Thursday, August 30, 2012

Puking over Republicans

I’m noticing one overriding fact in writing about Republicans as they leer towards the end of their convention. I feel more and more nauseated by having to watch them, listen to them, sniff their pasty souls and outrageous deceptions. As one vivid example, Republicans have spent the last year and more raising alarms about the chief problem facing our country: the deficit. We owe trillions of dollars, is their mantra, and Obama has been the most irresponsible president in history in running up that debt. But as Matt Taibbi pointed out in a hard-hitting article in Rolling Stone yesterday (Aug. 29), it is actually Republicans, and Mitt Romney in particular, who are the debt mongers. Here is what he says:

Mitt Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth.
What Taibbi is referring to, of course, is Romney’s reign at Bain Capital, the “private equity” company he headed for years, and through which he made his big money. That’s because the way “leveraged buyouts” (LBOs) work is by the gathering of a small amount of capital (by companies like Bain) with which to borrow huge amounts of money (borrowing a lot with only a little is called “leverage”) from the likes of Goldman Sachs, so they can take over a given company. One example Taibbi uses is the buyout of KB Toys. In that case, Bain put up $18 million of its own, and then borrowed no less than $302 million from investment banks to complete the deal. Then Bain induced KB Toys to “redeem $121 million in stock and take out more than $66 million in bank loans - $83 million of which went directly into the pockets of Bain's owners and investors, including Romney.” Long story short, KB Toys went into bankruptcy (because, you see, the company is saddled with the huge debt Bain borrowed to buy it, and has to pay it off, often an impossibility, even after laying off half its workers), while Bain earned a return of “at least 370% on the deal” or up to 900% if the assertion of Big Lots, LB Toys’ former parent company, is correct. In dollar terms, that is, Bain added more than $300 million in debt to KB Toys, and took out more than $120 million in cash via fees and other perks. As usual, they managed to do this by giving big bonuses to the company’s top managers: “CEO Michael Glazer got an incredible $18.4 million, while CFO Robert Feldman received $4.8 million and senior VP Thomas Alfonsi took home $3.3 million.” Of course, mere workers were left with no jobs and no money at all when the company, formerly a successful maker of things, went belly up.
            Now we have Mitt Romney, and his current attack dog, Paul Ryan (but really, doesn’t Ryan look like some bug-eyed Disney cartoon?) excoriating President Obama for piling up $5 trillion in debt. This is the Republican mantra. Debt will bring down our country. Debt is the cancer eating away at the American dream. Government simply can’t afford to spend any money on frills—by which they mean, of course, social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or any kind of welfare programs whatever (other than corporate welfare, of course). Austerity, that’s the only way to get out of our debt crisis. And the fact that Mitt is the great debt creator himself, or that economic history has proven that austerity fails to solve depressions, and in fact makes them worse—because the problem, as Paul Krugman has pointed out endlessly, is that austerity reduces employment, and people without jobs can’t afford to spend money, so businesses don’t invest, having no one to sell to, hence the depression—matters not a jot. Romney and most Republican movers and shakers, that is, are investors. And investors make their money by being paid back in currency that is more, not less valuable. If money that debtors pay back is less valuable, then investors lose. This is the whole story in a nutshell. The deficit becomes the prime concern of the investor class because they fear that inflation rises from it; and inflation, whether it be rising prices, or an increase in the money supply (which is what finances stimulus programs to put people back to work), cheapens the value of the dollars they have invested. Being paid back in cheaper dollars is a loss to them. What they really want is to be paid back in more valuable dollars—the result of deflation. They can’t opt for too much deflation, of course, because that would bring down the whole system. But enough deflation to bring sufficient pain to the poor bastards who have borrowed from them, and a somewhat greater return on their investments, is just right. This is the core of the “hard, courageous” choices they pretend to make as leaders: pain and deprivation for the working stiffs, the ones who borrow, so the investor class and financiers can have ever bigger cars and houses and yachts and private schools for their precious offspring.
            This makes the upcoming election starker than any in recent memory. If the Republicans manage to convince the benighted American public of the rightness of their deficit analysis, and win this election to put Romney in the driver’s seat, with a Republican congress to allow him to implement his austerity program (austerity for you and me, that is, not for the investor class who can count on lower tax rates and bigger loopholes in which to hide their money), watch out. The nation will be even more the plaything of the moneyed class, while the so-called “entitlement” programs that keep the unemployed from falling off the edge entirely, will be decimated. We simply can’t afford them, will be the Republican rationale. Which is to say, we simply can’t afford the poor.
