Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Abolish Private Medicine

Why aren't the "pro-lifers" protesting the denial of life to the living in a medical system run by the profit motive? Why isn't health care a family value, conservatives?

How come some people prefer to be ripped off by insurance companies than to have always-available care, no matter what, as they have in outrageously "extremist" countries such as Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Sweden and Norway?

Why are we debating how much we'll "compromise" so the insurance companies, pharma and, yes, the medical mafia known as the AMA can keep sodomizing the nation?

The real issue is not whether to have a "public option," pretty please with sugar on it, Don Medico Corleone.

The real question is how long will we tolerate money deciding whether children get essential and timely care. The real issue is how much more will we accept the notion that the bulk of a lifetime's medical expense is in the last 5 years, when there is the least likelihood of recovery.

The real problem is not, in brief, whether there should be a public system of health available to all regardless of ability to pay, but why we haven't abolished medicine for profit.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The First American Profile

My good friend Tom Head has posted a history of racial profiling in the United States in the wake of the unwarranted arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Unfortunately, my good friend misses the point. Profiling is not the same as enslaving or discriminating against a group; it is assigning moral traits to certain shared physical characteristics.

A history of profiling might thus start not with emperor Charles V of Spain and Germany, whose mandates never held sway in the United States, as Tom's historical sketch suggests, but perhaps with the curse of Ham. The biblical story (Gen. 9:20-27) goes that Ham had "seen the nakedness" (which scholars read as a euphemism for sodomy) of his father, Noah, causing the latter to exclaim: "Cursed be Canaan [Ham's son]; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren."

How the descendants of Ham came to be identified with Africans is a twisted marriage of, on the one hand, prejudice convenient to English elites who in the 17th century saw profits in the slave trade, and on the other, murky Protestant readings of a text that in itself has no racial or ethnic content, tacit or explicit.

Note the two elements and their order.

First, there arose the economic need for slaves in the English colonies, as improved economic conditions in Britain diminished the supply of white indentured servants and a shift to the African slave trade as a source of labor.

Only in a second instance, after commercial and legal changes had institutionalized the trade, did the profile arise. The slaver would have told himself that "These Africans do not wear European clothes nor speak a European language, therefore they are savage, lesser beings fit only to serve whites."

The colonials whose society began to depend on the slavers' human cargo then needed to assuage their consciences in the face of the "peculiar institution." Wielding their Bibles, they seized on the Africans' dark skin, reasoning that it was a sign that their souls were "blackened" with Ham's sin and they were condemned to be the lowest caste of servants.

Thus was born the first American ethnic profile.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite was a bore

Since when are people who read news on television deserving of posthumous panegyrics befitting a Nobel Prize winner? What did Cronkite do, other than deliver in the same flat bass the most trivial, intellectually deadened factoids, such as the alleged precise time President Kennedy died?

A trained monkey could have done better.

One of the reasons television is one of the worst sources of information is precisely because of individuals such as Cronkite, who devoted his life to perpetuating the stultifying deception that they were delivering news, when all they were doing was reading headlines.

It's the broadcast pretense of seriousness, conveyed merely through a particular ton of voice, that allowed millions to be deceived into voting, against their own best interests, for people who sounded and looked as smooth as Cronkite. It was Cronkite who taught Americans that TV form outweighs substance: how else could Ronald Reagan, a man who at best play acted the roles of governor and president, ever have been elected?

Reading is today a kindergarten skill. Reading clearly and audibly can be learned by the end of elementary school. A male bass voice develops in junior high school without any particular training. So, where's the achievement of using these abilities in front of a camera?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Awake to Glory, Children of France!

With the words of the title, today we remember the signature event of their revolution, the storming of a prison fortress 220 years ago. Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé ! So what is a revolution and how can we tell one has occurred?

Two centuries ago, France was organized politically, economically and socially as the private estate of a very small hereditary elite. In that France lived the fattened clergy that blessed all the king did, the merchants and bankers who greased the wheels of the nobility's carriages, the courtiers and courtesans who tried to eke a living on the leavings of the privileged few and the very, very many who were the hereditary human beasts of burden.

Today the nobility is largely gone. The merchants and bankers have supplanted them. But the very many have unions and public schools and vacations and cars. Today only 6.2 percent of the French population lives under their official poverty threshold, which is higher than that of the United States.

Less than a century ago, Russia was a vast plantation in the hands of the Romanov family and their favorites. Not counting the papacy, which was not a nation-state at the time, in 1917 the czarist regime was the last remaining absolute monarchy of Europe.

Imperial Russia's elected legislative body, the Duma, was merely an advisory body with little effective power except to complain; from 1907 on, the leftist parties, which had won significant pluralities in the first two elections elections, were almost completely suppressed as electoral law was changed to favor propertied, land-holding voters. The nation was still not industrialized and its agriculture was primitive and in the hands of newly liberated serfs who had effectively become, as in the American South, penniless sharecroppers. The educated middle class was miniscule.

Today, with all its troubles, Russia's income inequality is lower than that of the United States -- the Russian Gini coefficient index stood at 40 in 2005, compared to 46.9 in the USA, albeit both higher than for most European Union member states.

