Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Malefactors of Great Wealth

" Too much cannot be said against the men of wealth who
sacrifice everything to getting wealth. There is not in
the world a more ignoble character than the mere
money-getting American, insensible to every duty,
regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a
fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest
uses —whether these uses be to speculate in stocks and
wreck railroads himself, or to allow his son to lead a
life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross
debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high
social position, foreign or native, for his daughter. Such
a man is only the more dangerous if he occasionally
does some deed like founding a college or endowing a
church, which makes those good people who are also
foolish forget his real iniquity. These men are equally
careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and
of the State, whose existence they imperil. There are
not very many of them, but there is a very great number
of men who approach more or less closely to the type,
and, just in so far as they do so approach, they are
curses to the country.”

Theodore Roosevelt. February, 1895


have been having a continuing dialogue with some Republican friends of mine, ardent defenders of our capitalist system.  And so they should be.  It is a system that has provided, all throughout the 20th century, a nation with probably the grandest middle class and the greatest lifestyle the world has ever known.  But that lifestyle was not easily won, and is now again under threat by individuals and corporations not unlike the description voiced above by, can you imagine, a Republican President of the United States, who must now, by even the narrowest stretch of any imagination, be spinning in his proverbial grave.

These Republican gentlemen, having achieved considerable wealth on their own or by whatever device, now strain mightily to justify their unimaginable insensitivity to the problematic society in which we now live.  One of them said that he wished he had an airplane, four homes instead of two, and other needless accoutrements of decadence.  I have no problem with that, because he did not achieve it at the expense of the poor.  However, such a mentality enables a “scorched earth” policy and a sanctioning of Congressional refuseniks who have been purchased by lobbyists to protect governmental subsidies of banking, corn, oil, and other interests too numerous to catalog in this meager column.

We now live in a country that no longer has a growing middle class. The American dream has, through a darkly lit tunnel, departed the station. We live in a country that is increasingly plutocratic, where those inhabiting the strata of the upper one percent control more of the wealth than ever before.  The figures, staggering and depressing,  advanced by a party that has lost its moral compass, looms as a guillotine over the heads of working people who have lost their homes, been evicted in the street, cannot afford health care, and can no longer buy food. Forty six million Americans are now living in poverty.  People are taking to the streets.

Nightly news shows a litany of neighborhoods, such as in Cleveland, where Cuyuhoga county has decided that abandoned homes should be demolished, rather than bring lower the homes of those people who, either conscientiously or stupidly, make mortgage payments to banks that will not readjust their financing, even though they are “under water.”  These souls, representing the essential staunch character of the American middle class, choose to stay in homes valued at $50,000 carrying $100,000 mortgages.  They are faced with banks, which would choose to foreclose, evict and leave the home vacant, subject to scavengers and vandals thereby depreciating the entire neighborhood rather than adjust the financing based upon their diminished value since the housing bubble burst.  

Of course, banks are in the business of making a profit.  But in times like these, does it not make more sense for a bank to collect a lower payment rather than no payment at all? And with no one to whom the house may be sold?  These are the same banks, bailed out by taxpayer dollars, too big to fail, that are sitting on hoards of cash and are refusing to lend any money.  These are the same banks (Bank of America/Countrywide) that faces Justice Department fines that it charged African-Americans a higher interest rate than whites, purely based on race.  

The Bank of America's Countrywide Mortgage was required today to pay $335 million in fines for discriminating against Black and Latinos who were steered to higher interest rates than white borrowers.   Anthony Monzillo, the CEO of Countrywide earned $531 million during 2003-2008 based upon his misdeeds. This criminal has, to date, escaped prosecution. Countrywide did about 49% of all adjustable rate mortgages in the U.S. in 2008 and engaged in systemic fraud.

Republican politicians should fear the next election.  People are now aware that they have been hoodwinked by a congress that is not responsive to the needs of its people and are dedicated solely to obstruct the present inhabitant of the White House, who, despite all his faults, including timidity, some pandering, some absence of courage to confront obstructionists, and who, may in this election year, find some way to bring a message to the people that their cause will not remain hijacked.  Hijacked by the Malefactors of great wealth.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Miscellanea, November 2011 and the Religion of College Football

Miscellanea, November, 2011

I had written earlier about the Presidential debate format being changed to tête-a tête between the candidates.  I was wrong.

