Monday, April 9, 2018


Monrovia, California

April 9, 2018

Let's talk about religion.  It's in the news frequently, as the administration has deliberately attempted to exclude people from our country who adhere to one religion in particular--Islam.  This in turn raises questions about whether it is constitutional, under the First Amendment, to systematically bar immigrants, or refugees, from countries whose populations are so predominately Muslim that to exclude them is tantamount to barring Muslims--the so-called Muslim Ban.  Trump's first version of this was so blatantly unconstitutional--allowing as it did for the admission into this country of members of religious minorities in those same Muslim countries, i.e., Christians--that even a Supreme Court filled with Scalias, Alitos, and Thomases would have had no choice but to strike it down.  So the next version or two, which we might call Muslim Ban Light, was more facially neutral, and appears to have been given a temporary green light by the Supreme Court, to be reviewed in more detail later.  And since those old farts work at a snail's pace, the whole thing might not get sorted out for years. 

The result of all this anti-Muslim rhetoric and Muslim-targeting activity from this administration and from previous ones, going back at least to 9/11, has been to increase the sympathy of liberals toward Islam, a religion that hardly got a second look a generation ago in this country, before the Ayatollah, unless you were Jewish and/or concerned about Israel.  The press and the government, prior to the takeover of the executive branch by its current gang of thugs, were careful not to blur the lines of distinction between what they characterized as regular harmless Islam and and radical militant Kill-The-Infidel Islam.  Adherents to the latter version are now called Islamists, to distinguish them from everyday Muslims.  And the clergy and experts in the religion--the ones who get interviewed on CNN--are always quick to point out that Islam is essentially a religion of peace, and that the bad-guy suicide bombers and ISIS types don't represent the vast majority of quiet, assiduous believers in this essentially misogynistic and backward faith.

As so often happens, civil libertarians have a tendency to choose strange bedfellows in the name of protecting the Bill of Rights.  It's one reason I've never succumbed to the ceaseless junk mail requests of the ACLU to join its ranks.  Not that I'm opposed to the Bill of Rights generally.  I like the freedom of press and speech and assembly parts, in particular, as well as the amendments that protect the accused in criminal actions.  The Second Amendment I would gladly shitcan, since no one seems to know where to draw the line there, although plain common sense, if it were applied, would tell you that it has outlived its original intended usefulness.  That view recently got a respectable airing by retired Justice John Paul Stevens.  But that's a subject for another rant.  It's freedom of religion that concerns me here.  And again, it is the application of common sense that seems to be singularly lacking in the construction of this portion of the First Amendment.  Freedom of religion, I believe, was never intended to be an impediment to the orderly conduct of national affairs.  If a conscientious objector refuses to be inducted into the military in time of war, then the government has a right to sanction that person in some way.  Not severely, but rationally.  I myself was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, and, but for the intervening draft lottery that mooted the point for me, would have been classified 1-O, which would have meant that I could have been drafted and assigned to a nonmilitary place, such as a mental hospital, where I ended up working anyway.  My personal conscientious objection to that war wasn't based on any deeply held conviction that war in general is immoral or unsupportable, although I had to tell the draft board that it was.  Instead it was based on my private conviction that the U.S. had no business doing battle with the communist government of North Vietnam.  And look how it all played out.  Well, I digress.

Many people believe that radical Islamism is Islam at its worst and most perverted.  To some extent that's undeniable, but I must take issue with such a simplistic view.  A more logical way to look at it is that any religion is at its worst when its own fringes commit atrocities, and particularly when it believes that it must explain itself to outsiders.  If you have to explain it, it certainly isn't explaining itself very well.  If you must keep saying "Islam is a religion of peace," while Muslims of one kind or another are busy killing each other and those outside the faith, you have a basic problem.  Not a P.R. problem, but a problem of squaring ruthless objective reality with some sort of sanitized theological ideal that, after all, many members of that religion don't believe anyway.  Any religion is merely a reflection of the political mindset of its adherents at a given moment in time.  The mistake is in assuming that a religion embodies an ideal, an absolute, or even a constant.  Today's Islam may or may not be the Islam of a century ago, but guess what?--it pretty closely resembles the Islam of 500 to 1000 years ago, when Christian crusaders were fighting Muslims for control of the Middle East and Southern Europe.  I call that a lack of progress.

By that token, it needs to be said that the same goes for Christianity, which is about as much or as little a "religion of peace" as Islam is.  The difference is that the most militant, acquisitive, imperialistic period of Christianity is largely behind it.  Christianity, in Europe at least, is a toothless old lion, snoozing and dreaming of the many beasts it has torn apart and eaten raw in its more active years, and becoming ever more irrelevant.  But it is still only as good as the last bad thing that was done in the name of Christianity.