            What we will be able to afford are even more and bigger mansions for the likes of corporate raiders like Romney, and even better financial deals for his backers—the Goldman Sachses, the Morgan Stanleys, the Citigroups, and dear old Sheldon Adelson. I may need a whole blog to cover the latter—the most foul, scabrous creature that has appeared on a national scene since Charles Dickens was portraying them in his novels—but here, suffice it to say, this is the guy who earns his money running a gambling empire, the Sands Corporation, that is even now under investigation by the Justice Department for allegations of bribery (in China) and money laundering (everywhere). Nice fellow. And Adelson has said in no uncertain terms, that he will personally spend at least $100 million to get Republicans elected not just to the presidency, but to Congress as well. If he succeeds, of course, there will be a new Attorney General, and (he no doubt hopes and intends) his legal problems will go away. There will also be a more generous and cooperative (read ‘obsequious’) policy towards Israel’s Likudniks, as well as a more aggressive policy towards Iran and other Israeli “enemies” like Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians, and just about the whole middle east.
            In short, a disaster. So while earlier I had suggested that it might be time for progressives to start thinking in terms of third-party candidates, the situation has become too dire for that. Obama must win a second term. Otherwise, we will be buried beneath a deluge of corporate money and power the likes of which we haven’t seen since Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and their fellow robber barons ran the government as their own private fiefdom—though not even then would they have dared put one of their own, nakedly proclaiming his greed, in the White House.
Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Akin & Geller: Comrades in Crazy

Everyone has by now heard of the inflammatory, idiotic statement made by Congressman and Senatorial candidate, Todd Akin of Missouri. In response to a question about his stand on abortion in cases of pregnancy from rape, Akin replied: 
“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  
Of course in the furor that resulted—with even Republican pooh-bahs, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, urging Akin to drop a candidacy that was not only hurting Republican chances to unseat current Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri, but Republicans across the country—Akin tried to clarify his remarks and apologize (but not drop out of the race). It was only his “words, not what’s in his heart” that he was expressing, insisted Akin. Just a little word mistake—the explanation of our time: “I misspoke one word in one sentence on one day and all of a sudden, overnight, everybody decides, well, Akin can't possibly win.” Gee, what’s a public figure to do? That one word, according to Akin, was “legitimate” which he insists people misapplied to the “rape” rather than “the female body shutting down.” And Akin then cited anti-abortion quack Jack Willke, who wrote a letter supporting Akin’s claim that women often make false claims of rape—as in the whole Roe v. Wade case, whatever that means. What, are Repubs now saying that Roe v Wade was supported by ‘illegitimate’ rape cases? These people are something, aren’t they?
            But even if we grant him his “misplaced modifier” excuse, Akin’s past record as a Congressman, and the entire Republican Party’s, for that matter, gives the lie to that excuse. In fact, Akin and the House Republicans sponsored and passed a 2011 bill to redefine rape—The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act—further restricting the use of federal money in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. That is, the word ‘rape’ would have been changed to “forcible rape,” presumably so that no mild rape cases (i.e. not “legitimate,” which is to say, I suppose, “fake” rape) would qualify for abortion funding. So we can see that here is where Akin’s mis-speaking actually derived from. He apparently wants to make sure a women is beaten good and proper before she can qualify for an abortion—and even then. Because as McCaskill pointed out, Akin opposed a Missouri law against spousal rape because of his fear that such a law “might be used as a tool against husbands in a ‘messy divorce.’” And we couldn’t have that, now, could we? More than that, the now-sanctimonious Republican leaders urging Akin to withdraw, aren’t doing so out of any moral scruples or late-breaking concern for women. It’s all political to them—because now, this Akin flareup has drawn attention to their default stance on rape and abortion. Which is clear to see in the already-written Republican Party Platform about to be rolled out (or covered up) next week. Even as the Akin bomb was exploding, that is, the Republican Platform Committee was approving draft language for proposing a “Human Life Amendment” to the Constitution that would give legal protection to the unborn (with no exceptions for rape or incest). That would, of course, make any abortion quite problematic, if not outright illegal, jeopardizing as never before Roe v Wade. And to add a little spice to the idea, the platform committee later passed a measure to oppose FDA approval of drugs like RU-486, thus effectively preventing the sale of “any drug that terminates life after conception.” Thank god these things are “only” in the platform and stand little chance of passing into real laws. But still, as an indicator of how the zealots in the modern Republican Party are thinking (and note, the Human Life Amendment proposal was there in the last party platform as well), it’s pretty scary.  
