Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A job worth having

I stopped into a drugstore today and the clerk behind the counter ran me through his whole spiel on their discount card in a very enthusiastic manner. He struck me as a person who was very happy simply to have a job. Given the overall unemployment figures and especially those in Michigan, it's not unusual for that to be the case among any number of people.

The thought occurred to me to think to myself: "I've been there." I've been unemployed for fairly lengthy stretches at times, struggling to pay the rent on time and putting 1 or 2 dollars into the gas tank; just enough to keep the car moving from one interview to another. But it's not true. I've never been happy simply to have a job. Any job that I've had that has directly contributed to keeping a roof over my head has always been one that I despised. Its sole function was to pay for the necessities of survival and nothing else. Well, that's also not true. The other purpose it served was to make me hate the majority of my existence while I was doing it.

I have had jobs that didn't pay the rent. Those were the ones that I loved and would have gladly continued doing even as financial failures. I did them while I was also working for a paycheck and didn't consider them "work" in the dolorous sense. Of course, they were work and lots of it. They often required more energy and effort, physical and mental, than anything I expended on the tasks that people were paying me for. But I was driven to do them because I loved what I was doing. The people that enjoy those tasks they do for a living are often termed "people that love their jobs". They're defined as a jovial anomaly; someone that, essentially, got away with something in the game of life because they found a way to put food on the table and still be happy while doing it. "Pursuing one's passion" they call it and it often involves a serious expenditure of money on one's own part to get to the point where you can chase those dreams.

Except that it's not such a great idea to make the attempt any longer, as a number of recent reports suggest that unpaid student debt now exceeds $1 trillion (ever notice how no one uses the phrase "that's billion with a 'b'" anymore, because the numbers we talk about in ominous tones now routinely exceed trivial billions?) The sad thing about that is not only that a large share of said student debt is based on people making attempts into the fields that they were encouraged to pursue because they were seen as "sure things" (read: economically viable) but that those things are nowhere near as sure as they used to be.

Time was, you could spend your 4 years in college and come out with an anthropology degree and find a career in research or curating or education or even cultural relations for the nearest oil company wanting to lay waste to Borneo. That's all gone now (except for the oil devastation.) I met a really interesting woman a while back who has just such a degree and further education besides. She's fully trained to maintain and enhance the nearest museum exhibits on what has gone before. But those exhibits might as well be telling the story of the American education system that used to be a byword for opportunity but is now reduced to this simple message:
(When I was 5 or 6, I remember thinking that my dad was going to get in trouble for driving past one of these signs...)

Do not attempt to be an art historian. Do not attempt to be a historian. Do not attempt to be a marine biologist (Ghostcrawler promised me a pony!) or a journalist or a practitioner of any number of cultural or geographic arts. And don't even bother to get medieval on anyone's ass. No one else cares. It doesn't serve the drive of the modern society. It's not productive. You can go into business, technology, the law, or medicine. Make your choice.

Except that... well... you can't really go into any of those, either. The vast majority of the aforementioned debt is the (ahem) product of people venturing into those fields in the past decade or so. Those are, after all, the fields that society has deemed truly beneficial. After all, they get paid the most and the most assuredly, right?

A friend of mine started a blog recently, entitled "Inside the Law School Scam", which details the apparent effort by major law schools to recruit students not for the purpose of teaching them to become lawyers, but simply to make money... for the law schools. It is becoming a supposition among lawyers that law school doesn't really teach you about practicing law. You learn that in the real world, when you're making money. After all, that's the point of being "productive", right? To make money? Except that making money often involves being unhappy; something done for the sake of "getting by".

What kind of successful society perpetuates unhappiness for the sake of popular concepts of efficiency? What kind of society deems any activity that does not make an immediate or enormous profit one that is, essentially, a burden to that society? Produce or die. And yet, most of the major works of art and literature that form the foundation of our modern society were the product of patronage or starvation. The very culture that is lionized and revered by the ownership class was created by the kind of people that that class reviles. Most of those people did so because they were driven by passion and, occasionally, assisted by those who had means.

Our means, at the moment, is often directed toward creating more means as an end unto itself. I remember thinking about going back to school a couple years after I had graduated from Michigan. I had thought about getting a master's in education and going into teaching. My father attempted to talk me out of it because "there's no money in it." True enough. Unless you're a big-time law or business or medical professor, I suppose.

What kind of society perpetuates these conditions? Presumably, the one that doesn't care about them and those left to endure them. That, in itself, is an argument for burning said society to the ground and starting over. "There always seems to be money for war but not for education..." Or happiness.

Friday, October 7, 2011


So, it's been a while. I wanted to keep up with this on a regular basis, but I've been restrained. The restraints have been physical and mental. A lack of ability in some cases, but largely a lack of motivation or energy. Some have been self-imposed; others, not. But restraint comes in all kinds of forms...

I look out on the Occupy Wall Street (Chicago, LA, ad infinitum) demonstrations and I am both encouraged and dismayed (dichotomy, anyone?) I am encouraged because I see people finally following outrage with action. As much as the presumably cynical and worldly types like to express their worldly cynicism with a haughty disdain over the 'fact' that 'someone is always protesting something', the actual fact that people are actually in the streets at this moment is something that is all too rare in this day and age. But I am dismayed because my initial reaction to those demonstrations is that they are too passive and they will too easily become part of the background noise that is Somnolent America.

When I think of our current circumstances, what I want to say is this:

Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife on the steps of the palace of the rich and stab or shoot their owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination and without pity.

That was Lucy Parsons, who was intimately familiar with the lack of mercy and pity from the owning class. Thus, why not respond in kind? My response to the whine of: "You're talking about class warrrrrr!" has always been: "You're damn right. It's been going on against the poor since time out of mind. It's about time we started talking about it." After all, if we can freely talk about race (kind of) in our free and open society (kind of), then why can't we talk about class? Because it doesn't exist? Or because it strikes too close to the bedrock truth of our free, open, and equitable (not even close) society? We have classes; always have, likely always will, and the rich, the owning class, has a disproportionate amount of power in our free and open (kind of) society. The only way to wrest power from the powerful ("Power concedes nothing without a demand. - Frederick Douglass) has typically been by violence. After all, when one's entire society is based on the primacy of property and violence typically results in the abduction and/or destruction of said property, the people who own it tend to get a little nervous. Nervous is good. Terrified might be better. Compliant is the real goal.

The problem with compelling compliance through violence is that the people who often end up dying as a consequence of said violence are the 99%, as it were. It would be nice if we could all storm the Bastille again and watch the landholders flee the country, but they've figured out that being part of the owning class also means that they own most of the guns and the people that have access to them. Not that parallels to 1789 are completely absent:

Some people will always be oblivious, even if they don't know how to spell "brioche".

My gut reaction that trends toward violence is a product of decades of frustration on this issue, even if I recognize its obvious drawbacks. Thus, if I were to exercise a degree of restraint, I'd more likely want to express something like this:

If, in the present chaotic and shameful struggle for existence, when organized society offers a premium on greed, cruelty, and deceit, men can be found who stand aloof and almost alone in their determination to work for good rather than gold, who suffer want and persecution rather than desert principle, who can bravely walk to the scaffold for the good they can do humanity, what may we expect from men when freed from the grinding necessity of selling the better part of themselves for bread?
That was also Lucy Parsons. Certainly, she was speaking of the potential of her own class, likely having already discarded the idea that anything genuinely good for society could come from the wealthy leeches that surmount it. But it's still a noble idea that one would like to think would compel people toward that compliance; that, indeed, society would be better, even for the wealthy, if more people had access to the time and resources that would allow them to express some of the potential within them. It hearkens back to what I often refer to as the "Henry Ford principle": Ford realized that if he wanted his company to truly grow and become a buttress of American society, he couldn't continue to build products that his own workers couldn't afford to buy. It took a long time and a lot of violence for him to come to that realization, but it did occur. I'd like to cut out both the time and the violence parts and weave me a flying carpet while you're at it, won't you?

