The Family Dinner

 

Political centrists such as Bill Maher, the television talk show host, firmly believe that in order for Democrats to defeat the current president in the 2020 election they must choose a centrist candidate. In a recent debate on his show with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, Mr. Maher, among his other claims promoting his view, stated that President Barack Obama ran as a centrist in his 2008 campaign and that is why he won. Mr. Moore disputed this, stating that Mr. Obama ran as a progressive populist and had the courage to list his middle name “Hussein” on the ballot. The two bet the cost of a trip to Hawaii on the resolution of their dispute.

Norman Rockwell Mural (Marion County, Oregon scenic images) (marDA0166)
A mural replica in Silverton, Oregon, of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want painting, one of a series he did in 1943 illustrating the Four Freedoms articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Photo from the Oregon State Archives. While Mr. Rockwell was depicting an ideal promulgated by a liberal Democratic president, his choice of models and their placement in a hierarchy at the family dinner table fits in well with the current conservative mythos of how Americans should look and comport themselves.

 

It’s not clear who was right about the middle name issue and therefore who won the bet, but in any event it hardly matters since the important point is that Mr. Obama ran his campaign from the left of center and then governed from the center. In national defense matters, such as expanding his predecessor’s drone attacks around the world and vindictively pursuing whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, Mr. Obama was to the right of center. His stance toward governing should have been clear early on from his appointments of Wall Street insiders like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers to oversee the economy.

Barack Obama was never a fire-breathing liberal and never claimed to be one, though he did allow a lot of wishful thinking from liberal Democrats who wanted to believe he was more liberal then he was. They projected their wishes and hopes onto him, and being a politician he naturally turned that to his advantage. That wishful thinking can be glimpsed in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama in 2009 after he had done hardly anything to merit the award other than not being President George W. Bush. Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee do not vote in American elections, of course, but like liberal American voters weary of the belligerence and disregard for human rights of the George W. Bush administration, they were eager to project their hopes onto Mr. Obama.

Bill Maher has similarly profited from the projections of many liberals, who seem to think a person who is for the legalization of marijuana and against the policies and tenure of the current president cannot possibly be as reactionary as he really is in many ways. He is reactionary in his statements about Muslims and about gender politics and about how he believes political correctness is more corrosive to our democratic republic than the rapaciousness of capitalist exploitation. Most of all he is reactionary in his repeated assertions that no one to the left of himself among the Democrats can defeat the current president in 2020 because he believes most Americans are firmly in his, Bill Maher’s, camp on most everything that matters.



From Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, a diversity of viewpoints and attitudes, some more subdued than others.

 

Mr. Maher is wrong about the politics of most Americans, as he is wrong about his other more distastefully retrograde beliefs. Michael Moore pointed out in their debate how Mr. Maher’s assessment of where most Americans reside on the political scale was wrong, and that they are more liberal within the Democratic Party than the Party establishment cares to acknowledge. None of Bill Maher’s views would matter if it weren’t for how they are often cited by conservative media and politicians as supporting their agenda and given extra weight by them because they are supposedly expressed by a liberal. It suits their cause to have a “house liberal” of sorts.

The fiction of Mr. Maher’s liberalism is propped up also by uncritical viewers on the left who give his pontifications on Democratic politics more respect than they deserve. Reactionary centrists such as Mr. Maher are uncomfortable with the infighting that always prevails among Democrats, and they see it as giving aid and comfort to the other side while weakening their own. People like Bill Maher may as well decry the spots on a leopard. Dissension is in the nature of liberal Democratic Party politics; it’s what differentiates them from the other side, too many members of which fall obediently into line like good little authoritarians.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald in a December 2016 appearance on The Jimmy Dore Show. Warning: one naughty word.

Bill Maher is like the brother-in-law at a large family dinner where all the members are squabbling in a free wheeling manner, and he sits there with a slight smirk, believing he’s smarter than he really is and eager to toss out a snarky remark to show he’s superior to what’s going on around him at the table. He and people like him, with an authoritarian streak in their character despite the liberality of some of their views, cannot understand how argument and dissension strengthen, not weaken, Democratic Party politics, and ultimately democracy itself. Falling in line without questioning is for autocrats and their followers. The ancient Athenians were not without their fair share of faults, but today most people recognize their society, noisy and argumentative as the scenes at their family dinner tables might have been, as more worth honoring and emulating than the authoritarian society of the Spartans, who fell in line and did as they were told by their “betters”.
— Ed.

 

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Only the Best People

 

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
— Maya Angelou

In a recent poll conducted by Civic Science, 56% of Americans responded “No” when asked if Arabic numerals should be taught in the nation’s schools. Such breathtaking ignorance, as well as presumed bigotry, is enough to make the other 44% of Americans take to alcohol. Algebra would be more difficult without using Arabic numerals, even if there are a lot of letters mixed into the formulas. Substituting Roman numerals would only make the subject more confusing.


Civic Science also asked if the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” should be taught in science classes, and 53% said “No”, and of that percentage 73% were Democrats. That theory is actually the basis of the Big Bang theory. While the responses of the majority to both questions point up biases, the two questions do not do it in exactly the same way and therefore the responses are not entirely equivalent.