            To top off the comedy, another Republican Congressman, Steve King of Iowa, supported Akin’s no-pregnancy-from-rape assertion by saying that he, King, just hadn’t heard of any cases brought to him “in any personal way,” but would be open to discussion about it. Juan Cole then pointed out, in a response to King, that not only are 32,000 American rape victims made pregnant by rapists every year, but that “science has actually found that raped women are more likely to get pregnant” (Juan Cole, Reader Supported News, August 22). Cole also referred to the thousands of pregnancies that result from rapes in war zones like Bosnia and elsewhere across the globe. But of course, such “facts” do not impress the likes of King and Akin, or, for that matter, the Republican Party zealots like Paul Ryan.
            Which leaves the rest of us with the hope that ever more Republican crazies will keep putting their stupid feet in their stupid mouths right up through election day.
            Speaking of which, yet another crazy has managed to get her racist venom plastered on Muni buses in the city of San Francisco. Here’s the “ad” Muni buses currently carry:
            “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”
            The author of these “civilized” sentences is one Pamela Geller, head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative—an organization deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (isn’t it amazing how racists/fascists always manage to portray their hate as “defense” of “freedom”?). Geller has managed to browbeat Muni to run her ad because she claims that the First Amendment protects her right to free speech. Her claim was given added force by a federal judge last month who, in a case Geller brought against the New York Metropolitan Transportation Agency—which refused to run her ads—ruled against the NY Met agency by saying the ad was protected speech.
            But doesn’t implying that Muslims are “savages” sound like hate speech? It does to me. It apparently sounds like hate speech to many American Jewish groups as well. But not to a federal judge. And so, Muni buses in our bastion of free love, San Francisco, are carrying Pamela Geller’s crazy hate message emblazoned on their sides.
            In case you don’t remember Pamela Geller, she was one of the main organizers of the demonstrations and anti-Muslim rant against the downtown Manhattan project, known originally as Cordoba House and later as Park51, to build a mosque and community center. With Robert Spencer, she took over an organization known as Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) that has continued its inflammatory campaign against Muslims in America. Her blog regularly insults Muslims, such as in a video implying that Muslims practice bestiality with goats, and cartoons depicting Mohammed with a pig’s face. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, she has also denied the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces in Srebrenica, calling it a myth. She has spoken favorably of Stalin’s forced relocation and execution of Chechen Muslims after WWII, arguing erroneously that the Chechens were allied with Hitler. She has also claimed that President Obama is the “love child” of Malcolm X. Below are some other Geller gems cited by the SPLC:
            “Obama is a third worlder and a coward. He will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords.” (on her blogsite, 4/13/10.)
            “Islam is not a race. This is an ideology. This is an extreme ideology, the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth.” (on Fox’s “Follow the Money,” 3/10/11.)
            “Hussein [meaning President Obama] is a muhammadan. He’s not insane…he wants jihad to win.” (on, 4/11/10.)  
            Pamela Geller is not insane either, at least not clinically. What she is is another wealthy zealot (her money came from two car dealerships enabling known drug dealers and thugs to buy cars using fake identities) who has gone off the rails trying to defend against what she calls “fallacious anti-Israel propaganda,” and who has become, according to her onetime collaborator, Charles Johnson, “an anti-muslim ‘hatemonger.’” As the SPCL points out, after Geller criticized the Islamic halal practice of slaughtering animals for food in September 2010, Johnson pointed to the almost identical kosher practice, observing, “My GOD she is stupid.” (see the whole file on Geller at SPCL’s website:
            Sadly, stupid and/or crazy people with money and/or influence can punch large holes in the fabric of democracy. And we seem to have, in this nation at this time, an ample supply of them. It’s going to take work to prevent them from taking us down the well-worn path.   
(P.S.: Just yesterday, yet another crazy, this time in New Hampshire, vowed that, as sheriff, he could use deadly force to stop an abortion doctor. His name is Frank Szabo, he’s a Tea Party Republican, and he’s running for sheriff of Hillsborough County, the largest county in New Hampshire. Republican crazies: the gift that never stops giving.) 

