Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Go Away! Don't Come Back!

Here comes some news that's been subdued lately. And I'm really sorry to see it come around again. Jews are killing lots of Arabs; Arabs are killing a few Jews. Wouldn't be great if this problem would go away and not come back ever? (Allow me just one more hallucination before we leave 2008.) It sullies every new year, and it's been doing that for 60 years.

Last night watching Rachel Maddow--a new favorite (there are not enough hours in the day for a news junkie like me; I have to self-restrict my TV if I'm going to blog, read, do anything else productive; then what happens is I discover people like Rachel, and Oxford PhD, no less, doing the news)--and she tells us that the Gaza strip is about twice the size of Washington DC--360 square kilometers. [Actually, that's not quite right, Rachel. DC is 259 sq km. So a proper rendering would be something like "Washington DC is about three-quarters the size of the Gaza Strip.*] So let me see here: our buddies in Israel are just bombing the living shit out of place one-quarter again the size of our national capitol crammed with about 1.5 million people. Just what is funny about this picture?

Well, to me it's a bit like a full-grown guy whipping up on a two-year old. And here we are, we Americans, making excuses for the full-grown guy. Just like we always do. Since the eruption of this latest Arab-Israeli crisis a few days ago, the Bush administration has blamed Hamas for the outbreak of the violence and said that Israel is justified in retaliating. What the hell?

Chris Floyd's outrage about this is instructive:
Here is a simple, stone cold fact. You cannot read or hear the truth about what is happening in Gaza from any corporate media in the United States. The only thing you will find there are regurgitations of Israeli spin, which are themselves only regurgitations of the kind of spin that American militarists have put on their own depredations -- for centuries now.
Floyd reports an even more damnable piece of news: these attacks by Israel have been planned for months! They would have happened without any provocation at all.
Papers in Israel -- in Israel, but not the United States -- are reporting the truth: the murderous assault on Gaza was planned not only before the six-month ceasefire ended -- it was planned before the cease-fire even took effect. Indeed, the cease-fire was part of the military plan to decimate the civilian areas of Gaza; it was a hoax, a scam, a deliberate feint to buy time for military preparations -- precisely the same strategy followed by the Bush Regime (and its bipartisan Establishment supporters) in "going to the UN" to seek a "peaceful solution" to the "Iraqi crisis" -- when the invasion was already in the works.
So now we learn that the Administration is pressuring Israel to relent. Oh, really? Ya think? Civilian deaths in Gaza have now risen above 60 and total deaths there surpass 350. (Just out of curiosity, I'd like to know the original source for these numbers. I'd be willing to wager they are higher.) I don't know where the figures stand today. Some of them have been caused by GBU-39 smart bombs the US has supplied Israel with. My recollection is that the Hamas rocket attack on Israel that ostensibly provided the bogus rationale for the massive retaliation killed 3 Israelis.

I'm not exonerating Hamas, not by a long shot. These guys are stone crazy for so much as tossing a rock at those people to their east who are even crazier than they are. But if we cannot have justice, a prerequisite for peace, I believe in the doctrine of fairness. This is insane.

*Just how anal is this, this ridiculous obsession with accuracy? I've decided it's overcompensation for the poor estate to which accuracy and correctness, not to mention morality, manners, and consideration for other people, have fallen in the dying empire.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lists: I Love 'Em

It's that time of year for lists of stuff from the past year. You know, bests of, worsts of. That kind of thing. If I had any kind of memory at all, I'd construct my own list of stuff. But I'm doing good to remember last week, much less the whole year. So I have to rely on others to post decent lists for me. I've found a few, and I'll share:

The best list I've seen so far is Arianna Huffington's list of things she wants to forget about 2008. Most, as you might suspect, are politcally connected--several about McCain and Palin. I'm in broad general agreement with everything she lists, and thankfully, I can report that several items there I didn't have the foggiest idea about: Tricia Walsh-Smith, Josef Fritzl in Holland (mein Gott im Himmel!), Levi Johnston (whom I should have remembered, but why would anybody want to remember this nobody?), and Ashley Dupre (ditto).

I like movies, so I searched out a few lists of these: Rotten Tomatoes critics' picks for best and worst movies of 2008. Also Newsday's list, and the nice article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Then I discovered something that can only be described as a treasure trove for list lovers, trivia nuts, and information junkies: Fimoculous.com's concatenation of list of best-of lists for everything from ads to books to gadgets to music to websites and words. Be forewarned: you could sink into this and never surface. Random samples: Slate's best books, Ten Pretty Obvious Video Favorites, and last but hardly least, The Top 60 Japanese Words/Phrases for 2008.

Knock yourself out.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Like Pheasants (who couldn't even fly)

I'll admit it. I'm a Katrina junkie. I spent most of my formative years in New Orleans, and I love the place. Hurricane Katrina devastated the city--large parts of it are still nothing but wasteland over three years later--but it also devastated the thousands of us who know and love the Crescent City, and who, like everyone else had to watch the horror of the storm's aftermath on TV.

One of the true horrors, and one you didn't see on TV was the one that's the subject of this piece in Tomdispatch. A great deal of the media hysteria in the immediate aftermath of the storm focused on the widespread looting happening and the supposed sniping by black gunman after the storm. This, it later turned out, was greatly exaggerated, as in: it didn't happen at all. Mind you, I'm not saying looting did not happen. It did,by both whites and blacks. But snipers? Nope. Urban legend.

What did happen, however, was a bunch of white vigilante killings of black people across the river from downtown New Orleans in Algiers. This was alleged quite soon after the storm, but the full story is just now coming out. It's estimated that at least 11 young black men, all innocent of anything except being black and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were shot and killed by white gunmen "protecting" their neighborhood. At a backyard barbecue several weeks after the storm, one of these vigilantes boasted about it being "like pheasant season in South Dakota. . . . If it moved, you shot it." You can read a substantial report about this under-reported atrocity here. And the video below allows a glimpse into the minds of the shooters.

This video about what went on in Algiers after Katrina, including interviews with a couple of guys who were shot and survived, moved me greatly:



In similar instances, the New Orleans police gunned down unarmed African-Americans in the aftermath of the storm. And the Gretna police chief and his officers refused at gunpoint to let desperate victims of the storm cross a bridge from ruined and flooded New Orleans to the untouched west side of the river. Check it out right here.

I don't think we'll ever know just how awful it was for those poor people left in the city after the storm. Suffice it to say the whole truth is a lot uglier than we suppose.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ugly Americans Revisited

As the American people, sitting in the ruins of what used to be a great nation, impatiently await the departure of the vile little fraud in the White House back into the oblivion of Texas and into his deserved reputation as the worst president in the history of the republic, some (few) of us are considering what sort of charges these departing criminals should be accused of so they can be brought to justice and be punished. Without even considering foreign policy, the raft of Constitution-violation crimes is extensive: wire-tapping, domestic surveillance, rendition, unilateral suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and more. There's a body of opinion that regards the invasion of Iraq as a war crime. It's certainly comparable to the war crime of aggression we convicted the Nazis of at the Nurenberg trials.

