All We Want for Christmas

 

As much as we may see signs posted on residential and church lawns reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, for many of us Christmas remains a season for getting stuff, giving stuff, and receiving stuff, among other reasons for the season, like visiting friends and family and engaging in charitable works.

 

In the last 20 years, getting, giving, and receiving electronic stuff has particularly taken off because of the accelerating pace of improvements in technology, some of which are real improvements while others are invented or hyped by marketers. When it comes to electronic devices like smartphones and flat panel televisions, last year’s model is outmoded, and a model from two years ago is obsolete. That is the perception marketers would like us to have, and many of us are willing to go along with it. Whether that is because of a real need for the latest technology or merely as a way of signaling to others about oneself is anyone’s guess.

Paonroue
A Peafowl flaring his feathers. Photo by Jebulon.

Or it could be purely for one’s own gratification and sense of identity. All of us are what we eat, but some people are also what they own. It’s nice to have good things that work well, doing what they are supposed to do. The point of demarcation toward excess is relative to every individual, of course, though as a culture we can detect roughly when enough is enough, either in quantity or quality. That is, after all, what makes conspicuous consumption worthwhile to conspicuous consumers consuming conspicuously. If no one noticed or cared, there would be no point to it.

Certainly it can be necessary at times to replace broken or malfunctioning stuff, and the occasions for doing so with electronic devices like computer printers seem to pop up more frequently with each passing year. Any other reason, such as an obsessive desire for acquiring the latest and greatest, seems suspect, maybe not to the person doing the acquiring, but perhaps to observers. Some of those observers may even be the recipients of a latest and greatest type of largesse at Christmas.

A routine from George Carlin’s appearance at Comic Relief USA in 1986. What makes this piece poignant satire is Mr. Carlin’s presentation of it at a charity event focused on helping the homeless, who of course have very little stuff. Warning: foul language.

Do they need more stuff? Maybe not. Do they want more stuff, or stuff of better quality than their current stuff? Maybe. When it comes to pricey electronics particularly, most of which are troublesome to recycle or to dispose of responsibly, maybe it’s best to ask before giving, or to buy something else altogether. Marketers of electronic products won’t like to hear of that sort of attitude, but who cares what they think? Their only interest is in generating excitement about the latest developments in their products, and if that leads to multitudes of genuinely unnecessary purchases of new products and dumping in landfills of products only a few years old, well then that’s none of their concern as they see it. It’s nice to have good things that work well, and even nicer to understand that is enough.
— Techly

 

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Envy and Contempt

 

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
— Luke 14:12-14, from the New International Version of the Bible.

It’s puzzling to watch poor and working class people watch rich people on television, such as on shows about house hunters looking at multi-million dollar properties. Many of these rich people are frivolous twits who obsess about things like granite countertops and bathroom saunas. Why don’t many of the poor folks watching these excesses feel anger and revulsion at money being thrown away on luxuries, things they themselves could never afford as they struggle to make ends meet from paycheck to paycheck? Instead they watch these programs with a kind of detached envy, commenting critically on the relative niceness of various unnecessary features.

 

As for the rich, they mostly have contempt for the poor people window watching on their lifestyles. They usually try to mask their contempt, of course, since it’s considered bad form among their peers to make a show of kicking the downtrodden. Mostly they ignore the poor, which is easy to do living in gated communities and surrounding oneself with all the accoutrements of wealth and security they can buy. It doesn’t occur to them to question the envy of their lifestyles by the poor, since it is based on the fabulous nature of material things they themselves exalt above all else. What troubles them is the contempt wafting toward them from some in the middle class.

Meals on Wheels food prep
Nancy Wilson, foreground, Meals on Wheels program manager, works along with other volunteers at the Great Falls Community Food Bank in Great Falls, Montana, preparing gravy on November 23, 2011 to be used the next day for the Thanksgiving meal. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen.