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Individualism Delusion

All the demagoguery of the presidential election season coming at us 24-7, plus the recent hoopla over Olympic athletes and their “reaching of goals,” has set me thinking about the rampant individualism that rules, or purports to rule, our world. Pols like Romney and his new running mate, Paul Ryan, are desperate to demonstrate a) their record of success either in business or politics or both, and b) their possession of “plans” to solve the crises du jour instantly, and for the foreseeable future. In a similar way, the gold medalists, prompted by fawning interviewers, love to point out how they’ve been planning and willing and training for their moment of triumph for years, and thus fully deserve to luxuriate in their success. The background for all this, for all the shouting of USA! USA! at the Olympics, is the confirmation of our most cherished idea: that determined individuals are the engines of success, and that all any person needs is drive and will and a refusal to bow to any handicaps or obstacles to reach the summit of human or national achievement. I did it, I made it, I alone am the author and agent of my own glory (sometimes with a sign of the cross or a pointing to the sky to acknowledge that my personal god has, of course, helped me because he is the most powerful of all gods, and hence, though busy, able to specifically concern himself with my welfare as an individual.)
            Included in all this is an implied dismissal of the part played by any other factor, be it luck, or the bounty of nature, or my genetic or financial or social inheritance, or any outside contribution whatever. The idea is that we in the modern world succeed on our own. We succeed as individuals by being individualists, even up to and including being consciously selfish and competitive where other individuals, species, or nations are concerned. We get to be number one by not being squeamish about fighting for our place at the head of the line, at the top of the heap, by standing up for ourselves and making clear that we will crush all competition if that is what it takes to be number one--indeed, that we enjoy the competition, that we shine brightest when the prize is on the line, when victory can be seized by a sheer effort of will that pushes us to beat the hell out of whoever is behind us or beside us or outside us. Life is a brutal competition after all, and not for the faint of heart.
            This, of course, is at the heart of the battle between Republicans and Democrats in the current election; with Romney and Ryan as the prime exhibits in this paean to individualism. Romney touts himself as the “self-made” billionaire, the clear-eyed wizard of finance who made billions by buying up faltering companies and “turning them around” to be sold at a nice, fat profit. To do this, he had to be quick, and ruthlessly efficient at not wasting time or mental energy worrying about silly things like unions or people getting fired  or communities getting devastated, or any of the other soft-headed concerns so dear to liberals. Efficiency and profit had to be all; followed, when the money poured in, with more cleverly efficient ways to avoid taxes and hide his gains in offshore Swiss or Cayman Island accounts. All of which was perfectly “legal” and perfectly understandable to most Americans. He did it alone, he did it his way, and he has, so the song goes, the perfect right to keep his hard-won earnings. All of it. Paul Ryan sings a similar song. His grandfather (comparable to Romney’s father, who made his fortune in automobiles) earned millions building roads paid for by the government, and so left for little Paulie the right and leisure to go to Washington and become, all on his own, the courageous spear-carrier for the Republican right, unafraid to make “hard choices.” (Ryan’s wife Janna, from a similarly prominent Oklahoma farm/political family, spent a decade in Washington herself, first as a congressional aide and then as a corporate lobbyist for such business stalwarts as cigar makers, logging giants, pharmaceutical bandits, health maintenance organizations and nuclear power plants.) And so we get Paulie’s mantra: freedom comes from god (and/or wealthy families), not from government. With that freedom, we individuals should be able to do what we want with our money (primarily keep it), send our kids to whatever private or charter schools we choose—using government vouchers to pay for them—and even turn health care into a voucher system so we, as individuals, can get whatever health coverage we can afford without having to come in contact with all those unsavory types who can’t pay to cover themselves and thus want ever more of our taxes to pay for them. Because it’s our money, earned (or inherited or stolen) by our individual effort fair and square; so we shouldn’t have to give it to a wasteful, money-hungry government determined to share it with lazy losers and odorous freeloaders.
            We all recognize and respond to this, of course, because we’re all subject to the same selfish, self-aggrandizing impulse. When we succeed at something, we want to take full credit for it. It was due to our hard work, our intelligence, our persistence, our rare insight or foresight. When things go wrong, on the other hand, we tend to attribute the failure to others, or bad luck, or our parents’ incapacity, or the animosity or perversity of the outside world. More specifically, we tend to view ourselves, our conscious selves located somewhere in our heads, as generally in control, as the decision makers, the agents of our perception and action who size up a situation and then make a rational, informed decision about what or who or how to choose. We comparison shop for a car or a house, we consult the experts and our friends, we calculate our budget, and we make the right decision. When deciding about a new friend or a new job, we imagine ourselves taking everything into account, mulling over our options, and deciding based on our best reasoned judgment (being careful to choose friends who will ratify our judgment).