Even without what I consider the most heinous of the Bush administration's crimes, there is more than enough to convict the man and send him away. Of course, there's hardly any likelihood of that happening. Nor, I'm sorry to say, do I think it possible that any of the people connected with the authorization of torture will ever be punished. Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out a couple of days ago, there's no lack of apologists for this crime. Although Greenwald is more fulsome, here's the gist of it: well, yes, it was torture, but we must understand the circumstances under which it was employed--that terrible 9/11 thing-- and the unsullied motivations of those who authorized it; it's a complicated question, this torture thing. This is not a minor position. No less than the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times propounds this argument, and says, in effect, that since our high-ranking criminals had pure motives, they should not be prosecuted for what they did.

I'm sorry, but this is veriest horseshit. Greenwald says the same thing, only far more eloquently. He also discusses one of the most reprehensible facets of the American character: our tendency, despite all evidence to the contrary, to consider ourselves morally, ethically, and intellectually superior to the rest of the globe. As our nation has descended steadily into the nasty, steaming pits of hell well explored by any number of nations before us, our homegrown apologists have become ever more irrational in defending the US for all the things we criticize other countries for. And we have steadily redefined what is moral and ethical and intellectually respectable until the terms are unrecognizable. No wonder so many people across the world despise us. Our hypocrisy reeks in everybody's nostrils but our own.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Reasons Not to Know the News, Holiday Edition

What kind of person dresses up as Santa Claus, knocks on the door of house on Christmas Eve where a party with more than 20 people attending is in progress, proceeds to kill nine people in the house, and then burns the structure to the ground? The first person he shot with his semi-automatic, by the way, was the hapless 8-year old girl that answered the door. A madman, obviously. A crazed assassin. A guy with a gun who was pissed off at his ex-wife, to be more precise. This story appeared yesterday, but that was Christmas, and I swore off reading or watching any news on the safe assumption that whatever it was, it would be bad enough to ruin the holiday. I was right, of course. I cannot help but think every time I read or hear of something like this of the insane gun culture we live in.

Case in point: the nut cases at the NRA are pushing for legislation allowing students at colleges and universities to carry concealed weapons. Read about it here. (We'll stop these college shooters, by God. We'll just allow everybody to pack heat!) Oh great idea. Let's have hundreds of concealed weapons where people are getting drunk all the time and live in dormitories. The good news is bills to allow this have failed in such bastions of gun crazy citizens as Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Kentucky, among other states. But the NRA has not given up, and a new group of collegiate gun nuts has formed their own pressure group to lobby for concealed guns on campuses.

Ain't this a great country?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wish I'd Said That

Ever since I was about 11 or 12 years old, I've liked and collected aphorisms or other sayings that I'd run across somewhere that caught my eye, imagination, or heart. These sayings were printed on black pasteboard in various kinds of day-glo like colors. There was usually an illustration of some sort on there too. I had these things hanging all around my bedroom, which when I think about it now was pretty peculiar for a pre-teen. It might also be peculiar for a Medicare aged adult, too, for all I know, but I still do it. Only now I write these things down in one of those books with blank pages. And I certainly don't care whether it's eccentric, something you never want to be when you're 12.

So this Christmas Eve, I thought I'd share some of these random sayings. I really don't have to go too far. Open my little book about halfway, and I encounter these. See if any strike a chord with you, and let me know.

==Controversy equalized wise men and fools alike--and the fools know it.
--Oliver Wendall Holmes

==
We live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technologtical advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.
--Walker Percy

==I am dissatisfied, profoundly so, with the world as it is. But I would be dissatisfied with any world.. And I'd hate to lose my dissatisfaction.
--Alfred Kazin

==To succeed in the world, it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.
--Voltaire

==I can get along with the crazy people, it's only the fools I can't stand.
--Ezra Pound

==All the time we've saved/since we stopped praying for our souls/hasn't filled the hole/inside the human gut.
--Tony Hoagland "Volunteer"

==I had just about all I can take of myself.
--S. N. Behrman

and finally, a couple of longer ones:

==I almost think we're all of us Ghosts . . . It's not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.
--Henryk Ibsen

==How to grow old with grace and firmness
Is the kind of eternal problem that poetry
Is best reserved for, imagining poetry
That isn't afraid of saying what time will do
To our taste and talents, our angles of observation.
--Carl Dennis "Eternal Poetry"

Blessed Christmas, everybody.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Unintended Consequences

In one of the most amusing and satisfying bits of irony I've encountered in a while, it appears that the famous throwing a pair of shoes at Bush has had a salubrious effect. The shoes are Model-271 from the Baydan Shoe Company of Istanbul, Turkey. The company has been inundated with orders for the shoe from all over the world. So many that owner Ramazan Baydan has had to hire an additional 100 workers to keep up with orders for 300,000 pairs of the shoe. This is about four times the normal number sold. Iraq, naturally, is the largest customer, but sales are brisk in neighboring Arab countries, too. All of the details are here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ho Ho Ho--3 Little Tales of Christmas Cheer

Christmas in another three days. All of my kids will be here. All of them healthy and employed, and from all outward appearances, happy, thank God. I wonder just how many fathers get to say that about their grown children this Christmas. The times are tough. Christmas is going to be lean for millions of Americans. 2009 is looming up as a terrible year for the economy, both in the U.S. in Europe, and elsewhere. which means the little people everywhere are going to get squeezed even more than they're being squeezed right now.

With this as backdrop, herewith three economy-connected stories:

1. First off, a look at what's been happening to some of the bailout money that Hank Paulson and Ben Barnacke told us was vital to keep the sky from falling on our heads.* Well, $1.8 billion--that's billion--has been handed over to rescued banks' executives in salaries, bonuses, and other benefits. It's as if nothing happened for these guys. Their gravy train is still streaking down the tracks. Mind you, the banks we're talking about here were the ones so poorly managed they had to be propped up with rescue money. So the guys getting all this money are the morons who ran their banks into the ground.

2. Speaking of morons, guess who just got a raise for their outstanding service and performance, not just in handling this economic crisis but in skillfully tackling all the problems of the last eight years? And at the most austere time for Americans in a couple of generations? Congress. That's right, boys and girls. They're giving themselves a $4,700 hike; it'll cost us taxpayers an additional $2.5 million now to pay these bastards. It's even more slimy than you might think: Congress arranged some time ago to get their pay hikes automatically. (That was to avoid having to vote themselves raises out in the open.) During these troubled times, they had a chance to do the right thing. No way. An Arizona Democrat introduced a bill to forgo the raises for next year. It got 34 co-sponsors, but it never got out of committee. So much for concern about tough times.

3. Foreclosure rates were up 25 percent in October. By the end of the year, over a million bank-owned houses will be on the market, and that's about a third of all the houses up for sale in the country.

Merry Christmas.

