying into buildings how tall? Remember, most Afghan villagers don't have TV or radio or newspapers (most can't read, anyway) and have likely never seen an airplane or a building higher than three stories, if that.

Developing Afghanistan, bringing roads, schools and modern technology may be high minded, but that is a task to accomplish over generations. Let's not get too cocky about this, either: It took the United States 381 years to go from a primitive settlement on Plymouth Rock, Mass., to the launch of the iPod.

Besides, how do we know that our kind of society is really an advance? Do we want to export to Afghanistan our American clogged freeways, drug problems and obesity?

As to making change by military force ... forget about it!

The mountainous Central Asian nation has been the burial ground of the hordes of Genghis Khan, the quicksand of British military expeditions in the 19th century and in the 20th swallowed whole entire divisions of the very same Red Army that defeated Hitler. What makes any American even think that the U.S. military would experience anything less?

Overthrowing the Taliban, despite its religious affinity with Al Qaeda, was most likely a crass error. Sure, it provided images and headlines of "victory" similar to those of World War II, but it also landed Afghanistan on our laps.

A more realistic view would be to let "the Afghan bastards," in George Patton's salty language, deal with the problems of Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is a base for Al-Qaeda, let's get them there; if Osama and his gang are elsewhere, let's go where they are and capture them there.

Let's leave fixing all the world's problems for another post, another policy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day of Argument

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and, beyond that, no one ever quite agreed what happened next.

In the English speaking world, unparalleled Spanish cruelty coupled with Catholic obscurantism descended on the continent until 1607, when English people landed in Jamestown. In the Spanish-speaking world, the English were preceded by explorers and priests who brought Western, Christian civilization and spawned a new multiracial society (see Hispanic theologian Virgilio Elizondo's "cosmic race" born in mestizaje), featuring the continent's first universities, churches and other august institutions -- all long before the Puritans or the British pirate Drake.

Among the oldest inhabitants of the American continent (I'm told their preferred word for themselves these days is "Indian" but I'm not taking chances), from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego, October 12 is the anniversary of the beginning of a long tragedy in which various ancient ways of life were destroyed by the sword, the pen and the cross of various Europeans.

Spanish conquistadores decapitated three major pre-Columbian empires. A British general invented biological warfare to better steal lands in New England. French Jesuits naïvely brought about among the once fearsome Iroquois one of the most genuine and heartfelt mass conversions to the gospel of "blessed are the peacemakers," and the tribe was subsequently wiped out in a generation by its long-suffering enemies.

We still don't know conclusively whether the remains of Christopher Columbus are in the Dominican Republic or in Spain. Nor whether he was Italian, the grandson of a Christian Spaniard in Genoa or, potentially, a Sephardic Jew. (The first person in Columbus' first expedition to set foot in the New World was, indeed, a Sephardic Jew, translator Luis de Torres.)

Nor do we know, of course, who really "discovered" America. Most likely, it was a Mongol who crossed the Behring Strait more than 10,000 years ago. Take that, Leif Erikson!

America the continent -- not the weasel "Americas," which tries to make up for the theft of the continental name by one of the countries of the original British North America -- isn't even named after anyone who was actually here.

Of course, as shown, we can't even agree about the name even though, to my mind, on my side of the Atlantic, we are all Americans, from Argentines to Venezuelans and every other nationality in between.

Despite my bouts of flea-bitten regionalism, I feel at home anywhere on the continent, having lived in Canada and Argentina, as well as the economic behemoth that lies somewhere in between. We americanos de la patria grande or Greater Homeland Americans really have a common history of migration and settlement, of constantly remaking and renewing our hopes.

We are more flexible than the Europeans, whose culture is pretty much fixed in identities forged in the first half of the last millenium. We are less mature than the Asians, whose wisdom and ways of life are at once the oldest and newest. We are far too much more individualistic than we should be, as the communitarian cultures of Africa teach us. We are, all of us, too driven to simply enjoy the paradises of Oceania.

Yet we are a tossed salad of them all -- Behring-Strait crossers and Polynesian raft sailors, European transoceanic transplants, Asian seekers of industry, African survivors of the "middle passage" and Pacific Basin neighbors.

In this last notion, I hope, we can all agree.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Was "Women's Liberation" a Capitalist Con?

Having put on my rotten-tomato resistant armor, allow me to raise an issue that's been bothering me for some time: did the alleged advances of women since the 1970s really improve overall economic conditions for the average U.S. wage earner? I am tempted to wonder whether it wasn't all a clever con.

Look at the facts.

1. Employers can get away with paying less per wage earner -- (we know that between 1973 and 2006 average wages declined in real value 22 percent). Is it a coincidence that this is the period in which there has been a steady and sustained rise in the proportion of women in the labor force and double-income households in the population? Perhaps.

2. Women always worked; anyone who says they didn't has never spent a day with an infant or washing clothes. They merely were not paid directly for their labor. Yet the proportion of time spent by women on average in tasks related to household and child care has not declined notably over the past few decades, while the time spent by men on these things has actually declined.

In brief, women have added responsibilities, but they still earn approximately 85 cents on the dollar that men earn, and both they and their male peers have actually seen their wages' purchasing power decline over time.

Second-wave feminism increased competition for jobs, as women added to men swelled the overall ranks of available workers, making the labor market ever more an employers' game. What happens in capitalism when supply overwhelms demand? Prices drop. The price of an individual worker declined.

Who won here? Not the women of America and not even the average men of America.

Is it at all conceivable that the powers that be allowed second-wave feminism to be promoted with the full knowledge that it would increase the supply of workers? I can't prove such a thing. Yet even if that's not what happened, this is still a pretty convenient coincidence for the wealthy and powerful few.