            The truth, though, is that our decision-making process is far less rational and considered than we think. Danel Kahneman has written a whole book—Thinking Fast and Slow—about this, and it is sobering indeed. The basic idea is that our thinking and decision-making process depends on two systems which Kahneman calls System 1 (our intuitive process that operates very rapidly, and below the level of consciousness) and System 2 (the slower, conscious, logical system with which we identify.) What Kahneman shows us, with countless examples and variations, is the extent to which an alarmingly high percentage of our decisions are in fact made by System 1—that is, quickly, based on rapid impressions and ancient responses that take place below our level of consciousness. As Kahneman notes, “cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.” This means that thinking in this way is subject to visceral responses (one experiment showed how people presented with odd pairings of words like bananas and vomit tend to immediately associate a tasty fruit with nausea, and hence display a rapid tensing and avoidance tendency to bananas) that happen below the level of awareness. What is happening is that “System 1 makes as much sense as possible of the..oddly juxtaposed words…by linking the words in a causal story” so as to prepare for a possible threat. That is what System 1 is needed for, designed for: real world threats that often do not afford an organism the luxury of time and slow, rational consideration of all the evidence. When an instant response—to loud sound, or an unknown shape or smell—can be the difference between life and death, it is far better to be quick, and safe, than sorry. Hence our System 1 responds rapidly, even when the “threat” is a silly juxtaposition of words like “banana” and “vomit.” The well-known response of “priming” works via this same system: in an experiment at NYU, students were asked to assemble four-word sentences from a group of five words. One group had neutral words, while another had these: Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. The students thought this was a test of verbal skill, but it was not, for when finished, participants were asked to walk down the hall to another experiment. The walk was the real subject of the experiment, for it was timed. And the experimenters found that those students who had made sentences from the words suggesting “old age” actually walked down this hallway far more slowly than the others! Mere words and associations of those words primed a physical behavior, walking; thinking of old age made people walk older. Of course, many people who take part in, or hear of priming can’t believe that they could be so affected. That is because their System 2—the rational, conscious part that they consider to be themselves—believes that it is in charge. When confronted with evidence that it is not, people bridle with disbelief.
            More important, when System 1 jumps to unwarranted conclusions, based on its rapid response to limited information, System 2, always seeking coherence, will often endorse those intuitive responses, in order to have the world make sense (“we are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world,” notes Kahneman). Such an endorsement of intuitive beliefs can operate in a political system too, as when people allow their likes and dislikes (immediate impressions based in System 1) to determine their beliefs about the world. If a person likes the Affordable Care Act, for example, he would tend to believe in its great health benefits and the reasonableness of the costs. If a person dislikes Obamacare, however, then the benefits seem negative and the costs outrageous and Obama a damned socialist.  
            More than that, people tend to be overly confident in their beliefs, including the belief that those beliefs are the product of rational thought (System 2) rather than rapid impressions (System 1). What this means is that, despite the evidence, people who have had their beliefs confirmed—as for instance, those, like CEOs, who have been successful in business, or the stock market—tend to be overly-optimistic. Like political and military leaders, they feel both smart and lucky and therefore try to convince others to follow them. As Kahneman puts it:
            Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: the people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.

Anyone who has looked at the world carefully, of course, knows that luck does not last, that what goes up must come down, and that the complexity of any life situation can rarely be reduced to the rapid intuitions of System 1 that are often responsible for  decisions (think only of George W. Bush and his great faith in his “gut feelings” when he took the entire nation and half the world into the disaster that was, and still is, Iraq.)
            But the inadequacy of individualism only begins with personal psychology. The more we learn from science and life itself, the more we realize that only a fool could imagine that he or she is in full control of life events, or responsible for their successful outcome. Each of us is a mere speck in the vast panoply of a universe that seems to have no end. Billions of years of evolution have made each of us improbable and improbably-complex beings possible. The very elements like carbon and iron of which we are made required the massive heat of the interior of stars to forge their structure, and further billions of years—once life, another massive improbability, had somehow emerged—to perfect the intricate structures of cells, and then organs, and then sophisticated neural systems and finally consciousness itself. How much did any single, proud “individualist” have to do with that? How much do any of us have to do with the maintenance of the ideal conditions on this planet—another massive improbability—that keeps oxygen at levels sufficient for us to even breathe? How much do individuals have to do with their own breathing, with the pumping of blood through their organs and arteries and veins? How much control do they have over their cellular machinery and its myriad changes and creations of enzymes and depletion of wastes? The mystery of all this, plus the chance encounters that often determine the courses of our lives—the meeting with someone with whom we find a common objective in life, a compatible heartbeat in love—and the very fact that we take the right turn on a highway to avoid a collision or the right airplane to avoid a crash or have had the good fortune to be born in a country that has never been invaded or at a time or a place with parents that foster our survival, is enough to humble even the proudest among us. Or should. And isn’t it this that is the basis of the most wise of religions, of the most sophisticated of wisdom traditions? Is it not this that is the basis of the gratitude and the sacrifice that is traditionally offered to those deities who are seen to be in charge of this unimaginably complex and favorable (to us) system of life?
