Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pat Robertson is a Quack

Pat Robertson--ah, the guy who gives any real Christian the creeps. The wacko who's made a career of making himself abundantly ridiculous. The amazing thing is this charlatan has over the past 40 years or so gotten millions of people to send him their hard earned money. So his flagship "700 Club" has survived and thrived and given Robinson a platform to proclaim his truly bizarre ideas of what Christianity is all about. He's always predicting disasters, and he's not been right yet. And he's just getting loonier as time goes on.

To wit: Recently the Reverend Robinson has declared that if gay marriage is legalized it will lead to the legalization of people having sex with ducks.

The response below is perfect.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Liar! Liar!

in the charges. What is clear is that Obama is once again taking his lead from George Bush.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Unfortunately Apt Word

Word of the day.

Which I didn't know.
Which, I fear, could find multiple uses in many contexts in today's world.
Which you might want to know.

hecatomb = a large scale slaughter

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Promises on the Lam

Promises on the Lam

They jet through the air,
burrow like maddened moles
through muddy, moist earth.
No one has seen them made
or heard them made:
a promise is a promise,
and, by God, once sheathed
in its shell,
it will be kept,
delivered, fulfilled,
Or it must flee
find a place to evade
the memory brigade,
grimmer than pallbearers,
shields glinting righteous
in the blazing light,
creaking leather,
harnesses and holsters,
terrible tasers and sticks
black as a bruise
and hard as a brick
to pound a promise
into compliance.

May '09

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mulling Wittgenstein

I stumbled across the following in some stuff I'd saved some time back. I got it from here.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had a lifelong interest in religion and claimed to see every problem from a religious point of view, but never committed himself to any formal religion. His various remarks on ethics also suggest a particular point of view, and Wittgenstein often spoke of ethics and religion together. This point of view or attitude can be seen in the four main themes that run through Wittgenstein's writings on ethics and religion: goodness, value or meaning are not to be found in the world; living the right way involves acceptance of or agreement with the world, or life, or God's will, or fate; one who lives this way will see the world as a miracle; there is no answer to the problem of life--the solution is the disappearance of the problem.

Some random, idle thoughts:

How could you not have a lifelong interest in religion or spirituality or some manifestation of awareness of the Beyond if the ultimate questions interested you at all?

Do the ultimate questions encompass every problem? ("human problem" is assumed)

Ethics doesn't need religion, but religion needs ethics.

Goodness, value, meaning: all outside of the world? Isn't that "ultimate" value, goodness, meaning? All kinds of stages before ultimate can be found here in the world.

Acceptance = Surrender = Giving Over of Self. It's called for in all religions. As Jerry Garcia--yes, the Grateful Dead guitarist--said: "To forget yourself is to see everything else." Not only does it lead to living the right way, it's the only way to live right.

Is living the right way the only way to see the world as miracle?

There is no solution to the problem of life: the solution is the disappearance of the problem.

Monday, May 25, 2009

No More Trouble

If you don't know about "Playing for Change," you owe it to yourself to find out more about it. I first heard about this on Bill Moyers some months back.(The original show is here.) Did not know about the web site until now. Please enjoy. Pax, pais, peace. What more could we wish for all the victims in uniform we remember this Memorial Day?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

We've Met the Suckers: It's a Mirror

Several articles on the dismal--yes, I said dismal--financial straits we're in. We're still in. Here's one that says "Bank bailouts move forward at warp speed while regulatory reform sputters along in the slow lane. Which is just the way Wall Street wants it. Its motto is: if it's broke (but you keep bailing us out), why fix it?" Indeed. Isn't anybody else getting fed up with this? I'm beginning to think we're the biggest suckers in the universe. P. T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute." I don't think he ever imagined an entire country could be composed of nothing but.

And then there's this, from Salon: " If there is a single act showing how kleptocracy and let-them-eat-cake-ism are systemic and local rather than momentary and exclusively federal, Bloomberg turning the House that Ruth Built into the House That Taxpayers Built is it." All about how billionaire Big Apple mayor Michael Bloomberg "used various public agencies to extract between $1 billion and $4 billion from taxpayers and then spent the cash on a new stadium for the Yankees, the wealthiest corporation in sports." Read all about it, sports fans. Try to wrap your head around this, the bottom line being, the damn Yankees aren't paying a penny for the $1.3 billion stadium: " . . . the city owns the stadium, leases it to an agency, which then leases it to a corporate subsidiary, which then leases it to the Yankees. At the end of the Ponzi scheme, the team is permitted to use the taxes it already owes to pay off the mortgage on its new chateau." Where's the outrage? Nowhere to be seen. Gone fishing. On vacation. Who knows?

Here's the gist of another piece reporting how thoroughly we're getting screwed by Wall Street and the banks: "The strength of the financial sector and its interlocking allies in insurance and real estate has been repeatedly demonstrated over the past year: Despite near universal agreement that actions of the industry inflicted untold harm on the American and global economies, the Bush and Obama administrations have treated captains of finance with velvet gloves, and Congress, especially the Senate, has consistently deferred to the powerful financial lobby." It's called "crony capitalism."