What's the lesson here? To my mind, it is that merely rearranging the deck chairs on the mighty oceanliner SS Capitalism, by promoting women into professions and prominence, isn't enough to make substantive changes to the system, because inequality will prevail.

Your mileage may vary. What do you think?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Friending and Unfriending

I feel right in the midst of the Zeitgeist. In yesterday's Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor sang a very funny song about being "unfriended" on Facebook, featuring a couple of verses that went, "you don't need me / you've got Carla and Nicholas Sarkozy."

It sure spoke for me, I was unfriended this week by a fellow blogger. The curious thing is that I had stopped following her blog -- one of those navel-gazing white-girl blogs in which all comments coo "you're awesome" -- some time ago.

Then she "friended" me some days ago. You know, click, click, "wanna be my friend"? (For a funny take, see Are You F*cking Kidding Me? (Facebook Song) on You Tube.)

Now, if you want to know my opinions about friendship go to my post Misanthropy and Friendship (one of the things I love about this medium is that one can slowly build an easily cross-indexed "canon" of ideas). Friendship is close to love, as the Quakers well knew, even though that's not how most people live.

The average experience in North America since the settlers is of friendships made on a handshake and a prayer, without commonality or shared experience or anything else before the arm is extended in peace.

Remember declaring someone or being declared "best friend" on the school yard? That's more or less the experience being summoned to mind on Facebook and similar social sites.

"Unfriending" -- click, click, I don't like you any more -- is just as childish.

In my case, it was done just to shut me up.The unfriender belongs to that generation that was told "good job!" far too many times; as many of her peers, she accepts only congratulations.

That's been my perennial complaint about "cybercommunities" and cybercourting. There's a deceptive sense of immediacy: since we share an easy and common interface, we must be in this together, no? The ego barriers collapse into cybersex, or at least a romance, because "at last, someone understands me" (at least until the computer is turned off).

There's no person to deal with, really. Only a bunch of keys, a mouse and our own imagination.

So, my fair unfriender, take your friending and unfriending: I won't be your groupie. You don't want discussion of ideas, you want a cheap ego-boost. That's fine. Just call it what it is.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Why Polanski Should Be Freed

For all those clamoring to see Roman Polanski extradited for his 32-year-old statutory rape, the fact that is forgotten here is that determination of guilt is no longer a legal issue. Polanski agreed many years ago to plead guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse" under a deal that sentenced him to time served in a mental institution, which he had completed.

If the court revisits the plea bargain in a case this high a public profile, then no prosecutor in the United States will be believed ever again.

This means that every case will have to go through trial, even slam-dunk, open-and-shut cases. It will clog the courts to the point that no one will ever get their constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial. Fewer people will be convicted of crimes they committed and, one way or another, thousands of seriously dangerous criminals will walk free.

Is the Puritan yen to pin yet another scarlet letter on another public figure that strong? Is it worth it?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are Democrats Really the New Republicans?

I didn't want to believe Bill Maher when he offered as a "new rule" that "Democrats are the new Republicans." But reading the votes against the health reform public option in the Senate Finance Committee, it's now difficult to argue with Maher's insight several months ago.

My understanding is that corporate lobbyists are collectively spending $1.4 million a day to get this result. Yet, as the late California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, a Democrat, reputedly said, "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and still vote against them, you have no business being up here."

If a Democratic president, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, cannot pass even the timid, tip-toe "public option" reform, it's clear that the Democrats no longer deserve the support of liberals or progressives. Hell, they don't belong in politics.

We need a second political party.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Anti-soundbite and its Uses to Officials

Do all officials answer reporters questions these days with a questions? No.  But does it help those who do wiggle out of a tight spot? Sure. Why do they do that? Have I said they do?

Do you get my drift here or do I have to explain? Just in case, here goes an explanation.

To my knowledge, the anti-soundbite question was originated by one Donald Rumsfeld, Republican muckety muck and master obfuscator since 1962. Last seen as George W, Bush's secretary of defense. In that position one could see him at Pentagon press briefings responding to reporters' questions by asking himself a question.

Typically, the question was aimed at only a portion of the issue, the more convenient part. The answer, or non-answer, was usually a few words that lent themselves to multiple interpretations.

The advantage of this rhetorical device is that it up-ended the soundbite, which is a piece of speech taken from longer statement. In television and radio time is money and, in any case, the viewers' and listeners' attention has been trained to fit 30-second commercials.

Imagine the following broadcast:
President Lincoln at Gettysburg said yesterday that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Asked about this comment, following a battle involving close to 50,000 casualties, the CEO of War Widows of America called Lincoln's remarks "insensitive."
The quote would have been a soundbite. It's the exact words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. Not all the words, but the ones this particular reporter -- from an early version of Fox News? -- deemed "newsworthy."

Now imagine Lincoln at a Rumsfeldian briefing:

REPORTER -- Did our forefathers mean for this civil war to happen?

LINCOLN -- Well, now, son, did they bring forth a new nation four score and seven years ago? Yes. But did they conceive it in liberty? One would think so. Didn't they state in the Declaration of Independence that they believed it as self-evident that "all men are created equal"? Sure, but notice the word "men." Are women mentioned there? I don't think so.

PRESS POOL (all male): [laughter]

See how the anti-soundbite question pulverizes the sounbdbite. What words are you going to select to quote? You have the statements "Yes," "One would think so," "Sure, but notice the word 'men'," and "I don't think so." The rest were arguably questions, not answers.

Even in paraphrase, what did the Rumsfeldian Lincoln actually affirm? Only that a new nation had been brought forth four score and seven years ago. Not much of a story.

