Soothsayer Day

 

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.

February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.


Emerged from hibernation in February, groundhog takes leaves to line the burrow nest or toilet chamber DSCN0900
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.

This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.

There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.


The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.

 

What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?

Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.


— Vita


For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.

 

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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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Consumer or Citizen

 

The Keynesian economic model which held sway in Western capitalist societies in the middle of the twentieth century has long since given way to neoliberalism, a policy and a philosophy which is a reworking of the laissez faire economies of the early industrial revolution. No wonder that we live in a new Gilded Age, the culmination of increasing economic inequality and degradation of publicly subsidized social services for everyone but the rich. Neoliberalism, a term which has meant many things in theory over the last one hundred years, has come to mean in fact laissez faire economics for the poor and middle class, and corporate welfare for the wealthy.

 

The result has been the takeover of the economy by short-sighted financial interests among the largest banks, and the takeover of politics and public policy making by those same banks and international corporations which owe allegiance to their executives and their shareholders instead of to any one national or local community. Consumers bear a great deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs, while citizens can change it.

American corporate flag
A protester at the second presidential inauguration of George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 holds up Adbusters’ Corporate American Flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

Consumers are passive; citizens are active. Consumers are inattentive to politics; citizens pay attention to what’s going on in government. Consumers struggle to get by and blame themselves when they cannot; citizens understand larger forces are arrayed against their interests and demand an equal place at the table. Consumers look at the wealthy and see people who helped themselves; citizens know how wealth creates wealth and privilege looks out for its own. Consumers feel helpless to change the course of society; citizens band together because they realize their power is in their numbers.

2018 Women's March in Missoula, Montana 179
A sign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Montanasuffragettes.

 

The neoliberal philosophy of the past forty years has stripped people of their view of themselves as citizens with rights, duties, and responsibilities in society and replaced it with the lumpish, passive recognition of themselves as consumers, replaceable parts in the economic machine. Meanwhile, neoliberals have sold the consuming masses on the idea that unions and publicly funded healthcare and education are bad policies, but tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations are good because of some nebulous trickling down that’s supposed to happen. Mission accomplished!

Taking action to change neoliberal policies on the environment, on economic inequality, and on the accountability of corporations, banks, and politicians is going to have start with a change in attitude among the populace from consumers to citizens. It starts with getting the money out of politics, and that starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which equated money with speech. What greater symbol for the neoliberal outlook can there be than “money talks”? The second most important step toward change would diminish the power of the big banks by reinstating the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. The third step would end government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divest from it entirely. All easier said than done, of course, and only the first few of many steps to curtail the undue influence of the rich and powerful over society, but once consumers get up off their couches and walk down as citizens to their voting places they will be taking the steps necessary to change a system that works only for a privileged few, and not for them.
— Vita

 

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Macho Macho Man

 

On Wednesday, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for Montana’s lone seat in the United States House of Representatives, allegedly body-slammed and then punched a reporter for The Guardian newspaper, Ben Jacobs. Listening to the audio of the encounter, however, and reading the eyewitness reports of others who were present, there really was no “allegedly’ about it. Gianforte was supposedly upset with Jacobs over a question he asked and maybe how he asked it. As much as the Gianforte campaign tries to spin it, all that really doesn’t matter except to the true believers for whom he can do no wrong. Gianforte assaulted another man who was simply doing his job, and whether Gianforte and his supporters agree with the reporter’s politics or his methodology matters not one whit and is no excuse for Gianforte’s actions or reactions. Gianforte is in the rough and tumble of politics now, and he’s no longer the big shot in charge of his own business empire who dare not be questioned by the hoi polloi: grow a thicker skin or stay out of politics, Gianforte, a lesson you could learn alongside your colleague, Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).

Chris Masters and MVP (Dec 2009)
World Wrestling Entertainment superstars Chris Masters (left) and MVP (right) perform for the troops on December 4, 2009, in Holt Stadium at Joint Base Balad, Iraq; photo by US Army Sgt. Ryan Twist.

Not to excuse Gianforte in the least, but this kind of incident has been in the works for the past year or more, and the mainstream media has been complicit in its development. The Thug-in-Chief, when he was on the campaign trail in 2016, routinely ostracized the media at his rallies and encouraged his supporters to berate them to the point of violence. Mainstream media outlets walked a tightrope regarding this behavior, because while it demeaned their efforts and made life harder for individual reporters, ratings were great and ad revenue was way up. Viewers and readers appeared to want some Jerry Springer style mayhem in their political reporting, and the media executives were prepared to give it to them and count the dollars rolling in, never mind that there would be a reckoning some day. The reckoning is now, but holding it in check may be too late for all of us. We were the ones who tuned in for this ugly, violent show, after all, and blaming the media does not get us off the hook. There’s no denying the television remote control comes with a channel changer and an off button, and there are other news outlets, particularly online, that do not cater to the basest urges of the voting public.

Greg Gianforte, now the Republican Congressman from Montana after his win on Thursday, has his own hypocritical tendencies to wrestle with after his assault on Wednesday, if in fact he is capable of that much introspection. Probably not. It wouldn’t be in character, given his background and proclivities. Public apology aside, he nonetheless probably feels entirely justified in his actions and recognizes no hypocrisy in them whatsoever. His supporters certainly don’t. The more important question that needs answering is how we the public will ultimately react to the ongoing freak show of thugs seeking political office, or already in office, who have been encouraged to let loose their worst behavior by the signals they are getting from the top. Do we reject them and say we will tolerate no more like them? Or do we continue to watch passively and ghoulishly like rubberneckers at a traffic accident, or the even more base viewers of the trashy Jerry Springer show? Don’t count on media executives to elevate the tone of civil discourse. They’re interested only in profits, make no mistake about that, and pay no attention to anything they say in contradiction to that imperative. In a democracy, what’s left of it at least, we get the government we deserve. Looking around at our politicians now, that doesn’t speak very well of us, does it?
― Vita

 

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