The Republican debates have served a useful purpose, by showcasing the empty suits of most of the candidates, and by highlighting Mitt Romney’s stronger appeal to the general electorate.  In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

Rick Perry’s gaffe about abolishing government departments and then not remembering which one he was going to axe, is not really the important point.  It was his lack of a policy understanding and a failure to prepare and be acquainted with policy positions rather than memorizing positions coming from his handlers’ talking point memos.   His authenticity quotient swan dove into a media hurricane.  Memories often fail when there is only rote memory of the thoughts behind the statement.  That is why he could not remember.




"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Comments on the Religion of college football.

I cannot remember reading anything as loathsome as the Penn State football coach scandal except the ongoing priestly scandals plaguing Catholicism. The idea that men entrusted with the welfare and the education of children could be so callous and even depraved is unimaginable. The idea that football is a more important enterprise than the educational establishment to which it is wedded is evocative of the Catholic Church’s placing its hierarchical power structure before the interests of children, and the shuffling about of pedophilic priests to avoid responsibility for repulsive grotesqueries that would make even the most perverse Hollywood directors blush.  You could not make a horror film on this subject.  There is no film rating for this.  It is just another life destroying mechanism that people will remember, like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, without the bombs and explosions.

That is what the coaching staff including the legendary (now, in my opinion, disgraced) Joe Paterno as well as the sacked president of the University did, placing the University’s $76 million revenue machine ahead of the children whose lives have now been scarred  by a monster.

The siege mentality of the Penn State football staff—them against us, the lack of transparency, the para-military discipline  that robs young men of their dignity, sublimating their individuality to the team and that subjects their bodies to indentured battering in the name of an academic institution, has escorted our society to a new low of moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  The fact that college football players are encouraged to take courses that do not demand much study, so they can devote their time to playing football is another indication of why our country is falling behind nations that prefer educating their studentry instead of head bashing them.  Most of these misguided souls will not play professionally, and then when they graduate, if at all, they will not be trained in the skills necessary to succeed in an exponentially growing meritocracy.  The origins of college football have been distorted and corrupted beyond all recognition. A game that began as an amateur pastime has lost its compass and the Penn State scandal is just another example of the decay, the rotting corpse of American big college football academia.

How much Coach Paterno knew, as well as his staff and the higher ups knew, will now be subject to the harsh scrutiny of the courts, both criminal and later, civil.  Those who decry the legal system will now see it seek justice once again for those who could not protect themselves.

May the wheels of justice grind exceedingly fine.




Monday, October 17, 2011

Our Floundering Ship of State


O Ship of State
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er
our fears,
Are all with thee, -are all with thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

         It is inconceivable that the President Obama has, during the last three months, raised about $70 million for his current reelection campaign.  The election is more than a year away!  The Republicans will be obliged to raise similar amounts of money for their campaigns.  We are talking about estimates as high as a billion dollars between the two parties that could be better utilized for more constructive purposes than advertising, negative campaign ads, denigrating other candidates, and waterboarding the hapless television viewer.



          There is something inherently wrong, something improvident about this cumbersome, agonizing process.  It is destructive to our polity.  It should not take so long, be so divisive, or be so expensive to run for office.  It was not always so.   There are more efficient ways to elect a leader and many more useful ways to spend money.  Perhaps the old way of political parties picking the candidates in nominating conventions was better.        



          Less democratic, perhaps, but more efficient, and perhaps more productive of good candidates like Roosevelt, Truman, Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, to name a few. 



          A year ago I wrote that I was grateful that the 2010 congressional and senatorial campaign was over. But wait! Now we are obliged to listen for another year to candidates for the Presidency in an essentially perpetual campaign.   We cannot afford a perpetual campaign, diverting resources from the actual governance of the nation.  A process that is devoted for years on end to divisiveness is a self fulfilling enterprise, a destructive song without end.  The very length of the campaign is productive of even more divisiveness, not the cohesiveness we now so sorely need as a national goal to get us through the great economic global crisis in which we now lie, almost like a tortoise on its proverbial back, helplessly unable to right itself, ready to be devoured by predators.