Yet listen to the next broadcast and watch how many times officials of all kinds pretend to answer questions using this device. Examine what is said and notice how little the official has committed himself to any opinion or position and how easily, if questioned further, he can weasel out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Himym's "Aunt Robin"

With the second new season episode of himym (google it!) coming up tonight, all bets are off Robin Sherbatsky being the second m, except ...

... if "future" Ted at some point begins a story by telling his kids, "You know how we always call Mom 'Aunt Robin,' let me tell you how that got started ...?"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Iran: The Other Side

The news is everywhere that Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon and is deceiving the West (meaning the USA mainly) about this. But why shouldn't Iran have nuclear weapons and why should Iran be accountable to the USA or anyone else on this matter?

I mean -- and I say this in the first entry of a new blog topic: antipode* -- isn't Iran a sovereign nation? Don't all sovereign nations enjoy ... um ... sovereignty over their government and what their government decides to do within its borders?

Sovereignty is, after all, a nation-state's supreme power within its borders. The United Nations charter explicitly states that "The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members" (article 2, para 1).

So where does President Obama get off telling Iranian President Ahmadinejad what to do with his country's nuclear facilities. Isn't that a matter for the Iranians to decide? You might say the Iranians decided when Iran ratified the Non Proliferation Treaty in 1970.

But wait a minute ... who was in power in Iran in 1970? Wasn't it none other than the Shah Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi, installed by a CIA-run coup in 1954, the one whom Amnesty International identified as holding and torturing 2,200 political prisoners, the one whose secularization and modernization plan gave rise to the Shi'ite rebel movement of one Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979?

To say that Iran should be held accountable to treaties signed by a dictatorial monarch, who was opposed to everything mainstream Iranian society today stands for, is tantamount to saying that the United States should respect slave tenure in Virginia, since it was once sanctioned by the Confederacy.

Why shouldn't a contemporary Iran, which repudiates everything the Shah stood for, not be able to repudiate a treaty ratification by that long-deposed monarch?

Besides, who says the United States government has the moral authority to tell any other governments whether they should build nuclear weapons? What makes the USA special? Not its restraint.

Not only did the United States bomb two Japanese cities, killing millions in a flash, with nuclear weapons. At least one presidential candidate -- Barry Goldwater -- advocated doing the same in Vietnam.

What makes the nuclear club -- Britain, France, Russia and China -- so virtuous? They haven't had empires and enslaved millions and been brutal and arbitrary? What reason do we have to believe that if they had had a nuclear monopoly, as the United States had for three years, they would not have bombed their own Hiroshima and Nagasakis?

OK, so Ahmadinejad rigged the elections. Didn't George W. Bush get "elected" in 200 and 2004 by fraud? Wasn't it alleged that Mayor Daley's deceased voters had put John F. Kennedy over the top in 1960?

Let the politician who has never made an unsavory deal, never taken money from companies opposed to every item of his public agenda, never arrived to power thoroughly sullied and compromised stand up and throw the first stone.

The Iranians are wild and crazy? Look at the other nuclear nations that might be at one time or another deemed "crazy" and "wild": India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea. Why pick on Iran?

Why not ask all of them to stop?

Indeed, why not follow the South African example -- it disassembled its nuclear arsenal -- and have the United States government provide an example of peaceful behavior in the hope Iran might rise to the occasion?

* Antipode is a new topic on this blog in which I will attempt to pay attention to the opposite of the prevailing conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Missing in Health Care: Common Sense

When I was a boy of roughly 10 or 11, I came across a phrase spoken by teachers and other similar role-modeling adults that baffled me: common sense. It's only now, decades later, that the undefinable, ineffable "common sense" rears up its head again, this time to cover everything that's missing in U.S. health care -- not to mention the debate about its reform.

Let me paint a picture that is a composite of several experiences, my own and those of others.

You go to a doctor because you feel pain -- or a growth, or something that makes you feel uncomfortable about the state of your health, all of which, in the end, is pain. Yet the first thing that happens when you present yourself at a place designated to dispense healing is you get barraged with questions which you are usually in no mood to answer, or if you are, often cannot quite come up with one. Why? Because you are in pain.

I once tried yelling out "I am in pain." No one moved, everything proceeded as usual. So, you're in pain but they're there first and foremost to CYA and M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E you to death.

You're not important. The doctors are important; if not the doctors, then the stockholders, the managers or their aunts in Timbuctu -- anyone but you. Their time is money and their employees know better than to waste it. In this economy finding a new job is tough.

Assume you get treatment before your great grandchildren go to college -- a big assumption in most emergency rooms. Seriously ... the only time I ever got immediate assistance was when I literally collapsed on the desk of the receiving nurse.

Then they ask you what is wrong with you, yet saying "X hurts" -- where X is the part you are clutching like you'll fall into the Grand Canyon if you let go -- is never good enough. They want "I have an episomataspermoanthrodosis that has just trifulcated endomatically." What is wrong with these people? Do you look like you went to Harvard Medical School?

Then come forms of torture that the Inquisition abandoned sometime in the 1840s -- called "tests" -- to determine why that severed foot is bleeding. "Aha, your foot is disconnected from your leg hence the blood vessels have nowhere to go and the blood ... "

They can't say that. So they invent something that sounds good. Shrinks diagnose anything they don't really know what it is as "borderline." Physicians call anything to do with skin "dermatitis" (essentially skin+itis). Borderline dermatitis should just about cover anything.

There's a whole slew of scientific sounding terms for "Hmm ... I don't know what the hell is wrong with you, but since I'm going to charge you at least a few hundred dollars, I might as well make up something." If you don't know what the term means and they can't explain it in simple terms, you've got that Don'tknowwhatitis Syndrome.