Historically, it has always been elements from the middle class which have led revolutions. The poor are too wrapped up in trying to survive and in slavish envy of those who have more, even when wealth is waved in their faces, but always out of reach. The middle class have the education to understand how the rich are playing them for suckers, and they have the leisure time to organize against them. They have only to inform the poor how the rich have used and manipulated them in order to gain strength from numbers. That’s easier said than done, however, and it’s a task made more difficult by the popularity among the poor of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous type entertainment in movies and television.

 

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet staff and volunteers prior to a Thanksgiving service project at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., on November 27, 2013. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

This Thanksgiving and throughout the year, it is unlikely a high percentage of the rich and famous will be helping feed the poor and homeless. Giving and volunteering are largely activities engaged in by the middle class, and even the poor and working class. Strange then that the poor and working class should continue to ally themselves with the rich, to envy them their wealth and privilege and, when they vote, to often as not vote to the rich person’s tune.

It tries one’s patience and understanding to refrain from feeling contempt for a group of people who can witness the casual disregard of a leader who tosses rolls of paper towels at them after a horrific natural disaster, and who nevertheless still support that leader. Such a leader would never volunteer to feed the poor at a food bank or homeless shelter, at least not sincerely. For him, it would be nothing more than a photo opportunity he would be eager to get over with. But a division between the middle class and the working class and poor only benefits the rich, the oligarchy. Better to reach out and to serve, even when the people on the other end can often be ignorant, mean-spirited, and hateful.
— Ed.

 

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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 War on Economic Disadvantage

 

12 Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee.
13 But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
14 And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.

— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Luke 14:12-14, the King James Version of the New Testament.

The current presidential administration has declared an end to the War on Poverty, and a victory for someone or other, certainly not the poor. Perhaps the rich, who can now go on plundering the nation without any nagging concerns for the poor. Not that the poor were ever a great concern for the rich, a disconnect that has been made easier over the past half century with sociological euphemisms like “economically disadvantaged” and “low income”. Sociologists and others with a bureaucratic and academic inclination to their thinking supposedly applied euphemisms for the words “poor” and “poverty” out of consideration for the feelings of people mired in “low resource” neighborhoods, among other things, but really they were doing those folks no favors. Good intentions merely made it easier for everyone in the “upper income brackets” to look the other way.


Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Orphans
Orphans, an 1885 painting by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916).

The War on Poverty is over then, and up is down and wrong is right. Two plus two equals five. “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening,” saith Supreme Leader. None of that rhetorical nonsense fills the bellies of the poor with nutritious food. It’s all sophistry. Anyone with eyes that see and who acknowledges the world as it is can attest there are poor people everywhere in need. Those poor people are more than “food insecure”, they are hungry, even starving. Academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and the wealthy can argue forever about how best to deal with the problem of the “economically disadvantaged” or “underprivileged”, and in the end they will only increase their own advantage and scrupulously preserve their own privilege. Stop the jibber jabber and get down to a soup kitchen and start dishing.
— Ed.


George Carlin talks about how euphemisms erode meaning in his 1990 concert Doin’ It Again. Warning: foul language.

 

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Palms Here and There

 

The palm fronds used for the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday would most likely have come from the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). There were and are other types of palm trees in the Near East, but the date palm had the most day to day significance for the people of the area because it provided a staple food in their diet, and largely because of that the date palm also acquired symbolic significance for them. Date palm fronds were associated with peace and victory, and when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey – the mount of a king on a mission of peace – the symbolism of the moment for was complete.

 

Since the first Palm Sunday, Christians around the world have celebrated with whatever plant branches were available locally without getting hung up on absolutely having to use palm fronds, which in any event were not be had in cold climates in the days before large scale international trade. It is only relatively recently that palm fronds harvested in southern Mexico and Guatemala from the parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) have been shipped great distances for Palm Sunday celebrations in areas where palms do not grow.

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A date palm in Jerusalem, with the al-Aqsa Mosque in the background. Photo by Meg Stewart.

Chamaedorea elegans Mart
A parlor palm at the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Bachelot Pierre J-P.