Arabic Numerals origin
The evolution of Arabic numerals, from top to bottom. Rendering by Vispec.

The key word in the first question is “Arabic”, a term for people living predominantly in North Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are Muslim. By itself, the term describes only an ethnic group. Loading “Arabic” with negative bias is entirely the work of those responding to the term. The wording of the poll question does a good job of not giving anything away to tilt respondents’ attitudes toward the term.

The wording of the other question does not do as good a job since it includes the loaded phrase “creation theory”. It is most likely the case that most respondents had never heard of Georges Lemaitre and his “creation theory”. It is also most likely the case, however, that they had heard the phrase “creation theory” before, a phrase freighted with associations to fundamentalist Christian pseudo-science, even if it was more widely known as “Creationism”.

In as much as the respondents to both questions were reacting with knee jerk tribalism to a word or phrase embedded in each question without really understanding the question, then they are equivalent in their wrong-headedness. In both cases, a more truthful response would have been “Don’t know”, although apparently the poll takers offered only “No opinion” as a third option, a slightly different idea in logic, and not in mere semantics. In that way, both questions tease out the victory of tribalism over knowledge, but it is only the majority responses to the question about “Arabic numerals” that betray bigotry as well as ignorance, much as some might say they are part of the same continuum.

A clip from the “Primacy of Number” section of the 2002 meditative documentary Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. Philip Glass wrote the music, Godfrey Reggio directed the film, and Jon Kane did the editing.

There are a fair amount of assumptions here in parsing the answers to these two deceptively simple polling questions, and assumptions after all play a big part in bigotry. There are also the words of wisdom from the poet Maya Angelou which led this post. We can make educated inferences based on our experience and not have them fall into the well of roiling, unreasoning emotional assumptions and inferences that is bigotry. We can wake up and smell the coffee, as it were, to what only the best people, as they would have us believe they are, are up to in their bad faith quest to subvert the best intentions and best efforts of many, many others to improve human and animal lives and conserve the gifts of the Earth.
— Ed.

 

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Lest We Forget

 

This Memorial Day marks the 150th anniversary of the holiday. When it was first formally celebrated, the holiday was a remembrance of Civil War dead and was called Decoration Day. Since 1868, Americans on Memorial Day have taken to visiting the graves of not just fallen soldiers, sailors, and marines, but those of their friends and relatives regardless of whether or not they died in military service to the country. Officially Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring the country’s war dead, but it has also become a day for remembering and honoring the near and dear, and most Americans usually do that by decorating the graves with flowers.

In western societies, placing flowers at grave sites goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even before, to the stone age, as archaeologists discovered not long ago. Since then, as Jews and Muslims have asserted their own cultural and religious preferences for honoring the dead, the tradition of remembering with flowers has remained mostly a Christian one in the west. There is an entire symbolism of flowers dating from the ancient Greek and Roman mythologists and carried on by Christians, but it’s a safe bet to guess most people pay little attention to such subtleties when picking out a specific flower or an arrangement of flowers to place at the grave of their loved one. Most likely they pick out something they themselves enjoy, or that they know was a favorite of the departed.


Spring in Guelma
Common poppies blooming in May 2015 in Guelma, a district in northeastern Algeria. Photo by Yaco24.

There is one flower symbol that remains widely understood, and it is the red poppy originating from the battlefields of Flanders in World War I, which has come to specifically memorialize military members dead from service in all wars since the so-called War to End All Wars. “In Flanders Fields”, a poem written by John McCrae, a Canadian who served in the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, noted the red poppies growing among the graves of soldiers buried after the Second Battle of Ypres. The fame of McCrae’s poem established the common red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, a tough plant long known in the region as a colonizer of disturbed ground, as the Remembrance Poppy thereafter.

It is worth noting that the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is native to the Mediterranean region and the Near East and yields opiates such as morphine, named for Morpheus, the god of dreams. Opium poppies were well known to the ancients for their anesthetic properties, a blessed relief for those wounded in battle or near death. It’s flower is not a symbolic reminder like the red poppy of those lost to the violence of war, but its value in easing suffering and bringing on the forgetfulness of sleep to those maimed and agonized by that violence makes it more important to those poor unfortunates, and certainly more useful. Rest in peace.
— Izzy

 

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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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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – Immigration Version

 

It seems it is human nature to need someone or some group to look down on and cast as the reason for one’s misfortunes. From vilification of Jews and now Muslims, to hatred of black people and now brown people, a lot of folks are always looking for a scapegoat. The rich and powerful know this as well as anyone, and are quick to take advantage of this tendency when it serves to turn away the attention of the masses from the true source of their economic stagnation, which is to say the kleptocracy of the rich and powerful.