That acknowledgement of the seeming need for restraint has a personal quality to it, as well. Marcus stressed the avoidance of negative emotions or actions. The expression of Stoicism in the face of difficult situations was meant to be the perfect example of the nobility of the human spirit. The ability to stand against daunting odds without lashing out should be seen as an example of how to resist and effect change without bloodshed. King thought this and eventually won. But that was 50 years ago and the owning class has learned (witness even now the implicit derision of the media toward the Occupy gatherings.) Brother Malcolm may have been ahead of his time in stating his own preference for how to resist and demonstrate. Or was it simply a reversion to the tried and occasionally true method, acknowledging that the real problem of society, class not race, would never truly be affected? After all, when King shifted his emphasis from race to class, they killed him.

I'm hoping for a tipping point. I'm hoping that said point leads to a genuine acknowledgement of the problem. I'm hoping that leads to genuine change. I'm hoping it happens without too many people getting killed. Or am I?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Words, in fact, lived by

"Just, as a novel concept, try not pissing me off for a while."

"At this point, spiraling out of control seems like the far more suitable choice."

"Sad trombone." (in a far higher pitch than should have been used, unfortunately.)

"Don't let reason, fact, or any shred of sanity slow you down."

"If I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor, I probably would have tried it."

"Life is, in fact, often shorter than it should be."

"If I'm doing this right, you guys are screwed."

"Just let Douchebaggus Maximus over there say his piece and then we can all go on with our lives."

"I wish I had found a way to do it better. I wish I had found a way to do it. I wish I had found a way. I wish."

[All of the above were said by, near, or to me at some point in the last 24 to 36 hours. None of it may be worth a damn, but there it is.]

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Outside agitators

I've been in a couple near-riots. The first was in 1989. Michigan had just won the national championship in basketball and the students (of which I was one) erupted on to the streets of Ann Arbor in a frenzy of celebration. As with most large gatherings that involve a) sports b) victory and c) alcohol, the cheers and hugs and dances soon turned to collapsed awnings, torn down street signs, and broken windows. In their rush to outdo each other as to whom can CELEBRATE HARDER, destruction became easier than doing a better dance. The university's response was to declare all such destruction to be the work of "outside agitators" and not their highly intelligent and presumably civil-to-a-fault student body. (Strangely, on a trip to a town of 60 people on the north end of Hawaii's big island 12 years later, I encountered someone whose only visit to Ann Arbor had been that very night, as he attended a concert at Hill Auditorium and later said: "And I walked out into the midst of a riot." I responded: "Yeah! I was in that riot!" Small world...)

The other was a few years later when I went to see the fireworks over the Detroit river with a couple friends. It had been one of those deathly humid July nights and something, somewhere, sparked a bunch of the locals to start intimidating, then threatening, and then assaulting and robbing the wealthier folks who had come down from Oakland County to see the show. By the time we were leaving, there were a dozen melees erupting all over Jefferson, Washington, Griswold, and Woodward and crowds of people naturally screaming and fleeing the ruckus. The city's assessment? "Outside agitators"... until someone pointed out that most of the young men arrested were, in fact, residents of the city. Then they became "hardened criminals."

I had first-hand exposure to the perpetrators in both incidents. The first group were students. Period. They were drunk and they decided to party to the limit, as it were. The second group were no more "hardened criminals" than my grandmother, unless average high school kids in Polo shirts had become the most fearsome element of society.

As I'm sure you've all seen, London and other communities are on fire:

Events were triggered by police shooting an unarmed man as they attempted to make an arrest last Thursday. The man, Mark Duggan, happens to be black. A candlelight vigil two days later soon erupted in the first wave of violence and it's been proceeding since then. PM David Cameron's and Home Secretary Theresa May's responses: "a certain element", "outside agitators", "hardened criminals." It's like training parrots: One says it, then the others follow.

In addition, they mentioned "more robust police action", "prosecuting to the limits of the law", and general harsh justice and recrimination all around. What they didn't stop to do was question why this much unrest amongst the typically staid British populace might be taking place with no Premier League win to be seen. Likewise on this side of the pond, only a few people have brought up the diverse array of motivations, any or all of which might be responsible for the outbreak: youth unemployment, racial tensions, police brutality, austerity measures. That's a pretty toxic combination of economic and social conditions that would strain most societies to a potential breaking point (unless they're distracted by the latest episode of Toddlers and Tiaras like, you know, Americans.) And yet London's response is typical British (and American) Empire: Control and punish.

Certainly, some swift action has to be taken to contain a situation that could easily boil out of control, if it hasn't already. And, of course, the stiff upper lip must always be displayed to reassure the rest of the obedient population that reacting to the government's draconian treatment of its non-wealthy citizens must not be tolerated. Can't go giving anyone any ideas or tolerating any new ones, for that matter. Like telling schoolchildren that they can't bring a nail clipper to class because of a "zero tolerance" policy, it's simply inconceivable to those in charge, especially annoyed as they are from having been dragged home from their Mediterranean vacations, that wielding the hammer even harder might be precisely the wrong thing to do. After all, if the trigger event for this was police brutality (only exacerbating the bad economic straits that many find themselves in), what happens when Cameron's order for a "more robust response" is taken seriously by the police on the ground?

As is the situation with most riots, the eruption of same in lower-class or middle-class neighborhoods has only engendered the disgust and enmity of the people suffering many of the same problems (leaving the racial issue aside, for the moment.) As Jello always said: "Tomorrow you're homeless. Tonight it's a blast!" That's not exactly the best way to effect social change, but some outbursts can't necessarily be controlled. All the same, just as in politics, making enemies of those who might otherwise be your allies and support you is, in a word, stupid. But I don't think anyone's ever seen an intelligent riot.

If I had my way, I wouldn't necessarily try to control it but, rather, direct it. No sense in tearing up your own community when the problem is the rather ritzier locales elsewhere, where the people who own your community actually live. It's like the old Q&A: Q- Why rob banks? A- That's where the money is. If you're going to cause general mayhem, you might as well do it where the money is. Nothing gets the state hopping faster than threatening the paymasters.

Am I talking about class war again? Tsk, tsk, old boy.

Monday, August 8, 2011


I use olive oil in so many things I may have begun to forget what it tastes like. I eat packaged crackers that claim to be infused with olive oil (and pepper and various other flavors.) Are they? I'm not entirely sure. I think the flavor is there, but I'd have a hard time picking it out over the pepper or the salt or the wheat or whatever else is involved. One assumes the maltodextrin isn't overwhelming the olive oil but then one would have to have a fairly textured grasp of the taste of maltodextrin now, wouldn't one?

Extra virgin olive oil, of course, is ubiquitous in my use and virtually any cooking I've ever seen or partaken of (I guess that's not entirely true, since I've done a fair bit of Japanese cooking.) But, once again, what exactly separates it from plain, old virgin oil? (As an aside, I think almost all Westerners associate the term 'virgin' with the Church and the proliferation of its use with Italian cooking. At one point, terms like 'virgin' proliferated because of the rather religious nature of the Italian peninsula and the omnipresence of the Latin language as a religious vehicle. Thus, olives become tied to Italian cooking, despite their origin with the Greeks and profligate use in Greek, French, and Spanish cooking; not to mention the rampant spread of half-assed Italian cooking (and distortions thereof; pizza, anyone?) as a vehicle for the tastes of mass market America. You don't often see frozen Greek, French, or Spanish meals at the local store. This may have nothing to do with my main point but this is how my mind occasionally wanders...)

What normally separates EVOO from VOO is nominally acidity and taste. I don't know that I'd be able to tell the difference by taste, despite having tasted and cooked with any number of high quality oils over the years; even the disgustingly overpriced ones at places like Zingerman's (Bourgeois! Burn him!) Could I tell the difference between EVOO and VOO? I like to think so, since I have been able to tell the difference between Greek and Italian olive oils in the past. But, again, it's seemingly omnipresent in my life at the moment and I begin to wonder if I can pick it out amidst the static haze.

Can you tell what your life would be like without democracy? If you're an American, you've been living with it all of your life but would you be able to tell if it were gone? Would it matter? Would you care? As long as Modern Family came on at the proper time and you could still get it in HD, would it matter to you that you'll never have the opportunity to improve your life or the lives of others by participating in the grand process? And when I say "participating", I mean actively; not walking into a booth every four years and pulling a lever/darkening an oval/tapping a screen for some schmuck who's only vaguely dissimilar to the last schmuck who steps and fetches for Goldman Sachs and whomever else pays him.