In 1776, what is today the United States was divided into a vast territory held by native tribes and secondarily a set of European colonies comprising a string of small seaboard settlements held (in order of size) by Spain, France and England. In the English colony, a relatively small elite of freeholders and wealthy merchants decided not to pay taxes used to finance their defense from neighbors tired of their predatory behavior.

Their revolt was led by a few high-minded slaveowners and by merchants and bankers who proceeded to make enormous war profits by lending and supplying materiel to the fledgling government. In the new nation's eventual compact, proclamations of freedom did not apply to natives, African slaves nor indentured English servants, who were not even counted as full human beings for the purposes of electoral apportionment. In a process of roughly two centuries, still unfinished, each one had to shed blood to gain a semblance of fairness.

Today, 12.5 percent of all U.S. inhabitants -- or about 36 million people -- live below the poverty threshhold ($10,830 for an individual; $22,050 for a family of four). That's double the proportion in France, living at a lower threshold.

"In the French Revolution, when laborers' wives were mud-splattered by a passing carriage, they yelled at the marquise studiously ignoring them in her cabin, saying "One day we will all be marquises,' " a literature professor once remarked, adding, "while in the Russian Revolution they cried, 'One day you will be a peasant just like us.' "

We in the United States like to think our people are historically like the French. But that is not quite true.

On the American carriage rode a slaveowner who called out to the rabble, "Go die for me so I can avoid paying British taxes, go till my land and work my factories and build roads for my goods, go work, work work, and God will make you rich like me!"

And as the fools followed their pied piper, the gentleman's gales of laughter were drowned out by the cobblestone clopping of his hastening horses.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Freedom Delusion

Today is Argentina's Independence Day. On July 9, 1816, delegates from the United Provinces of the South, voted to sever political ties with the Spanish monarch. It's an odd holiday because the event was almost an afterthought: the revolt against Spanish rule began on May 25, 1810, all of which reminds me, even more oddly, of a story about Ghana's independence.

First, a little context.

For six long years Gen. José de San Martín kept demanding that the congress of provincial delegates -- similar to the U.S. Continental Congress -- declare a rupture. In 1810, news had arrived of Napoleon having marched into Spain and imprisoned King Ferdinand VII. The locals, lacking an army, deposed the viceroy and seized power in name of the imprisoned monarch.

This was a legal technicality, built on the colonial legal technicality that the territories in the American continent belonged not to Spain, but to the Spanish crown, technically equal in sovereignty to Spain. (I believe Britain held to a similar conceit as a way to deprive its colonies of a seat in Parliament.)

By 1816, with Napoleon long gone, San Martín was growing tired of the charade of claiming allegiance to the same monarch as the Spanish troops with whom he did battle.

Independence and freedom were never the same thing, as the slaves of all the colonies well knew.

Indeed, the notion was put most succinctly by a classmate of mine -- Monica G. -- in a university short story seminar in Montreal. She had written a short story set in her native Ghana. (Imagine how hard it must have been for a citizen of an African country so near the Equator to weather the blizzards of Canada!)

The protagonist was a poor old woman going home from work as a domestic on the eve of Ghana's independence. I forget what happened in the story, but I recall one of the woman's hopes for the great event of which everybody talked.

Would the bus be free after independence, she wondered.

We have all shared in the disappointment of realizing that the realization of our highest, fondest and noblest hopes never quite turns out as we imagined, if it ever does. Our ideals, like our lives, turn to dust, like the soil of Ghana's deforested savannah.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Why do the heathen rage?

Taking a leaf from Chani's Sacred Life Sunday series, our text this morning is Psalm 2:1. In the words of the King James translation, it runs "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?"

There used to be a religious advertisement in The Washington Post that contained a small "column" sermonette by some Protestant evangelical that was perennially headlined Why Do the Heathen Rage? Even when I believed in Christianity I could never get very far before the sheer kookiness of the writer overwhelmed me. The author was a Southern preacher right out of Flannery O'Connor.

Turns out that among O'Connor's papers was found a draft novel 378 pages long, titled precisely “Why Do the Heathen Rage.” It is clearly an unfinished work that reveals O'Connor's literary mind in its 17 -- count 'em -- versions of a single porch scene.

O'Connor, like me, was a Catholic; like me she was intrigued by Protestant preaching, particularly the rambling low-church evangelical genre predominant in the South where she lived. To her the idiom must have been familiar; I still need subtitles for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

All the above goes to say that this question is resonant to most of humanity that I have come across. Let's hear the Psalmist once again:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us."
The thought came to me when Dubya could come to power unelected, order wiretapping on Americans, out his own country's intelligence officer and imprison people indefinitely without trial, all in defiance of his oath of office to the Constitution ... all with utter impunity.

Pace, Republicans! I imagine a similar outrage must have struck GOPers when Bill Clinton managed to accede to the male Holy Grail of oral sex at the office, without the tablets of family values parting a Red Sea of blood from his body. Not only that! His enemies were forced to resign. Among them, you will recall, one Newton Leroy Gingrich was found cavorting with a church choir singer while his wife lay dying of cancer.