            Sadly, our hyper-individualists seem to think that recognizing this, recognizing our truly deep dependency on and identity with all else in the universe, on all others on this planet, on every tiny mite and spider and amoeba and the bacteria in our guts and in our very mouths that make our digestion possible; and the processes of mineral uptake in plants and their ability to synthesize from the very air, from sunlight, the nutrients upon which we as mammals depend for our very existence—this dependence on all else (including the roads and bridges and schools and fire departments all built and managed and maintained by those governments they love to excoriate) somehow diminishes them. Diminishes their glory. Diminishes their sense of self-sufficiency. But that self-sufficiency is an illusion. A most pernicious illusion in fact. For it allows them to exult in their pride—the deadliest of sins—and delude themselves into thinking that they can ‘make it on their own.’ True wisdom has always known that this was wrong. Wrong headed. Wrong minded. The source of the deepest ignorance. And yet, our entire nation is built on this ignorance. We alone discovered the New World, the New Man. We alone conquered an entire continent. We alone, the special nation, subsequently conquered the world. We the unique nation, the nation blessed uniquely by a unique god, are the nation destined by god to be a model for all nations. The model itself based on the uniqueness of the individual, self-sufficient, making it on his own. With the contrary notion—that of dependency, that we are all, all humans, all creatures, all beings in this together—taking the form of anathema. Paganism and devil worship. The corruption of slave nations, the antithesis of freedom.
            In fact, that dependency, that togetherness and its nobility is just the opposite, the real way to true freedom, true worth, true uniqueness. I have always liked the take of the Hwa Yen Buddhists in imaging this, this reverence for all life, for all being, this knowing that all, no matter how humble or apparently useless or failed, have equal worth. The world, said the Hwa Yen Buddhists, is like a huge structure, a house. And each of us, each allegedly separate being, is like one of the rafters of that house. Or one of the nails or one of the roofing boards or windows or pieces of concrete holding it up. Both unique, and integral to the whole. For without each rafter, each nail, each bit of wood or steel or concrete that goes into making it up, without each element in place, there is no house at all. A house without one of its rafters is not actually a house, said the Hwa Yen Buddhists. A house, to be a house, must be a complete house. And that is what life is like. That is what being is like. A whole. Each element, each component, each being, each organ, each cell is necessary and integral to the whole. And so deserves the utmost respect. Deserves the acknowledgment that it depends, intimately and mutually and utterly, on all the others. None of us can thrive, none of us can survive, none of us can even pretend to be on our own. None. Not Mitt Romney, not Paul Ryan, not the homeless guy stretched out on the sidewalk, not the Olympian who wins gold, not the most despised of creatures in a sewer or the most venerated bishop of Rome or president of a republic—none can survive on his own or her own. To pretend that one can, to pretend that one is a self-sufficient individual with no need or concern for others, or for government, or for regulations, or for public schools or a decent system of care for the aged or the halt or the lame, is simply ignorant. Ignorant of the most fundamental laws of life. And to put faith in such ignorance would be ignorance itself.
            Which is not to say that millions of people won’t do so. Which is not to say that millions don’t already pervert the teachings of the very god they claim as their own, the god who said “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do for me.” No, they will pervert it and distort it and deceive themselves into the idea that their only connection to the “least of these” is to horde enough wealth to be able to trickle some charity upon them. A penny from the heaven they imagine themselves inhabiting. But this is ignorance, pure and simple, and will, sooner or later, be seen through. And all the alleged wizards seen as the pathetic, frightened faux-individuals that they are.  

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, August 13, 2012

No Shortage of Weenies

So the Mitt (or is it the Mutt?) has finally chosen his VP—Paul Ryan.