Some Christians have struggled with whether harvesting fronds from wild plants in the rainforest and shipping them halfway around the world for a once a year celebration makes sense environmentally and economically. There is irony, too, in that the common name – parlor palm – for the type of plant growing in the understory of the Guatemalan rainforest tips off its other use, which is as a quite popular houseplant. People in colder climates who are determined to use palm fronds to commemorate Palm Sunday rather than any locally grown foliage could very easily grow the plant they are used to in their own parlors. Since parlor palms usually grow to four to six feet, and eight to ten feet at most, they would be much easier to accommodate in the average living room than a date palm at 75 feet, nice as it would be to have the dates at other times of year.
— Izzy

 

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The Lost Sheep

 

The evangelical Christianity we are familiar with today in the United States does not resemble what it was prior to the Civil War, when evangelical Protestants promoted social justice issues such as the end of slavery. Slavery was the primary issue that divided some Protestant denominations, the Baptists more than any others because of the strong presence of Baptists in the South. Rancor over the issue within the Baptist denomination eventually led to its division before the Civil War into Northern and Southern sects, a division which has continued to this day.

Brooklyn Museum - The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) - James Tissot - overall
Le bon pasteur (The Good Shepherd), a painting from between 1886 and 1894 by the French artist James Tissot (1836-1902).

When people think of evangelical Christians active in modern political life, largely in conservative Republican circles, they are primarily thinking of Southern Baptists, because that is the denomination which has dominated politics and culture in the South since the Civil War, and it is from the South in the 1970s that arose the major political and cultural movement known first as the Moral Majority, and since then mostly known as the Christian Right. For over a hundred years, the dominance of Southern Baptists over life in the South was as close to a state sanctioned religion as we have gotten in this country, or at least in one part of it. Other Protestant denominations in the South, such as the Pentecostals, have been a part of modern evangelical Christianity, but the Southern Baptists have always been the major players.

As the de facto state religion of the South in the Jim Crow era and beyond, Southern Baptists were more interested in preserving white privilege and power than in promoting the kind of social justice Jesus advocated in His teachings. The Southern Baptists chose to ignore many of those ideas from the New Testament, lest they give black folks unsavory and rebellious ideas, and instead focused on the rewards waiting for the saved in the afterlife, where it wouldn’t cost the earthly white leaders anything in money or power. As the South remained rather isolated and more conservative than the rest of the country throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, there were further fractures within Protestant denominations, with the more liberal Northern sects increasingly considered the mainline portions of each denomination, and the Southern sects more and more lumped together as evangelical Christians, but with the twist that these evangelicals were largely white conservatives more vested in the status quo than in change for social justice.

Jimmy Carter addresses the South Baptist Convention in Atlanta, GA. - NARA - 179898
President Jimmy Carter addresses the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, GA, in June 1978. Evangelical Christians were lukewarm at best regarding Mr. Carter, and in the 1980 election they turned him out in favor of the more conservative Ronald Reagan. Since then, Mr. Carter has devoted himself to humanitarian causes around the world, including Habitat for Humanity, all of which earned him the honor of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

President George W. Bush meets with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention in the Oval Office, Oct. 11, 2006
President George W. Bush meets with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention in the Oval Office in October 2006. Pictured with the President are Dr. Morris Chapman, left, Dr. Frank Page, and his wife Dayle Page. Mr. Bush the Younger was more to the liking of evangelical Christians than any president of the past 40 years other than Ronald Reagan. White House photo by Paul Morse.