*I recently read the best piece yet that I've seen on the collapse of Wall Street. I highly recommend it to you other economic dumbos that may be reading this. It's lengthy, but well worth it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Amen, I Say

OK. This whole Rick Warren thing. At the risk of tarnishing forever my progressive image, if not blowing it up entirely, I have to say I cannot understand what all the furor is about. As anybody who's not brain dead knows, the proverbial shit has hit the proverbial fan when Obama named Warren to pronounce the invocation at the inaugural. My fellow progressives are raising cain about this. Just goggle "Rick Warren" on Technorati or Bloglines and duck. You'll be inundated. Honestly, I think it makes more sense to get exercised over an issue that really means something, like the escalating war in Afghanistan. What's going on here is some political horse-trading that does no read damage to anybody, despite the volume of wailing from the gays and liberals.

Rick Warren is your standard issue so-called Christian right-winger--actually, there's little that's Christian I can discern in these people, but that's another story. He runs a megachurch in Orange County, California, the prototype for rabid, knee-jerk conservatism, for goodness sake. That this guy is up on Obama's platform on January 20 saying a prayer may be incongruous, but it's hardly the end of the world. Nor is it a sign that Obama is either embracing Warren's views or dissing the gays. I don't agree with Warren on his views about gays. I don't think homosexuality is a matter of personal lifestyle choice. On the whole gay marriage thing (Warren's firm opposition to Proposition 8 in California is what gets the masses on the left totally riled up.), I don't much care one way or the other. I don't oppose these unions, and I don't care what they call them: marriages, civil unions, blessed cohabitations, love knots, whatever.

This fight is all about symbols. Having a card-carrying member of the Christian right on the podium is the real problem for the left, because Warren represents everything progressives loath. The progressive community is fuming because well, one of their constituencies, the so-called LGBT (God, what a horrid acronym.) group is highly offended and up in arms. And by God, we're in charge now, and we need our people in the spotlight. But here's the thing: Rick Warren is not going to change Obama's views on gay rights. He's not going to change my views, he's not going to change anybody else's views about it if he stands up there and says a prayer. Let's everybody just say "Amen" and move on to something important.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Raise Your Right Hand, Your Poor Bastard

Military recruiting is costing us taxpayers a bundle. Take a guess what kind of money we're talking about. Millions? Certainly! Hundreds of millions? No, dude, you're way too low. Try billions of dollars. It was a measly $4 billion in 2003 . . . the Pentagon's budget for 2009 for recruiting calls for a staggering $20.5 billion. Five times as much in 6 years. Doesn't anybody care about this? Bush couldn't find less than this for health care for kids, remember?

And here's something that'll surprise you. A Navy study over ten years ago found that "family incomes proved to be the most important economic variable … Enlistment rates are much higher when income is lowest and college enrollment rates are low.” Well, duh. You mean the military finds it easier to convince the mudsills of society to become cannon fodder? How novel! That's only been going on for thousands of years. The poor, shepherded by an elite officer corps, die for the rest. Thus it was ever so.

I'm always delighted to hear about how the military is pissing away millions of our dollars scouring the fields and hollows for poor kids willing to raise their right hands for a term in the military. This story about a $12 million recruiting facility near Philadelphia caught my eye recently. What we're talking about here is a walk-in playground for potential GI Joes and GI Janes. In this emporium of shoot-em-up video games and simulators, these innocents are presented "a unique opportunity to learn what it means to be the best-led, best-trained and best-equipped Army in the world by allowing them to virtually experience multiple aspects of the Army," says Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army. No, this glitzy place full of simulator toys for impressionable kids swimming in an irresistable hormone storm has but one purpose. Get their signatures on those recruitment papers.

The Army--and presumably the others, too--is none to choosy about who joins up either. They've managed to meet their recruiting goals only by lowering their standards. A high school diploma is no longer necessary, nor is a decent score on the aptitude test. The waiver policy has also been loosened up: serious misdemeanors aren't a problem anymore. Here we're talking burglary, narcotics/drug charges, aggravated assault, larceny, and breaking and entering. Health problems like bad eyesight and high blood pressure don't keep you out either. This is just the tip of a sooty iceberg. Recruiting is a sleazy business.

But they're recruiting for a sleazy business, so why not?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Free Rides


Before the end of this month, my wife and I will have to pay property taxes on our house of more than $2,300. Our income tax will be more than this, considerably more. My wife and I are both retirees. Our income is fixed and supplemented only by working, taking on a job or jobs. Fortunately, we both have been able to find relatively satisfying work to supplement our income. We're doing OK. Unlike millions of others.

Which in a roundabout way, brings us to the point: a little discussion about who's paying the taxes in this country? Well, it's not the corporations. Let me not keep you in suspense: the middling and poorer classes are bearing the brunt of the fiscal burdens in this society. And they have been ever since the vaunted "Reagan Revolution" in the '80s. I, along with millions (let's hope they number in the millions) of other informed people, know that this is true. But the point has been underscored for me in a number of articles I've encountered lately on the Net. Let me share:

1. This piece discloses that a recent GAO report says that between 1998 and 2005, 57 percent of US corporations and 72 percent of foreign corporations operating in this country paid no federal income tax at all for at least one of those years. Not one dollar. Forty-two percent of foreign countries and over half of US companies paid no income taxes for two or more of those years. Not one dollar.

2. This information led me to do a little more probing. This article reports that the US corporate income tax is lower than in other developed countries, although organs such as The Wall Street Journal will quickly point out that the highest statutory US tax rate on corporations is 35 percent, "because the U.S. tax code offers so many deductions, credits, and other mechanisms by which corporations can reduce their taxes, the actual percentage of profits that U.S. corporations pay in taxes — . . . their effective tax rate — is not high, compared to other developed countries."

3. As sort of a grace note to these stories, there's this one. Remember Goldman Sachs? Those poor, starving Wall Street fat cats, lately recipients of $10 billion in bailout monies out of our pockets? Well, guess what? Their tax burden dropped from 34.1 percent ($6 billion) last year to 1 percent ($14 million) this year, an over 97 percent rate drop in a year's time. How? By the time-honored multinational way: shifting income to countries with lower tax burdens. One hand out for bailout billions, the other hiding billions offshore.

I'll have more to say later about individual income taxes. Don't expect the news to be any more cheery than this.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two Dollops of Idiocy

Dollop One: You keep telling yourself that it cannot possibly get worse. And then you come across reports like this. Then, with a sinking feeling, you conclude that yes, it can get a lot worse. It's my basic optimistic nature--despite what you might think--that causes me to keep hoping that there's actually a bottom to the abyss of ignorance in this country. But all the evidence indicates that the pit is bottomless. A Harris/Gallup poll released today reports that 37 percent of American respondents could not identify America on a map of America! Just let that number sink in for a moment. Almost four in ten Americans can be presented with the map above, and when asked to show where America is they indicate places like all those red dots. 40 percent! And yes, the title "America" was situated above the depiction as you see. And it also appeared in the color legend box where blue was identified America. How is this possible? I can't help but wonder where the hell these pollsters find such people? Then I'm chastened to recall that scientific polling ensures a completely representative demographic of respondents.

Well, at least 67 percent of us got this question right. Whew! -- But not so fast. Here's what happened on follow-up questions.