Would it matter to you if the current occupant of the Oval Office stepped up to the podium tomorrow and, instead of giving some indignant response to the credit raters (the vast majority of whom would be in jail for crimes various and sundry if they weren't, you know, indirectly paying him and everyone around him), actually stated that we were giving up on the whole democracy schtick and instead just converting back to the feudal system? We're almost there, anyway. Would it matter? As long as you could still get to Lowe's and Whole Foods and Bed, Bath, and Beyond and as long as you could still get the kids to camp or Disney World, would you be able to tell that you no longer had any choice in the direction of your country? Is the concept of democracy so twisted, so distorted, so ephemeral to the average American's waking hours that it has become background noise?

Tea Partiers like to think of themselves as participants in democracy and, compared to the average American, they are. Despite being ridiculously ignorant, often bigoted, and incapable of understanding the broad and long-term meaning of many of their actions ("You keep your government away from my Medicare!"), they were sufficiently motivated and active enough to elect a collection of borderline insane people to the highest legislative body in the land. That's how our system is supposed to work. It's also the reason that the following aphorism is true: Imagine that the average voter is the average sports radio caller. Now, construct a defense for democracy.

Can you tell when your government has changed? Everyone is in a panic over the obdurate nature of the Tea Party and how it almost plunged the US into default and how our credit rating is down for the first time in history and yadda, yadda, yadda... So, people are actually sitting up and paying attention to their democracy. Their response? Many people that I've heard or read are now desperate to re-elect Obama, presumably so that they can go back to treating their government as background noise because, after all, Jimmy has soccer and that just takes up so much time and the feudal system really won't change that.

I'm going to keep cooking with olive oil, because I like it. But now I might think about where it is among the panoply of tastes that I'm eating and about whether I might do something differently.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Casino Republic

Casino Royale is an excellent Bond movie. In fact, it may be the best Bond movie ever. Not only did it revive the franchise from the doldrums initiated by Roger Moore's later work and regrettably sustained by Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, but it also returned the series to its roots: the Fleming novels, in which Bond was a ruthless killer, allowing for almost anyone to be expendable in the name of Queen and Country. Just the same, it was clear that Bond was intended to be the "hero" in the murky world of covert activity and Cold War politics.

In sticking with the title theme, the producers chose to follow the most recent trend of gambling heroics and used no-limit Texas hold'em as the game upon which the premise rested.

Above is the final scene of the poker game. The game was established as a 10-player table with each player beginning with $10 million in chips. There was also a permitted $5 million re-buy, by which a player who had been knocked out could re-enter the game. Despite the rather farcical nature of the poker presented for the camera (if these players were genuinely skilled and practiced, the betting patterns were... odd, to say the least, based on the flops), one can accept that the game had to be dramatically presented, which meant a certain amount of melodrama was expected. That's all well and good until you come to the topic of the re-buy.

First off, allowing someone back to the table after they've lost their initial stake defeats the purpose of a winner-take-all tournament and puts more pressure on those players who, either through good cards or good play (or both) have managed to stay and prosper at the table. Secondly, allowing players back in with a half-stake is tantamount to suicide and something that no sensible person would do, as they would expect to do nothing but sacrifice another 5 million based on simple facts.

If we assume that the players who lost took some time to do so, that means the big and small blinds have risen considerably by the time they buy their way back in, such that they're significantly hit every time either blind rolls around to their position. Furthermore, if we naturally assume that fewer players buy back in than have lost out of the game, one can also assume that those players remaining at the table have considerably more money than their initial stake. What that means is that the bets will be played at a higher level than someone returning to the game can manage, even with what they assume is a solid hand. If someone is sitting at 14 million and the player returning with 5 million decides to bet $50K on a hand, that's a significant outlay of his available cash. But it's relatively chump change to the player sitting with 3 times that much in front of him. He can casually raise to $500K and still not feel a horrible sting, but that would be 10% of the re-buyer's entire roll in one hand. In other words, all that the remaining players have to do to eliminate the returners is to lean on them for a few hands. Soon enough, between competitive hands and the blinds, they'll be pushed to an all-in position and likely lose their roll again.

This is precisely the situation which perfectly embodies the current American economic and political situations.

The owning class (the top 5% or so) has a catastrophically-larger share of the wealth in this nation. Any challenge to their control can simply be leaned upon until it wilts under the pressure of that much money. How so? Perhaps by manipulating the stock market for political gain? After all, if "It's the economy, stupid" then powerful financial groups can certainly make sure that the economy stays flaccid if their puppets start to get uppity. This is, of course, presuming that said puppets aren't of the owning class and prefer things as they are, anyway. Oh, wait...

A similar situation exists in the world of political parties, wherein the Democrats and Republicans have been in control for so long that they've not only gerrymandered districts to either completely distort the desires of neighborhoods and communities or make it virtually impossible for the current party in control to ever be removed, but they've also established any number of regulations that make gaining and retaining ballot access for minor parties a frequently nonviable goal. If those don't work, it's a relatively simple task for either wing of the major party to lean on smaller competitors in a similar economic manner to that described above. After all, if elections are all about money ("It's the political economy, stupid!"), then he who has the gold still makes the rules. Where do they get this gold? Why, from the ownership class, of course. Convenient, that.

In short, they own the government. They own the economy. They essentially own you and everyone around you and no fantastical re-buy is going to get the other 95% of us back in the game and even if one existed, all they need to do is pool resources and lean upon any intruder to the system until they give up. Certainly, expecting the next Democrat blowing smoke about "hope and change" is an utter lost cause (at it has been for at least 60 years now; have you learned? please?)... unless we, the underclass, start fighting back.

How does one "fight back" against that kind of economic weight? Well, the easy answer is violence. The only slightly less easy answer (and far more palatable) is to exclude ourselves from the system. What worked in the past were strikes and mass disruptions to said system a la the Arab Spring but that takes a level of coordinated action that generally only emerges with some kind of significant shock like, say, a financial implosion...

There have been two last-minute saves in the past 3 years: the bailout of the banks and AIG in 2008 and the recent "debt ceiling" crisis. Either of those events allowed to proceed to their natural conclusion might have stirred up just enough suffering and consequent outrage to put people back in the streets for real. But that's exactly what they don't want to see, so it might be time for some low-level initiative. I'm not holding my breath for it, but it's either that or we wait for "Vote Palin/Bachmann 2012: It's a no-brainer!"

Sell enough of those and I'll finance the damn revolution myself.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

It's not capitulation. It's collusion.

So the latest rumor from the Beltway is that the default avoidance deal will be all cuts and no revenue increases (i.e. taxes on the rich.) There was the usual anguished gnashing of teeth and dismay among the Democrats and D-sympathizers on the board which, at a base level of sympathy, I can understand. After all, you'd like to think that a still-relatively popular president with a pathetically-loyal following and control of the top house of Congress would be able to cut a better deal than everything the opposition party wants and none of what his wants.

But do they want it?

We all know the answer to that because we are all thinking people, rather than believing people. The answer is: Don't be ridiculous. Of course they don't want it.

Almost every member of Congress and the vast majority of Obama's administration are either too wealthy or completely servile to those who are too wealthy to ever want a change in economic policy that imposes more of the public burden on them; regardless of what happens to the little people depending on the programs targeted for the deepest cuts (Social Security and Medicare.) That includes Obama. The election is less than a year-and-a-half away. He can't cut into the loose change of the people who fill his election coffers and whom will be happy to pave the driveway of the rest of his life with gold when he leaves office. He's already raised a record amount of cash. No sense turning off that spigot.

"But how can he do this?!", his erstwhile supporters shriek. It will cost him the election! Interestingly, most of them don't voice the more immediate concern: it's a complete violation of the line of horseshit that all of them fell for in 2008 (and every election prior...) and, for some reason, continue to cling to in the face of all activity to the contrary. It's hard to confront the truth sometimes, so we'll give them that. But will it cost him the election?

