Asterisk Morality

 

Morality with an asterisk differs from hypocrisy in that people engaging in it apply double standards to third parties, and not necessarily to themselves. For instance, when the Reverend Franklin Graham recently called on Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to repent for his homosexuality, which the Rev. Graham claims is a sin according to the Bible, he appears to have ignored sinning on the part of his favored politician, the current president, who numbers serial adultery among his transgressions. That is asterisk morality.

 

Overlooking sin or defective character when it comes from a political favorite is nothing new for the Rev. Graham, his late father, or white evangelical Christians generally. They do not apply the same standards of forgiveness to their political opponents. When their politician stands accused of misdeeds in the forum of public opinion, the charges are fictional, a smear; but when they have the slightest opportunity, white evangelical Christians do not hesitate smear their political opponents, usually citing the Bible. Where is that Bible when examining the character of Their Guy (almost always a man, and certainly an avowed heterosexual man)? That is asterisk morality.

Billy Graham and Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office with the Reverend Billy Graham, father of Franklin Graham, on August 10, 1971. Hobnobbing with presidents who perceive themselves as above the law appears to be a family tradition. Photo from the National Archives.

It would be interesting to see if the Rev. Graham might withhold criticism of Mr. Buttigieg’s personal life if their political views aligned. In reference to the character of the current president, the Rev. Graham appears to have no publicly stated misgivings, and is enthusiastic about him in every respect. All this politicking by the Rev. Graham and other white evangelical Christians is clearly in violation of the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the United States tax code, which was intended to restrict the ability of tax exempt organizations such as churches to engage in partisan politics. It has been laxly enforced. The current president has pledged to abolish the Johnson Amendment. Maybe if Mr. Buttigieg did the same, he too could be without sin* in the eyes of the Rev. Graham and his flock.
— Vita

* As long as he advocates political policies favored by white evangelical Christians. Amen.

 

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None So Blind

 

“Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not:”
Jeremiah 5:21, from the King James Version of the Bible.

With the release of the redacted Mueller Report last week by the presidential administration’s stooge at the Department of Justice, Attorney General William Barr, Democrats should finally let go of one of the beliefs they have clung to since Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, namely that the other campaign colluded with the Russians in meddling with the election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team found it was not through lack of trying on the part of Republican campaign officials that collusion did not occur, but due to their bumbling incompetence.


Ms. Clinton is apparently still in denial about her loss in 2016. As we move further away from 2016 and closer to 2020, she becomes increasingly irrelevant unless – please no! – she throws her hat in the ring again. Mainstream Democrats have to get over the loss by first admitting one undeniable fact: The Republican candidate didn’t win the election as much as Ms. Clinton lost it, largely due to the arrogance and hubris that infected her campaign. The Russians didn’t help him win; she lost. The Democratic National Committee didn’t obstruct her progress; far from it, since the Committee colluded with her to obstruct the progress of her rival in the primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sexism undoubtedly worked against Ms. Clinton, though possibly only among those who weren’t going to vote for her anyway for other reasons.

Tissot The Pharisee and the publican Brooklyn
The Pharisee and the Publican, a painting from between 1886 and 1894 by James Tissot (1836-1902), based on a parable in the Gospel of Luke.

There are many things that would improve elections in this country, among them reforming the system of primaries and abolishing the Electoral College. Those two major improvements are unlikely to happen before 2020. What can and should happen this year and going into 2020 are impeachment proceedings against the president in the House of Representatives. There is enough even in the redacted version of the Mueller Report, as well as in other ongoing investigations, to start impeachment proceedings against this president. While impeachment is an indictment only, and not the entire procedure to eject a president from office, the public proceedings can lay before the public all the president’s misdeeds. If impeachment succeeds, will he be convicted at trial in the Republican controlled Senate? No.

It is important to proceed with impeachment of the president because it is the right thing to do, because the evidence against him mounts every day and the House is therefore obligated by law to proceed, and because no matter what Old Guard Democrats like California Representative Nancy Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer advise about waiting the president out until November 2020, they are wrong since they underestimate the value of the impeachment proceedings aside from the futility of achieving conviction. The Oval Office Blowhard wants to always make everything about him? Very well, let him have it, with day after day airing of dirty laundry.