Heads they win, tails we lose. It's the ongoing theme.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Protecting and Serving

My son sent me this video a couple of days ago. I watched it three times just to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. Now, let's see . . . this is Birmingham. . . oh, yeah, I remember these guys from the 1960s. First, Police Commissioner Bull Connor, the guy who put the red in neck, and his whole band of merry men with their fire hoses and snarling dogs and billy clubs to keep all those dangerous black civil rights demonstrators at bay. I remember them well. They were all TV stars in the early 60s . . .So, Birmingham police chasing a van on a big 4- or 5-lane street . . . guy is really speeding . . . oops, he clips cop in the road attempting to flag him down (one has to wonder just what this officer was thinking) . . . . the van's off on a ramp . . . oops, again, he's losing control at 40 or 50 mph . . . he's rolling the van . . . he's ejected himself from the vehicle as it rolls into a telephone pole. . . . looks like he's really hurt. He's lying there in the grass by the side of the road. Not moving . . . and here come the cops out of their cars and . . . what the hell is this? Four or five of them are beating the living shit out of the unconscious guy on the ground!! NO, man. I've got to watch this again!

Well, I did. About half a dozen times, and every time the same thing happens. A swarm of cops leap from their cars and run to pound the hell out of guy lying on the ground who's helpless, hurt, and not moving. He doesn't move under all the blows either.

I'm happy to report that five of these guardians of public safety got their asses fired for their zeal in carrying out their duties. [The black chief of police in Birmingham remembers the '60s. Personally. Good for him. Good of all of us.]

Friday, May 22, 2009


Isn't it perfectly obvious what's really wrong with us Americans? We're addicts. We're powerless to control the demon that possesses us. We will do anything to have it. We will lie, steal, and cheat to get our war fix.

The United States has become war-addicted. Since the Korean War, it has been permanently at war, with the Communists in Southeast Asia, with Balkan aggressors, with Central American leftists, with Colombian drug growers, with Saddam Hussein (twice), with radical Islamists everywhere. I leave out Panama and Grenada.

War has become part of the national identity, as well as the national economy, which turns out more weapons and more military high technology than all the rest of the world combined.
At present, our newest war has hardly begun. We are sponsoring the Pakistan army’s drive to push the Taliban out of territory they have occupied in the northwest of their own country.
The push is on in Washington to send into Pakistan a shadow government of Americans, to show them how to run their country and their struggle with Islamic radicals. Under Barack Obama, we are also going to expand our civil presence in Afghanistan and, according to the press, we have in mind a replacement leader for Afghanistan. The U.S. clearly intends to be there for a long time.
Back in Iraq, sectarian rivalry is getting out of hand since the U.S. stopped paying the Sunni tribes to keep the peace. We’ll apparently be staying there for quite a while, too.
This entire frigging country, starting with the president, every war-mongering politician and pastor, and going all the way down to the pimply-faced 17-year-old who can't wait to join the Marines so he can prove he's a "man," needs to get on a lifetime twelve-step program. Now.

Because they're all hopeless addicts.

I've truly come to believe that only some massive spiritual force will be powerful enough to save this country from itself. Not only are we intent on self-destruction, but we're also intent on taking everybody else down with us.

(Thanks to William Pfaff in "Truthdig" for the scoop of truth above.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Metaphor (Wish I'd Said It Department)

" . . . the colossal superfluous cretin-cargo of consumer nonsense that we've been daydreaming in . . ."

by Jim Kunstler in the lastest entry in his blog Clusterfuck Nation, aptly eclept, given his usual mood and constant message, .

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mates of State

There is just so much great stuff out there. Mates of State. This, brothers and sisters, is yet another of my serendipitous music discoveries. Also found out that this pair are actual mates. They're married. Must be great to make real music with the person you love. Two goodies for you:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More God Talk

Stanley Fish, the same New York Times columnist that prompted my last entry on this subject wrote a follow-up yesterday to respond to critics of his first piece. I certainly cannot do justice to that response in the little short space I'm going to give myself to notice it. Faithful readers, the handful of you that are out there, will have to bear with me for the next three weeks or so. I've got to read a Civil War paper* at a conference in early June, and I'm just at this point beginning to write it. If procrastination is a sin, I'm going to fry in the deepest pit of hell. Anyway, although my intent is to post something here on Powderfinger every day, I may not succeed. All depends on the mood of the Muse. Bear with me; just know that I'm pretty much consumed with work at the moment.

But to the point. Most of the critics of the original piece . . . . well, here, I'll let Fish summarize their argument for you: "while science provides a window on the world, religion places between us and the world a fog of doctrine and superstition, and if we want to become clear-eyed, we have to dispel . . . that fog." The ensuing discussion, which is highly interesting, but most difficult to encapsulate in a few sentences, turns on the notion of evidence. Fish essentially argues that the evidence one accepts is determined by the position one supports.