Traditionally, on the face of it, you don't want to savage major spending programs right before an election when the economy and employment situation is already weak. The current employment situation in the US would more properly be termed "dire", so it would seem even less intelligent to cut spending in the situation where most sitting presidents start showering programs with money in order to have something beneficial to the peasants to point to on the campaign trail. So, why?

Because, despite all the Obama and Dem supporters' insistence that he has the GOP by the short hairs in this standoff (which, in political terms is probably true) what they don't understand (or don't want to admit) is that the people he really has in his grip are them. You can come to that conclusion simply by listening for the howls of outrage to gradually be drowned out by the sonorous drone: "He had no other choice."

Imagine that these monks are your average Democrats or D-sympathizers; condemned to a life of self-abuse and mindless chanting while their leaders discard them like so much Dark Ages rabble. The image is perfect. They're the mirror image of GOP followers of people like Bachmann and Palin, neither of whom should be allowed near public office if common sense were the determinant of political reality in this country. Those Democrats believe that their leaders won't betray them again and again, despite repeated occurrences of exactly that. They're believers, not thinkers, and they're every bit as dangerous to the body public as the Bachmann hordes, if not worse, because they prevent any real change from occurring while encouraging everyone around them to accept palliatives as real medicine. And, when the Dems are betrayed, they immediately fall to the mantra: "He had no other choice." Despite being a sitting president and controlling half of Congress, he had no other choice. Clinton committed all kinds of perfidy against traditional Democratic values and programs, even while the Democrats controlled both houses, and the Democrat base was still informed that "he had no other choice." He had to go along to get along with people who really couldn't have stopped him, despite much sound and fury to the contrary. But Clinton, at least, was slick while selling his aluminum siding. Obama doesn't even try that hard.

"But the election-!", they scream. "Even loyal followers and, most importantly, independents won't put up with this." Oh, but they will. This is where the short hairs come back in, courtesy of two things: 1. The GOP field is pathetically bad in the eyes of the general public. Even if Obama hammers those least able to resist, the idea that anyone on the GOP side wouldn't do the same thing is preposterous. 2. The age-old Democratic boogeyman about how it could only be worse under the GOP, no matter how bad the current guy is. That's the essence of Democratic politics for the past two decades.

So, no, he won't end up losing the election by showing his true colors here (for only the 30th time of his presidency so far...) People will lap up the "nothing else he could do" mantra and hedge it with the idiocy of the current GOP field and that old boogeyman: "Think of how much WORSE it could be... as it continues to do nothing but get worse. But, y'know, slowly. So, that's better."

The simple fact is this: Obama has too many donors, friends, colleagues, and sycophants who are enjoying the Bush II tax rates, so there's no way he'd stoop to change them, even if he personally wanted to, which he doesn't, based on every action he's taken since he's been in office. If we had more thinkers and fewer believers, perhaps the reaction of the populace (and his supporters) would be different.

Democracy (and its republican bastardizations) with a somnolent electorate ensures oligarchy. Welcome to it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Goebbels was right

The Newspaper of Record (there is some question as to whether that old nickname is even viable any longer) has printed a story about Governor Rick Scott (R-Florida) and his sinking approval numbers now that the public has gotten a good, hard look at his policies and methods. The implication is that those who elected the Tea Party candidate may not have known exactly what it is they were asking for. I think their focus is too narrow. This isn't a problem specific to Florida, nor is it a phenomenon that is recent. The Tea Party is simply an outgrowth of something that's been endemic to the American electorate for some time and has only increased as sources of misinformation have proliferated on the Interwebs: stupidity.

People are stupid. Always have been, always will be. Tell them something in a firm tone of voice and they're likely to initially believe it. Repeat that something over and over and they'll believe it even in the face of completely contrary evidence. Continue to repeat it and they'll often create spurious evidence in their own minds to reassure themselves that it's true. If they've been trained to distrust most institutions (or not had their interests served by said institutions and, thus, become frustrated with and opposed to them), all the better.

Most Tea Partiers that I've met, read, or listened to have not the first clue what they really want. They have a utopian notion of government/democracy/civil society that has been planted in their mind or that they have self-created and they're now attempting to pursue that with all the vigor of the righteous oppressed. The idea that Scott or people like him (such as Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin)) are now plummeting in popularity because those who elected them have fallen for the bait-and-switch is preposterous. Those people handed the bait to Scott and Walker and told them to run with it until they found themselves in front of a touchscreen. Any momentary consideration of the effects of policies that begin with "get government out of our lives" would have led any mildly intelligent person to conclude that that might not be the best thing for a bunch of voters depending on things like Social Security and Medicare.

But most voters don't stop for that momentary consideration because they're not trained to think. They're trained to believe. And the first thing they'd like to believe is whatever someone tells them in a firm tone of voice. It certainly doesn't hurt if you happen to be reasonably attractive and are only spouting the same kind of misinformation that people have been lapping up for the past quarter-century, as well. Cue Sarah Palin...

Most Tea Partiers worship at the altar of the Blessed Reagan. The GOP and other right-wing sources have been spewing the line about Reagan being the greatest president since... well, since the so-called Founding Fathers really, because they can't say "greatest since Calvin Coolidge" because the latter led the country right into the Great Depression (despite occasional attempts by Republicans to lay the blame at the feet of FDR, who didn't take office until 3 years later.) They really can't say "greatest since Abraham Lincoln", either, since he committed the twin awful sins of both enforcing the rule of the federal government and espousing equality for those black people... No, they really have a tough time finding paragons of Republicanism to hearken back to other than Reagan (Nixon? Creator of the EPA and scion of Watergate?) so they just like to go ahead and name Reagan the greatest since, well, forever because they've been taught that he was the shining example of everything true Republicans/right-wingers should stand for: small government and low (or zero) taxes.

Of course, they seem to forget the fact that following the hallowed Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (Google it), which created a tax cut of $264 billion and dropped the country into one of the most brutal recessions it had ever experienced, Reagan proceeded to raise taxes 11 times, beginning with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (Google it), which not only raised taxes but did so in a manner that didn't touch the top 5% of "earners" that Reagan and current politicians, both Republican and Democrat, so slavishly step-and-fetch for. Instead, it raised FICA taxes; that chunk that comes out of every one of your paychecks. Focus the cuts and spread the costs is, was, and shall always be the mantra of both the ruling class and the elected officials that serve them. Why? Because they can get away with it so long as idiots like those that make up the Tea Party and most of the electorate believe otherwise.

The Tea Party is a manifestation of the Republican Southern Strategy, writ large. The aforementioned Nixon used the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to divide the southern states against the Democratic party whose president (Johnson) had signed the Act. Of course, those same Democrats had been using that strategy to stay in power since Reconstruction, since it was the Republicans who had violated the "sovereign rights" of the southern states in the 19th century. The only way to keep rich white people in control of those states was to make poor white people think their lives were hard because of the poor black people. That's how you distract people long enough to convince them that voting for policies completely inimical to themselves and their wallets is somehow the right thing to do. That same strategy is at the root of the Tea Party phenomenon. The target is no longer solely poor black people since that kind of talk isn't acceptable in public any longer. Now it's just even poorer white people somehow getting rich (but staying poorer) from that evil faceless entity known as the Government, which has gotten out of control and exists only to keep the regular Poor White Man down. Don't worry. It only sounds stupid because it is. People accept this as a form of common wisdom because it's easier to believe that other, regular people are cheating the system, rather than that the system is designed and continually modified to be a way of keeping people in their place.

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." - Josef Goebbels. Would I dare to invoke Godwin's Law when talking about the Tea Party and the herd instinct amongst the American electorate? I sure would. After all, the historical similarities are self-evident and simply one more example of our electoral system being constructed on that most durable of political substances: bullshit.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Are you happy?"

Said question was put to me a while back by a friend. He's not a close friend, so it's not a topic that I would generally venture into with him. I don't mind communicating personal things to people, but this is a topic that could take some time and I'd be concerned about being soporific. The other half of that assessment is, yes, there are things that I will only talk about with a select few.

The topic came up because I had mentioned to him that a couple people I knew seemed genuinely happy in recent times. They had gotten over some significant hurdles and had reached that point of almost-nirvana; the "life is good/beautiful/perfect" moment. He said he'd known moments like that and then turned the question back to me.