 

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall; photo by Mark Burnett. People have always built walls, with varying degrees of effectiveness. This one was built by the Romans in the reign of the emperor Hadrian on the border of England and Scotland, to keep the Scots out of England. It turns out the Scots had more to fear from the English, just ask any Scot.
While it is no longer acceptable in open civil discourse to rant about the evils of the Jews and the blacks, and that sort of talk has been relegated to private conversations among like-minded peers, feelings of xenophobia and revulsion at The Other have found their outlet in public condemnation of Muslims and brown people as long as it is couched in terms of protection from terrorists or crackdowns on illegal immigration. There is probably just as much racism and visceral need for scapegoats as ever, it’s just that now, at least in public, peddlers of base emotional venting know to use code words and dog whistles. Everyone knows what the peddlers mean, but everyone can maintain deniability, whether plausible or not is a matter left to an individual’s tolerance for hypocrisy.

 

Regarding illegal immigration specifically, the facts are not as scary as the current administration cynically pretends they are, and there is a decent compromise solution called “permanent non-citizen resident status”, which the political science scholar Peter Skerry explains at length in a 2103 article in National Affairs. It’s interesting to note that since many Hispanic illegal immigrants are young men away from home and family and view their presence in the United States as a temporary employment situation only, they tend to be insular and not always on their best behavior, two characteristics which contribute to a poor view of them by the resident, mostly Anglo population.

The workers were “settlers in fact but sojourners in attitude.” . . . Not surprisingly, such transience is not confined to the workplace. Young people detached from the constraints as well as the supports of families back home exhibit what one sociologist refers to as “instrumental sociability,” characterized by transitory friendships, casual sexual encounters, and excessive drinking to a degree uncommon back home.

― Excerpted from “Splitting the Difference on Illegal Immigration” by Peter Skerry.

The phrase “instrumental sociability”, when referring to Hispanics, can conjure up a tinge of Tortilla Flat stereotyping, but the more accurate similarity in reference is to another subgroup in our culture, the military. The military also is composed of mostly young men who are away from home and family in what they view as a temporary situation, and they maintain an insularity from the community at large where they are based out of what amounts to a mutual, tacit agreement with the locals. The analogy doesn’t go far before breaking down, such as in discussions of the presence or lack of strong leadership and policing within the subgroup, but still it is ironic that many of the people in the larger culture who adulate the military with nearly onanistic devotion are the same ones who most loudly berate brown-skinned “illegals”.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard together sang the most famous version of “Pancho and Lefty”, a song written by Townes Van Zandt. Here, at a tribute to Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash sings a stirring version.

Before people with middle class and higher incomes, with college or higher educations, and with supposedly refined ethics, start congratulating themselves over how they are above looking down on people and scapegoating one group or another, they might reflect on the rhetoric following the 2016 presidential election when people just like them, and perhaps they themselves, were quick to berate stupid, bigoted rednecks for the disastrous outcome. The caricature that emerged of the typical voter for the Republican winner was of an Anglo male, middle-aged and older, working class and possibly unemployed, and an uneducated bigot as well. While that demographic did make up a significant part of the winner’s constituency, it was not the majority. The picture that has emerged of the majority is of people with middle class and higher incomes, with college or higher educations, possibly with refined ethics, and a great many of them were female. It is simpler and more satisfying, however, to berate the stupid, bigoted rednecks living in the trailer park on the other side of the railroad tracks than it is to grapple with how it is that your neighbor on your suburban cul-de-sac, the nice one you’ve known for thirty years and who looks after your place while you’re away on vacation, how that kindly neighbor could have voted that way and done that to you.

This is meant as no defense for being a redneck, because unlike other personal characteristics it is not intrinsic and immutable, but rather the culmination of a number of repugnant beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. People confuse rednecks with good ol’ boys. They are not the same. The protagonists in Deliverance were good ol’ boys; the moronic backwoodsmen they tangled with were rednecks. All this appears to stray far from the discussion of scapegoating illegal immigrants, but not really, because the outcome is ugly whatever the source, high or low, and whether the people at the receiving end are “bad hombres” or “deplorables”.
― Ed.

 

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A Good Day for Swearing

 

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”  ― Abraham Lincoln*

Today is Inauguration Day in the United States, and a new president will be sworn into office by Chief Justice John Roberts with the following words from Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”



“Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.
A cry of protest from long ago that is just as relevant today.

It has become a tradition for presidents to use a Judeo-Christian Bible when taking the oath of office. There is no demand in the Constitution or other legislation to swear on the Bible, or on any book. People taking an official oath may legally place their hand on their heart, and many do just that. The third paragraph of Article 6 of the Constitution implies that an oath taker could use any holy book he or she desires:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

When Keith Ellison, a Muslim, was elected to Congress from Minnesota’s 5th District in 2006, conservatives raised a fuss about whether the nation’s first Muslim elected to Congress should be allowed to take his oath of office using the Koran. In the end Ellison, a Democrat, used an English translation of the Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson.

What should be self-evident is that the words are what matter most about an oath of office, not the manner of taking it. How then to account for today’s outgoing President, a constitutional law scholar, signing into law the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, one section of which authorizes the president to order the military to arrest and indefinitely imprison people anywhere in the world, including American citizens? Today’s outgoing President now bequeaths that unconstitutional authority to the incoming President, a thin-skinned narcissist with a vengeful streak, the Tweeter-in-Chief. God DAMN it!
― Vita


“Dreams” by The Cranberries.
Like all dreams, this one is open to interpretation.

 

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