"Of the respondents actually capable of pinpointing America on the map of America, their accuracy decreased considerably with each additional query about the country. Asked for the name of the U.S. capital, those polled placed Washington, D.C., fifth behind “Minneapolis-St. Paul,” “Mount Rushmore,” “America City” and “Whitewater.” Further, when quizzed on when America declared independence from Great Britain to become a sovereign nation, more than two-thirds replied: “six thousand years ago, when God created humankind.”

Good God in heaven (which is somewhere around Duluth, one supposes)! What can you say . . . really? Arrrgghh! is about the only appropriate response.

Dollop Two: I honestly cannot imagine this abomination in any other state but Oklahoma. I guess it's the best thing all the disappointed McCain supporters here can think of to make themselves feel better. At the same time, it's a measure of the isolation Democrats feel here constantly. I attended a meeting of Obama supporters during the campaign, and the most constant theme I heard from everyone was: "Isn't it great to be in a room with all these Democrats?" Indeed. (And at the very least we're having a merrier political Christmas than all these Okies who voted red in November.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

"You Dog!"


It's about time somebody actually got to forcefully demonstrate dissatisfaction with George W. Bush. Anti-Bush demonstrations here have been relegated to out-of-the-way locales where the president can't see or hear such expressions from his own countrymen.

I'm certain that several hundred thousand bloggers out there are going to put reports of this incident up today. I'm just one more. But somebody throwing two shoes at the U.S. president is something that doesn't happen every day, and it's admittedly pretty hard to resist. I read that this act, exposing the soles of one's shoes to another, is in the Arab world an expression of utmost contempt. Like spitting in somebody's face. "It's the farewell kiss, you dog!" the shoe-flinger, one Muntazer al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist, shouted.

For my part, I wish one of these shoes had hit the vile little fraud square in the kisser. (It would have been apt, since Bush spent his entire presidency with his foot in his mouth one way or another.) And kudos to this Iraqi journalist who had the balls to express graphically what are widespread feelings in that bleeding, suffering country. I hope they let the guy loose pronto. He's a hero in his country and just possibly, to some in this country, too.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blame Andrew Jackson

My latest. A topical poem.

Blame Andrew Jackson

Cranky, creviced killer of Indians—
“Native American”
foreign as Farsi on your lips—
ignorant, unlettered, and mean.

Xenophobe icon
subtle as a hoary hatchet,
vengeful as Yahweh
girded for Canaan.

Who but a mob
could laud your loutishness,
huzzah your heroics,
make you president?

Friday, December 12, 2008

"Weep for the Republic"

Some salient quotes from Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008), a truly disturbing book for those of us who are concerned about the future of American democracy. Unfortunately, the book offers little hope that we're going to overcome the fundamental problem of vast, insuperable public ignorance. It's too far gone. Jacoby is perfectly correct in zeroing in on this problem. I have many times said the same things. The founders, especially Jefferson, knew very well that democracy cannot work without an educated electorate. We've got living proof in our own time. I was appalled that twice the electorate fell all over itself to elect Ronald Reagan president. And although it made him no less dangerous, Reagan, the affable bumbler, at least had some charm to compensate partially for his shallow knowledge and cartoonish understanding of American history. The aggressively ignorant Bush is something else. He makes Reagan look like a genius. That this country could twice elect an ignorant, boorish, unlettered lout like George W. Bush as president is more than enough indication--to me, at least--that we've hit bottom.

Herewith some chewy tidbits from the latter chapter of the book.

Out-of-power (in Washington) liberal intellectuals also have a good deal to answer for, and one of their most serious failures of vision has been a reluctance to acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance. Liberals have tended to define the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years and to see an outraged citizenry, ready to throw the bums out, as a solution. While an angry public may be the short-term solution, an ignorant public is long-term problem in American public life. Like many Democratic politicians, left-of-center intellectuals have focused on the right-wing deceptions employed to sell the war in Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that makes serious deceptions possible and plausible -- not only about Iraq but about a vast array of domestic and international issues.


Memory has been the greatest civil casualty of the past 50 years, but before people can be expected to remember anything, they must absorb certain basic facts and ideas worth remembering. Americans . . . have a shaky grasp not only of basic mathematics and science but of the milestones of their nation's history and the fundamental ideas and structures on which their government rests. Surveys conducted by the National Constitution Center show that while Americans hold the Constitution in high esteem, they know relatively little about the nation's founding document. Asked whether they could recall any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, a majority could name only freedom of speech. After that, only four in ten could name freedom of religion and one in three freedom of the press. More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights; 42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that "the first language of the United States is English"; and 25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion. The young are even more ignorant than their parents and grandparents. About half of adults -- just 41 percent of teenagers -- can name the three branches of government. Only four in ten adults -- but just two in ten teenagers -- know that there are one hundred U.S. Senators. The vast majority of both adults and teens have no idea of when or by whom the Constitution was written. Among the teenagers, nearly 98 percent cannot name the Chief Justice of the United States.

Does this scare you as much as it does me? My regular readers know that this appalling subject--the gross ignorance of the Americn people--is a particular interest of mine. Jacoby is the first author I've encountered on this subject who clearly articulates the idea that this ignorance is destructive of the nation's very fabric because it turns the populace into a credulous herd which is easily manipulated by evil and unscrupulous leaders. The Iraq war is a prime example. Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity, Fox News: more examples. These will not be the last catastrophes we will lay at the feet of Queen Ignorance. As one of my good grad school buds would say, "Weep for the Republic."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Reeking Pile

I keep a folder on my virtual desktop into which I toss URLs about stories I run across that strike in a chord of interest, rage, sympathy, curiosity, or some other random but powerful emotion of the moment. Some of these URLs, worthy though the news might be, never make it to Powderfinger because they get elbowed out by other, more pressing (interesting, enfuriating, . . . etc.) sites discovered as I surf over my usual places. I ran into one of these last night. Over the next few weeks, an endless outpouring of deservedly disgusted and savage retrospectives on the presidency of the vile little pretender in the White House will issue forth from the thoussands, tens of thousands of people, who swimming in the sewerage that Bush has left us with, will still rejoice that he has been flushed away. That the term of the absolute worst president in the history of this country has come to an end.

I ask myself just what did this president do that was good? or praiseworthy? and I cannot think of a thing. There must be something. If anybody has a suggestion, I'd like to hear it. But when it comes to enumerating the crimes, deficiencies, and sheer buffoonery of this president, there seems to be no end. So it's easy to understand how some of them have escaped notice. The staggering numbers reported in this article are a case in point. During the last 8 years, this is the backlog of essential executive services that have gone undone. Ignored. Shit-canned.

  • 730,000 pending patent applications
  • 760,000 Social Security disability applications
  • 806,000 VA disabilty claims
And this, brothers and sisters, is just the first little whiff of this stinking, rotting pile Bush is leaving us and Obama with. Get a gander at some of the numbers from the mother document at the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. Just a few of a long list: 180,000 weapons missing in Iraq (guess who has these); 17 (1 percent) out of 1,273 whistle-blower complaints addressed, 99 percent dismissed; political interference with 60 percent of EPA scientists; billions in overpayments to Halliburton; billions more in defense procurement overruns, and on and on.