"Are you happy?"

It struck me then that I'm not sure what that means anymore.

It's been so long since I've had one of those "life is good" moments; wherein I'd been content with the route my life was taking, my immediate surroundings, whom I was with, what I was doing, and could genuinely appreciate the positive side of almost everything, that I honestly don't know what it feels like any longer. I can't remember what it felt like in the past. I'm slowly beginning to question whether I've ever been there. Certainly, there are always the self-pitying reflections when times are difficult (as they are now, somewhat), when one becomes convinced that there's no way out of the turmoil and wonders if there ever truly was. There are sincere moments of regret for all of the woulda, coulda, shoulda moments that might have shifted the course just enough to bring at least some joy into the otherwise presumably bleak and Road-like outlook. One's perception is always colored by what's happening right now, so now would probably not be the most advisable time to sit back and wonder if happiness had ever truly been present. It certainly doesn't feel that way now, so how can memories have ever been better? But perhaps I'm thinking too much in the realm of absolutes.

Are there good times? Absolutely. I had a pretty good time last night, in fact. It's easy to be distracted from the overarching sensation by friends and experiences. Copious amounts of alcohol don't hurt, either. Life is not solely a path of misery and never has been. If ever that situation comes about, one can usually be sure that life is either going to take a dramatic change quite soon or be finished equally quickly. I can remember many good moments from the past 20 years. What I can't remember is that feeling of contentment and surety that says "life is good."

My answer to him was: "Probably not." (Evasive much?) So, he turned it back again: "What would make you happy?"

That stumped me for a bit. Again, I feel like I'm operating at a loss here because the sensation is seemingly beyond me. But I could think of several things that would make me happier and I listed off a few and quickly remembered that all of them are circumstances that are either largely beyond my control or situations in which my vote is not the only one that counts. Despite earnest lifetime effort, I cannot simply control all of the people around me and get them to shut up and do what I tell them to do. In a couple scenarios, doing so would at least mildly defeat the purpose, anyway.

He pointed out one scenario and said: "Why don't you pursue that if it would make you happier?"

Two reasons: 1) That was one of those that isn't solely up to me. If there were something out there that didn't resemble fly fishing from a B-52 (for all you non-Cold War kids: here), I surely would have attempted it by now. 2) Since it's not just up to me, it necessarily involves the happiness of people other than me. Diminishing someone else's in favor of mine is something that I may never be able to do.

My parents essentially instilled in me the idea that my personal happiness was secondary to all else. If someone else wanted to do something (usually them) that impinged on my life, then I was simply required to suck it up and accept it. It's a perspective that I still employ on a regular basis in my relationships with others. It's more important to me that my friends are happy than that I am so, as I've vaguely averred to before. It's also contrary to MA's approach, in which the nature of Stoicism is defined by not subsuming oneself in "destructive" emotions, but instead working through everything with reason. Reason, of course, can't account for everything and there's certainly room to question whether the human condition can survive a "pure" Stoic approach in the same way that aspirational Buddhism almost demands a transcendence beyond the consciousness of the human state. There's not really a classical philosophical approach to the idea of dispensing with "constructive" emotions except, perhaps, nihilism, but one wonders if that's a proper summation of the inability to feel genuine happiness any longer.

As noted, this isn't a topic of which I would go into great detail with most people, largely because I'd have to explain a lot of it and/or not be certain that the imposed upon would understand what the hell I was saying in the first place without jumping to any number of conclusions that would invariably be wrong and/or annoying. In my life, I think I've come across all of three people who could always seem to understand what I was saying as I was saying it. That's an incredibly comforting thing. The first is someone whom I haven't seen in almost 20 years and haven't talked to in about half that time. The second is someone that I barely talk to anymore, as she's enormously involved in her own life (as she probably should be.) The third is someone that has become close relatively recently and I still hesitate to impinge (that word again...) upon her because, once again, why douse someone else's day (and presumed happiness) with my own dire proclamations? "Let every action aim solely at the common good..."

So, I suppose I occasionally ramble on about these topics here so that people can choose when to stop while I attempt to gain some perspective on them alone. Effective? I don't know yet.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ethical-type substances

Now that the big news has broken in the college football world that the good Senator Tressel may not be as lily-white as his books proclaim (First page in the Manual: Cheaters win. For a while.), I thought I'd revisit the topic of ethics that I brushed past a few weeks ago on the new national holiday now known as Osama Got His day. (Just for the record, I never believed Tressel was as spotless as his true believers like to think. After all, I knew his name from Youngstown State.)

What exactly are the ethics of an assassination? Under the traditional rules of war, anything goes with regard to figures of strategic importance. In World War II, often referenced by half-assed liberals as "the last good war" (I won't even get into the concept of 'good war' here), the US had broken the Japanese codes and knew which plane Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was going to be flying in and promptly ambushed it and shot it down; an assassination as sure as one from a single bullet but a wartime act against a soldier and, thus, more easily placed within the realm of 'ethical' combat.

Killing Osama bin Laden, in the midst of our perpetual war (cue Orwell) against an enemy that can come from anywhere and can be identified as anyone; whose status in life can change from "citizen" to "terrorist" to "combatant" to "enemy non-combatant" (my favorite) with the stroke of a key, ended up being just one more example of the plasticity of the ethical code that the US has long touted as what sets it apart from much of the rest of the world.

Big surprise, right? I mean, we're all cynics here. It just amuses me in the same way that watching people fervently believe in US presidential candidates does. After all, think about the killing of this man the next time that people are outraged when a US or allied VIP is killed in a random bombing. It's a horrible crime against humanity! But killing this unarmed guy is somehow 'justice'. On the contrary, a targeted assassination is just what it sounds like (and, incidentally, illegal under US law and multiple international treaties which the US is a signatory to, not least of them the Geneva Conventions), whether you use a SEAL team or and a gun or a block of plastique and a Honda. The phrase "don't stoop to their level" comes to mind.

"Oh, but it's not even the same!", you say. "After all, we just shot one guy who deserved it. They kill innocents with their bombs." In military parlance, innocents are often termed "collateral damage". I won't bore you with the endless stories about collateral damage that currently has the president (read: stooge) of Afghanistan making vague threats against the US as a consequence. Go find them.

Terrorists are often the neighbors of the collateral damage and it's said activity that frequently propels them into that life. Of course, there are still ethical questions even within the framework of terrorism. When the Baader-Meinhof/Red Faction group were active in Germany in the 70s, they committed a number of bombings; at least two that injured the very workers that they claimed to represent. There was, of course, outrage within the organization for having harmed the very people they were fighting for, even though the most notable occurrence was an attempt to assassinate the editor of a prominent German newspaper.

If the RAF or al-Qaeda had the ability to only kill their targets with their bombing attacks, one would think they would exercise said ability (which, incidentally, is not completely beyond the reach of many groups, since Hezbollah has proven to be very adept at this over the years.) After all, why kill or maim the very people you're trying to recruit/protect/serve/inspire? A reasonable person has to assume that some degree of ethical assessment goes into acts like this in the same way that the US government calculates what laws it's willing to break or principles it's willing to abandon to serve its masters' interests.

Of course, it's easier to simply assume that bin Laden and all of his associates are simply inhuman monsters because it's easier to fight and kill people when you dehumanize them. That's been a standard approach of warfare from time out of mind. So, did the inhuman monster deserve to die? Most people would insist that he did because of his supposed role as the planner of the World Trade Center attacks. After all, even though he was only indirectly responsible, the perspective of Nuremberg, that the planners are every bit as culpable as the doers, is still a popular and easily argued stance. It's only mildly hilarious to the historically obsessed among us that the very Conventions that the US has been serially violating for the past half century were written in response to the very acts that took place in the time period of the Good War and to which Nuremberg was the initial response. Irony is fun!

Again, did he deserve to die? I don't know. Does Larry Summers deserve to die for inflicting his economic ideology on the Baltic republics and Russia and indirectly (i.e. like bin Laden) causing what may be thousands of suicides and untold misery? (pleasesayyespleasesayyespleasesayyes) Where do personal ethics, national ethics, and the concept of justice meet? Do they meet? Does national interest trumps ethics or can it be one and the same, in the long-term? "Let every action aim solely for the common good..." Or is it simply impossible to be genuinely ethical in a "wartime" situation?