Then you don't quite trust what they say, in part because no doctors look like Marcus Welby any more. Did they ever? I mean, Welby was a TV character. Old doctors can't afford the litigation insurance, young Welby-like people are making money on Wall Street securitizing insurance against unknown diseases, or starring in TV shows.

The doctors can never be bothered to explain anything from a normal person's perspective. Nurses dig into your duodenum while they chirp happily, "how are we feeling today?"

Everybody robotically follows some list of tasks written up by the MBA who runs everything from an office tower in Chicago. Even nurse cheer, probably quantified under Baldridge Criteria for Performance Excellence, is prescribed precisely.

U.S. health care, after all, is designed to imitate the assembly line of a Ford Model T automobile. Put an insured patient with the proper documentation at one end and spew out a much poorer, somewhat healed, not healed at all or even dead person, at the other end. All very efficiently, you understand.

If you're tempted to say it's the profit motive -- which in part it is -- you're missing the entire point. Profit is part of the problem, but it's not the essential problem.

The basic problem is a deficit of common sense.

That's a social problem. As we develop into an ever more individualistic society, we are losing our sense of commonality and the ability to trust in our own judgment as adults. That's what common sense was.

"Common sense," growled by exasperated teachers and adults, was what we children lacked when we did something dangerous or foolish or simply without thought. We failed to rely on the accumulated social wisdom concerning some basic basics.

Patients must be ask what they are allergic to, because that way, if we goof, it's their fault. Medical people can't trust their senses because they will be sued. Besides, they make more money testing.

It's a bother to apprentice and train people to use some horse sense about the degree of cheeriness a patient can take while you are rearranging the duodenum; so just give them a clipboard and a checklist: "Item 7: rearrange duodenum while proffering a toothy smile and Baldridge level 4.7 cheer."

The common sense of what is really needed to apply a modest amount of healing -- pain, after all is what keeps us alive -- has gone out the window.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Delusions and Consequences

Is it your fault if a relative you drove to a hospital doesn't like your choice of venue or somehow gets sicker, even though you didn't choose the equivalent of a refugee camp clinic in Chad over a peer of the Mayo Clinic? You had two apples, a red delicious and a granny smith and with the best intentions you chose one over the other.

Is it your moral, philosophical or psychological fault if the person you gave the apple to gets an indigestion or just plain doesn't like the taste? There are people -- often enough they are women taught to apologize for their mere existence -- who would beat themselves up, who would engage for hours in exploration of the chain events that any small and largely apparent choice brings on.

You decided to major in English literature and not accounting, so you failed as a novelist and live in a garret in East St. Louis, but your accounting-major classmates have already retired to mansions in Provence. You turned left rather than right at a certain intersection and a truck laden with hundreds of pounds of bananas backed into your car three blocks later.

Remember, we're not talking legal here. Lawyers could argue that a matricidal maniac should not be punished harshly because he is an orphan, but that's not the kind of issue on which I want to dwell.

Responsibility, to my mind, turns on whether we actually have choices. I would argue that most of us have extremely few meaningful choices and it's a delusion of grandeur -- or Calvinism, depending on your mileage -- to think otherwise.

If I were given the choice of being 15 again to relive it all, given what I know now, I would like to think I would make choices that would make me either rich as Donald Trump or famous as Albert Schweitzer or, at a minimum, irresistibly handsome to women ranging from Heidi Klum to Janet Reno. But it's just not so.

Let's take Heidi Kulm and Janet Reno. Attractiveness to the opposite sex is based on a wide range of biological factors that pair certain groups of men and women with each other and the results ... are happenstance. An actress once told George Bernard Shaw that if they had a child it would be beautiful and brilliant, only to hear from Shaw that the reverse would be true if the child inherited her brains and his beauty.

Social norms have tended to accentuate some aspects over another. Indeed, in its pursuit of study, the Jewish tradition has historically pushed its most intelligent people to marry. A rabbi's son was once the dream husband. Conversely, the rule of priestly celibacy in Catholicism assured that, at least during the long medieval night, the era's most educated and talented men of western Europe either did not reproduce or spawned children born into social disadvantage.

I belabor birth, because one's birthplace and parentage remain the most meaningful and decisive factors in lifetime social and economic outcomes -- democracy and everyting else notwithstanding. Unlike many Americans, I did not get to choose mine, which is why I am not particularly proud of being American -- or of occupying a given quintile in U.S. income distribution or hailing anciently from a particular corner of the world.

It's simply not true that being superior makes you white or being smart makes you rich or being chosen by Uncle Sam makes you number one. Even if it were, what did you have to do with any of those?

So what makes you think that you had a real choice in the hospital for your relative? You didn't have a choice between the Chad and Mayo clinics. At worst you had a choice between equally mediocre hospitals operating in the midst of a collapsing system.

We all do our best -- and, yes, we can choose not to -- and consequences spring whether we like them or not. I'm not even sure that doing one's best makes a difference, except to ourselves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Values vs. Interests

Dinner with a friend occasionally allows one to plunge into the foundational philosophical issues, disregarding the day's din. In this case, it was the longstanding discussion between materialism and metaphysics -- although he protested that it was not. The crucible in which these views were tested was the basis for human conduct, social convention, law.

My friend held to the traditional, majoritarian view that humans respond to certain essential values that they develop or absorb from childhood on. In other words, we have a nonmaterial, psychological machine, so to speak, that processes certain thoughts and yields certain abstractions called ideas -- in this case they are ideas about what ought to be done.