          Candidates, questioned by journalists about all manner of irrelevancies, including whether that candidate is a true follower of Jesus, Brigham Young, Mohammad, or is a true Christian. Who really cares if Mormons believed golden plates of Jesus were in New York and they moved to Missouri?  Who cares if Jesus ascended to heaven on a cloud?  What difference does it make that fundamentalist Christians pronounce fitness for office on how “Christian” a candidate is? These are not questions that should be asked of candidates. How deep and abiding faith guides a candidate is not the issue.  Religion and government do not mix.  Any candidate, who wishes to force upon the public social issues such as abortion, should be asked whether they also believe that putting people to death is contradictory to that premise.  Why is our dialog so rudimentary, so infantile, and so juvenile in its exercise?  What is it in the American vernacular that has happened to stunt our intellectual growth as an electorate?



          The inanity of it all is a stupefying indictment of either the lack of intelligence of the voter or of the politicians or more likely, both.



          Why do we need Wolf Blitzer and Chris Wallace to moderate debates? Why do we need any moderators at all?  The idea of Michelle Bachman giving a straight answer to anything other than how much she is guided by her faith is so fantastical as to strain the imagination of J.K. Rowling. Mitt Romney, a homogenized, blow-dried, fabric softened mannequin, is now vying with the pizza man for front runnership.    The “debates” are farcical, nincompoop enterprises, offering only a modicum of insight into who these people really are.



          And the President, although disappointing, will probably get another term after all is said and done, given his less than courageous posture in standing up to a Republican party that has been taken over by social ideologues, who deny science, climate change, evolution, stem-cell research, instead harping on piety, religiosity and “values.”



          Our political and electoral system is a broken, rusty, creaking locomotive, chugging up a hill that steepens every year, hampered by global competition, economic challenges, and countries which select their Prime ministers in 6 week campaigns from start to finish.



          The Electoral College is an anachronism. Its origins, based upon state’s rights, disenfranchised women, slaves, and rural communities is in need of serious reform. We need direct popular election of the President, a dramatically shortened campaign, and a congress that remains in Washington, seeing to the business of governance, not partisanship driven by vote getting.



          Billions spent to elect candidates and a rational discussion of the issues confronting the country, do not need years of campaigning.  

         

          Debates should be discussions among the candidates themselves, not howling, applauding audience extravaganzas on Fox and CNN.  The discussions should include follow up questions, follow ups to the follow ups and not be a continuum of handler-generated sound bites.



          People should understand that there should be a depth of knowledge generated by the discussion and a revelation (forgive the expression) of what these people are actually thinking and, more importantly, what they actually know.










Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Another Depressing Presidential Campaign is Underway


“Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.”

“The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.”



Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)



Recently, some thoughtful friends of mine have been writing about how the personalities of Presidential candidates and their individual world view are not really crucial to the process of how they manage the economy.  These friends equate the economy with all the reasons to elect a candidate.  I suppose this is a rationalization of how to support a Texas top gun like Rick Perry or a crazy woman like Michelle Bachmann whose primitive social instincts are fantastically out of touch with the 21st century. The economy is important, of course, but there are other issues that trouble people, including  a woman’s right to choose, birth control, education, a safety net for our citizens, and the government’s ability to create infrastructure and an environment in which people can live in safety.

Of course, economic policy is an adjunct to this, but it is not the sole thing. 

I guess my perspective is different: I believe that the socio-religious-anti-science zealotry of some of the candidates, especially on the Republican side of the aisle that unctuously panders to the religious right is a disingenuous manifestation of  a hypocritical vote solicitation-at-any-cost mantra. And when President Obama also does the same thing, “may God bless the United States of America,” at the end of every speech, he is no less obsequious.   Earlier presidents did not need to wear flag pins or make ubiquitous and gratuitous religious references in order to please the voting public.  Abraham Lincoln’s references to God were not done as a matter of course at the end of every speech. And certainly Thomas Jefferson did not do so.

I understand the perhaps human genetic need to believe in a supernatural force to provide social cohesion and an ability to war against other tribes, but why must it be a prerequisite to garner votes?  Why must every speech be an appeal to piety?  Are not Muslim fundamentalists the same as Jewish fundamentalists or the Catholic Church in their a priori discounting of other faiths, claiming their faith is the exclusive path to salvation?

At least the Catholic Church is somewhat consistent: no birth control, no capital punishment, and no abortion.  But its hypocritical and certainly not biblical 16th century calls to celibacy among priests so that the church could perpetuate its property and estates are no indication of godliness.  And there is a cogent argument that the celibacy requirement attracts sexually abusive individuals to its ranks.   The Catholic religious hierarchy continues to mystify me.