It's funny the things you remember (and forget). One thing that I remember word for word from years ago when I wrote my book is something an outraged Southerner wrote about President James Buchanan, the closest of Bush's competitors for the worst president ever: "What more can I say to commend this wretch to your execration?" I say the same for Bush . . . in spades.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Days of Wine and Roaches

Believe it or not, there's actually something called good news going on. Sadly, it gets swamped by the other kind, and we spend most of our time trying to keep from drowning and don't notice these little life rafts floating around. A case in point is this story about medical discoveries that is encouraging on several levels. I've remarked in other places that there's only one way we come into the world, but there are countless ways we can leave it. Few of them, by the way, are free from either pain or ugliness.* And surely, one of the ugliest is Alzheimer's. It's a horror that can last years and years. No disease is so all-inclusive of the support system for a sufferer than this one. Whole families die of Alzheimer's disease. Cancer is ugly, but by comparison, it's almost merciful.

So any news about advances we've been able to make against this disease are welcome, and if the advances are as jolly as the ones recently discovered . . . well, that's good news indeed. Get this: researchers have discovered that Alzheimer's ravages can be combated by drinking red wine and ingesting marijuana. In the case of the latter, it's not entirely clear that smoking dope does the trick, but THC definitely does. Whoa! I'll drink to that! And stoke up the bong while you're at it!

*Sherwin B. Nuland, The Way We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter (1994)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Crystal Ball

Let me gaze into my crystal ball:

Ah, yes, I see the governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, being arrested for corruption: trying to sell the US senate seat just vacated by Obama, among other things, apparently.

I see him being convicted eventually for the crime.

I see . . . but what is this? A vision taking over the whole crystal ball!

It's . . . it's . . . why, it's the shit storm that's going to be raised in the right-wing blogosphere about the Democratic party over this. And despite not the slightest scintilla of evidence that Obama was involved, the charges conservative crazies are going to bray.

The braying has probably already begun, but I just don't need a dose of idiocy just now. I trust the crystal ball.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Car, Car!

Hey, can I ride in your car, car? Well, if you wanna ride in something like this, bro, you better hurry up. They ain't gonna be making more of these things . . . not in the U.S., for sure.

I just heard on NPR that White House and Congress have agreed on a $15 billion bridge loan to the auto industry and, incidentally, keep Detroit, the heartbeat city of the U.S. automobile manufacturing sector, temporarily afloat. It's not clear exactly what conditions are going to be laid on these people, but this much is sure: the Detroit automakers will have to pay dearly for the privilege of using our money to bail out their sorry asses. Strict oversight for one thing. Broad restructuring for another. And maybe a stake in the companies for taxpayers and a seat at the boardroom table for the UAW. Mind you, this is a House bill. It still must pass the Senate, where there's strong opposition. Sixty votes there is doubtful.

Paul Krugman, in Sweden to receive his Nobel Prize in Economics, intimates that it's all going for naught eventually. "Geographical forces" are going to scatter the industry, he says. Another writer says that there are no obstacles in the bill to keep Detroit from spending bailout money on its overseas operations! I don't know anything about this, but Krugman is smarter than I am about these things. But what I do know is ever since the Congress agreed to put $700 billion in Hank Paulson's mitts, we have not heard the first success story to go along with the continuous litany of failure. So basically, it looks like we're going to throw a lot more serious money down an expanding, sucking maw that's beginning to resemble a black hole.

On second thought, maybe I don't want to ride in your car car at all.

A Cheery Footnote . . .

. . . to yesterday's post about the unemployment numbers is this prediction from London-based GFC Economics, a self-described "independent economic consultancy," that in a few months the U.S. will be losing one million jobs a month. No prediction about how long this disastrous situation will last. A common phenomenon: not a soul knows what is going to happen and when anything like normalcy will return. My own suspicion is that however we define normalcy, that ain't gonna be it. But that's another post.

An unexpected side benefit of the story, though, was that I got some kind of explanation for the mystery of why the market went up in the face of such terrible news. To wit:

"November's jobs figures were so much worse than analysts had expected that the Dow Jones share index actually rallied by 259 points, more than 3 per cent, as investors bet that Washington would have to launch a major new rescue package for the economy even before President-elect Barack Obama takes over the White House in January."

So let me be sure I've got this right: stock market traders are saying, "Great! The financial disaster is so bad that this is good. Because it will force Uncle Sam to do something major major major even before Obama replaces the vile little pretender in the White House (<-- well, the traders wouldn't call him that; that's what I call him and have called him ever since he took office) in January." Well, it remains to be seen what this miserable lame-duck congress is going to do between now and January 20. (Apparently, they are going to fashion some sort of rescue package for the automakers.) Obama is committed to a large stimulus package ASAP after he's inaugurated--real large: in the neighborhood of $1.2 trillion, as it stands right now. Hell, it could be $2 trillion or more by January 20, which--I don't know about you, but it seems to me--is a long, long way from now.

You know, I'm just your average dude when it comes to understanding the economy. But nobody has yet told me to my satisfaction just where in the hell all this money the government is gushing out here, there, and everywhere is coming from, and, even better, what happens when it's time to pay it back?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Off a Cliff

Let's face it, brothers and sisters: the American economy is in free fall. It's fallen off a precipice and is plummeting towards some bottom below that nobody can see. There's almost a morbid fascination in observing this. If there's any constant refrain among the cognoscenti of the economy, it's that things are going to get worse. Obama is saying and has been saying the same for a while. But nobody is saying how much worse, how long it will last, or--and this is a mite disturbing--what's a good way to stop this. I could take a long detour here into the futility of listening to economists. Nobody in the whole tribe can agree on much of anything. But they traipse across the TV screens every night and day trailing their learned proclamations behind them. In the meantime, the country is going down in flames.

Two items: over the last three months, the economy has lost 1.25 million jobs, well over half a million in November.** The official unemployment rate is reported as 6.7 percent. But like so many other government figures, this one is cooked. It doesn't include all those poor bastards out there who've just given up looking for work and are wasting away in their houses--if they still have one--or on the streets. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these people (plus a whole slew of others who are working part-time in just any ole job because they cannot find full-time work) push the real unemployment rate up to 12.5 percent. Now we're talking about a serious number, that, you will recall, is going to get worse.

Second item: concurrent with this great news on the job front is the quarterly report from the Mortgage Bankers Association. Here's the gist of it: "[N]early one in every 10 outstanding mortgages is now either behind schedule on payments or actually in foreclosure. The report marked the worst quarterly showing in the 39 years that the group has kept records. More troubling, prime mortgages given to borrowers with the strongest credit now represent a rising percentage of those mortgages that are delinquent or entering foreclosure proceedings." Got that? The very best, most trustworthy borrowers are defaulting on their loans. We ain't talking all those "deadbeat" borrowers the Republicans want to blame the mortgage crisis on. We're talking solid citizens with good to excellent credit.