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence. . . . . the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur. While those hypotheses are powerfully shaping of what can be seen, they themselves cannot be seen as long as we are operating within them; and if they do become visible and available for noticing, it will be because other hypotheses have slipped into their place and are now shaping perception, as it were, behind the curtain.

All very interesting, no? The relativity of argument! How post-Einsteinian! And yet . . . it makes sense to me. I've never put the argument in anywhere near these terms, but I've said the same thing for years: People believe what they want to believe. Which is another way of saying, rare is the person who is convinced by evidence, even overwhelming evidence, when it proves something he cannot bring himself to believe true. This is why both sides of the debate on religion or politics, especially these two, but others surely . . . this is why they just talk past each other 95 percent of the time.

*On an interesting, obscure subject: General H. H. Sibley's Confederate incursion into the New Mexico Territory in 1862.

Monday, May 18, 2009

So How's Our Progressive President Doing So Far?

Here's a review from Glenn Greenwald of our "progressive" president's actions last week:

Monday - Obama administration's letter to Britian threatening to cut off intelligence-sharing if British courts reveal the details of how we tortured British resident Binyam Mohamed;

Tuesday - Promoted to military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, who was deeply involved in some of the worst abuses of the Bush era;

Wednesday - Announced he was reversing himself and would try to conceal photographic evidence showing widespread detainee abuse -- despite the rulings from two separate courts (four federal judges unanimously) that the law compels their disclosure;

Friday - Unveiled his plan to preserve a modified system of military commissions for trying Guantanamo detainees, rather than using our extant-judicial processes for doing so.

The list of disappointments from Mr. Obama just continues to lengthen:

Let's just forget about the fact that Obama never lifted a finger to stop Israel's two week rampage through Gaza which killed 1,100 unarmed civilians and destroyed much of the critical infrastructure. And let's give him a pass for equivocating on Iraq, Georgia, missile defense in East Europe, Cuba, NAFTA, FISA, torture, war crimes, the Employee free Choice Act (EFCA) and any other issue that's important to liberals, progressives, leftists or anyone else who eats with a fork or walks on two legs. And let's excuse Obama for stepping up the air war in Afghanistan even though another 140 Afghan villagers were blown to bits 10 days ago while sitting in their schools, sleeping in their beds or having dinner with their families. (After all, Obama did say he was sorry, didn't he?)

Now Obama is backing off on his promise to withdrawal troops from Iraq in 16 months. And, now he's planning to restore Bush's kangaroo courts (Military tribunals) for prisoners at Guantanamo who've never even been formally charged with a crime! And, now, he's threatening to hold some prisoners indefinitely in the U.S. without trial. (

For me, as despicable as the human rights violations Obama is helping to perpetuate, the unwavering commitment to getting us deeper into military action in Afghanistan is unforgivable. I, for one, am not willing to "excuse" Obama for ratcheting up the air war there. In fact, I'm not going to excuse him for his whole damn policy in that god-foresaken place. This man portrayed himself as somebody who would actively disengage US troops from the Middle Eastern quicksand, and instead what we've got is somebody, who as far as I can tell, is as enthusiastic about fighting wars and building the empire as Bush was. One presumes that the change of commanders in Afghanistan met with Obama's approval. The new guy, General Stanley McChrystal, a special operations guy, has been up to eyeballs in the torture mess-- See Tuesday, above--as well as running Cheney's assasination squads for the past five years. Yet another blood-thirsty yahoo. Just the dude we need to spiff up our Middle East reputation, right? Doesn't this Afghanistan mess begin to look sickeningly familiar? How soon do you think we're going to disengage? It appears that my permanent lot in life is to rage continuously against the folly and madness of war and killing.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Couldna Said It Better Myself

What follows is the reaction of one reader to a horrifying report by Jeremy Scahill about the continuing brutalization of prisoners at Gitmo by US military personnel. And we're not talking about "enhanced interrogation techniques" that a goodly number of our fellow Americans seem to think are OK. No, we're talking about the good old fashioned kind of torture such as beatings, eye-gouging, bone-breaking, pepper spray in the eyes, squeezing testicles . . . that kind of stuff.

Who's stunned? Who can't believe it? Anyone really surprised?

The unthinking knee-jerk adoration of all things military, the hagiographies wasted on Generals and Admirals, the fear of stepping on some goon's toes which prevents even the slightest criticism of soldiers (or "warriors", as they now dub themselves in a vivid display of megalomania) begins with the worship of high school athletes and ends with the fascism now rampant in our uniformed population. Surprised? Look what the same phenomenon did to German civil society. It took millions of lives and the almost complete destruction of the country to change their views on the people who are supposed to "protect", and to act on those views. Took them fifty years, too.