One third of the American people are never going to be dissuaded from following this president no matter what comes out in an impeachment. Those people are lost to reason, as the president acknowledged in his notoriously accurate assessment of them when as a candidate he boasted he could shoot somebody in broad daylight and they would let him get away with it. The people who need to have the case against the president laid before them in a way they can’t ignore are the third of the people between the hard core MAGA brigade and the other third of the population, mainstream Democrats.

“Israelites”, a 1968 song by Desmond Dekker & The Aces.

Then see clearly enough to put before the voters a Democratic candidate who generates more widespread enthusiasm than a neoliberal hack such as Hillary Clinton. Give them someone who genuinely speaks for all of them, not just Wall Street while hypocritically mouthing old platitudes about helping the middle and working classes. People don’t want to be sold down the river again, as they were in the Bankers’ Bailouts of 2008 and 2009, and the only ones who could blame them are mainstream, corporatist Democrats who haven’t learned a thing from that time or from the Debacle of 2016.
— Ed.

 

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The Price Is Right for Somebody

 

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”
— Genesis 4:9, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Imagine a television game show in which the announcer calls four contestants from the studio audience to the foot of the stage, a stage that is a mock up of a pharmacy, with a counter behind which stands the host, looking like a pharmacist in a white smock. The host directs everyone’s attention to one side of the stage, where an assistant – also in a white smock – presents a year’s worth of a popular prescription drug, let’s say insulin. The host then asks the four contestants to guess the price of the insulin without going over the amount, and the contestant with the closest guess gets to come up on stage for the opportunity to win prizes.


A skeletal figure surveying three doctors around a cauldron, Wellcome V0010898
A lithograph promoting James Morison’s alternative medicines, showing a skeletal figure surveying three doctors around a cauldron in a parody of Macbeth and the three witches. From the Wellcome Collection gallery, London, England.

The remaining contestants try again on the next round, and some of them go home empty handed. Almost all the studio audience in attendance go home without even having been invited to participate. The few winners in each episode get to take home expensive prizes such as the year’s worth of insulin, valued at thousands of dollars, but the majority of those attending a taping of the game show go home with nothing or with a cheap consolation prize, such as a bottle of gummy vitamins. This game show analogy is not far off how Americans seem to prefer having their health care system operate, particularly drug pricing.

If you’re lucky, if you win the lottery (another gamed system Americans seem to prefer over taxing the rich), then you’re good as gold. The majority, however, may run into problems and tough choices, such as paying the rent or buying insulin; paying utility bills or buying any of the number of the life preserving medications people depend on, particularly as they get older. Prescription drugs are every bit as crucial to survival for some people as food and shelter, and yet Americans seem to prefer to let the drug industry operate like any other capitalist endeavor. Profits for drug manufacturers are more important than a decent life for an unfortunate number of citizens who can’t afford the high prices those manufacturers demand simply because they can, and the people principally to blame for this awful situation are some cretins in Congress.

“Someday Never Comes”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival from their 1972 album Mardi Gras.

Who are the people responsible for putting those cretins in Congress and in positions where they can run cover for the drug companies? Why, they are in large part the same people who struggle to buy overpriced prescription drugs. Why do they do this to themselves? Ah, that is the question bedeviling America’s sickness today. The unfortunate part is that while some voters are caught up in Congressional posturing and not paying attention to substance, there are many voters who don’t share their ignorant love of machismo and capitalist lotteries and yet are forced to share the results of the bad policies ensuing from all that greed and childishness. They have to scramble for the scraps left over from the game, while a few wealthy grifters laugh at how they have duped enough voters to go along with their rigged game to keep it going, dangling prizes before the willing saps. Instead of gambling on a rigged capitalist lottery, sensible adults take measures, even – horrors! – socialist measures, to ensure decent results everyday for everybody when it comes to matters of survival like food, shelter, education, and medical care, including drugs.
— Ed.

 

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A Pillar of Salt

 

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.”
Job 38:4, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Many Americans are probably familiar with it because it has been assigned reading in high schools when it hasn’t been banned or burned by the outraged and the self-righteous. Being assigned reading tends to sap some of the enjoyment of reading, and in that case it might be a good idea to read the book again voluntarily, as an adult.


