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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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 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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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.

Serving homeless veterans 090701-N-JD458-020
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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It’s a Dirty Job

 

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
— Genesis 3:19, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Scientists working at Rockefeller University in New York City have isolated a soil bacterium which shows the ability to destroy illness causing bacteria that have developed resistance to other antibiotics, notably the type known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA has been the scourge of nursing homes and hospitals for decades now, where opportunistic infections kill patients weakened by age and other illnesses, and treatment with antibiotics has become ineffective. The discovery of the new antibiotic, called Malacidin, is a major development in the fight against bacterial infections and diseases, which has seen little progress over the last 30 years.


Sir Alexander Fleming, Frs, the Discoverer of Penicillin Art.IWMARTLD4217
A 1944 illustration from the British Imperial War Museum depicting Sir Alexander Fleming at work in his laboratory 16 years after his discovery of the first antibiotic, Penicillin, in 1928.

The breakthrough is the result of an alternative approach to the standard tedious practice of testing antibiotics one at a time against various illnesses, and instead used computers to look at vast numbers of soil microbes for certain antibiotic characteristics and then narrowed down the search progressively. To cast this wide net, the Rockefeller University scientists requested the help of volunteers from around the country in submitting soil samples. The scientists particularly requested soil samples from out of the way places, reasoning that they were more likely to find microbes there for which illness causing bacteria like MRSA had not developed resistance. Places like agricultural fields are more apt to have the usual microbial soil life that has already been tested and tried because it has been in the human food chain for generations.

All of this serves as a reminder that the humble soil beneath our feet is the start and the end of everything. Food, disease and the medicine to fight disease, the foundations of our dwellings, all of it starts and cycles through the soil. Taking care of the soil is taking care of ourselves. Showing no concern for the long term health of the soil and the life inhabiting it by dumping salt producing fertilizers on it year after year in a short term effort to boost crop yields ultimately destroys ourselves because such practices destroy the life in the soil. It becomes sterile, reliant solely on a chemical stew of fertilizer that offers no substantive nutrition. It becomes like the Petri dishes that scientists struggled for years to get soil microbes to grow in, largely unsuccessfully. Now scientists are trying new methods that work within healthy soils, and they are achieving greater success. It’s a continuing battle against newly resistant bacterial strains, but without a reservoir of healthy soil to draw antibiotic reinforcements from the war would already be lost.
— Izzy

 

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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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