            The first question that popped into my head was: Dear God, where do the Republicans get all these dweebs? And then it occurred to me: the Grand Old Party just never runs out of Weenies to put on the national stage. I mean look at the lineup they had vying for the Presidential nomination before Mitt outspent them all, led by that queen of shrill vapidity, Michelle Bachman. Has anyone ever seen her like? And then there was the Newt, like some thatch-headed extra for a revolutionary war film who forgot his uniform. Followed by that refugee from a minstrel show, Herman Cain; with Texas’s Rick Perry looking as if he’s forgotten his blunderbuss but remains eager to shoot someone, anyone; and Ron Santorum blathering as if he’s forgotten his Bible while trying to figure out whether Roman Catholics are supposed to read the Bible in the first place. Blunderers all; thundering idiots you would not ever want to be caught cornered at a party with. I met an aspirant to some minor office at a party in New Jersey once when I was just out of college. What a tool. He was the type of guy you knew from school or work who everyone was always trying to slip away from. The phrase an editor colleague of mine once used to describe another colleague is perfect here: “He has halitosis of the soul.” It’s a condition the Republican party has made its own.
            Hence the current VP nominee, Paul Ryan. Does he not look like his mother forgot to tell him how to tuck his shirt in or comb his hair? Earnest, self-righteous, and dorky in the extreme. Eagerly proclaiming his intention to save the republic from the flaming socialist-commie-teacher-darkie government revenooers he sees everywhere trying to spend us into oblivion. Save the nation: cut the fat out of the budget: which is to say, get all the freeloaders—the poor, the aged, the minorities, the halt and the lame—off the backs of the good Americans (like the Koch Brothers, his big backers) who work for a living! No free lunch! We need to take the hard steps to get our house in order (except for the military of course; Ryan, an avid hunter, loves the gun-toters; and also excepting the platinum health care reserved for himself and other Congressionals). And it occurs to me: what has happened to the Irish in the state of Wisconsin? I mean, the real Irish of old in cities like New York and Boston who were pols of the old school, ready to breathe fire to implement social justice. Folks like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mary “Mother” Jones of the Wobblies, Honey Fitz in Boston and the Boston Kennedys and the Walkers and the Daleys who, though they were operators, at least operated a good part of the time on behalf of working people and the underdog. But Wisconsin! First they give us Joe McCarthy, that demagogue of a witch hunter who saw commies in every closet. Then they give us Scott Walker, the current governor and model dweeb, another lap dog of the Koch brothers ridding the public payroll of all those unionists and government pensioners. And now Paul Ryan, with his budget fix that will enrich the rich and disembowel the poor, with his recent quote: “American rights come from God, not government.” Oh really? Weren’t there some government guys who fought and died for those rights? Weren’t there some Jeffersons and Franklins in Philadelphia who secured those rights in a government document?
            In a way, though, Ryan is the perfect fit for that original dweeb, the Mitt. If ever two pols were a match in their awkwardness, in their disregard for common people, in their rigidity of hair and thought and white paranoia, it’s these two. Who could ever imagine either one of them with an emotion? with a human response to suffering? with a genuine response to a song—other than a pre-planned hand-on-breast-for-the-cameras pose for the national anthem? Though they try to feign it, of course, and play down the harshness of their plans, and pretend to be all for the people. Yeah, but which people? The ones who love vouchers, is who they mean; the ones who want to shed tears over the unborn, but who are perfectly happy to condemn living breathing human beings of the “wrong sort” to perpetual servitude.
            And all we can hope is that a majority of American voters will feel that heartlessness, will feel that void where humanity normally lives, even if they can’t quite figure out intellectually that a vote for these guys is a vote for the return of the white-bread ideologues who nearly brought the house down in the first place, and fully intend to do it again if given the chance.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mars Landing Gets the Gold

It’s really curious how our mental values work. When the latest Mars lander, Curiosity, successfully made it to the Martian surface yesterday, JPL Director Charles Elachi compared his engineering team to Olympic athletes: “This team came back with the gold.”
            I’d say Elachi, and the rest of the public, had it ass backwards. If there was a significant event yesterday, it wasn’t a gold for Usain Bolt in the 100 meters or the failure of McKayla Maroney to get one in the vault; it was the amazing technological and human feat of propelling a 1-ton vehicle equipped with a laboratory over 325 million miles from Earth to Mars, and precisely landing the thing on the surface of a barren planet as softly as a baby in a crib. This is because, unlike the previous Rover missions to Mars, this vehicle is too big to be padded with balloons and bounced on the Martian surface; it would have fatally injured the equipment. Rather, Curiosity had to race through the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph in its container capsule, which then was braked to a stop hovering about 200 yards above the Martian surface, to then lower Curiosity by cables at this gentle 2 miles per hour so it could land safely in the Gale crater. This maneuver was so fraught with danger and uncertainty that NASA scientists described it as “7 minutes of terror.” No one knew if the cables would hold or be long enough, if the capsule would stop at the precise height required, if the rover would land right side up or ass over teakettle, or if the hovering rocket-powered capsule would disengage and crash where it was supposed to. There were no controls from the space center because communication was blacked out the entire time. The only controls were the ones programmed into the (I assume) computer doing the firing and lowering and disengaging. And yet, the whole thing worked as if it were a construction project around the corner being controlled by some engineer in the vehicle itself. If this doesn’t astonish even the most jaded luddite, then nothing ever will.