Why is the American public so ostensibly pious?  Europeans have already moved away from state religions, but in the United States, there is an almost secular state religion, an unintended consequence stemming from the tolerance set forth in the Constitution.  The entire fringe religious fundamentalism in this country has a cult-like tenor to it, an irrationality that is almost indecipherable yet understandable at the same time.  I think the candidates should be extensively questioned about whether they expect to govern by divine revelation.  Michelle Bachmann has been particularly adept at dodging that question.   George W. Bush, born again, took us into two wars costing trillions of dollars, which history has borne out to be unnecessary, given recent events in the Middle East. 

I still remember the Republican debate in 2008 when the candidates were asked if they believe in the theory of evolution and all raised their hands in the negative. That question should be put to the candidates again.

At the same time, the ideological, proto-religious aspect of the economic arguments presented today is undeniable.  On the right are the zealots who want to remove government from the economic process, yet wish to include it in the social agenda.   Do not abort the child, but once it is born unwanted, abandoned, and neglected, let it inhabit the lower depths of a Dickensian untervelt of deprivation, ignorance and poverty. 

America must find a rational alternative to this mind numbing debate:  Moving beyond piety in its political dialogue, whether it be a religious or dogmatic view of economic solutions or its misappropriated social creed of imposing religious education and its anti science dogma in the public schools.

Focusing on the solutions to our social problems through ideology is neither productive nor encouraging of solutions. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Polarization in Washington and an Increasingly Dysfunctional Government.





The Tea Party, a misnomer from the start, is, it seems, a yearning to return to what it perceives as an America of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is a faction of disenchanted, negative people who believe that government should be highly limited, a sort of return to the days when people lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, and needed no help from anyone.  Days when people lived in log cabins, worked on agrarian lands, and tilled the soil. Those who inhabited the cities lived either in poverty or in monumental wealth. The days when the United States Constitution, a venerable document, perpetuated freedom of religion, non-voting women and, of course, that amazing gift to America—the institution of Slavery, which culminated in a Civil War, killing about 600,000 Americans.  After the Civil War, the gilded age and the industrial revolution produced the beginnings of the middle class and a claque of millionaires and Robber Barons. Those good old days were not so good.  But people “worked mighty hard for mighty little pay,” and understood no one was going to give them a handout.  Along came the labor movement, strikes, and a progressive government that broke the trusts, thanks to Theodore Roosevelt.  It was not an easy battle.  But it was the beginning of a safety net for its citizens, and an attempt at hybridizing a partnership between government and laissez-faire capitalism.  It was the beginning of a just society.

We are no longer that country.  We have regressed. We are a nation of putatively entitled illiterates, a nation that does not understand its own history, and of politicians who barely understand the complexity of the issues that are overwhelming them.  We are a nation with exponentially increasing disparity between rich and poor.  Politicians hew to the call of CNN, Fox News, and a strident, brainless debate, taking positions that are not moderate or well thought out. Our government seems dysfunctional because it does not know how to cope with what may be increasingly an ungovernable situation.

I admire the optimism of those who think we are going to innovate and rise to the occasion.  But I wonder.

Now we are engaged in a cultural and economic war, a war promulgated by a coterie of privileged corporations, their corrupt lobbyists, and “job creators,” who, the Republican party now believe, will restore our shattered economy through not having to pay more taxes and by shutting down the court system (so called tort reform) cutting social programs, education, pensions, social security, breaking labor unions, and lowering taxes.  Tea partiers believe that more jobs will come out of favoring those who will invest if their taxes are lower and are not held to accountability by the law.

Different economic schools of thought cannot agree on whether to tax less spend less or to tax more, spend more on infrastructure and technology.  Business might call this investment or capital expenditure.  Make no mistake.  The debate is more religious and ideologic, and while economists are a valuable resource to tell us what went wrong, they do not seem to be able to predict the future.  What most economists do agree upon, however, is that it will take a partnership between government and free markets to perpetuate stability and a climate for innovation and investment.  It has always been so and a dynamic market economy needs structure and regulation as well as a safety net for its citizenry.  A centrist view of governance has always been America’s strength.