When the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the 1970s went after Bob Jones University, a private evangelical school in Greenville, South Carolina, to revoke its tax exempt status on account of not adhering to Civil Rights era desegregation laws, Southern Baptists, which by that time had become indistinguishable from evangelicals, were catalyzed into action, forming the Moral Majority in order to take an activist role in national politics. They added abortion later as a rallying cause and it also served to mask the initial, primary impetus for organizing politically, which was the affront by federal interference into their pocketbooks and their white supremacist fiefdom. From the 1970s until today evangelical Christians, the Christian Right, have been a force in national politics, and never has their participation been more perverse at first glance than their unwavering support for the current president with all his defiantly un-Christian character flaws, but with an understanding of their history it begins to make sense, though it doesn’t make it right.
— Vita

 

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Sell All That Thou Hast

 

“Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”
— Luke 18:22, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Philanthropy, meaning love of humanity, differs from charitable giving in that the rich conduct philanthropy in broad brush strokes for society, while charity is usually in the form of small gestures from one individual for the benefit of other individuals or small organizations. Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, endowed libraries across the country as well as cultural institutions. the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations have similarly given large grants to institutions since their establishment in the early twentieth century. When John D. Rockefeller handed out dimes to individuals, as he was known to do, that was charity, not what is generally considered philanthropy.


Helping the homeless
Two women donate food to a homeless man on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Ed Yourdon.

Among modern philanthropists are Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Supreme Egotist wants to be included in that group, but like everything else he does, his philanthropy is a fantasy for the benefit of his narcissism and con artistry more than it is a real construct for the love of humanity. After first acknowledging what a good thing people like Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates are offering to do with their money, the next thing that springs to mind is how on earth they accumulated their kind of wealth in order to give at least some of it away. The conventional capitalist idea is that they gained all their riches through their own hard work and good fortune. Maybe so. An aspect of capitalism that is usually glossed over in this scenario is how wealth begets wealth in algorithmic numbers. In other words, rich people in our system can benefit from a snowball effect.

There is a negative snowball effect in operation for poor people in our system who find themselves slipping away due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, whether by their own making or not. A person working a non-union factory job gets injured and cannot work, and for one reason or another workmen’s compensation and unemployment insurance either do not apply or are insufficient, and within months or a few short years the person ends up homeless. Living paycheck to paycheck, disaster is always lurking around a corner of bad luck. These unfortunates, who for the luck of the draw at any moment could be almost any one of us, may have to rely for their next meal and night out of the weather on the charitable giving of those who for the time being enjoy regular meals and a comfortable night’s sleep in their own bed.

 

What about the philanthropists whose giving is steered toward redressing larger societal ills? Andrew Carnegie hired goons to bust heads when workers at his steel mills struck for better hours, wages, and working conditions. This was the same Andrew Carnegie who endowed libraries so that the children of those workers could get a better education than their parents. He stole from the poor to give to the poor, and as the money changed hands along the way he made a tidy profit for himself. Are today’s philanthropists much better? Instead of expressing thanks for endowments and grants, perhaps it would be better to question whither the gains were gotten. That’s not likely, however, since it is almost always institutions such as universities that receive those endowments and grants, and stodgy university bureaucracies are not in the habit of examining gift horses too closely.

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USS Constitution‘s Yeoman 3rd Class Roberta Lee serves lunch to residents of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. USS Constitution sailors volunteered at the shelter July 1, 2009, as part of Navy Community Outreach’s Boston Navy Week. Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anna Kiner.

What about the recipients of individual charitable gifts, are they relieved of responsibility? Did any of them question John D. Rockefeller about the provenance of the dime he handed them? Most likely not. It is better in spirit, however, for both giver and receiver if a charitable gift is borne out of the giver’s own honest labor rather than the exploitation of the labor of others or the use of money to beget money. Sharing the little extra one may have with another less fortunate is more meaningful and helpful to society than the sharing of largesse by another who came by it through the impoverishment in finances and spirit of the public as a whole.
— Ed.

A scene from the 1982 meditative documentary Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass.

 

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The Spirit of Giving

 

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
― Luke 2:10-11, from the King James Version of the New Testament.

Just in time for Christmas, the Congress passed its giveaway to the rich known as the Republican tax reform package, and the Thief-in-Chief signed it into the law of the land. Afterward much merriment was enjoyed by them and their kind on the South Lawn of the White House, where boot licking was the order of the day. The corruption and depravity oozing from the swamp of Washington, D.C. is too disheartening to dwell upon at this festive season of the year.