Mr. Vonnegut was most of all a Humanist, as he himself proclaimed, and the last thing any Humanist would claim is to also be a Saint. On looking back at Vonnegut’s work, the one feature that stands out as discordant from our modern perspective is his treatment of female characters, whom he usually portrayed without much depth, and sometimes unsympathetically for no good reason. That again is viewed from our perch 50 years in the future. Mr. Vonnegut was not out of step with his times in regard to men’s views about women, sad and embarrassing as that may seem to us now. 50 years from now, who can say how people will view us for opinions and attitudes we hold in keeping with our own time?

Brand im Dresdner Zwinger D 18Jh
An anonymous painting, possibly by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774), of a fire at Dresden Castle.

We must remember that until Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, nearly every book and movie in Western culture depicted the Allies in World War II as the good guys, and the Axis as the bad guys, with little shading of gray to add any moral nuance. The Humanist in Mr. Vonnegut could not abide that state of affairs, particularly since he had been present as a prisoner of war at the Allied fire bombing of the German city of Dresden, a target which had virtually no military or political value. The primary reason Allied command ordered the fire bombing was to terrorize the civilian population. In doing so, the Allies sought to deal out righteous retribution for German bombing of English cities earlier in the war. Atrocities, in other words, were perpetrated to one degree or another by both sides, and that is the nature of war and part of human nature and cannot be avoided, no matter how much books and movies gloss it over and glamorize one side over the other. And so it goes – to borrow a phrase from Mr. Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse-Five was not revisionist history, but a necessary corrective to over two decades of mostly superficial accounts of World War II, at least in the popular media. It joined John Hersey’s 1946 non-fiction book Hiroshima in telling of war’s cost in suffering and the capacity for cruelty, alongside acts of kindness. In 1970, a non-fiction book written by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was published and changed the national discourse about relations with Native Americans, a discourse which had been dominated for over a century by white people of European descent demonizing them.

American prisoners caught in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 march to their quarters in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945, Allied air forces fire bombed the city, killing as many as 25,000 Germans, mostly women and children. The 1972 film, directed by George Roy Hill, starred Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, the character based on Kurt Vonnegut, and Eugene Roche as his friend Edgar Derby, the ranking soldier among the prisoners.

Important works by great writers and historians come along infrequently and, while nothing and no one is ever perfect, their overall worth to humanity becomes even more apparent over time than at initial publication. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another great work that has stood the test of time, has also been subjected to periodic bouts of righteous indignation and banishment by different groups for divergent reasons over the years. Certainly we cringe today at some of its language and at the attitudes Mr. Twain portrayed, but many readers, perhaps most, understand that at the heart of the novel is the growing respect and friendship between a white boy and a black man, which in its day was a radical idea that undermined social conventions. We are all prisoners of our time and cannot, like Billy Pilgrim, the central character of Slaughterhouse-Five, become unstuck in time. But we can be charitable and preserve and cherish the greater Humanist vision given us by Kurt Vonnegut and other writers whose works have stood outside of time, imperfect as the writers and their works, like we and our works, will always be.
— Vita

 

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Those Were the Days

 

In 1947, as Jews leaving Europe were working toward establishing their independent state of Israel in Palestine, an anti-communist scare was gaining momentum in the United States, leading President Harry Truman to sign an executive order requiring loyalty oaths from federal workers suspected of communist sympathies and possibly conflicted allegiance. Over 70 years later, the state of Israel is well established with economic and military help from the United States, and the idea of a loyalty oath as an assurance that a government employee owes allegiance to America only, and not to any foreign power, has been turned on its head by state and federal laws assuring loyalty to Israel as well, or at least not to engage in criticism of that nation’s increasingly aggressive policies toward Palestinians within and without its disputed borders.

100 dollar bill
2015 release of the 100 dollar bill, showing the design measures taken to foil counterfeiting. The portrait of Benjamin Franklin remains. Presentation by Sar Maroof.