Great, huh? And what did the stock market do on Friday confronted with this horrible news? Why, it went up 259 points! This is beyond me, folks. At this rate, traders will be unable to contain their glee if unemployment sky-rockets to 20 or 25 percent. I can hardly wait to see what tomorrow brings.

**Graphic illustration of just how bad this unemployment situation is on this chart from BLS. The economy has shed jobs every single month of 2008. Compare what's happened in 2008 and over the past 3-4 months to the recession of 2001-2002.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peace through Music


Opening and closing videos today are from one of the best shows on TV, "Bill Moyer's Journal" on PBS. It's one of the few television shows I try not to miss. Last night, due to the tremendous response it got, he did a reprise of a segment that ran about a month ago. I and apparently many others found this particular segment tremendously moving. It's about a guy named Mark Johnson, a guy with a vision about the transformative power of music. It has the power to bring people together. (Here's a transcript of the full interview.) Mark Johnson has started an organization called "Playing for Change: Peace through Music" that tries to embody that vision in various places throughout the world. He spent ten years putting together the videos you see here. It was a labor of love and an inspiration for all those idiots like me who believe that peace is possible. More than ever I'm convinced that it's the only choice we have.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Car Crash: Truthiness on Parade





















Jon Stewart gets it right almost all the time. Why not "loan" Detroit automakers $34 billion? Who's gonna notice? I have to confess that the immensity of the sums of money being tossed about like so many bags of peanuts at a ball game has just gotten me so flabbergasted that I can't begin to understand what is going on. It seems almost naive of me to have railed against a mere $700 billion grant by the taxpayers to Wall Street a few weeks ago. Oh, we're way beyond that now.

What we're talking about now is trillions of dollars to keep this group, this sector, this or that industry alive. Alive that is, because we're told that if they don't get these billions, the entire economy collapses. What visions does that conjure up for you? Are you scared? Of course. That's the point. We're all scared out of our wits about a catastrophe that looms on the immediate horizon unless we cast untold billions of dollars at the problem. Think of it like terrorists . . . we do the same to stave them off, too. Only, by comparison, keeping those filthy terrorists away is a frigging bargain.

So, despite my recent tirade against bailing out Detroit, I'm changing my mind. I hate to do it because it rewards profligate and stupid behavior, but do we really have a choice? Who knows whether these auto execs are telling the truth about the imminent collapse of their businesses without an immediate infusion of billions from the government? If they are, I don't think for a second that a mere $34 billion is all that's needed. They'll be back for more. But at least millions of little people, who don't travel in corporate jets and who can't live on $1 a year, will still be employed.

And if they're lying? Well, what's wrong with that? That's the way American business (not to mention the US government) normally operates. It floats on a sea of falsehoods and lies. Why should these car guys be any different? We've been told that whatever outrageous sum we throw into the maw of Wall Street or the banks is going to turn the corner on this ongoing financial catastrophe. How are we doing so far on that?

Either way: lying or truth, we taxpayers are going to clasp our own truthiness and continue to hemorrhage more billions into the black hole that now defines the American economy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Idea Clicking

Whenever one casts about for something bloggable for the day--yes, Virginia, there are those days where even Santa doesn't gift you with an automatic "Yes! That's what I'm going to blog about today." As I was saying, whenever this happens to me, not frequently but on occasion, it's easy to jump start the cranium synapses. All that's necessary is go to one of the blogs listed along the left-hand side here and voila: inevitably an idea appears to roil the thoughts into a blog subject for the day. It usually doesn't take much hunting at all. The most fruitful sites for me are those that contain a host of subjects:

See? Just talking about idea sources conjures up ideas.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nightie Night

I'm driving back home today after sleeping in three different beds over the past four days. I'd rate them C, C+, A. These grades are almost entirely dependent on the quality of sleep I had in each of the beds. Not the linens, not the size, not the comfort, although comfort is desirable. For me, there's also the intangible of proximity to toilet to consider. Particularly in a strange bedroom, or I should say unfamiliar bedroom. ("Strange" bedroom could conjure up all sorts of disturbing--or perhaps perverse or fascinating--images, one supposes.) Now that I've reached senior years, my aged internal plumbing requires more nocturnal attention than before. Oops, sorry. It's so easy for us old codgers to lapse into consideration of bowel/urinary matters. Forgive me.

To get back to the subject. You don't give much thought to sleeping if you get enough and it's good. For me, it's almost always both. But today on that drive home that I mentioned, I was listening to a past "This American Life" program about people who are afraid of going to sleep. Some of the reasons were what you might expect: bad dreams, sleepwalking, etc. But three of the people that Ira Glass talked with had horrifying tales. Two women talked about the experience of waking up to having a roach crawling in their ear! Imagine the condition of the housing these poor people lived in. The thought of such a thing makes me shudder. One lady described having to go to the hospital to have the damned thing removed. The other women said she used to stuff cotton in her ears to keep this from happening. She was pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Apparently, having roaches crawl over the rest of her while she was sleeping was acceptable.

In the other case, a woman told about her house being infested with bedbugs. That's the little sucker pictured above. A literal sucker, because these insects suck the blood of warm-blooded animals. The one above is engorged with blood, as a matter of fact. Again, makes me shiver. Apparently, getting rid of these bugs is well-nigh impossible. They nest in dark crevices in furniture and in rugs. An adult can live for a year without feeding. Maybe so, but you better believe they are hungry after you come home from a long vacation.

So here's a question you might want to think about, especially if you aren't particularly afraid of going to sleep at night: would the prospect of having a roach crawl in your ear or being a feast for a swarm of vampire bedbugs at night keep you from sleeping? Don't answer too quickly.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Yuk!

If you are one of my half-dozen or so regular readers, you know my sport is baseball. I take little note of football in these posts, because really there's only one kind of football for me: LSU football, of which I'm passionate. (If pressed I might own up to being a mild fan of SEC football generally.) But that's basically it. I don't follow any pro teams. Close as I get to that is maybe a playoff game or two and the Super Bowl. I've just finished watching LSU lose in the last few seconds a game to an Arkansas team which is just terrible. So LSU finishes regular season 7-5, and they give up over 50 points to a team twice this season. Worst season I can remember in a long time, and a real letdown after the national championship last year. And largely the reason I've not noticed the Tigers much this season here. I hope the season has been bad enough that we don't have to play any more games this season, i.e., don't get a bowl bid anywhere. An embarrassing loss to some nobody school in some non-descript Toilet Bowl game somewhere is not anything I want to witness.

Attendance note: I will not be calling the roll for the next few days. I'm going to be out of town at a funeral and off the computer for a few days. I'll be back on Tuesday, next week, and that's when you'll probably hear from me again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Metaphor Marvelous

I think I'm opening a new department on the blog. Titled as above. It will obviously be only occasional, but worthy utterances deserve to be preserved. Herewith the first in a continuing series. This one by Matt Taibbi in a wonderful piece about the senatorial race in Minnesota between Democrat Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.

"Coleman is a creepy, weird-looking character, a beanpole in a suit topped with a rigid mousse helmet of politician hair, like the offspring of a mop and a game-show host."