Let's back up a bit: When the Bill of Rights was first discussed and promoted by George Mason and later Madison and Jefferson, one of the key points that they referenced was "freedom from occupying armies", which became the third amendment that freed civilians from being forced to quarter troops in their homes. Part of that was motivated by people being tossed from their homes by the British in Boston during the revolution. But part of it was motivated by there being a distinction between wartime and peacetime. Most of the writers of the Constitution were very concerned about the concept of a standing army, as it not only represented a drain on resources, but also a government that always had the use of force within easy access. This concern (and confusion) was later eloquently expressed by Einstein, when he said: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war."

However, since the end of World War 2, the US has been on a wartime footing and wartime economy, with the "war on terror" only the latest manifestation of the national policy that someone is always out to get us so we'd better be ready to shoot back (cue MacArthur). Does that mean wartime ethics are perpetual, as well? And what defines them? We've already seen the willingness of the US to evade the accepted 'rules' of war., but there's a more pervasive aspect than simply outrageous acts of violence. It's yet another example of the militarization of US society that has created an outlook where nothing can be sufficiently 'solved' without the use of guns; most often in the interest of economic influence or control in other nations (at home, of course, we just use old-fashioned bribery.)

If one decides that we are permanently at war, then any ethical constraints on behavior become that much weaker (after all, "things happen" in war) and the concept of a civilized society becomes that much more distant. If one decides that the previously acknowledged 'rules' of war are no longer applicable because this war is different, it just gets that much worse. So, where do ethics and, for that matter, civility actually come into play, not just in the bin Laden assassination, but US foreign policy in general?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Words, perhaps to live by

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.

The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and, very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfillment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution... The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. - Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, 1931.

He that hath not one and the self-same general end always as long as he liveth, cannot possibly be one and the self-same man always. But this will not suffice except thou add also what ought to be this general end. For as the general conceit and apprehension of all those things which upon no certain ground are by the greater part of men deemed good, cannot be uniform and agreeable, but that only which is limited and restrained by some certain proprieties and conditions, as of community: that nothing be conceived good, which is not commonly and publicly good: so must the end also that we propose unto ourselves, be common and sociable. For he that doth direct all his own private motionsand purposes to that end, all his actions will be agreeable and uniform; and by that means will be still the same man.- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI, xix.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. - Frederick Douglass, speech on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation, January 1887.

Thankfully, perseverance is a good substitute for talent. - Steve Martin.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Look! Over there! Someone's been shot!

On Monday, the latest government-targeted assassination took place. It will doubtlessly remain the lead story on every media outlet available, including the so-called "progressive" ones, for some time, as the old aphorism "if it bleeds, it leads" has never been more true than it is today. When it's most exciting is when the corpse is someone that a healthy chunk of the American public had a reason to hate; not necessarily a good reason, but a reason. Osama bin Laden is one of those corpses. Almost a decade ago, he was the reputed mastermind behind the deaths of some 3000 people in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a field somewhere in Pennsylvania. Since then, he's been hiding from the omnipresent reach of US foreign policy and military power and been a shining example of the bogeyman that MacArthur railed against so many years ago:
Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor — with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it.

Many things have changed in the space of the past decade, but many other things have remained the same. Among the latter are this: the truly rich still remains a small percentage of the US (and world) population but still own the majority of the wealth and property of the US (and the world.) Until that particular problem is addressed, it doesn't really matter how many so-called terrorist leaders are gunned down, alleged or actual, in a firefight or cowering in a corner, dark skinned or fair skinned, religious or secular. None of them will matter and neither did Osama bin Laden. But the media will encourage you and everyone else to think of nothing else for as long as it takes them to get to the next distraction, be it a wedding of some archaic European noble house or another Hollywood scandal. None of that matters, but it will all claim center stage while you go on being robbed.

How many Bank of America executives were brought up on fraud charges by the bullet that killed Osama bin Laden?
How many teachers' jobs were saved by that bullet?
How many new people were given health care?
How many new jobs or opportunities were created (other than new leader of al-Qaeda)?

None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. And yet people were willing to pour out into the streets to celebrate not the jailing of someone like Lloyd Blankfein, but the killing of a nearly irrelevant terrorist group leader whose last notable action took place before much of the current generation of Americans even knew what the World Trade Center was and have no idea whom Osama bin Laden is (or was) now. I mean, seriously, didn't the Penn State women's volleyball team just win a championship or something? The kids there don't have a better reason to get out in the streets and party other than hearing about the killing of some wacko who lives 3 doors down from a Pakistani strip mall?

We have genuine problems. Societal problems. Structural problems. Our problems are connected to this man only in that he is a symptom of them; an outgrowth. Not a cause. Representing his death as some kind of accomplishment in the current state of affairs is akin to treating pneumonia with Purple Drank. Osama bin Laden is the pristine example of the phenomenon known as "blowback" to US foreign policy. He's a result, not a source of origin. The fact that his plans led to the murder of so many people and his murder is now a cause for celebration by many of the fellow citizens of those people is one of those little historical hypocrisies that I'll leave alone (if only because it makes me gag to think about the herd impulse so prevalent in our society. Nation of sheep...)

So, go on. Keep reading and watching and listening. Someone, after all, has been shot. Your tax dollars paid for the bullets and the helicopters and the training of Team Six and the two wars created as a response to that person's actions. That means he must have been important... right?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sonnets to Telemann, part 2

Glances how brief signals how faint perhaps
A myst'ry of intent or real desire
The game only a task of constant lapse
A breath of longing mist or actual fire

O passion pools of light that hold a spark
The wreath of gold that shrouds the dream of touch
Or blank disdain for want or thought or mark
Nay but distant delight and little such

But how to sway the beauteous shade afar
Despite the lack of hope that hearts be true
Predict the path of light from random star
But yearn that road will be the course of two

Will passion break the plain reluctant shell
And free the thought of chance of tale to tell

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You must believe the lie so that the system will work

The following is a priceless example of the American electoral system in action:

That's Michele Bachmann, Minnesota-R, Tea Party caucus leader, and prospective Republican presidential candidate speaking in front of The Family Leader, a conservative and mildly deranged group in Iowa. Since Bachmann has decided to throw her hat in the ring for 2012, she's making the rounds in the rural, largely agricultural state, 30th in total population rank, that somehow continues to have the exalted status of deciding who is a real or imagined candidate for the two major parties. Since she's a Republican, she has to troll for votes among the people who consider a gender preference to be "akin to second-hand smok[e]". Most importantly, she has to lie to them.

She MUST lie to them because that's how the game is played. If she doesn't lie to them, she gets dismissed as a wacko, because the vast majority of Americans, even most of the homophobes, don't consider being gay a "public health hazard." There are plenty of people already ready to dismiss Bachmann as a wacko (I'm one of them, boundlessly entertaining as she is) but people still have to tolerate her unless she says something really outrageous that Huckabee and Romney can pin to her and use to isolate her even from the Tea Party-types. But she can't outright dismiss the fringe elements because they'll still have an effect on the Iowa caucuses, so she has to pretend that she really doesn't have an answer, either for or against them. In short, she has to lie to them until she gets elected (or re-elected), whereupon she can proceed to ignore them for 2 (or 4 or 6) years until the cycle begins anew.

The best part? They KNOW she's lying to them. They know it. They have to know it. They can't be rational human beings (and, believe me, in the case of people like Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, I'm using the broadest possible definition for "rational") and not know that she is lying to them. Without her directly responding to the above question with a "yes" or "no", they have to know she's lying. After all, the man who will be her political director for Iowa in 2012, essentially did just that.(linked because it's unlisted; wonder why?)

She has to lie. They have to accept that she's lying. Bachmann is a quantifiable nutjob who believes that communists are still hiding behind every corner (Hi!), is married to a "cured" homosexual who attempts to cure other homosexuals, and believes "the nuclear response" should still be on the table as a foreign policy plank, but those Family Leader guys are apparently still a little too 'out there' for her. But she will still ask for their support and they will still probably give it. That's how it works. They must accept the lies and they must not talk about the fact that they are lies, because that reveals how hypocritical both they and the system happen to be and no one wants to face that.