Not all of us, however, take part in hijinks in the Oval Office or under the Capitol's dome.

To most of us the "heathens" (the Douay translation says "Gentiles") are ordinary folk, such as the lazy but imperious boss who gets acclaim for one's work, the colleague who gets raises undeservedly, the myriad of salespeople who sell us defective products under deceptive terms, the lover who cheats on us and yet "wins" the approval or envy of peers. And so on.

We do everything right, we tell ourselves, yet the other guy (it's usually a guy) overtakes us from the slow lane.

The Bible's solution doesn't quite do it, either. Take Psalm 2:4-6:
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.  Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.  Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
The Psalms have this thing with a king who will reign forever and "smite" anyone who even looked at us the wrong way. So? I want my smiting done right now!

Actually, to me, quite apart from Christianity or faith or dogma or anything of that sort, the question means something entirely different, something quite fitting now that I am an avowed apostate.

Why do I, the heathen, rage? Why did I, the heathen in believer's clothes, rage when I laughed at the author of Why Do the Heathen Rage?

How dare I rage at Dubya, when I defied the oaths I have taken?

Here the Bible, an anthology of certainly valuable writings that, at a minimum, display a whole history of thought and emotions and lives and human experiences, does come in handy.

Unzipper thy Olde Bibles and open to Isaiah 37:28-29 and read (a little out of context because I am not interested in the possible grand Christological issues underlying the passage) the following
But I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me.
Because thy rage against me, and thy tumult, is come up into mine ears ...
This reminds me of a T-shirt I bought one summer at Rehoboth Beach. On a black background it features a silver skull engulfed in golden flames. Over the years I came to call this image the picture of my inner, raging daemon.

It was my Oedipal daemon, the sprite of wounded professional pride in the face of failure or shortcoming, the fury of furies set loose on those I thought mocked my efforts or set arms against them and the final Götterdämmerung at the summit, when all is left but the descent to Hades.

There was an inner dialogue similar to that Isaiah sets up between God and the heathens. The divine voice in me knew perfectly well the rages of the demonic voice. I was a demigod, willing my own defeat as I ordered the Earth scorched to cinders.

That was all before I became a man, realizing that, heathen though I may be, I do no longer rage, for it serves no purpose for what little life remains. Perhaps that is why we all ask this question so insistently.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Former Permanent Majority Party

Paul Krugman is a better mortal than I am -- he even has a major platform, an actual specialty and Nobel Prize in his field -- so he may be willing to resist wasting "precious column inches on the former Permanent Majority Party." However, he does have this world-famous blog to feed.

As I did with neoconservatism, I would like to explain why the recurrent Republican zipper, hate-radio and other problems should not be all that surprising. After all, it's not like at any time after Abraham Lincoln the Republicans ever stood for anything noble capable of evoking self-sacrifice.

It is true that some GIs were uneducated enough to have written in 2003 to relatives that they were happy to be fighting in Iraq so their families could pay lower prices at the gas pump. However, "I died so you could save 10 cents at the pump" falls somewhat flat as a line for a stirring patriotic anthem. Never mind that prices never got that low anyway.

Nor will we find too many dreamy eyed policy visionaries desirous to devote their lifetime to government service to ensure that the richest 2 percent pay no taxes.

As for the party's traditions, until Richard Nixon, the Grant's Administration held the record for most corrupt and until the latest President Bush, the Hoover Administration took the gold medal for most blasé in the face of economic crisis.

Besides, what was the pool of potential "cadres" for the Reagan "revolution" other than folks whose fondest dreams was cooking up some highly leveraged financial derivative that would make them millionaires -- excuse me, billionaires? I have a very fine bridge in Brooklyn to sell to anyone who would expect loyalty, let alone fidelity to a political platform from such people.

And while we're talking about fidelity, let's now recall the fine "family values" of divorced Ronald Reagan whose children were estranged from him, of Newt Gingrich who served his wife with divorce papers at her cancer deathbed, of Bob Livingston who tried to crucify Bill Clinton for playing with cigars while in his own case a cigar really was not a cigar. And since then Craig and Ensign and Sanford and surely others I'm forgetting.

Did anyone really expect that the piano players at the GOP bordello were going to hang around after the party?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Happy Real Independence Day

Cecilieaux is off for the holiday, but he left behind his now-traditional Independence Day blog post. Happy 2nd!

Today, July 2nd, rather than July 4th, is the actual day that independence of the territories that were to become the United States from Britain was first approved. This came in the form of a resolution that attorney Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian, proposed to the Second Continental Congress.

The brief document read:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
The motion was approved by 12 of the 13 colonies. Indeed, John Adams, of Massachusetts, who seconded Lee's proposal, was so certain that a great step had been taken that he wrote to his wife Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more
Now, 233 years later, the festival is held on the 4th, when the delegates approved the wordier, some would say grander, announcement of the decision by Thomas Jefferson, who composed it in the absence of Lee, who had rushed back to Virginia due to his wife's illness.

In honor of someone born on this great day, however, let us fire off an imaginary firecracker.