Tears

The other night my wife for life Susan and I watched the latest movie we got from Netflix. I'm terrible about remembering these things. I had to look it up just now to see exactly what the title of it was. I'm thinking it was a movie called Rosenstrasse--although it could have been Ladies in Lavender with Dame Judy Dench. I don't remember. Rossenstrasse a German movie about the resistance of righteous gentiles to the rounding up of the Jews. In this case, it was a fair-sized group of spouses of Jews in Berlin in 1943. But that's beside the point I was going to make. Which is: the movie made me cry.

Tears are on my mind today. For a couple of reasons. We're headed to a funeral next Monday--see my last couple of entries--and I'm sure there will be tears. I don't know if any of them will be mine, although I'm often moved to tears by the tears of others. But what really makes me think of tears is the plethora of them I shed yesterday when for about an hour I thought I had lost my little dog. Some nice people found and returned her, but for a while there I thought she was really gone. Yes, I know it seems ridiculous looking at it on the page now, but I couldn't help it. This raises all kinds of questions, such as how can one get so attached to an animal? And how can one be so devastated by the loss of a pet? And the really big question that occurs to me: why am I making such a big deal about this?

Because it's on my mind. My little granddaughter saw me cry, and my daughter, although it's not the first time for her. Men are not supposed to cry. That's why. Despite all the inroads that have been made in our understanding of men thanks to the ongoing liberation of women, men are still not supposed to cry. And especially at something as inconsequential as the momentary loss of a dog. Yeah, yeah . . . I know about all the dismissals you could make of such a statement, but that doesn't change the fact that this is what I think about it. And I even know why. Like bazillions of others, I was brought up not cry. Men, make that boys, the world over are socialized to stuff their emotions, especially those emotions that bring on tears. This strikes me as bizarre and unnatural, but who am I do try and undo millenia of male formation that whipers in our psyches "crying is for sissies and weaklings"?

This can't be right. But there it is.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sea of Troubles, II

The awful situation I talked about yesterday gets worse. My brother-in-law was not officially dead until a little while ago. Although he had a living will, he was also an organ donor, and according to Louisiana law, the plug cannot be pulled on the latter until the tiniest little spark of life has vanished. It may not be law--it probably is, what I'm saying is I don't know for sure--but this little spark didn't go out quickly.

A trio of awful thoughts I've had today: first, John's two sons were not enough reason for him to live. I have two sons myself, and I cannot imagine ever being in the frame of mind where I would not consider the effect of killing myself on other people. Both my boys, or either one, is reason for me to live, not to mention my dear wife, daughter, grandchildren, friends, and more. The second thought is even worse: John's two sons ever after are going to have to live with "my dad committed suicide." Wouldn't you think this might have occurred to him? What a burden to lay on your children! And the third thought is worse yet: one of John's sons is quoted as saying he thought he had gotten rid of all the guns in the house. Now is this young man forever going to carry around guilt because his father hid the gun? How could he not? I would, despite everything you would hear about how it's not your fault.

One more bit on this terrible subject: did you know there are people who make their living removing and disposing of mattresses upon which someone has died? (I wonder if this is their sole occupation? Surely not.) The mattress in question here was covered with gore. Price to remove it: $2,400. That is not a misprint. I can't imagine people with the gall to charge a suicide's family such a price for such a task. Another brother-in-law is taking care of this. That's what family is for.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Sea of Troubles

The first words that occurred to me when I heard were: "Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them." From Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. I just got word a few minutes ago that my brother-in-law put a .22 rifle between his eyes and pulled the trigger. He's alive . . . on a respirator, and he's not going to make it. A sea of troubles must have been raging in him. A typhoon, a tsunami, a Cat-5 hurricane. So he took up arms and ended the troubles.

He leaves behind two sons, one of whom was in the house when he did the deed. Who can understand what brings a person to this pass? I never knew him well, and I never knew him over the course of 25 or so years to be happy actually. Rumor had it in the family for a while that he was suicidal. But what can anybody really do in this situation? What can you do? I'm sure there must be some people with suggestions, but can you watch, guard a person 24/7? You can't commit everybody who flirts with the idea that oblivion beats existence. I'm sure the thought occurs to a lot of people. But few go this far and make it so.

I'm sure there are numbers and charts and graphs and statistics and learned commentary on the phenomenon of suicide, its whys and wherefores. But none of it explains anything at a time like this.

From the outside, it it's difficult--nay, impossible--to see anybody else's inner demons. Grappling with them is by definition a solitary, personal task. Loved ones, even if they number in the hundreds, can't tote this load for you. And not everybody's up to it. That's the only way I can explain a person I know doing something like this. And in the very next thought, you're saying to yourself: yes, but what could I have done from miles away? What could anybody have done?

I can't help but think of his long-dead wife, Nora, who succumbed to lung cancer when she was 34 years old. Thank God she was not around for this. Maybe John never recovered from her absence. Who knows? Hell, this is impossible. Doing what he did just makes no sense in the skin I inhabit. And it's just impossible to get inside another's. Go with God, brother. There's not much else to say.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dumb & Dumber

The study's called "Our Fading Heritage," and it ain't about monuments in need of paint. Here's the subtitle of the study: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions. Now have you got the general picture? And I'm sure this comes as a big surprise to you, right? We're talking about gross American ignorance here, folks. The article on it is here.

The current study is a follow-up to a couple that looked at just college students. This one randomly selected and tested over 2,500 just ordinary Joes and Janes and their knowledge of history, economics, and government. You know, those kind of basic things that you have to know to be a responsible citizen, an informed voter, and reasonably equipped to deal with the regular run of civic affairs.

Wanna know how bad this was? The report card is here, but I'll spell out salient highlights: less than one percent (.8) got an A (over 90)--that's 21 people out of 2,508!!--Get me a chair; I've got to sit down now, and bring a fan!--and 71.4 percent, almost three out of four got an F (under 60). (Thank God I'm already sitting down.) The average score was 49. And are you ready for this? Elected officials did even worse; their average score was 44. And you wonder what's wrong with this country?*

Here's what the Chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy Board, Josiah Bunting had to say:
"There is an epidemic of economic, political, and historical ignorance in our country. It is disturbing enough that the general public failed ISI's civic literacy test, but when you consider the even more dismal scores of elected officials, you have to be concerned. How can political leaders make informed decisions if they don't understand the American experience? Colleges can, and should, play an important role in curing this national epidemic of ignorance."
Disturbing, you say? Concerned, you say, when elected officials are even dumber than the dummkopfs on the street? Here's something that you never read about in these dismal reports, but I'm willing to wager the testers have had the thought. The fact is, you eventually reach critical mass on this stuff. When the great mass of the people are too stupid to realize how stupid they are, much less care. And, brothers and sisters, we're already beyond that point. Way beyond, I fear.

I was going to give you some sample questions, but I know you're just dying to take this thing yourself, so here it is. I'll tell you what I got, if you tell me what you got.

*At the risk of belaboring the obvious question: how do you think the Alaskan Bimbo would have done on this test? We'll never know.