Almost no one is immune to this. The vast majority of Democrats (and non-Democrats) gladly lapped up the lies being spewed to them in 2008 by the current occupant of the White House. Many of them are vowing not to fall for his perfidious ways in 2012, by golly! But they will. He delivered what was nominally a budget speech today, but it sounded an awful lot like the opening campaign speech for the next cycle and, boy, did it sound all progessive-like! And most of the herd will spend the next year-and-a-half basking in the warm glow of the lies. To do otherwise would be to face harsh reality and only a few members do that. They stand on the edges of the group to absorb the cold wind and keep an eye out for anything too dastardly from the wolves, while the rest stay inside, listening to the noise of the leaders and thinking that things will be OK. Until they're not and then there will be a little outrage and wonder at how they could have let themselves believe in the lies which they knew to be lies.

That was the funniest part of the confirmation hearings for lukewarm moderate and corporate-loving Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan, last year. The Republicans got to make a little hay (sheep love hay...) over the fact that a younger Kagan had dismissed SC confirmation hearings as a "vapid and hollow charade". Of course they are. They're supposed to be! They give the sheep the impression that senators are watching out for their best interests by making lifetime appointments to the highest judicial body in the land with the idea that said people are going to be even-handed and interested in justice... provided, of course, that they attended Yale or Harvard, clerked in the right places, and know the right people. Since Kagan had absolutely no judicial career or published opinions of any merit whatsoever (except, you know, the one that called Senate hearings "vapid and hollow"), she was the perfect candidate to do an about-face and take the whole thing seriously. Everyone in the room knew that it was bullshit and yet everyone spoke about it in ominous tones more reflective of the signing of an armistice. It's a lie. Everyone knows it's a lie. But everyone swallows it just the same. Too much talking might lead to... turbulence. And no one wants that. Except us. Well, me, at least.


My dear friend, Leigh, left a comment last week asking what she could do in response to my rant about people tuning out of the process and I've been thinking about what to say since then. My response: I don't know. I honestly don't.

My initial reaction was: Well, I could set up a group on a couple social portals simply called "Revolt" and start trying to organize people for mass actions of some kind: general strikes, blocking streets, etc. with the express intent of disrupting and, eventually, trashing the system. But I've been there. Many times. No one else seems to carry the fervor or intensity that I do, so I end up doing things myself and burning out from lack of time or energy; the same things that are preventing a lot of other people from joining in, I assume. I don't begrudge people their lifestyles (well, most people, anyway) or how they choose to spend their time. It's not for me to do that, as I am neither ascetic nor saint. All I can do is sit here and rant about it and hope that someone responds.

Nation of sheep. Ruled by wolves. Owned by pigs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reactions and perceptions

I have a friend whose initial reaction to political questions or premises is that he is essentially apolitical. He doesn't like politics and doesn't identify with any of the mainstream political parties or ideologies. I, of course, am extremely political but likewise don't identify with any of the idiots currently running DC or their associated sycophants and hordes of mindless followers. I think that when he suggests that he doesn't like politics, it's more a case of being so disenchanted with the broken machine that passes for a political process in our country that his essential pragmatism doesn't allow him to tolerate the idea of engaging it for more than a few seconds, if that.

That mindset is, at root, the ideal situation for those currently running the system. The more disaffected and powerless the populace feels, the less likely they are to engage that system and its adherents who will then proceed to rule in the manner that they always have. In my friend's case, his is a slightly more educated approach in that he simply feels that he has better things to do (a tough opinion to argue against) but it boils down to the same situation: he's not even voting because he feels that the system is set up to fail at anything that he would like it to do. And he's right. It will fail, because what he'd most like it to do is change. The reason he wants that is because he's not part of the wealthy class that the system is designed to serve. Of course, it won't ever change unless people are willing to come to grips with it. Perhaps literally.

One reaction to my last post was a vaguely reproachful assertion that the wonderful people out doing wonderful things to change our not-so-wonderful world every day were worthy of more respect and appreciation than the criticism I was wielding. That may be true, but if what I said gets people to break out of their normal routine, get angry, and sit up and respond, whether against me or against the ruling class, so much the better. I'll take angry people lashing out at me and going out with redoubled effort to prove me wrong over people doing the same damn thing over and over and getting nowhere with it. I don't need to believe that people are wonderful in order to get by in the world. I don't get depressed by reading blatant assertions of perfidy like I was relating last time. I get frustrated that I have to say these things over and over until people finally stop and listen, but I don't need to believe the world or the people in it are wonderful. I don't carry a Hobbesian perspective, but I do carry a healthy dose of cynicism. Unlike the aforementioned friend, my cynicism doesn't lead to detachment, but rather to motivation. I'm not motivated by doing shiny, happy things with shiny, happy people. My happiness is not a question of import here. My inner sense of justice is. If you let my outright condemnation of our system and the frequently mild responses to its outrages depress you, then I feel sorry for you. What it should do is get you to think: about the system, about the people that own it, and about what you can do to stop them and wrest back control of your lives (and, yes, maybe even a little money); perhaps even in the words of brother Malcolm: "By any means necessary."

Am I suggesting violence as an answer? Maybe. I wish it hadn't come to that point, but it might have been inevitable, given any cursory examination of history. One certainly isn't going to draw hope from that reprobate announcing his reelection bid as some example of change you can really believe in this time. The owning class essentially spitting in the face of the public and its nominally regulating government calls for a lot more action than simply people in the streets. Of course, until there's enough mass behind the movement to keep those people who should be in the streets 24-7 fed and housed, things will have to proceed a bit more slowly. Dammit.


I've done this blogging thing a time or two before and it becomes difficult after a while, because I quickly become tired of my own voice saying the same things a second, third, fourth, and fiftieth time. I especially get tired of it when it seems to be me pissing into the ether with little response, even from those that I assume to be reading. That's part of why I veered off into other topics. It's not that I don't like communicating. On the contrary, it's probably one of my main motivations in life, despite my general distaste for trying to do it with the general public (dichotomy, remember?) As Steve Martin used to say: "I'm a comedian, so words are kinda my thing. Some people have a way with words. And other people... well... not have way, I guess."

I'm certainly not a comedian. I'm not even a politician anymore (although I used to play one on TV.) But the words are still there, so I spew them here. There's a certain symmetry to that, but I'll be damned if I know how to really define it.

On a side note, I wonder if there's anything to the fact that my acupuncturist's irrepressible daughter is named Maya, which means essentially "that" in Sanskrit and is a concept in various forms of Hinduism and Buddhism that is supposed to assist people in piercing the illusion that there is a difference between oneself and the universe entire. That perception of difference is often referred to as a false dichotomy.

Probably nothing, but this stuff occurs to me every once in a while.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Let's come to grips with reality

I spent some time last week in Madison, where the demonstrations and protests against the activities of governor Scott Walker continue apace. On the Saturday at which I was present, there were probably a good 40 or 50,000 people eventually gathered around the capitol. The Iraq Veterans Against the War led the march in to the capitol square, joined by strong contingents of both firefighters and police, even though their bargaining rights aren't impacted by the bill (they know they're next...) If one knows anything about the history of labor struggles in this or any other modern nation, it might be a bit disconcerting to see shirts proclaiming: "Cops for Labor." But if you have any sense of humor at all, you should be able to appreciate it, all the same.

The crowd frequently chanted the by-now old standby: "This is what democracy looks like!" and many signs reflected that same opinion in that form or another... all of which, of course, made me grit my teeth in frustration.

These protests are not a sign of 'democracy'. On the contrary, given that this legislation was voted upon by the majority of both houses of the Wisconsin legislature; and both of said houses are comprised largely of Republicans duly elected by the majority of Wisconsin citizens; and the legislation was signed by Wisconsin's equally duly elected governor, one could reasonably say that the legislation itself is what democracy looks like. This is what the state voted for: a collection of ideologues so immersed in their religion that Goldwater would be nauseated (and probably equally appalled at the waste of time and money the governor of Maine has expended in dealing with paintings he doesn't like.)