I've had precisely the same thoughts. That we could have many of our leaders, media types, and a substantial portion of polite society defending the torture of prisoners automatically means that we've nurtured people to carry out the torture. It takes brutal people, thugs and bullies, to brutalize others. And America has, I fear, millions of them. And there's no doubt at all you can find them in abundance in the ranks of our sainted military. But don't tell that to just anybody or you're likely to get the crap beat out of you.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Scratching an Itch

After 19. . . . a5

Copa Peru, 1999

I've been wanting to put a chess diagram up on Powderfinger for the longest time. For no particular reason other than I love the game. Well, here it is. (Game is about level. Best for White according to Fritz, my chess engine, is 20. Qe1.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Happens to These Guys?

What happens to these guys, these presidents, when they get their own helicopter? When they get to troop the line of troops at every airport? When they're surrounded by generals? Do they take leave of their common sense? Do they get seduced by all those shiny stars? Do they get themselves all drunk on the notion of just how many war toys they command?

I'm increasingly irritated by repeated sights on TV of Obama striding along next to some ribbon-chested defender of our shores, saluting getting on and off the helicopter, throwing verbal posies to the military in some forum or other. Plus, I hear today that Congress has approved $97 billion for prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That money is good till September, when, one supposes, the budgeted billions will kick in. This just reminds me all over of how thoroughly this country is entangled, entwined, possessed by the aims and desires of the Pentagon.

Here's where I'm coming from on this. After initially approving it, yesterday Obama announced that he was going to fight against release of additional pictures of US troops abusing prisoners. His rationale: "their release would endanger our troops, and because he believes that the national security implications of such a release have not been fully presented to the court. . . . the President strongly believes that the release of these photos, particularly at this time, would only serve the purpose of inflaming the theaters of war, jeopardizing US forces, and making our job more difficult in places like Iraq and Afghanistan."

Permit me a short observation on this reversal of his earlier position: this is simply bullshit. Just about anything one wants to hide can be covered by pulling the blanket of "endangering the troops" or "national security" or "protecting America." And so forth. Isn't anybody else sick of this same old song? I'll tell you about endangering the troops. Sending them by their thousands into the Afghanistan hell hole without a clear objective for why they are there and no exit strategy at all. That is endangering the troops. Releasing pictures of Americans torturing captives? That is the transparency and openness that this president promised us during the campaign. That is keeping your word.

Here's what the Republican (plus the wretched Joe Lieberman) line is on these pictures:

"The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited can serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country's image, and endanger our men and women in uniform,"
wrote [Lindsey] Graham (R-SC) and [Turncoat Democrat Lieberman].

This is the same exact argument that Obama and the administration are making. Great. Now we measure our progress by how close we can hew to Republican talking points.

As usual Glenn Greenwald makes clear sense. Worried about inflaming anti-American sentiment? he asks.
We're currently occupying two Muslim countries. We're killing civilians regularly (as usual) -- with airplanes and unmanned sky robots. We're imprisoning tens of thousands of Muslims with no trial, for years. Our government continues to insist that it has the power to abduct people -- virtually all Muslim -- ship them to Bagram, put them in cages, and keep them there indefinitely with no charges of any kind. We're denying our torture victims any ability to obtain justice for what was done to them by insisting that the way we tortured them is a "state secret" and that we need to "look to the future." We provide Israel with the arms and money used to do things like devastate Gaza. Independent of whether any or all of these policies are justifiable, the extent to which those actions "inflame anti-American sentiment" is impossible to overstate.

And now, the very same people who are doing all of that are claiming that they must suppress evidence of our government's abuse of detainees because to allow the evidence to be seen would "inflame anti-American sentiment." It's not hard to believe that releasing the photos would do so to some extent -- people generally consider it a bad thing to torture and brutally abuse helpless detainees -- but compared to everything else we're doing, the notion that releasing or concealing these photos would make an appreciable difference in terms of how we're perceived in the Muslim world is laughable on its face.

Moreover, isn't it rather obvious that Obama's decision to hide this evidence -- certain to be a prominent news story in the Muslim world, and justifiably so -- will itself inflame anti-American sentiment? It's not exactly a compelling advertisement for the virtues of transparency, honesty and open government. What do you think the impact is when we announce to the world: "What we did is so heinous that we're going to suppress the evidence?" Some Americans might be grateful to Obama for hiding evidence of what we did to detainees, but that is unlikely to be the reaction of people around the world.

This makes too much good sense for it to ever catch on. I'll tell you, brothers and sisters, I'm getting more disenchanted with Mr. Obama every day. What's wrong with this guy? Where are all the progressive ideas of the campaign gone? Apparently they've all gone South. Somewhere where they won't get in the way of propping up the status quo. When you're doing exactly what Joe Lieberman wants, I'll tell you, brother: you've got a major problem.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Can Be Had for Chump Change

Apparently, attaining the heights of being an op-ed columnist for the New York Times is just a splendid achievement if you can wrangle it. First of all, you get to engage in what must be admitted is a truly ego-self-stroking activity (something vaguely salacious about that, but maybe it fits this particular line of thought), that is: putting your opinion on whatever happens to strike your fancy out there for millions of people to read twice a week. And as a NYT columnist, you're in the upper echelon of such beings, and therefore you inhabit a plane of existence the rest of us groundlings can only dream of.