Moving on from the fairy tale that the Republican tax plan does anything at all for anyone but the wealthy, there is the fairy tale that has taken hold in some quarters that the Nativity of Jesus Christ was devoid of political ramifications at the time or in today’s world, and that therefore Christmas should be devoid of politics. A straightforward reading of the Gospels should dispel those ideas. Herod the Great apparently had no illusions about the threat posed by the birth of Jesus to the political future of himself and his progeny. Even taking the Gospels at face value, the Nativity story is loaded with politics.

Alexander Laureus Satuloitu aasi 1820-23
Saddled Donkey, a painting of the Nativity by Finnish artist Aleksander Lauréus (1783-1823). Donkeys were the mount of the lower classes when they could afford them, while the upper classes rode horses. In addition to providing transportation for the Holy Family to Bethlehem and then to a temporary exile in Egypt, a donkey would be the mount of choice for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem to complete His mission.

The dramatic tension of the story derives from the methods that the adult Jesus would teach to change people’s lives, with eventual political change as a by product, as opposed to the immediate political change some of His followers hoped for and most of His opponents feared. And it starts in the Nativity when individuals on both sides refer to Him as a King, though they mean different things by that term. Herod the Great was correct to see the birth of Jesus as a threat to his world, however he may have perceived that threat.

The relation of the Nativity as an innocuous story about a baby and some shepherds is alright for small children who cannot grasp the larger political and humanitarian dimensions of the birth of Jesus, but for adults to ignore the story’s radical aspects and still profess an understanding of it borders on cognitive dissonance. The events set in motion by the birth of Jesus and the principles he taught in His later ministry were a radical departure from the politics of His time. Blessed are the meek? The rich have no chance at salvation until they give away all they have? Those were not standard beliefs then, nor are they now, despite what many people profess.

There is no “War on Christmas”, at least not in the way some conservatives formulate it. That is nonsense made up by people who, if they were confronted by the real Jesus today, rather than their Jesus of fable, would be horrified and demand that He be hauled away to prison. Based on what He is quoted as saying in the Gospels, He certainly would not have been there last week on the South Lawn of the White House ghoulishly celebrating the passage of a tax bill that steals from the poor to give to the rich. He would not have sided with evangelical voters who deem the election of any Republican, no matter how cretinous, better than the election of a Democrat. Who are these people to make war on Christmas by celebrating the birth of a baby who preaches war, hate, and intolerance rather than peace, love, and understanding? That story feeds the needs of empire and is on the side of the Romans. That’s not the true Christmas story, and there’s nothing funny about it.
― Ed.

 

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I Know You Are

 

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
― words of Jesus Christ from Matthew 7:3-5, King James Version of the New Testament.

 

The second half of the schoolyard taunt in the title is “But what am I?” What, indeed, are you, Mr. President? On Tuesday, the current president of the United States addressed the United Nations General Assembly for forty-five minutes, and the results were an embarrassment to the country he purports to represent before the world.

 

After some preliminary stroking of his own ego, the current president launched into the main part of his speech, and for much of it, when he was excoriating other nations he may as well have been referring to the current iteration of the United States as people in other nations might very well see it.


Tax March April 15, 2017, U.S. Capitol (34022607046)
The April 15, 2017, Tax March on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., included this inflated rooster in the likeness of the current president, borrowed from a sculpture by an American for a Chinese shopping mall to mark the Year of the Rooster. Photo by Mike Licht.

“Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terrorists, but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.”

“Authority and authoritarian powers seek to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom since World War II.”

“International criminal networks traffic drugs, weapons, people; force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders. And new forms of aggression exploit technology to menace our citizens.”

“We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow.”

“It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime [North Korea], but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict.”

“The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.”

“This wealth, which rightly belongs to Iran’s people, also goes to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, fuel Yemen’s civil war and undermine peace throughout the entire Middle East.”

“And above all, Iran’s government must stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors.”

“It is time to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups like al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and others that slaughter innocent people.”

“For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the UN Human Rights Council.”