Standing up for one's rights is not an example of 'democracy'. Far from it; especially if one is referring to the bastardized system of government that the United States uses and likes to proclaim to the world as 'democracy'. As pedants will like to point out, the United States wasn't even intended to be a democracy. It was intended to be a republic. Of course, since most of the so-called Founding Fathers intended that the republic be based upon that same style of government employed by the Romans prior to Caesar, our government, like theirs, is no closer to being an actual republic than I am to being president. The average Roman citizen did not have a republic and neither do we.

We have an oligarchy.

Just like Rome, our government was owned originally by wealthy families. In the case of Rome, they called these clans 'patricians'. In our case, we called them 'plantation owners and titleholders in Britain.' In the case of Rome, when the people had finally had enough of hereditary clan rule, they revolted, most notably under the Brothers Gracchi, and were finally invited to share in some of the exercises of government. All that did, of course, was gain nominal representation for the average Roman in the form of the tribunes and invite wealthy plebeians to run the government alongside the wealthy patricians. Eventually both were owned by equally wealthy Greek, Italian, and Roman merchants and everything continued on in true oligarchic fashion. The same thing happened here, in that we often see hereditary exchange of office controlled by a few wealthy clans and they and others like them are often completely owned by merchants we now know as 'corporations'. In Rome, one bought oneself down the cursus honorum (military tribune to quaestor to aedile to praetor to consul and then possibly on to censor or provincial governor) by using other people's money whom you would then repay by granting rights of trade to areas or routes. In the US, you often perform the same journey: state officer to representative to senator to president or governor; all of it done with someone else's money whom you then repay with legislative or regulatory favors.

In ancient Rome, you had to do something pretty egregious or have made more than the usual assortment of enemies to get accosted for the open bribery that made the system function. No one walked the cursus without bribing people; often the voters themselves in their centuries. Same thing here.

We don't have a democracy. We don't have a republic. We have an oligarchy. And they own you. They own everyone. So, standing in the streets, protesting the actions of one's own elected officials, who freely engaged in the institutionalized bribery known as our electoral system, suggesting that what you're doing is an example of 'democracy' in action is very, very far from the truth, either real or imagined. The better concept to keep in mind is not democracy, since that's always been a somewhat questionable concept to begin with. As Isaac Asimov often complained:

"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

No, the better concept to keep in mind is justice. Justice is what we're talking about when we argue that the right of workers to bargain together is essential to their well-being. Justice is what we're talking about when we see people in the wealthiest nation in the world going without healthcare and those people that actually have access to it as a part of their employment are about to see it stripped away. Justice is what we're talking about when the living standard for the average employee, public or private, hasn't appreciably improved in four decades while the wealthiest have seen their income and assets skyrocket. Justice is the essence of tens of thousands in the streets, shouting their anger at the people who so boldly treat them as if they were expendable; as if their lives and their families didn't matter; as if their labor and time were something to be used and tossed away; as if they were... plebeians. And not wealthy ones, at that.

Don't talk to me about what democracy looks like, because I've never seen it in my lifetime and neither have you. Talk to me about justice. Talk to me about basic rights denied. Talk to me about equality. Talk to me about a wealthy class so grasping that hundreds of millions in "bonuses" remains not enough to satiate their desire. Talk to me about casting aside the corrupted system, as Jefferson suggested, and then I will join you in the streets every minute of every day. And then we will talk of revolution.

If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine. - Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Subconscious expression

I play a little WoW. It's no secret that science fiction and fantasy have been interests of mine since I can remember knowing about them. I was fascinated by things like Star Trek and the Lord of the Rings (which I read at age 7.) However, despite being a huge Blizzard fan and having spent days on end in front of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo (as I used to express to people in the Green party: I'm a peace activist who spends a considerable amount of time playing wargames.), I resisted World of Warcraft and MMOs in general for a long time. I just felt like I had too many other things going on and didn't really have the time to become absorbed in it.

However, a couple years ago, I had some time on my hands and figured I would download the demo and try it out. After playing off and on for a few days, I decided I'd give it a try for a few months, and I've pretty much persisted in that pattern: every couple days I'll get on and play for a couple hours. It's a cool distraction and there are a few other friends of mine who play about as much. In possible subconscious tribute to my environmental politics, my main is a shaman; a class that attempts to commune with the natural spirits of the world and act with them to preserve parts of it and change others. He's part of a race called tauren, whose culture is expressly modeled on that of Native Americans, which is a longstanding interest and probably another subconscious engagement (believe me, if there were a culture modeled on feudal Japan, I would have been all over it.)

My initial role with my shaman was one of offense. There are few things as enjoyable as strapping on a couple of fist weapons (cesti of fantastical proportions and design far beyond anything possibly imagined by the Romans) and whaling away on whatever enemy creatures happen to be within reach. However, there's an alternate talent spec on my shaman that is based solely on healing. I can't do much with it on my own, but I can join a group in 5-, 10-, or 25-person instances and keep them alive so that we accomplish larger goals than I could perform by myself. I'm sure you've heard this theme before...

So, I've fallen into the habit of healing more than anything else when I play. There are four more healing specs among the 9 other classes in the game and I have characters that perform each of those specs. As with a lot of games that I play, I've become interested in the methodology behind the systems and how they accomplish the same goal with different tools. I still find it somewhat odd because, at root, I'm not a healer type, as it were. My personality lends itself to problem-solving (often, uh, direct problem-solving) moreso than sympathy or nurturing; both of which are often associated with the idea of healing. Furthermore, I'm more prone to playing the leadership role in a lot of my activities, which in the game would equate to tanking, not healing.

But I've begun to wonder if the healing approach is instead a substitute for the pursuit of group activity. While groups in the game can't function without a tank, they are equally unable to function without a healer (delving deeper, one realizes that without competent DPS (Damage Per Second) people, it's often difficult to succeed, as well.) However, the healer strikes me as the one that sustains the group as a whole. While the tank is needed to progress, there are many situations in which the group as a whole will be hindered (i.e. getting killed) even if the tank is doing his/her job properly. What gets them past those hindrances is usually the healer. Am I acting out my desire for achieving goals as part of a group/family/society?

There's no denying that I've been part of any number of ventures (personal, professional, political) in which progress has been halted by the lack of enthusiasm of those around me. I can remember any number of times when I was still ready to struggle ahead and everyone else seemed to find better things to do and left me holding the bag or, at the very least, stranded with the remainder whom were either indolent or motivated for narrow reasons, if not both. I've tried to start any number of projects that essentially depended on the participation of others which never came to fruition because my enthusiasm was always greater than everyone else's. So now I find myself enthralled by a game role which requires the presence of others.

The game can be played alone. Despite its appellation as a massively multi-player game, there are many who, in fact, prefer to solo it. One can quest and progress alone as a tank or DPS. It's far more difficult to do so as a healer. So, if one heals, one groups.

Thus we come back to one of our essential dichotomies: anyone who knows me realizes that I'm not overly fond of people and can lose my patience or become bored with most in a very short time. And, yet, the majority of what I enjoy involves other people to an often extraordinary degree: politics, games, even aikido. The latter is nominally a defensive art and perfecting the form requires uke (the person being thrown) to absorb the energy of shi'ite in a manner both protective of himself and in an understanding of the form. In other words, it's really difficult to practice the form alone; even (perhaps especially) the jo katas. You need someone else to exchange energy with.

Logically, one can't fail to see that there are any number of goals that will only be accomplished with the strength of many. Logically, there will have to be some spirit of cooperation amongst the people in order to make progress. Logically, people are going to have to be willing to tolerate either others' company or be reduced to factionalism before the goal is even approached. This is where logic clashes with reality and Ambrose Bierce's example of the post holes comes to mind.

So, here I am, seemingly naturally inclined to solitude, yet driven to participate with others in most of the things that I still enjoy (many of which are, admittedly, fading fast these days.) Am I a socialist at heart or just projecting onto an inclination for human contact, despite recoiling from the majority of it?

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me (not of the same blood an seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with one another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism. - Marcus Aurelius, Mediations, II.
 Still working on it.