The ancient Hebrews asked for a king anointed by God and the Romans claimed the Emperor was divine, hence ordained to rule.

Bossuet, court clergyman to Louis XIV, christianized the idea with his theory of the divine right of kings. This echoed Charlemagne's own ecclesiastical scholar court jester, Alcuin of York, who argued that "the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness."

Alcuin, I'd guess, would have seen his opinion confirmed in this summer's town halls.

It took 13 centuries for a very chastened Christianity, in the voices of Jacques Maritain and the postwar Christian Democratic parties of western Europe, to adopt democracy, under the motto vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Too late; that was two centuries after the seizure of the Bastille.

Not only has power traditionally been seen as flowing from godhead to crown and scepter, but also to all morals, laws, socially sanctioned customs and so forth. Or, among philosophers in a theist ocean, ideas spring from the psyche and its archetypes, whence spring philosophies, legal systems and the ordering of what Hegel called "civil society."

Karl Marx was not the first one to dethrone this idea, but he was among the most articulate of early, rationalist critics. In a view he summarized in the much-debated 1858 Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he wrote:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.
These words, which essentially state that the struggle for survival is the basis for everything deemed holy and sacrosanct, or at least, legal and enshrined by custom, struck me like lightening when I belatedly first came across them, while working, oddity of oddities, for the U.S. Catholic bishops, several decades ago. Until then, I had been a modern Thomist.

I never came to embrace the mechanistic view of historical materialism as expressed by the Leninist parties, but I will freely admit that my more recent, post-Christian ethic of survival bears some debt to old Karli.

The fundamental human striving is to survive. As a friend undergoing cancer treatment reminded me recently, we live pretty much like the man who, having flung himself from the top of a tower of Notre Dame, thinks to himself as he falls, "I hope this lasts a while."

To my mind, having rejected the existence of a soul, the metaphysical or spiritual world, all of which puts the existence of any god into serious doubt, it no longer seems plausible that a reality other than the material actually exists.

We have material interests, sure. We canonize these interests in our customs, our laws, even our religions and philosophies. But we do not have values founded in any "higher," nonmaterial source, simply because such a source does not exist.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Last Chance for Change

President Obama, who seems genuine in his desire for carrying the American democratic experiment to its full fruition, represents to me the last chance in a lifetime to show that capitalism's ills can be reformed. And the last chance's decisive moment is here.

If Congress passes a health care "reform" bill that does not include a vigorous and workable public option, then the lesson is that greed is too powerful, too intractable to stop merely with debate and deliberation. Mentally, if this happens, I will begin to pack my bags for some other planet.

From what I have seen, I can't imagine any corner of the Earth suitable for me other than the United States.

Canada is too cold and Britain is heading into another dark night of Thatcherism -- as are France and Germany, whose languages I can't speak well enough to work there. Australia is rife with prejudice. Spain is mildly prosperous, but expensive since its entry to the EU. Spanish-speaking Latin America is too poor, too unjust.

The USA has been slouching toward Brazil over decades of conservative misrule; now phones no longer work, domestic cars that are a wretched disaster and the heartland is in thrall to methamphetamine. The favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro have notably improved over the past 30 years, while New York and Los Angeles is developing uniquely American versions of the vast Brazilian citadels of poverty.

There is one last chance. Now. Press Congress to enact a public health care option worthy of the name in order to prevent a financial and health catastrophy and to show us that our government cares for all of us, not just the wealthy and their lobbyists.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Missing Hecklers

Rather than some Republican nut yelling "you lie!" when President Obama said health care would not be offered to immigrants without visas, there should have been hundreds of humanitarians standing up for care for all people, immigrants, native, fat, thin, whatever. Yet no one stood up for the obvious good cause. So much for Congress representing human beings.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Corporations are NOT People

The Supreme Court is about to re-hear a case involving the use corporate money in political campaigns. The plaintiffs claim corporations have a right to free speech. If the court changes its views and allows corporate contributions, there is no sliver of a chance in hell that elections will ever mean anything.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Republicans Really Are Assholes

Why does a White House aide renown as an environmental policy expert without peer have to resign quietly with a middle of the night announcement because some Republican smear-queens on Fox "news" decided to focus on some off-duty remarks quite some time ago? Everyone knows that one of those comments -- that Republicans are "assholes" -- is true; and if we didn't know it the smear campaign has proved it beyond doubt.

Van Jones, author of the 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy, resigned Saturday night, with a near midnight press announcement on a holiday weekend, to avoid distracting attention from President Obama's so smoothly running campaign for health "reform." That's the official story -- retold, OK, with a little sarcasm.

Half the nation at least agrees that the Bushies knew 9/11 was coming and knew it would create the "emergency" that would free them to do whatever they pleased with the Constitution. It is a documented fact that Bush called getting a recession, the attacks and the war he started a "trifecta," in that oh-so-appropriate humor that reminds one of nothing so much as his grinning campaign admission in 2000 that he had killed more inmates than any other contemporary governor ... heh-heh.

So, why does Van Jones have to apologize for signing a petition endorsing the idea that Bushies, well, did what they did?

And has Fox "news" smearmeister Glenn Beck repealed the First Amendment? It is not legal to think and associate with people of any opinion or religion any more? Having had something to do with an organization whose founders at one time held some Marxist -- gasp! the salts! -- views disqualifies anyone from work for which they have more than the necessary skills?

If that's true, then Glenn Beck should apologize for being an asshole and quit. I don't like assholery and no one on television should practice it.