Friday, November 21, 2008

God May Be a Lurker

Down the left-hand side of this blog, there's a section entitled "I Never Miss." And there listed is a blog by a Seattle physician named Sid Schwab, whom I discovered some months ago and whom I have read faithfully ever since. Our views resonate on almost all subjects. We're on different sides of the God-divide, though. He's "nope." I'm "yep." Just recently, Sid finished a three-part discussion he entitled "Religion" (1), (2), and (3). I felt compelled to write a response to the series, partially because what he wrote was very interesting and elicited a response from me, and partially because I believe in encouraging my fellow bloggers. I love getting comments myself, and I assume everybody else does, too. I want to share my response, not because it's brilliant--certainly not!--but because at the least, it's legitimate.

OK, now I've finished the 3rd installment. Thanks, Sid, for this arresting discussion of your deeply held convictions. I'm a theist who finds himself in hearty agreement of much of what you write.

But I also happen to believe there's just as much faith (blind or otherwise) involved in denying God's existence as in affirming it. There's no proof either way. There's just argument, the appeal to human logic. Are we really willing, on either side of this divide, to put our faith in that weak reed? Human beings have been carrying on this debate about god-no god since they discovered the other guy disagreed with them. I really see little difference between the my-god-is-better-than-your-god tussle and the my-nonexistant-god-is-better-than-your-existing-god tussle. Death will provide the definitive answer, of course. Unfortunately, although there have been many unsubstantiated reports, no emissary from over there has brought back the conclusive documentation.

Fact is, nobody--N-O-B-O-D-Y--knows what happens to you when you leave this realm of existence. And of course death, the great curtain, is what it's all about--nobody knows, but there's a multitude who will argue that what they believe happens on the other side of that curtain is what actually happens.

If my 65 years of life have taught me anything, it's that beyond a few special motor skills and some basic cognitive processes, human beings are pretty limited creatures. And nowhere are they more limited than in their ability to deal with the "other" anything--the other race, other religion, other country, other viewpoint, the other explanation. Those things provide human beings with more than enough reason to slaughter each other. And have for millennia. I'm supposed to put my faith in the logical processes of this creature? Sorry.

I'll settle for less killing, more kindness. If religion or no-religion inches humankind towards improvement in this area, I say, "Praise the Great Spirit, whoever or whatever, it is."

In the meantime, I'm still trying to figure out how human consciousness got here from those bits of cosmic dust that were always there.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where Does It End?


The CEOs of the big three U.S. automakers were on Capitol Hill the last couple of days pleading for $25 billion more taxpayer money--$25 billion has already been appropriated--to just tide them over this little rough spot they're having. Well, hell, no is what I say. No way.

Timothy Egan in the Times today asks the same question lots of us have: Where does all this end? What about all the cities large and small who are going or already have gone bankrupt? What about all the mid-sized businesses? What about Mom and Pop? What other big business cannot testify, as Detroit does, that millions of others depend upon them, that their supply base employs thousands? That's the essence of the Detroit's argument. We're being asked to believe the preposterous notion that these guys are victims like everyone else of the economic downturn. That they could with straight faces sit there and baldly testify that it's only hard times and not their own short-sighted, greed-driven decisions that have got them into the current mess they're in is an indication of just how stupid our rulers think we are. But a lot of people are going to believe it. If we didn't live in Bush's Amerika, which has been lied to so monstrously and for so long that the people can no longer distinguish between the truth; normal, run-of-the-mill prevarication; and bald-faced, unshirted bullshit, these people would be laughed out of the conference room.

I loathe, detest these suits who render daily obeisance before the Free Market Deity's altars in their board rooms, offices, houses, yachts, and vacation homes. These guys who have damned, no, God-damned, every proposal to assist the lower order of beings who have lost their jobs, who cannot survive on two or three minimum wage jobs, who cannot afford day care for their kids, who are being ruined by medical expenses or other fiscal disasters in the vast array of economic dangers the rest of us have to confront . . . these are the guys now whining before Congress that unless the taxpayers pony up another $25 billion, they're all going under.

I was dead set against the original bailout to begin with. For, among other reasons, the high likelihood of the catastrophe we're seeing unfold right now. I don't claim any particular prescience. It took no genius to figure out that handing hundreds of billions to the very same idiots who brought about this crisis in the first place was not going to solve anything.

I was right. The bailout's been a fiasco. Hank Paulson, a preeminent suit in the class I'm talking about, has no frigging clue about what he's doing. But what he does know is that nobody but his cronies in the financial sector are going to get any of his pie. What I find truly amazing is that American democracy--politely so-called--has now evolved to the stage where Congress has ceded to the executive branch its fundamental fiscal powers. Nothing has been more disconcerting than to see the likes of Senator Christopher Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank remonstrating with the secretary of treasury about what the intent of congress was when they signed over $700 billion to him.

So here's where I am with this. Let Congress do something directly for all those millions of little people who need assistance. Let Congress do something for state and municipal governments that provide services for these little people. The sky is falling anyway. Whatever we do for Detroit is not going to save Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Topeka. Where does it end? So let these smart dudes in their corporate jets, $600 shoes, and $100 haircuts, who presumably are worth all those hundreds of millions they get paid earn their money, grapple with the problem. Let them figure out how to get out of the mess they made for themselves without a single cent more from the American taxpayer. And if the sky falls, I hope a ten-ton chunk lands on their heads. Chasing good money with bad is folly. Haven't we had enough of that for a lifetime during this administration?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

God's on Our Side--Right?

I rarely read books more than once. They're always too many books waiting to be read. The book I'm reading right now is an exception. It's called The Civilization of Christianity. And the author is John L. McKenzie, a crusty old Jesuit priest and renowned Scripture scholar. McKenzie was 75 years old when he wrote this book, obviously at the stage where he didn't really care what anybody thought anymore, least of all the Catholic Church. "I'm so angry I have to write," he said. (He died five years after publication of this book, in 1991. RIP.) That's what makes this book so appealing to me. He speaks his mind, and a lot of the time his mind is not the mind of the Church. It's the hypocrisy he cannot stand.

The book's thesis is that there's "a deadly and irreconcilable opposition between Western civilization and Christianity, . . . one of them must destroy the other." The book is full of trenchant observation about the basic lunacy of what passes for moral guidance from the Church. He's unequivocal on the just war doctrine: "There is something fallacious about thinking which finds illicit sexual relations intrinsically evil, but killing people morally neutral; all you need is a sufficiently good reason. Why that does not work for sexual intercourse I do not know; I'm just too old to split moral hairs in this kind of stunt. There never has been a morally justifiable war; to find one is like discussing the number of angels who can sit or dance on the point of a needle, and about as useful in discussing how one may live a Christian life."

A few lines later he quotes a posthumous prayer written by Mark Twain, "the genial agnostic." This is called "The War Prayer," McKenzie likes it because it "so successfully skewered the hypocrisy of Christians." I like it too. Here it is:

Oh Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved fireside to smite the foe! Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling heads with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of Love Of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Amen, indeed. There never has been a morally justifiable war.