The problem is that we are no longer an agrarian or even an industrial economy.  We are a post-industrial economy, with less ability to compete because of rising illiteracy, sloth, and a fundamental denial of what is happening beyond and within our borders.  We are turning away educated immigrants, and exporting jobs overseas, because there is no one here to do them and because people in more ambitious countries are willing to work harder for less, are more skillful and better educated.  A return to the American century (the 20th) is not at all likely. American Exceptionalism?   We are withering in a sea of internal discord, rancor and disparity between rich and poor.  The middle class, built through years of struggle and reform, if not already vanished, is clearly more ethereal.

On top of all that, we have leaders who do not seem to be able to rise to the occasion.  Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have anyone who is able to capture the imagination of the people, to motivate them, to seize the moment.  The President seems a capable, intellectual pedant who is afraid to be branded an angry black man, so he tries to compromise and form a consensus that becomes more and more illusory.  The Speaker of the House is a political hack that caters to his Tea Party minions with a revolting unctuousness—a disingenuousness that is so obvious it is shocking.

Harry Truman we need you now.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rites of Tribal Initiation: 2011

Jews, have for millennia, circumcised their male offspring as a ticket to entry into the
Tribe.  Hitler’s minions, as a means of identification of male Jews, caused men to drop their pants in order to determine who should live and who should be gassed, tortured, or otherwise exterminated.Under those circumstances, it became more difficult for male Jews to escape doom and certainly argued against the procedure.

A friend of mine, a Rabbi, recently wrote an incensed article about what he termed an anti-Semitic tract, “Foreskin Man,” (www.kurtstone.typepad.com) which condemned circumcision and seeks to introduce a law criminalizing the practice. Aside from all the medical controversy, the differentiation between male circumcision and female genital mutilation seems, for me, a difficult distinction to make.   Both procedures attack the genitalia of the victim.


Arguments that males benefit from the procedure and are less susceptible to sexually
transmitted diseases do not really address the moral issues of the rights of an infant who is unable to consent to the procedure and must suffer the consequences of the decision of his parents who are usually religiously, not medically, motivated. On the other hand, waiting until one is 16 or even 18 renders the procedure painful and usually not done. This even though there is evidence that there is a reduction in urinary tract infections as well as a reduction in the incidence in penile cancer.


Recently the British Medical Association pointed to medical and psychological risks of
the procedure, including anxieties, anger and even attempts of those circumcised to restore their foreskins.  Some courts in Europe have declared the procedure illegal.


There has also been evidence that sexual sensation is diminished because the glans of
the penis is desensitized.  However, there is evidence to the contrary that no loss of sexual sensation occurs.  There is no doubt, however, that there can be medical complications, including, among other consequences, fistulas, cysts, necrosis, and ulceration.


One thing is sure: there is little doubt that circumcision arose as a tribal rite and a methodology, according to Maimonides, to control male sexuality.   There seems to be an increasing consensus among medical societies that male circumcision “should not be routinely performed.”


What is clear is that it is a primitive practice, and rationales by religious people
have been carefully crafted to justify its perpetuation.  Many Jewish parents decide to do it so that their children are not singled out for having a “different penis” in the locker
room. (With no disrespect intended to recently tweeting Jewish congressmen.)


I have no answer to this conundrum.  On the one hand, it is an accepted and routinely practiced custom.  On the other, it is a form of genital mutilation, and when practiced on females, universally and rightly abhorred.


Whether the group currently promoting Elders of Zion caricatures of Jews who circumcise and Aryan looking anti circumcision claques who oppose it are evilly motivated are marginal to the issues of whether the practice remains morally or medically justifiable.  The growing professional opinion seems to be against it.


And, if one is religious, even devoutly so, and believes that Man is created in God’s
image, why the necessity to improve on God’s creation?  If one is not religious, would not Darwinian natural selection have eliminated foreskins by now anyway?


















Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is Religion the bête noir of Humanity?

I just finished a book by Sam Harris, “The End of Faith.”
 
 
A disturbing analysis of religion and theology, the book’s focus carries forth a recurring theme of the intolerance generated by all religions, and even sharply criticizes religious moderates.  Traditional thinking had always been that religious moderation is an acceptable alternative to religious extremism.  Not so, avers Harris, reasoning that religious moderation fosters a climate of acceptance of religious extremism.  The acceptance of any religion, ergo, a priori allows an implicit acceptance of the most extreme forms of faith.
 