By his own words you shall know him. He speaks of others but he may as well be talking about what his own country has become and how it behaves in the world. There is one more notable part of the speech, in the middle where he talks about North Korea and ad-libs the “Rocket Man” insult line.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

Rocket Man [Kim Jong-un] is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.

The United States is ready, willing and able. But hopefully, this will not be necessary.

That’s what the United Nations is all about. That’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”

The current president appears to have the emotional maturity – or immaturity – of a teenager. He fails to understand, however, that unlike the outcome in this scene from the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, there will be no safety valve for either of the belligerents in his game of nuclear chicken with North Korea. James Dean stars as Jim Stark (in the red jacket), Natalie Wood is Judy, and Corey Allen plays the ill-fated Buzz Gunderson.

Oh, really, that is what the United Nations is for, to rubber stamp the will of the President of the United States, however unhinged he may be? We know what the 45th president of the United States is, and we also know what his counterpart, Kim Jong-un of North Korea is, and in terms of schoolyard threats and insults they have achieved parity. What’s difficult to comprehend is that these two malevolent idiots hold the fate of so very much of humanity and the Earth in their child-like hands and don’t appear to grasp the gravity of the situation beyond their own little sandboxes.
― Ed.

 

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Separated at Birth

 

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

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “
― excerpt from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

 

The two quotes above seem straightforward in their meaning, even if some people with self-serving agendas insist there is room for interpretation in both. Some religious groups, but by no means the majority, chafe at the straightforward interpretations and would rather see the federal government allow them to get involved in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exempt status. They applaud any effort to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which forbids charitable or non-profit organizations with tax exemptions from directly endorsing political candidates. In May, the current president signed an executive order relaxing those restrictions, essentially directing the IRS to use discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Since the law would have to be changed by Congress, court challenges to the executive order will probably crop up, though none have as of yet.

 

The simple solution for religious groups who want to submerge themselves in the American political process is to forgo tax exempt status. That appears not to be an option they care to consider. They want their cake, and to eat it, too. The Johnson Amendment, added to the IRS code in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, at the time a Democratic senator from Texas, has always been laxly enforced by the IRS, revoking the tax exemptions of only the most egregious violators. That’s not good enough for some people. They want the wall separating church and state torn down.
LBJ and Diaz Ordaz
President Lyndon B. Johnson hosts the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, at his Texas Ranch in 1964; photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

 

But not necessarily torn down completely. Muslims, in the view of the Christian Right, should probably not be included in a law respecting an establishment of religion by allowing them to funnel their congregants’ money to chosen political leaders, just like their Christian counterparts. Not so sure about the Jews, either. Catholics? We’ll have to think about that one. Once we start making exemptions for the exemption, we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. What would Jerry Falwell do? His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University President and leader of the evangelical Christian Right, believes the Johnson Amendment has to go because it infringes on the free speech rights of religious leaders.

In this scene from the 1980 film Caddyshack, Bishop Pickerling, played by Henry Wilcoxon, plays golf during a thunderstorm, with groundskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, serving as his caddy. The Bishop exercises his free speech rights at the end, with consequences. Note that the music quotes the score from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

That argument ignores the reality of religious leaders already expressing themselves freely, just not being allowed to funnel money to candidates while maintaining their own tax exempt status. What religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., really appear to mean is that the Johnson Amendment is an infringement on their free speech rights in the sense that was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was violating the free speech rights of corporations, both for profit and non-profit, when they limited campaign contributions. Money talks. Now some religious groups, such as Mr. Falwell’s, want the same kind of special dispensation, while also maintaining their exemption from paying taxes. That’s called the Sweet Deal!

George Carlin, a man who really did “tell it like it is”, in a bit from his 1988 performance What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Warning: foul language.

For the week beginning August 21, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is organizing what they call Hometown Congressional Visits to express support for the Johnson Amendment. This is a country of many faiths and to allow one vocal minority – regardless of it’s billing of itself as “The Moral Majority” – to usurp the voices of the many would be not only wrong now, but unconstitutional from the founding of the republic.
― Ed.

 

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