This is the ridiculous logic to which we are driven if we let three nuts on right-wing propaganda shows dictate what's right and wrong. The time has come to tell the jerks to go beat off somewhere else.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Scam Nation's Great Recession

Washington Post headline: "Redskins Fans Waited While Brokers Got Tickets." Don't get me wrong. I'm no football fan. But do the i-bankers always have to get zillions in bonuses, while the rubes they fleeced get foreclosed and evicted?

John Steinbeck described the age-old story in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath like in this car lot conversation: "Watch the woman’s face," one salesman tells another. "If the woman likes it we can screw the old man. Start 'em on that Cad'. Then you can work 'em down to that '26 Buick. 'F you start on the Buick, they'll go for a Ford."

Now it's done on TV. Sell your gold to us, we're so trustworthy. Get fast cash for a car lien. Slim down with [insert gadget here]. Sickening.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

September 1

Hoary date 70 years ago. Franco marches into Madrid, ending the three-year Spanish Civil War. Hitler marches into Poland. The "Concierto de Aranjuez" by Joaquín Rodrigo premieres in Paris, where hordes of Spanish exiles had fled. Oddly enough, Rodrigo's music is so redolent of Spanish tradition than even a nationalist could -- many did -- love the piece.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The End of Liberalism?

The fanfare around Ted Kennedy's death is linked to the demise of U.S. political liberalism, even though liberalism died between the presidential elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Liberalism could be declared dead by 1973, when the doubling of worker incomes since 1946 turned into a wage stagnation that has yet to end. On Saturday, August 29, 2009, liberalism was merely given its long overdue burial.

"Liberalism" was an American weasel term to avoid being called -- the salts! -- Red. In Europe, "liberalism" was understood as the ideology of the wealthy class spawned by the industrial revolution. They believed free markets should be unfettered, or liberated (hence "liberal"), from government intervention. We in the United States call that view "conservatism."

U.S. liberalism was originally an unorthodox alliance between the political machine of a New York governor from a patrician family of extremely deep pockets and the unions, the Catholic sons of immigrants and even "the Negroes" (where allowed to vote). I'm talking, of course, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man praiseworthy -- as Ted Kennedy is not -- for having transcended his upbringing and class destiny. His New Deal wove a threadbare safety net for the average citizen, without risk to a single mansion or trust fund.

President Kennedy drew on that coalition, which mistrusted him for good reason, to win election in 1960. Accidental President Lyndon Johnson, himself from a background close to those lifted from poverty by the New Deal but still without an upward socioeconomic ladder by the 1960s, expanded the New Deal into some, but not all, of its logical consequences.

The War on Poverty was a resounding success: poverty dropped in Johnson's one term from 19.0 percent to 12.1 percent -- nearly 7 percentage points down between 1964 and 1968, a record never equalled since (the 2007 poverty rate was 12.5 percent).

All the political battles since 1929 have been about whether to distribute the fruits of labor among the many who work or among the few who live off the profits. Liberalism had been moderately on the side of the many, while conservatism remains quite rabidly for the few.

Conservatism, of course, has successfully cultivated smokescreen "social issues" such as identity politics (whites vs. blacks vs. gays vs. women, etc.) and fundamentalist-leaning morality (abortion, family values, heterosexual marriage, etc.) to hide the elite's real economic agenda. But that's a whole other post.

The problem with U.S. liberalism is that it ultimately amounted to little more than noblesse oblige, political charity dispensed from limousines. The unions were co-opted -- and forcibly purged of "Reds" -- by the pressure and deals of the big oligopolies of the 1940s and 50s, which turned union leaders into domesticated members of the American managerial class.

The liberals purportedly believed that workers could get their fair share under their moderate reforms of the rapacious system we know as capitalism. But their gradualism led to gradual deterioration. In 2006 the average workers' inflation-adjusted wages were 22 percent below that of their peers in 1973. As noted at the outset, in 1973, they had been 200 percent (or double) what they were in 1946 -- same wages, same inflation adjustments.

The debacle occurred on the watch of Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd and all the old liberal dinosaurs who still think it's 1965 and thought it was 1965 when Reagan won and still thought it was 1965 when the Republicans took Congress, thanks to liberal spinelessness, in 1994.

Liberalism is dead. Is the new, still unveiling, Obama paradigm up to the task the dying liberal elders flubbed? Or is it merely the same old liberal Kool-Aid with different food colors?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Three Headlines on Ted Kennedy

No wonder folks are awash in Kennedy bathos. Washington Post Aug. 27 front page headline: "End of an American Epoch." Washington Times: "End of Camelot." New York Times: "Senator Kennedy, Battle Lost, Is Hailed as Leader." Respectively, self-referential pop history, Camelot amnesia and, finally, from the Gray Lady, a measured, dignified and even poetic banner that declined to canonize.

The important point made by the Times -- the real Times not the Moonie rag -- is that journalism is about what others say and do, not what journalists think. Ted Kennedy said a lot, but toting up his record, he accomplished extremely little, particularly if balanced against what he received.

It is appropriate to report that others -- mostly politicians desperate for a sound bite -- are the ones drooling about the younger Kennedy. Notice the absence of hard facts in all the praise? No? Well, The New York Times' headline reports it. Take note.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fast Eddie Kicks the Bucket

Faster than you can say "Chappaquiddick," President Obama has called the newly dead Edward M. Kennedy "the greatest United States Senator of our time.” I stood silent during the absurd, post-mortem lionization of Michael Jackson and fond memories of fluffed hair queen Farrah Fawcett. But I won't stand for the second Kennedy apotheosis in a month -- this one completely undeserved.

I am not a Kennedy hater and I agree with most of the positions adopted by the dead senator. I revered Jack and Bobby. But Teddy, whose life amply demonstrates he should have been nicknamed Fast Eddie, was unquestionably the "bad seed."