 

These laws, which require a state employee or government contractor to sign a pledge not to engage in Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) actions against Israel, are so blatantly unconstitutional that it beggars belief they have not been challenged and struck down in the courts already. They are a return to the old days of anti-communist loyalty oaths, but with a bizarre twist. And it’s that twist which complicates matters, because any criticism of the pledges or of Israel bypasses reason and plain reading of the Constitution and goes straight to emotional howls of anti-Semitism. Most people know that’s coming, and since they don’t want to withstand it, they don’t speak up in the first place. The lobbyists for Israel then have their own way.

What has also complicated the relationship between the United States and Israel since the late 1940s is how support for Israel has taken on a polyglot nature in the intervening years, particularly with the rise of white evangelical Christians in American politics since the 1980s. In the 1940s, American support for Israel came largely from American Jews and from the large numbers of people who sympathized with the plight of European Jews after the tragedy of the Holocaust. There are other reasons having to do with the labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics and, of course, oil, but those are beyond the scope of this post.

Since the 1980s, as support for Israel’s increasingly hard line toward Palestinians and relations with its Arab neighbors dwindled among some American Jews, the slack was taken up by white evangelical Christians who looked at the modern state of Israel and saw the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They cared little about the multitude of practical complications, and they had an interested ear in the White House with Ronald Reagan. By the 1990s, a litmus test for election to political office in some parts of the country was support for Israel, right or wrong, and the test was administered not by American Jews, but by white evangelical Christians and, increasingly, by lobbying groups supported by the right wing in Israeli politics.

Lobbying in Congress by foreign powers is supposedly regulated by law, though in practice it goes on mostly unimpeded. In the 1980s, when Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime gained steam in this country and around the world, the South African government did not have anywhere near the lobbying clout in American politics of the Israeli lobby then, and certainly not as powerful as it has become since. South Africa did not have millions of Christian soldiers in this country who were willing to go onward for it no matter what. About all South Africa had were diamonds, and it turned out they were not enough to resist pressure from the rest of the world to reform its immoral system.

A scene early in the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, with Sal Mineo and Jill Haworth arguing their different world views in 1947 aboard a refugee ship from Europe bound for Palestine. Paul Newman looks on. Indeed, those were the days.

Now times have changed for Israel, and it’s no longer the plucky underdog deserving sympathy; its policies of the last 40 to 50 years have tainted that image, turning it into a kind of South African apartheid regime, and if people in this country want to criticize it for that, or for anything else, then it’s none of this government’s business, no matter how many “Benjamins” change hands in the halls of Congress, or how many white evangelical Christians with fever dreams of a picturesque Holy Land as they imagine it from their family Bibles, a place for fulfillment of the Gospel that they probably suppose would be nicer if it weren’t inhabited by all those dusky modern Jews, no matter how many of those people angrily pull away their support from any politician who dares criticize Israel, and with it their fantasy.
— Vita

 

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It Wasn’t Funny Even Then

 

So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.”
— Ezekiel 33:7, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Amid all the furiously backpedaling confusion promulgated by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam over whether he was in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook picture of two male party goers, one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) outfit, there appears to be no acknowledgment from the governor or his staff of why they seem to think blackface is less racist than wearing KKK garb. They appear to assume that it is racism lite, and therefore perhaps excusable, choosing to ignore that even in 1984 such behavior was not acceptable in general society, and certainly not seen as good clean fun. The governor professes confusion over whether he was one of the two men in the photo, but nowhere does he allow the possibility he could have been the one in the KKK outfit. He claims he was either the one in blackface or he was not in the picture at all.


This song and dance is understandable given the feelings of the greater society about the KKK. Apparently Northam feels if he needs to equivocate about his participation in racist costuming, he is safer with blackface than with the utterly out of the fold KKK. But why? Besides the ludicrous assertion that he somehow doesn’t remember participating in the activity depicted in the photo, why does he hide behind blackface as the lesser of two evils? Is ridiculing, mocking, and denigrating black people any less evil than intimidating and threatening them? They are two sides of the same coin. And no, taking the good ol’ frat boy defense that he personally meant no harm doesn’t fly.