Case in point: some people, among them famous columnists, can demand big fees for people to listen to whatever it is they have to say. Now, this is a concept that is totally, utterly alien to people not fortunate enough to belong to the famous-enough-to-charge-money-for-a-speech class. And that would be most of us. But the collection of more or less famous people you can get to speak for a price is huge. Check this site out. Hundreds of speakers are here for hire. And--are you sitting down?--you can pay more than $200,000 to some of these people for giving a talk. Don't know about you, but this astonishes me. Not that I wasn't aware that this went on--I heard that if you wanted Bill Clinton to grace your rubber chicken dinner and give a talk, it will cost you a cool half a million bucks. It's just that I've reminded myself about it. Can you imagine getting that kind of money for talking for an hour or maybe less? Hell, I can give a pretty good speech, and I'll do it for a few hundred bucks if you pay for dinner, the bed, and the plane. I'll even carry my own bags.

But this isn't what I wanted to notice today. What I did want to comment on was this story about New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Seems he had to give back the $75,000 he got for recently giving a speech to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco. Unfortunately for Friedman, a sharp-eyed reporter named James Rainey tripped over the story and the fact that NYT policy allowed its columnists to take speaking fees only from "educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.” He called Friedman with some questions and got no response. Long story short: a Times spokesperson did call and the initial response Rainey got from the apologist at the other end of the line was mealy-mouthed bullshit about Friedman's long cross-country flight, his generous Q & A session after the speech--the lucky air quality people got this gratis--and his prodigious charity giving. Next day, though, Friedman returned the fee. All a misunderstanding. Whoops.

Now you tell me we don't have a captured, corporate press. These people live on another planet.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Search Me

I'm going to take a break from what has become maybe a little common for me, I guess--some degree of dissatisfaction about the direction of the country, the state of politics, the perfidy of the Right, the general deterioration of just about everything--except, dare I say it, not the Texas Rangers' season at this point: my team has won 8 of the last 10 on the wings of simply great pitching for this team. They won another tonight, beating Seattle 7-1, down in Arlington. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me when my baseball team is going great!

But back to the point: a break from the usual focus to talk about technology. Specifically the search engine that's become a verb. Google.* How many times today did you google something? Did you know you can find out? Yep: You might have to enter your Google password, but you only have to do that once. And then you'll have a whole world of information open up to you. All your searches--images, maps, web sites, etc.--when, if you clicked on any results, etc., etc., etc. Try it. By the way, as of this moment, I've performed 7,357 total Google searches.

And while you're at it, check out the new features that are now on just the regular ole search. You can read about them here and here. I cannot let these enhancements to everyone's searching life pass by without just a few words. But check it out yourself. We're talking about just a plain old garden-variety Google search. You can specialize searches in a whole bunch of ways. Look in forums, videos, reviews. Think how easy this makes finding out about that new book, movie, CD you just heard about. Think about how effortlessly you can find Van Morrison videos. You can isolate the time frame for searches--yesterday? last week? in the last 30 days? And there are some other helpful and fun bells and whistles: a time line feature. I tried "Vicksburg" and found search hits with material back to 1860. (Chicago Trib archive site.) You can also view search results with your term the hub of a spoke of related search subdivisions.

Did you know there's a whole bunch of other things you can do just right in the normal Google search window? Get definitions, do math, convert currency, get the weather, get the time at other places in the world, get sports scores, and more, more, more. Okay. I'll be the first to admit it. I love all this stuff. I've been an information junkie all my life. I'm a historian by profession. I eat research up, and anything that helps me ferret out the useful but obscure source . . . well, I'm for it! So Google's always been fun for me, as well as useful. So new features? Bring 'em on.

(How do you like the Oklahoma Google logo above that I found with "Google logo" as the search term for an image search?)

*There's a ton, a TON, of other Google specialized tools besides the standard search. Ones that I find particularly helpful are: news, bookmarks, Earth, books, scholar, archive--this one searches news archives.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Ring of Truth

Perhaps the best thing for me to do when gripped with the impulse to write again about the shambles we call the American economy and my continuing conviction that we're about to fall off a cliff is try a little diversion into humor. Unfortunately, this is the "humor" I found first. Alas, Dilbert is usually more true than funny . . . and the truth is not funny.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

This Can't Be Good

This fairly lengthy, but highly recommended, article is just one of many that I've been reading which makes me uneasy about the course of our so-called "recovery." Written by a former IMF official who's had lots of experience with bankrupt countries coming to the fund for rescue, the article simply confirms for me what I truly believe to be so in my heart of hearts. That is, that we the American people are being taken for a ride on this whole bailout and recovery plan. As far as I'm concerned it takes not a genius to put two and two together here and conclude that any plan which basically focuses on saving at all costs, and that is to be understood literally, the sector of our economy--the financial sector--that is primarily to blame for our current catastrophe cannot be the correct one. Further, the plan is in no way, has not the slightest whiff of, punitive on the malefactors of great wealth on Wall Street and in banking. The arrogance of these people has them spending millions of dollars that have been provided by the taxpayers to (among other things inimical to the public interest) lobby Congress against legislation to provide relief for people struggling to pay their mortgages--and succeeding, I might add. In other words, using our money to fight against our interests.

