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.