Ralph Northam "Coonman"
Ralph Northam’s 1981 VMI yearbook photo showing his nicknames “Goose” and “Coonman”.

Lost in the national coverage of Northam’s foolish, insensitive, and casually hateful youthful behavior is reporting about his less foolish, equally insensitive, and more consciously hateful behavior regarding the Dominion Energy natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline. As always with things like pipelines, the planned route took it through less populous countryside, avoiding the estates of rich folks, of which there are many in Virginia’s horse country surrounding Charlottesville in central Virginia. Instead the route is planned to take it well south of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, through far poorer and far blacker Buckingham County, with a compressor station near Union Hill, a community noted historically for its population of freed black slaves.

 

2016-05-27 10 18 23 View east along Virginia State Route 56 (South James River Road) just after crossing the Wingina Bridge over the James River from Wingina in Nelson County, Virginia to rural Buckingham County, Virginia
View east along Virginia State Route 56 (South James River Road) just after crossing the Wingina Bridge over the James River from Wingina in Nelson County, Virginia, into rural Buckingham County. Photo by Famartin. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would roughly parallel Route 56, intersecting several miles down the road at Union Hill for the compressor station.

Late last year, Governor Northam dismissed two members of the Air Pollution Control Board who disagreed about the pipeline route and placement of the compressor station, thereby assuring a yea vote from the Board. In Virginia, it should be noted, the biggest utility player, Dominion Energy, is also the largest single donor from the energy sector to political campaigns, regardless of party affiliation. Dominion Energy is pushing the pipeline through Buckingham County and its compressor station in Union Hill. Just north of Buckingham County is Albemarle County and its plethora of country estates owned by wealthy white people. South of Buckingham County would apparently be too far out of the way, making the pipeline more expensive.

In lightly populated Buckingham County, Dominion Energy could expect easily overpowered opposition to its pipeline and compressor station from poor, mostly black communities. The only remaining obstacle was two obstinate members of the state Air Pollution Control Board, and with the help of their man in the Governor’s office, they were removed. Like the 1984 yearbook photo, Governor Northam and his friends thought they could dismiss the racism implicit in it all by taking the position that he didn’t mean it that way. How insulting! It matters not at all how these people intend their actions, as if that somehow magically exonerates them, but how their actions ultimately affect the people on the receiving end, and professed ignorance of the effects on those on the receiving end is no excuse, any more than it was for the German people when their leaders packed Jews into cattle cars and sent them to concentration camps.
— Ed.

 

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Through a Glass Darkly

 

“11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
— The Apostle Paul in a letter to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 13:11-13, from the King James Version of the Bible.

DNA kits are very popular now, both for people ordering them for themselves and for those giving them as gifts. Sales of kits doubled in 2017 over all previous years, and have increased again in 2018 over 2017. Interest appears to derive mostly from curiosity about immediate ancestors, on which the kits do a good job of enlightening people, and secondarily about genetic health risks, on which the kits dealing with the subject deliver mixed results, needing confirmation from a medical professional.


One area of controversy with the results, at least for Americans, has come from links to African ancestry for European-Americans, and links to European ancestry for African-Americans. Most European-Americans, or white folks, get results that include some ancestry going back to Africa two hundred years or more, usually less than 10 percent of their total genetic makeup. Most African-Americans, or black folks, get results that include around 25 percent European ancestry.

Cesky Sternberk Castle CZ family tree 116
Portraits of six generations of the Sternberg family in Jiří Sternberg’s study, Český Šternberk Castle, Czech Republic. Photo by takato marui. Tracing ancestry is easier in the pure bred lines and close quarters of Old Europe than in the melange of ethnicities and transcontinental migrations of the New World.

Compared to the ethnic homogeneity of most Old World countries, Americans are mutts, and the melting pot was particularly active in the years of heavy immigration from Europe from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Africans brought into the country as slaves until the Civil War eventually made up a larger proportion of the total population through that period than they have since, averaging close to 20 percent of the total for the first hundred years of the republic, and settling to a range of 11 to 13 percent of the total population afterward. It shouldn’t therefore surprise white people taking DNA tests to discover they have at least a small percentage of relatively recent African ancestry.