Unlike Eunice Kennedy Shriver, kindly rich lady that she was, her brother Edward disappointed only those who expected him to deliver at least as much as he received. After all, Ted Kennedy was born with a silver spoon and delivered a life of dishonest posturing. Then again, that silver spoon had been forged from the Wall Street and Prohibition Era shenanigans of his none-too-saintly father.

The storied double dealing of patriarch Joe Kennedy wasn't Ted Kennedy's fault. Not like his cheating on a Spanish exam at Harvard. Not like Chappaquiddick.

The man now being eulogized as a great liberal allowed the minimum wage to sink below the poverty line. He failed to join forces with Jimmy Carter to prevent the election of Ronald Reagan and to help pass health reform in the 1990s.

Kennedy claimed to be a Catholic, yet after driving a good woman to drink and divorce, he emulated the darkest side of Camelot, finally squiring another divorced Catholic.

Is there anything for which Edward M. Kennedy said he stood that he didn't betray? Is there anything he actually achieved?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sebelius Is Not Essential

If Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius really meant that a public insurance plan is "not the essential element," then what is reform for? Is President Obama really going to choose between abandoning either 17 million people (House bill) or 36 million people (Senate bill)? Given that the president has plainly agreed that a single-payer plan is the only way to cover everyone: why isn't he simply upping the ante and putting that on the table?

Because, for all the huffing and puffing and all the misspent millions by insurance, pharma and "health care providers" (that's a good one!), all the town hall meeting disruptions put together don't amount to a hill of beans. Just because some cranky, ignoramuses let themselves be fooled by the first snake-oil sales pitch the gougers lobby can throw at them, it doesn't mean they've won.

Democracy isn't about who screams the loudest nonsense.

Indeed, the health gougers have been using every anti-democratic tactic in the totalitarian playbook, contrary to the blathering of Big Lie artists on wacko right-wing radio and Fox television. Go back and look at how the dictators of the 1930s climbed to power and you'll see screaming white young men with short haircuts chanting "USA! USA! USA!" (only back then it was "Sieg Heil!").

All right, maybe Sebelius can be excused her weak knees because she was not on the campaign trail with Obama in 2008, when I distinctly remember being promised "change." Maybe she's the "fall guy," to use Chicago Mafioso talk, which seems appropriate given the high level of corruption involved in this whole pseudo-debate.

Let's not weasel out of campaign promises and go for the most expedient route, the one that helps people the least. Let's show some guts here and call the bluff of the Republicans and the health-industrial complex.

Don't want a moderate reform plan? Fine, let's create the U.S. National Health Service. Something modern and serviceable, such as I observed while living in Canada and the United Kingdom, that replaces everything that exists now.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What for?

An endless avenue of years
stretch before me:
bus, coffee, newspaper,
do, done, plan to do again
lunch on diet, lunch on wine
work and wonder
bus, kids, wife
then a book to curl around
at day's end; at week's end
books and movies,
baseball games and dinner feasts,
a trip when there's an itch.
Dear me, what for?

It will happen over and again:
Christmas tree and Lenten ashes
fireworks and All Hallows' masks,
sunshine or rain; house, office, and bus
fend off my lust,
my fear of nakedness, of pain ...
to be poor, lonely, old,
to grow weak and hear my body ceasing
to obey
all that can happen, all I dread,
some of it will come before I am dead.
Then I will ask my inner self: whatever for?

Once I thought
I was made so love could shine in winter
so God could be man again
to bless the creatures;
but that feature played to mixed reviews
that coin's been wasted on the beggarwoman
the preacherman's "Jeezus" is a broken record
and the creatures do not tell me what they want
nor can I guess, were I able to fulfill their dreams ...

Before all pleasure turns to rust
my desire pilfered from some others
as theirs is drawn from me till ennui,
I may yet ask the beggarwoman
what have I to give a life
simply to die each day,
to lie undead ...
or what else, and what for?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Writer's Blog

Rummaging through drawers I never go into, I found a couple of short stories I wrote in the 1980s that -- if I say so my fictionally unpublished self -- aren't bad. Why could I never convince a fiction editor to publish anything I wrote? I've had "faction" published in major newspapers all over the world -- well, in a few countries.

Recently I submitted a short story I had posted here. Had to take it down for that reason. Nothing. Maybe I misclassified it as a short, rather than a short story. Maybe I didn't sleep with the right people. Maybe it was lousy.

At one point long ago, when my writing was still unforgivably juvenile, I did send out a whole rafter of stories out. I had a file full of rejection letters, which I think I've since thrown out. I even composed a "form" rejection reply: "I regret that I am not able to reply to your rejection letter personally, but given the volume I receive, it is impractical. Thanks anyway for the opportunity to review yours."

By that time, I had given up submitting stories and thrown away two "novels," an act that probably did the most that was ever done in the 20th century to rescue western civilization -- which, as Gandhi noted, would have been a genial idea.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Socrates in Chicago Debating Health Care

(The following is an dialogue written in the style of Xenophon, between a wonkish Washingtonian, whom I'll call Socrates, and a citizen from the U.S. heartland, whom I will call Critobulus, after the dialogue figure in the famous work Oeconomicus, regarded as one of the earliest works on economics. The proper title for this dialogue should be Oeconomicus Sanitatis, but I thought the Latin would scare people away.)

INTERLOCUTORS: Socrates and Critobulus

PLACE: Grant Park, Chicago

CRITOBULUS: Ah, so it goes, my friend: politics as usual. I don’t know why a person would continue to fight a losing battle. Money is what makes things happen not altruism.

SOCRATES: That's right. Abdicate. We can use fewer nay-sayers in the fight.