In a coolly rational discourse, Harris especially derides Islam, the conversion from which carries the penalty of death. Islam also tolerates the subjugation of women, honor killings, beheadings and suicide
bombers; the idea that so sexually repressive a religion offers however many virgins in paradise as a reward for acts of grotesque terrorism speak to its ultimate abandonment of goodness.  The idea that in the 21st century such a belief system can be food for any serious rational thought befuddles him.
 
He is no less forgiving of Catholicism, and refers to the Lateran council of 1252 which punished the Jews by removing them from society’s grace, promulgating thousands of years of anti-Semitism, including the blood libel, exploring a gruesome litany of disembowelments, heretic-burnings, rakings,
witch-huntings and other nauseating acts of religious fervor, ultimately leading to the Holocaust.  Fortunately, he says, the church abandoned such procedures, but not until the early 18th century and not before the seeds of the whirlwind had been sown.
 
Jews receive little less effusive acid pen treatment.   Jewish fundamentalists cling to the anachronistic, bronze-age railings of the book of Leviticus, which Harris maintains is an exercise in the misogynistic demands of a paranoid God, who demands complete thoughtless subservience. He calls rigid adherence to primitive dietary laws and circumcision a paradigm of tribalism.  Differences among the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine/Israel are still fueled by cultural differences and religious dichotomy, with fundamentalists on both sides stirring a witch’s brew of racism, terrorism, hatred and death.
 
He relegates theology to a non-science and does not even accord it philosophical heft, since he views religion as an evil in the world which denies people the essence of their humanity, the understanding that people do good things because of their own ethical code, giving the example of monkeys
and other species protecting their young.  Religion is not at all needed to produce morality.   He defines love as a concern for other’s happiness and the placement of those values on a level with one’s own well being, without the necessity of priestly or clerical intercession.
 
This, says Harris, is the new ethic to which we should all aspire, an ethic that needs no class of priests to stand between ourselves and our reason or our humanity.  In discounting the belief of others by virtue of “faith,” we automatically discount the “faith” of others.
In my discussions with others about these undertakings, I have always encountered resistance and reluctance for the faithful to not abandon their sense of reason.  The reaction is “I am not educated enough to talk to you about this,” or “I do not wish to discuss it.”
People who are content to use reason during the week somehow feel free to abandon their sense of reason on Sunday, or Saturday.  
 
Why?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Mideast in Turmoil II

“All War represents a failure of diplomacy.” Tony Benn

Now that the Middle East has been rocked by the latest wave of freedom-seeking, it is interesting to speculate about how little influence we have over what may happen to us. Hosni Mubarak certainly did not. Surely he did not expect to leave office under the circumstances he did. Muammar Gaddafi, the murderous, insane leader of Libya is killing with impunity as the West looks on in a state of befuddlement, the punditry voicing a confused mixture of morality, pragmatism, and logistical analysis.

Nothing has really changed in our western, oil-addicted psyche. Washington politicians are ringing their hands about the “potential slaughter” of innocents, but what they are really thinking about is the same conundrum that has plagued them all along. Will pubescent Arab freedom choke off the world’s supply of oil and will the countries not yet in crisis be able to sustain the increased production necessary to alleviate the strangulating effect of oil shortages on the economic recovery in America and in the rest of its energy-seeking competitors?

Jeff Greenfield, the political analyst and former Presidential speechwriter, has a new book out that hypothesizes about how twists of fate turn the tide of history. The assassination of JFK, for example. Or the fact that a plot to truck dynamite the new President was foiled in December of 1960 because the assassin did not want his family to be involved when Jackie came to the door of their residence. Not wanting to kill the young President’s family led to a delay in the plot allowing the FBI time to foil it. This little known fact reveals how tenuous political and human fortunes are. A slight change of circumstance, a different leader here and there, matters over which even the most prescient leader has little or no control. The randomness of events, play out at the highest levels of government, potentially plunging the world into ever deepening chaos.

Should we do no fly zones in Libya ? Should we have fought in Viet-Nam? Was the removal of Saddam Hussein, empowering the Iranians helpful? Do nations enter wars with inadequate information and are decisions made with poor information, and impulsively misguided leaders? Of course. Decisions rendered in haste are often wrong, but sometimes they are correct. How can so imperfect an operation as government and its leadership really be trusted? Well, in fact, it cannot. Nathan Detroit is rolling the dice.