It is interesting, however, that DNA test results for black people yield an average of 25 percent European ancestry. It is not surprising there has been mixing of the races, despite laws against miscegenation going back centuries, but that black people have a much higher percentage of European ancestry than white people have a percentage of African ancestry, and yet black people are still and always considered black. This is Pudd’nhead Wilson territory, in which even a tiny percentage of African blood is tantamount to an entirely African genetic heritage. In America, once a person has been accepted into white society, it requires a considerable amount of African genetic input, along with other factors involving economics and relationships, for a person to fall from grace, as it were, from whiteness to blackness.


The evolution of man- a popular exposition of the principal points of human ontogeny and phylogene (1896) (14594954920)
In this 1896 illustration by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), “Man” is precariously at the top of a tree encompassing all life on earth.

The grade has always been uphill, on the other hand, for black people to be accepted into American society, always predominantly white, no matter how much they were genetically European. Initial branding of blackness meant staying black in the eyes of white society until extraordinary circumstances or subterfuge intervened. In all this, what the majority of people, black and white, seemed to have missed was that racial differences were minuscule, along the lines of one half of one percent of the genetics every human being shares. Race itself is an artificial concept, a social construct, rather than a real biological divider.

It’s all in the mind, and those who would reinforce race as a divider of the human species have to perform mental and ethical gymnastics to justify their beliefs since science won’t do it for them. The idea that DNA test results with some percentage of African ancestry are showing merely what goes back millions of years for all of humanity also does not hold up. Yes, everyone on earth does have common ancestors in Africa, but that is not what the makers of DNA home test kits design them to illustrate, since they typically only research genetic relations going back several centuries, that being within the time frame for which they have reliably detailed information on background in their databases.

The immigration scene of young Vito Corleone, played by Oreste Baldini, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Godfather: Part II. Unlike Vito Corleone when he matured, the majority of immigrants, then as now, do not end up engaged in dangerous and unlawful activities, despite what rabble rousing politicians want everyone to believe.

There also appears to be an assumption among even open-minded white people that since Africa is the cradle of all humanity, then Africans themselves must be genetically closer to that cradle than the rest who emigrated to far continents. African ancestry noted in the DNA test results must, they reason, be hearkening back to long ago ancestors white people share with everyone on earth. No. The test results show genetic input from recent African ancestors. And those recent African ancestors have evolved along with everyone else on earth, including Europeans, triggered by similar environmental and social changes pushing them to adapt. The European discoverers should not be so quick to flatter themselves with ideas of inherent superiority that they lose sight of how other societies have adapted quite well under unique circumstances without prizing discovery and conquest above all else as the sine qua non of human existence.
— Ed.

 

 

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The False Witness

 

“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.
— Exodus 23:1, from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible.

The job of White House Press Secretary has always been to walk a fine line between putting a good face on an administration’s policies and actions and lying about them outright. The current presidential administration and its press secretary have no such concerns and are obviously content to lie outright. When the White House released an altered video last week that made Cable News Network (CNN) reporter Jim Acosta the bad guy in an interaction with a White House intern who attempted to wrest a microphone away from him, they obviously cared not at all whether reasonable people believed their lie. They are, after all, not appealing to reasonable people.


Longboots1
Hip boots in the mud. Photo by Booter. Deep, and getting deeper all the time.

The current occupants of the White House offices know they have a third of the country solidly in their corner, people who will believe their lies without question and with gusto. Another third of the country is in the middle, sitting on the fence to one side or another, some of them perplexed or disturbed by the behavior they see from this administration’s people, but few of them willing to act on their apprehensions. The other third of the country consists of people who are steadfastly opposed to the current administration and are willing to resist to some degree its policies and actions and work toward its demise either electorally or by impeachment and conviction. The current president and his vassals care not one whit about the opinions of those people.

What’s particularly galling about the episode with Mr. Acosta is how the current Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a self-professed devout Christian whose father is a minister as well as a politician, a woman who has never uttered any sincere support for womens’ rights otherwise and who works for a reprobate in the Oval Office who openly insults women at every opportunity, suddenly got religion about the issue of men assaulting women and used that as the excuse for revoking Mr. Acosta’s White House press privileges by way of her false witness regarding the altered video. He got handsy and rough with our female intern! No, he didn’t. Doesn’t matter, because the only people we need to convince will believe our version of events, and some of the rest will be so flabbergasted and flustered by the sheer chutzpah of our lying they will be paralyzed into impotence. The other third – who cares what they think?