Something smells really fishy to me when Timothy Geitner is appearing on every other talk and news show on TV, talking about how the recent "stress tests" done on the banks was a vital and true test of their solidity. And going to great pains to underscore how much more expensive it would be to nationalize banks and sequester their huge losses. The bottom line here is we the taxpayers are bearing all the pain of this recession, and, I suspect, are still being thoroughly screwed in the process of "recovery." The people who are doing the best are . . . you guessed it, the banks. And the administration people who are supposedly helping secure our interests against the banks are all from the world of finance. What is wrong with this picture? Does this begin to look fishy to you, too?

The man from the IMF contends the US economy looks exactly like some of the previous pauper countries that came to the IMF for help: Korea, Malaysia, Russia, Argentina. With the additional disturbing trait that financiers "are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them." In other words, the Wall St fat cats are still calling the shots--with impunity.

To survive something that may end up even worse than the Great Depression, not only does a much tougher line be taken with the banks, but the entrenched oligarchy that's calling the shots has to be busted up. What do you think the chances of this happening are? We ought to just face up to the fact that we're at the mercy of people that don't give a rat's ass about the rest of us . . . this can't be good. Paul Krugman says that we all ought to be "very afraid."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I Surrender to the Sweet Rain

The column's headline caught my eye immediately: "Fraud in academia." Writer is a guy I have not read before, Walter E. Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University, which I presume, suffers from the same malady that is the focus of this column: grade inflation in the colleges and universities across the land. And we're not talking just minor puffery here. We're talking major distortion of what used to be a real measure of academic attainment. Williams advises parents and employers to lower the average student's grade by one letter, and "interpret a C as an F." I'm such a slow learner, I have just now--this semester--broken the code about grading students.

Some of the information in the Williams article, I found almost unbelievable. Like this:

--two-thirds of all letter grades given at Brown University are A's
--Harvard: 91 percent(!) of students graduate with honors
--80 percent of grades at Illinois are A's and B's
--half the students at Columbia are on the dean's list
--a third of students think they should get a B just for attending class
--40 percent think they should get a B for just doing the reading

What all this means, of course, is that a college degree has become about as potent as a high school diploma. Any number of studies have shown that a lot of so-called college graduates are, in fact, dumb as posts. I can also attest to the fact that the same is true of some graduate students as well.

I'm not sure when A's and B's became as common as germs in college grading . . . my suspicion from personal experience of teaching college classes for almost 20 years (both off- and online, a lot of the latter) is that it began in the 1970s and has grown steadily since. Until it has reached its current monstrous proportions. (As it turns out, I have good instincts. I found this site with hard data--and a lot more--that bears me out.) I have finally decided to award nothing but A's and B's and an occasional C in my classes.

I've been resisting this for years. Till now I have doggedly tried to impose performance standards on my students. To my great chagrin. You would not believe the abuse I've taken from some of them--and worst abuse always from the worst students, the ones that should not even be in college. (This piece by another professor about his experience of grade harassment illustrates the point.) I tell my wife that all this started in the wake of the late 1960s, when the universities decided to put the dogs in charge of guarding the hamburger by giving them controlling say in forming curricula and instituted the ridiculous practice of student evaluations, as if students had any knowledge or ability to be accurate, much less fair, about this. It did not take long for these evaluations became life-or-death measurements for college profs, especially for people like me who had day jobs and taught on the side. (There's also the whole matter of the humongous amount of cash flow colleges and universities now must maintain, and the concomitant necessity for them to keep the paying customers happy . . . but that's another post.)

But even worse than abuse at the hands of half-wits and boors, I found that eventually my services were no longer required at at least three schools where I taught. Not because I'm not conscientious--I am, to a fault--or a bad teacher--I'm not. But rather because I expected such unreasonable things from students as: reading the course material, attending classes, and doing the assignments. But then I also had some other truly outrageous expectations such as their knowing how to construct a literate sentence in English and being able to frame a coherent argument over the course of a few typewritten pages. And then I did the unforgivable: I made the mistake of actually grading based on these expectations. Silly, stupid me!

Well, I've finally run up the white flag. I'm too old and tired to put up with the bullshit any more. Henceforth I'll just shamefacedly pocket my money as a college-level professor and essentially become as fraudulent as the vast majority of A's I'm going to rain down on future students like candy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

God Talk II

As I was saying, the second reason I had spirituality on my mind yesterday--and again today, I suppose--is this column in the NY Times by Stanley Fish, taking note a new book by British critic Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Rather than attempt to summarize or digest the piece, I think some extended quotations will serve to not only provide a sense of what the book (and Fish's take on it) argues but also illustrate just why religion was on my mind yesterday. Speaking about religion, Eagleton asks:
“What other symbolic form . . . has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do.
Indeed, this last has always seemed obvious to me, but evidently such in not the case with people who want to question the existence of God. They would have god be science and human reason, and they build their own faith structures around their god. I have atheist friend who swears up and down that his belief in science as the explanation of everything is not an act of faith. Nothing I can say dissuades him. But as the above quotation makes clear, there is a host of questions that science cannot begin to address. Are such questions ultimately unimportant or meaningless? Of course not, and science has to throw up its hands when confronted with them. And yet, and yet . . . in practice our atheistic brethren would have the only questions of significance be confined to the materialistic plane of existence.

Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like [Christopher] Hitchens [and Richard Dawkins, writers of recent atheistic manifestos], who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?

Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.

And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”

How in the name of all that's holy (pun intended) can anyone entertain such notions in the face of history, not to mention the current state of the world, is a mystery to me, but I think Eagleton fairly characterizes the underlying subtext of the Hitchins/Dawkins argument.

Finally, Eagleton comes around to the point I made above about faith being the ground of virtually any human contention that science and reason are the true gods. The gods of man's making require faith also.
Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith. [emphasis mine]

[Hitchens and Dawkins] Eagleton observes, cannot ground [their] belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for [them] an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” [empahsis mine] Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

In light of this small taste of Eagleton's book, it sounds very much like something of value for those of us who still believe faith in something beyond what mankind's reason provides is not yet ready for the trash heap of history.

Monday, May 4, 2009

God Talk

It somehow seems fitting that at the milestone of my 300th blog entry on Powderfinger, the subject that intrigues me today is God, religion, spirituality. For two reasons. The first, a movie--the first I've been to in a while--my spouse and I saw last evening, The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. I won't dilate on the story any; you can look it up in IMDB. Wasn't all that great a movie, actually, but that's not the point. What was striking to me was the vivid reminder of how intertwined human beings are with artistic expression. The music of the movie was heavily Beethoven. There was a sizeable chunk of Symphony No. 3, part of the "Emperor Concerto," some Beethoven cello music, and also some Bach, from the unaccompanied cello suites. Which is to say the music was gorgeous. Out of this world.
And that's my point here: to say that music is gorgeous doesn't fully plumb what the music is to us. Music as transfixing as Beethoven's says something about who we are as human beings. What is this power of music over us? Indeed, why is it that art exerts such a powerful influence over us? People will pay millions for a single painting or sculpture. Why does it grip us, hold us, ensnare us? Why are we driven to create it? Why do we visit great art again and again? Who thinks a single view of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel or "Winged Victory" is enough? I've heard Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 at least a hundred times. But its power is not diminished in the slightest by that, in fact, the symphony becomes more entrancing the more it's heard. Examples could be strung out endlessly. Quite simply, although the assertion requires book-length exploration, art opens a window on our origins, our destiny, the shaper of our souls. It shows us who we are--this need to create the beautiful, this drive to drink it all in.

We are spiritual creatures, fashioned in some way, I believe, by a power far beyond our ability to grasp. We try to do explain and probe this mysterious ever-present power in our holy books, our many religious expressions, even our creedal formuations and rituals. But in the end, it's only art that comes close to shutting our mouths in the sheer awe of this power. We know, we sense how subtle, yet how strong, it is, how transformative in its beauty, how awesome in its mystery. It's that power, I believe, that's revealed to us in the arts, and in music especially, that finest of the arts. And it's that power that resides in us that drives humans to make art, to crave art. It's not something they choose, like being an engineer. It's something humans have to do. Like breathing.

Oh, and the second reason for the God talk I mentioned up above? Well, that will have to wait till tomorrow.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Picture is Worth . . .


Why is it that this apparently makes no impression on all those people in the tiny little blue sliver above? This graph doesn't depict a deep, dark secret. And it doesn't depict new news. Check here, here, and here, for example. And, as far as I can tell, nobody in American politics talks about this, much less is outraged by it. We're so brainwashed by the bogus American dream nonsense--you know, work hard and you will succeed; everybody has an equal chance to get rich, etc.--that we can't recognize a the rape the super rich are perpetrating right before our eyes. So the picture may be worth a lot more than a thousand words. But don't plan on hearing any of them.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Human Right

Continuing our consideration of health care reform and quoting from the Helen Redmond piece I looked at yesterday. Here she enumerates the reasons to oppose what she calls the "public plan" for universal health care that allows private health insurers to stay in business, essentially as competitors to the government. Any one of these points, to my way of thinking, justifies single payer systems over what is sure to be yet another bonanza for the bullies who continue to just pound the living hell out of us.
  1. It doesn’t make health care a human right that can never be taken away.
  2. It continues to divide, devalue, and define people by their health status.
  3. It can’t address the endemic racial and gender disparities in the system, including the 12 million undocumented.
  4. It leaves the employer based system of health care provision intact. That link has to be broken so workers are free to change jobs, go on strike and not fear loss of coverage.
  5. The system would continue to have multiple payers and therefore the complexity and gaps in coverage that are inevitable when there are numerous bureaucracies to navigate.
  6. Where will the money come from to finance the plan, especially in a time of economic recession, like right now? A public plan is not fiscally sustainable because it’s rooted in a multiple payer system that foregoes at least 84% of administrative savings.