It is very easy to forget the threat of the Soviet Union, an imploded, decrepit economic house of cards, despite having projected enormous military power perpetuating its own empire, threatening Europe, Asia and the United States. How, in retrospect, could we have considered the threat so daunting? During the post World War II years and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, we lived in fear of a Communist takeover of the world. As schoolchildren we hid under our wooden desks, to protect us from a nuclear Armageddon. Others averred: had we not stood up to the nightmarish Leviathan, we would all be Russian vassals.
What really are the lessons of history? What can impel us to make the right decisions? Thoughtfulness, prudence, and reflection? The very qualities the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has have caused those critical of him to say he is vacillating, indecisive, and too cautious.  George W. Bush was the contrary, embroiling us in two wars, killing thousands, neither of which bloody conflict has really proven its value. Mr. Truman, on the other hand, through courage and decisiveness, prevented North Korean domination of the South, allowing democracy and economic independence to thrive.

The questions of which wars are good wars and which are not remain unanswered.
They probably never will be.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mideast in Turmoil.



Events in Egypt still bode uncertain for the West. The fluidity of the situation, now partially determined, has the scent of a youthful, computer-generated revolution, its forces young, vigorous and dynamic, the scenes in the streets of Cairo evoking tableaux of freedom-loving birds learning to fly.

The tired, corrupt government ministers who tried to blame “external influences” for their increasingly precarious grip had averred anarchy and chaos, the classically demagogic response to the change that threatened their grip on puissance.
This, of course, was the manipulative tool of corrupted political forces and is not a new phenomenon from a historical perspective. Every dictator has, to a greater or lesser extent, utilized this fear to perpetuate their own power. The difference is that this time, it failed. Fear and terror lost to a burgeoning aroma of freedom.

We do not now know how this situation will play out. Will the revolution in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East wind up in the hands of Islamic extremists? Will western-influenced youth attain power through some leader who will not become an autocrat? Will a military strongman or fundamentalist Islamists stifle the democratic instincts of the people? Will the reigns of power corrupt whomever it embraces? Will Israel be threatened or find itself at war with the newer forces which might dominate the Arab world? Many other questions still remain unanswered.

In the 1960s, the United Arab Republic was a brief, ill-fated union between Egypt and Syria, which only lasted 2½ years, a paradigm of Arab disunity, almost like the scene in the tent from Lawrence of Arabia when Anthony Quinn entered and demonstrated how the feuding tribes could not hook up, even under British rule. Western attempts to amalgamate Arab countries into one monolith have always been a huge mistake. Too many tribes and nationalities, many of which cannot even agree on who is the scion of Mohammed, offer very little unifying potential. The Egyptians do not now, it seems, wish to reject the 30-year peace treaty with Israel. Nor do they seem to be flying to an Iranian smoke signal, Shia-Sunni Arab-Persian discrepancies momentously militating against that frightful result.

Interestingly and to his credit, John Boehner, on “Meet the Press,” stated that the President had handled the crisis about as well as he could have. A very risky statement, indeed, from the man who must pacify his tea party minions. Governing is far more difficult and complicated than simply leading the opposition.

The lessons taught by attempting governance will face the naifs in the freedom-seeking throngs in Egypt and in whatever other country is next to join them in a quest for democracy. Without a constitutional heritage and institutional foundations of democracy, it will be arduous. Have Facebook and Twitter replaced Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine and John Adams in Founding Fatherdom?

We are living in exciting, exhilarating times.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Decline of Richesse.



“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961



A Republican friend of mine, whom I respect greatly for his intellect as well as his congeniality, recently opined that the Democratic propensity is to hate the military. This notion of a Democratic antipathy to the armed forces is supported by his assertion that the military vote ten to one for Republicans. Perhaps they do, although I have not checked the accuracy of that assertion, but it is a misconception that Democrats hate the soldiers, most of whom are volunteers for a duty others will not do. Today’s military is composed of an elite career officer corps and enlisted men who volunteer, often with the idea that service to their country is noble, sometimes because they are escaping poverty, and often for a secure, structured environment. Many of the volunteers are very young, and have not yet learned of the horror of war. George W. Bush, who himself avoided combat, had very little compunction in embroiling our country in two disastrous wars that still have not proven their value.