Ms. Sanders has apparently made peace with her hypocrisy, no doubt rationalizing her aiding and abetting of evil as somehow being in the greater cause of Christianity. It is worrying, though, that a majority of white, middle class women have gone along with her down that road. They may have other reasons than Christianity to justify their support for and following of the Pussy Grabber in the Oval Office, but they all have rationalizations that can’t have much to do with the actual man and his policies. It’s almost understandable why white, middle class men might remain in his camp, because however misguided their wishes are, too many of them surely look up to him as someone worth emulating. But the women are a different story.

Pete Seeger led an audience at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1980 in a performance of Meredith Tax’s “The Young Woman Who Swallowed a Lie”, an altered version of “There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”.

Authoritarian Personality Syndrome (APS) and Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) are two of several characteristics that may explain why women follow the current president. Both are predominantly conservative characteristics and, by extension, fundamentalist Christians such as Ms. Sanders. Far more fundamentalist Christians are conservative than liberal. Without delving too deeply into differences in religions, it is safe to say fundamentalist Christians are more patriarchal than the average Christian, and more inclined toward APS and SDO characteristics. Women have to engage in more mental gymnastics than men to rationalize their devotion to the Leader of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club, but they do it, most probably with little introspection, and if his pep rallies are any guide, they are overcome with such starry-eyed enthusiasm they will approve of anything he says or does.
— Vita

 

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The Artist’s Rendering

 

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Matthew 22:21, King James Version of the Bible.

Mona Lisa moustache
Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, with digitally added mustache. Derivative work by Perhelion.

 

This past Friday evening at a Sotheby’s art auction in London, the English graffiti artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder hidden within the frame of his painting Girl With Balloon moments after it had sold for one million British pounds. The lower half of the painting shredded, and there is some question now about the status of the sale and whether Banksy’s vandalizing of his own painting will render an even greater value for it.

Discussion of an artwork’s value outside of its aesthetic appeal is a reminder that for the rich who can afford to pay tremendous prices for art the value lies more in other, equally idiosyncratic, considerations than in its aesthetics. For the rich, art is an investment and a step on the ladder of social climbing. They may not find a particular piece they buy aesthetically appealing whatsoever. The essential thing is that enough other important people find an artwork appealing so that its value is driven up, checking off the boxes for high return on investment and an increase in high society credentials for its new owner. The artwork itself may languish in a warehouse after sale rather than go on private or public display.

 

The investment value of an artwork is, like money itself, largely artificial and sustained by the beliefs of the people who hold it or wish to hold it. No one can eat art, any more than they can eat money, nor can they grow food on it like they could on land, nor withdraw food from it as they might withdraw fish from the sea. It has no monetary value unless enough people believe it does. Aesthetic value, on the other hand, is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder, though some people may in their appreciation of art be too dependent on the opinions of “experts”. For an extreme case of wishful thinking brought on by peer pressure, look to the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Titian - The Tribute Money - Google Art Project
The Tribute Money, a painting by Titian (1490-1576).

Before the Renaissance, art was for decoration of public spaces and the homes of the rich, and for religious instruction in places of worship since most people were illiterate and did not receive their education from books. The names of very few medieval and ancient artists have come down to us along with their works. That changed with the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael acquired reputations beyond their immediate patrons among the rich and powerful. Note how we have come to know all three by single names, as if they were modern day celebrities. And it was the widening of cultural influence beyond the insularity of any one city-state’s walls during the Renaissance that allowed artists to break out of anonymity.

The international renown of a few popular artists such as Rembrandt was slow to build at first, and their artworks commanded modest prices by today’s standards. It is the international culture of today and the concentration of great wealth among an ever smaller percentage of the population that has enabled the explosion in high prices for the artworks of a relatively small number of well known artists. The last great jump in prices was roughly during the Gilded Age around the turn of the twentieth century, when a great concentration of wealth created a new aristocracy of capitalists.