CRITOBULUS: Well, food, shelter, and clothing are more important than health care. One can get along for substantial periods of time without health care services, but one cannot survive for long without food, shelter, and clothing. Given this plain fact, why don’t the proponents of "free" universal health care demand "free" food, shelter and clothing?

In other words, if a citizen, just in virtue of being a citizen, has a right to health care, why doesn’t the same citizen have the right to what is more fundamental, namely, food, shelter and clothing?”

SOCRATES: You think human beings don't have an inherent right to these? Is it all right if I take them away from you, then?

CRITOBULUS: You have no more right to take them away from me than you have a requirement to give them to me. But "inherent right"? As in, because I’m a human being others are required to see that I have these things?

SOCRATES: Inherent right. If you don't have an inherent right to food, shelter and clothing, then no one has a right to exist. Everyone may be killed, tortured, stolen from, raped, anything you want.

What did you think was meant by "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?

CRITOBULUS: Right. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but not free food, free shelter, free health care and whatever else the government comes up with. Food, shelter and health care is not the responsibility of the federal government.

SOCRATES: What do you think sustains "life"? People can live without food and shelter and other essentials? Can you?

CRITOBULUS: What am I supposed to answer? That, no, I don’t need food to live? I wish that it were so. But does that mean than someone has the responsibility to feed me?

SOCRATES: Well, if you need these things to live and you have a right to life, then there is an inherent right to food, shelter and other essentials of life, isn't there? Are we agreed on this?

CRITOBULUS: We are in agreement that it is essential to have food and shelter in order to live.

SOCRATES: The proposition is "There is an inherent right to food, shelter and other essentials of life." Agree or disagree?

CRITOBULUS: Oh, all right. Agree.

SOCRATES: So, then, do children procure their own food, shelter and essentials, say, when they are one year old?


SOCRATES: So, if they have an inherent right to the essentials of life, someone must procure that for them. Right?


SOCRATES: Who should that someone be?

CRITOBULUS: His or her parents.

SOCRATES: What if the parents are unemployed, disabled, sick or dead?

CRITOBULUS: Then grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins.

SOCRATES: What if things are so bad that none of them has any time or resources to spare?

CRITOBULUS: Well, the community.

SOCRATES: What if the community is poor or unable or even unwilling?

CRITOBULUS: Then the State.

SOCRATES: OK, so assuming that by "the State" you do not mean Montana or Maryland, but government in general, you will also agree that a similar chain of responsibility exists with respect to the elderly and the infirm, right?

CRITOBULUS: By “State” I did mean Montana. Montana takes care of their residents; Maryland takes care of theirs.

SOCRATES: Conceptually there is no difference. They are simply different levels of government. Distinctions between states and the federal government are almost entirely artificial.

Functionally, it is very difficult to separate the states and the federal government or distinguish between them. All states have tripartite government, agencies modeled after the federal, constitutions similar to the federal, etc., etc. If you had a Kingdom of Montana and a Grand Duchy of Wyoming and a Soviet Republic of Idaho, well, that might be somewhat different. But they all function on basically the same Lockean theory of government.

CRITOBULUS: OK. The state, in general. And I see the same chain of responsibility for the elderly and infirm.

SOCRATES: So what about people who are laid off? Or towns in which a plant that is the main industry, after the plant closes? Should government help them make sure they have the necessities of life?

CRITOBULUS: I think the idea of unemployment insurance is good if it’s used as it was intended. In other words: a means of seeing someone thru an in-between-jobs length of time. I don’t think a differentiation should be made between layoffs of large employers and small employers.

At the same time, people have to get back in touch with the idea that you don’t spend everything you make as soon as you make it. I don’t know how that can be accomplished if they always have someone to bail them out. I know this isn’t an option for people making minimum wage but it is an option for more people than seem to be using it.

SOCRATES: OK, but in principle, you've agreed that a rather large proportion of the population should get government for the necessities of life. Is there any reason this should not be extended to all citizens who need such help?

CRITOBULUS: It would be ideal if everyone who needed help received it and received it in the amount that they truly needed and in a manner that didn’t undermine their self worth.

SOCRATES: OK, then, we have agreed that, provided it is financially feasible and done well, there ought to be a system of social insurance and health to make sure that everyone has the necessities of life.

CRITOBULUS: I don’t think I would go that far. Health care doesn’t have to be insurance, does it? In other words, I don’t think the heath care business would be in the shape it’s in, if insurance hadn’t been involved. Insurance was supposed to be a "gamble." They gamble that you won’t need it, you gamble that you will. It wasn’t supposed to be they win if you don’t use it and they win if you do, because they get to jack up the premium.

SOCRATES: In this context, "social insurance" not insurance in its everyday sense.

I'm speaking of a system, or set of programs. In this framework, the risks that one might not be able to obtain the essentials of life are transferred from the individual or household to society. The resources needed to face the risk is pooled by society, though the government. After all, in a republic, the government is the holder of public goods and resources.

The result is that, when any person faces circumstances that prevent him or her from obtaining the essentials of life, society would rush in to the rescue. A single-payer health plan, for example, might be one component. Unemployment compensation would be another, and so on.

CRITOBULUS: That sounds good. Until the end-of-life decisions need to be made. Who says when? Who says this much treatment and no more? Would I rather have the government make that decision or make it myself within whatever means I can finagle? And I guess it boils down to how much trust do I want to place in the government.

SOCRATES: The question in political philosophy is what the proper role of government is. We've agreed, with the framers of the U.S. Constitution, that government is properly involved in the general welfare of the people, particularly when people can't do so themselves. No one should have to face the choice between good health and food or rent.