The fact that these gladiators are supported by war profiteers and legislators both from the Republican and Democratic parties, makes them no less victimized by the illusion that the United States is responsible for making the world safe from rogue governments that spring up around the globe or other threats from amorphous terrorists.

These “threats” supposedly justify a $700 billion defense budget, when we as a nation are struggling with underfunded schools, decrepit highways, and a 19th century rail system.
This idea of an American colossus, a dynamic hegemonic enterprise straddling the globe has vanished with our manufacturing base, a decaying rust belt of post industrial cities, inhabited by the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed.

The present Republican leadership believes that fewer taxes on their corporate benefactors will revive our flagging economy, and are busy selling the notion that all Americans will benefit from more jobs created by the effect of the long-discredited “trickle-down” theory. Democrats believe that the government should invest more, publicly fund research, invest in infrastructure and modestly raise taxes to do so. Somewhere between these two increasingly polarized positions should be a solution.

One thing is certain—the United States has neither the economic wherewithal nor the moral ability to police the world. Drunk on oil, hypocritically pious and in hoc, it now must co-exist in an increasingly hostile and threatening world. Faster jet planes and more expensive aircraft carriers are no longer the basis for projecting power. We need to turn inwardly strong. More education, better teachers, faster rail, better research, and energy independence—that is where we should be looking. Congressmen up for sale to defense contractors need to be put on notice that playing on the fears of their constituents will no longer get them reelected.

One would hope that the H.L. Mencken was wrong when he said that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” So far, unfortunately, he has been right.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Religion in the 21st Century





“In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson



Religion, it seems, has not done playing its hand in the affairs of mortals, who, despite accumulating scientific evidence, continue to believe in whatever divinities are comforting to their concept of human existence.

Because of this hope, men strive to gain some illusory reward after they die, including, but not limited to 73 virgins, floating upon a heavenly cloud, life in a virtual paradise, or whatever other notion they can conjure up. Because man is the only beast who knows that he will die, the other products of evolution are not beholding to a religious undertaking or to nature. Lions, for example, feel no remorse when they devour their prey. Snakes do not wilt when they poisonously bite their victims, porpoises do not tarry when they gulp their fish repast.



Man, obsessed with death, believes that if he lives according to the dogma of the church, mosque or synagogue that he will be somehow rewarded in perpetuity. He prays, fasts, renders beseechments, wails, moans, kneels prostrate and goes to confession. He does good turns not for the good in the deed itself, but for the promise of some unearthly reward. This actually diminishes the goodness of the deed, for the deed should, if honestly performed, should be reward enough in and of itself.



In the name of religion, men have killed, maimed, tortured, burned at the stake, and brutalized his fellows. In the name of religion, theocracies and true believers threaten the annihilation of other nations and seek nuclear bombs to do so. Only recently has religious dogma allowed for some toleration of the beliefs of others, mostly as a reaction to the information age and the holocaust. First, the holocaust erased institutional (but not all) anti-Semitism in the west, and second, the general diminution of misinformation that had been generated about contrary belief systems. People are exposed to the ways, in a global environment, of others. Ergo, they are less ignorant. Much of this has happened through the rise of television and of the movies, since many younger people do not read books or even newspapers. Even still, the institutional Church of Rome denies basic human sexuality and the need of men for love, fostering a class of prelate who is frustrated and unfulfilled, propelling them toward abuse and depredation.



Religious fundamentalists, including Hasidim, Islamists, Orthodox Jews, still indoctrinate their children with worthless, anachronistic dogma, dietary laws and fasts. They deny the right to marriage outside their respective faiths, they stone those who violate the Sabbath and who do not obey the precepts of their religion. Islamists execute adulterers and lop off the hands of petty thieves. They degrade and debase women as inferior beings. True believers inculcate in their children a credo that there is something worthwhile in praying to a god who has not the power to change anything on earth, and if he did, should shoulder the blame for the evil that men do, ostensibly in his name. The only thing that occurs as a result of this “educational” enterprise is hysteria and fear among those who have not been taught realistically to deal with the vicissitudes of life, other than doing dances, praying to the spirits, almost like the primitive souls lost and seeking comfort in the African Savannah, 50,000 years ago.