In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, wealthy newspaper publisher and art collector Charles Foster Kane, modeled on tycoon William Randolph Hearst and played by Orson Welles, discusses his changing economic circumstances with his banker Mr. Thatcher, played by George Coulouris, and his longtime assistant Mr. Bernstein, played by Everett Sloane.

Now there is another concentration of wealth occurring, this time on a worldwide scale rather than limited to Europe and North America. Nothing has changed, of course: as always, the rich get richer. It’s the scale of wealth accumulation that has changed, and when artworks are selling for hundreds of millions of British pounds or American dollars, a mere million for a painting by anti-establishment artist Banksy is entry level stuff. The rich people sitting on mountains of the wealth of the world would not flinch at shredding a million pounds, and the irony of one artist’s rendering matters not at all to them as long as the artist’s growing fame increases their return on investment.
— Vita

10/8/2018 Update: Since last Friday, when Banksy’s Girl With Balloon partially shredded after being sold at auction for about £1,000,000, its value has increased by at least 50%, and may have doubled.

 

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The Eleventh Commandment

 

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
— Hamlet to Horatio in Act I, scene v, of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

 

It’s fair to say most people in the Western world are more or less familiar with the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Ten Commandments in its Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, which they honor perhaps more in the breach than in the observance. There is an Eleventh Commandment which is known to few people other than some evangelical Christians, and it addresses how to treat others in what might be considered a reverse or Bizarro Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is common to many religions around the world and is stated many ways, but the formulation probably most familiar to Westerners is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

The Bizarro Golden Rule, also known as the Eleventh Commandment, informs adherents to “Be mean-spirited with those you dislike or disagree with, and as spiteful and hateful in your dealings with them as satisfies your shriveled, churlish spirit.” The latest Christian conservative to scrupulously honor the Eleventh Commandment is Briscoe Cain, a Republican state representative in the Texas legislature, who, soon after the death of English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking on March 14, tweeted the following passive-aggressive remarks: “Stephen Hawking now knows the truth about how the universe was actually made. My condolences to his family.”

Eugène Delacroix - Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard - WGA6199
Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, an 1839 painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863).

If there was any doubt about the veiled hostility in his tweet, Mr. Cain later took away the veil by elaborating on his dislike for Mr. Hawking’s atheism and supposed mocking of God. As egregious behavior from a mean-spirited Christian conservative, or evangelical, this is small beer. It nevertheless illustrates a mind set that has corroded civil discourse in public life, and how nothing will stop such a person from taking pot shots at perceived or imagined enemies, even the recent death of perhaps the most well-known and generally beloved physicist since Albert Einstein. Stephen Hawking’s atheism was his own concern, something he never forced on others, unlike the behavior of many evangelical Christians like Briscoe Cain. As for mocking God, even if Mr. Hawking did such a thing only in the eyes of Mr. Cain, surely God is big enough to forgive and forget.

That is not the God of Briscoe Cain and others like him, however, who apparently see in God much of what they dimly perceive in themselves: a smallness of spirit, mean, petty, and vindictive, with spite considered a virtue, and charity withheld from anyone deemed Other. One would feel sorry for such small minded people if not for the tremendous damage they do to the rest of society every day. In this material world, Stephen Hawking will be well and fondly remembered by future generations, while Briscoe Cain’s legacy will fade away except for the enduring stain of his negative contributions, may they amount to no more than his snide remarks made at the expense of a person who never did him any harm.

But in Mr. Cain’s view, it could be Mr. Hawking did do him harm by denying his God and, worse, supposedly mocking that God, which to a person with fragile self-esteem is the same as denying him, not just Him, and mocking him, not just Him. For people like that, all their sense of self worth is bound up in their God, and how their God is regarded or disregarded by others is taken personally by them. In the next world, if there is one, perhaps Briscoe Cain and his vindictive and insecure co-religionists will be fortunate and discover a God more beneficent and embracing than the God they envisioned and claimed to embody here on Earth, and inflicted upon everyone else without concern for whether others merited simple human kindness and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.
— Ed.

 

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