            Of course there will be lots of nay sayers. Why waste $2.5 billion on a useless, unmanned flight to a dead planet when our deficit is so large and dangerous? Why indeed. For one thing, the six-wheeled Curiosity, a lab in itself, will be working over the next two years to explore the 96-mile-diameter crater and the mountain nearby. Because it’s in a mountainous area, it can probe for elements at different age-levels in Martian history, just as geologists do on Earth. It has a robotic arm with a power drill to poke into rocks and scoop up soil to test for elements like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen associated with water, or the possible life of organisms. Its laser can zap distant rocks, presumably to find out their age and/or composition—notable because the Martian surface, devoid of the distortions from living processes that have changed Earth utterly from its original state, is covered with far older, more pristine rocks than anything on Earth. With the rover’s ability to roam the surface, its camera will be able to take and send more precise and detailed photos than ever before. This, in short, is a look deeper into planetary and solar history—which is to say our own history—than anything ever attempted.
            Of course, none of this can compare with the golds won by our athletes, or their emotional high-fives, or the fawning coverage by NBC’s team of “up close and personal” reporters trying desperately to elicit emotion or tears from the winners. After all, going faster through the water, or over a cinder track, or leaping higher or throwing a spear farther than one's rivals, is something the whole world must be primed to celebrate. Because doing such things proves to us that—well it must prove something. What I am afraid it mostly proves, though, is that we are all susceptible to hype and national breast-beating. What an amazing thing: Michael Phelps has won more gold medals than anyone in history. Whew! USA! USA! Well, it certainly must be nice for him, and for his mother. But must we be inundated with interview after interview, interspersed with commercials featuring this same swimmer day after day after day? How much do we really need to know about a guy who swims fast? or about post-pubescent (or is it pubescent-suspended?) girls who jump and swing from bars? Because the truth is, I much prefer just watching these athletes doing their thing, and marveling at what they can do, to hearing them babble about it. Once they get “up close and personal,” the thrill rapidly dissipates and what we come to realize is that these people are mostly freaks of nature. And when we learn that the Chinese government literally steals promising children from their parents and sequesters them in camps where they do nothing but practice all day every day for years under the stern guidance of their coaches, I want to call the whole thing child abuse. Heroes? Not in my book. And especially not when I also learn, from sports radical Dave Zirin, some of the more disturbing aspects of the Olympics in general. Zirin points out, for example, that not only is the IOC (International Olympic Committee) a quasi-nation state with a seat at the UN, it has arrogated to itself the power to trump national policies. So, when the Canadians in 2010 wanted to include women in some of their winter events along with men in Vancouver (which accords with their constitution), the IOC simply said no. It didn’t accord with IOC rules. And when this year an Australian athlete wanted to wear an aborigine flag on his t-shirt, the IOC forced him to remove it: the flag was not from an IOC-recognized nation. He could have worn a t-shirt with a corporate logo, but that’s apparently different. Worse, the IOC was apparently able to dictate to Great Britain a rule prohibiting local fish-and-chips establishments from including chips (French fries) with their fish in the vicinity of the Olympic center. Why? Because McDonald’s is one of the major Olympic sponsors, and McDonald’s insisted on having the exclusive franchise for French Fries at the Olympics.
            That sort of puts the Olympics into perspective as, in essence, a three-week long commercial in the guise of heroics via athletic competition. And since even the athletes now can sell themselves while they compete (by wearing logos, etc.), the commercialism of the whole thing becomes even more pronounced. Is it any wonder the Brits were willing to shell out over $15 billion, at last count (with some estimates going as high as $38 billion) to put this extravaganza on?
            Contrast that with the difficulty the Mars mission has justifying its puny $2.5 billion budget to an ignorant Congress, even after that gold-plated landing, even after traveling 325 million miles to a never-before-seen landscape, even with the possibility of a breathtaking leap forward in our comprehension of our solar system and ourselves, and you have a pretty good measure of what counts in our world.           

Lawrence DiStasi