Single-payer on the other hand, would immediately inject 400 billion into the system by eliminating bureaucracy, billing apparatus, administrative waste, advertising, corporate profits, and CEO compensation. That’s enough money to bring everyone into the system with no co-pays or deductibles.

We don’t need any more feasibility studies or examinations of single-payer in other countries. It’s a proven fact that a single-payer system can cover everyone and control costs. Period, end of discussion.

Unfortunately, at this stage of the game only John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, and few other Democrats are pushing for a single payer system. Here we stand at the threshold of a rare opportunity to really do something good for everybody in this country: recognize that health care is a human right, not a right that only people who can afford it have. I afraid, however, our capitalistic mentalities are far more likely to make two monumental errors in judgment. First, they will assure us for the umpteenth time, that corporations, in this case, private health insurers, can be trusted. How this is possible after what they have handed out to the rest of us, what they've done to the environment, and their corrosive greed ever since the dawn of the industrial age, and given our current catastrophe at their hands, I don't know. (Maybe over the course of the next few months, corporations are going to develop consciences.) Second, those thought channels will never be able to make the leap from the notion that health care is not just another commodity in the market, to be bought and sold like everything else, but a basic human right that adheres to everyone by virtue of being alive.

But human rights, however basic--liking eating and having decent shelter, for example--are devilishly hard to "sell" to capitalists. Why? Because insuring that everyone has his or her basic human rights provided, well, you see, that's tough on profit margins. Taking care of people, especially if you're talking about everybody, costs money, and those who have money, especially those with more money than they know what to do with, spurn those who have none because they are obviously a lower order of beings. Think I exaggerate? Check out what Bill Cunningham, one of the stars of hate radio, has to say about poor people. I quoted this creep in an earlier Powderfinger. Then consider that millions of people listen to this guy and others like him every day.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Vampires Are Grinning

So, Obama has his budget passed, he's got his stimulus passed, he's got his cabinet in place. We should be gearing up anytime now for the big health care push. I don't have a doubt that we're going to see some kind of health care "reform" pass this year. The president has already demonstrated that he's got the ummph in Congress to get his stuff passed, and the Democrats are getting stronger.

The question is what kind of universal health care bill are we going to get? Let me go on record right now as predicting that we're going to get something the private health insurance (and pharmaceutical) companies can live with. They're going to get their noses out of joint about certain elements in the package, but overall they're going to be OK with it. And this, brothers and sisters, is not good news for the rest of us. In fact, it is terrible news. Because what it means is that the only sensible approach to health care reform, a single-payer system like the one that every other civilized nation on the globe uses, one that cuts the private insurance vampires out of the picture, is going to be rejected . . . out of hand, right out of the box. The president is against the idea, and what are the odds that the Democrats are going to oppose him on this? That good sense will prevail?

I'm not an expert in these matters. Far from it. But this much I know: letting the very reasons our health care system is so broken, so expensive, so discriminatory--just a frigging disaster--letting the insurance industry have a large piece of this action is going to result in exactly the situation we have now in Medicare. A situation which benefits the blood-suckers at the expense of guess who? The people who most need health care!

A quarter century of experience with public/private competition in the Medicare program demonstrates that the private plans will not allow a level playing field. Despite strict regulation, private insurers have successfully cherry picked healthier seniors, and have exploited regional health spending differences to their advantage. They have progressively undermined the public plan – which started as single-payer for seniors and now has become a funding mechanism for HMOs – and a place to dump the unprofitably ill. A public plan option doesn’t lead toward single-payer, but toward the segregation of patients, with profitable ones in private plans and unprofitable ones in the public one.

This observation is from a pair of doctors with Physicians for National Health Care. And is just one of a plethora of excellent points you will find in this piece by Helen Redmond, a licensed clinical social worker who works in the ER at Cook County Hospital. Read it carefully. It will tell you all you really need to know about why you should do everything in your power to further the cause of single payer health care and why Obama is so drastically mistaken to oppose the single payer solution.

For starters, I'll bet you didn't realize how privatized the Medicare system has become. Look, who needs to be convinced that letting anything like the agents of "market forces" that have brought this country to its knees are what we need to install as centerpieces in our so-called reform of health care? Are you kidding me? Nobody with a grain of sense needs to be convinced about this. But sense is not the goal here. The goal as always in capitalism is profits. And unfortunately, more filthy lucre for the parasitic private health insurance industry is what's going to drive the health care reform. Not the common good.

The people are going to get hosed again . . . unless those very same people, the ones who have been getting reamed by corporate greed for decades in this country, demand that their government put their interests before offering up more of their blood to nourish the goddamned vampires. Although there are some glimmers of good news, what do you think the chance the American sheeple are going to do that? I'm not sanguine, if you will pardon the pun. The vampires are licking their nasty chops.