Europe, the homeland of Christianity, is entering its post-Christian phase (even in such recent theocracies as Ireland), with its churches little more than works of historical architecture and its clergy carrying the moral authority of someone's old Aunt Minnie.  The sectarian violence in the Balkan states and the crazy Polish revisionism regarding the Holocaust are, of course, notable exceptions.  Meanwhile, here in the United States, we are still dealing with the growing jihadist mentality of the conservative Protestant Right, also misogynistic, backward, absolutist, and proselytizing, if less overtly violent than the Islamists are.  The Protestant Right has systematically fought against women's rights, gay rights, racial equality, tolerance, and scientific reality with a fervor that would warm the heart of the nastiest Taliban cleric.  And in fairness, we can't give a free pass to Catholicism, which also is a major perpetrator of discrimination against women, not allowing them into its priesthood, and insisting that a woman's right to choose whether or not to have a baby isn't her right or her choice at all, but rather the prerogative of God alone, and by extension God's spokesmen on earth.  That's spokesmen, not spokespersons.  And to add insult to injury, the Pope and his little Roman boy's club in the Vatican are recognized not just as a theological, but as a political entity, and given the status of a country, which other world leaders should visit like they would visit France or Germany, as wacky as that notion might seem in the 21st Century.    

To put it plainly, many of the views of everyday Islam, and Christianity, should not be tolerated by anyone.  Given the stated intentions of these religious groups to spread--and indeed to impose--their views everywhere, at the risk to the nonbeliever of eternal and sometimes terrestrial damnation, they both are dangerous in the extreme.  Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  When we don't tolerate all religions equally, we start sliding down a slippery slope.  Where might it end?  Which religion will be safe from intolerance if we start picking on just one, or a few, of them?  This is basically homegrown American thinking, and to the extent that it's accepted in Europe or elsewhere, it's been exported from this side of the ocean to the other, not the other way around.

But as easy as it is among liberals to condemn aspects of Christianity, it seems equally difficult to step on the toes of Islam, lest we be seen as, heaven forbid, intolerant.  My question is this: when will people with secular moral and political authority stand to condemn religions that encourage, tolerate, or at best overlook the inhumane and unequal treatment of women, nonbelievers, and other segments of humanity?  Bloggers like me can do it all day long, and we get handfuls of readers.  But if the European Union or the United Nations or some other world body did it, wouldn't it get more notice and respect?  When will the people who agree with what I'm saying stand up and say to the world, Islam isn't good, it's BAD.  It is not a religion of peace, it's a religion of violence and sexism.  It must stop slaughtering infidels and requiring women to go around with their heads covered while the men do whatever the hell they want.  Covering one's head in public is not an expression of feminine cultural solidarity, as the twisted logic of cultural relativism would have you believe.  It is a disgusting acquiescence to tyranny, and a sad reflection of the acceptance of the inherent injustice of the religion that imposed it in the first place.  Islam is, to put it bluntly, fucked up.

To borrow the words of Walter Cronkite, one of the last of our national secular spokesmen, "That's the way it is."          

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Good News

Monrovia, California

April 8, 2018

Safely through the first year plus of the Trump presidency.  I say safely because he hasn't done much physical damage--only to the truth as a general ideal.  There he has done much harm, redefining truth in an eerily Orwellian way, so consistently and often that we now accept as givens that there are such things as "fake news" and "alternative facts," rather than simply lies.  Most rational people see this with a firm sense of the irony of it all, while his true believers have gained a couple of catchphrases with which to dress up and rationalize their adherence to his ultimately pedestrian and transparent brand of jingoism and white supremacy.  The rest of us have been given permission by the mainstream media to call Trump a liar, an idiot, and a hatemonger quite openly.  Some might call that a win-win situation.

It is now perfectly acceptable to wish for and expect the impeachment of the president (whether or not that will ever happen) and to assume that whatever he says will be not only self-serving, but also the opposite of factual.  It's as if Pinocchio is in the Oval Office and his nose is getting longer every day--either an amusing state of affairs or a sad one, depending on your disposition.  In fact, Trump has effectively cut himself and Fox News off from everybody else, so that it's easier, even for well-meaning but dimwitted people (a large part of the electorate), to see the line between falsehood and propaganda, on the one hand, and news on the other.

Those of us who are hunkered down to weather out the storm that is Trump are teaching ourselves to look at the relative severity of the waves of buffoonery that regularly crash down on the decks of the ship of state, and to gauge their force in terms of how much permanent damage has really been caused.  How much?  Well, not much.  So far nothing his Attorney General, or his Education Secretary, or his hapless and now departed Secretary of State have done has effected any permanent or even major temporary change in things.  Even the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court did nothing except to resurrect his predecessor, Antonin Scalia, and give him a new lease on life.  The ship of state is vast and turns only by small degrees, no matter who is at the helm.  And thank God for that.  Just imagine if Trump was a prime minister capable of instituting his harebrained ideas more or less at will, instead of a comparatively feckless president of a massive bureaucratic corporation, whose board of directors (Congress and the Supreme Court) do not answer to him but to the shareholders and our venerable corporate culture.  True, he and his allies in the Congress have altered the tax code in ways that will not be fair to all, but then the previous version wasn't fair to all either, and these things can be tweaked and changed and even undone.  It happens regularly.

To read this may come as a shock to some of you whose personal angst and disgust have been so strong that you cannot separate your feelings from what actually has, and has not, taken place.  After all, you think, hasn't the precious reputation of the country on the world stage been forever besmirched?  Aren't we a half minute closer to doomsday?  Haven't we abandoned our symbolic commitment to the laudable, if chimerical, goal of doing something about global warming?  Isn't the executive branch of the government now filled with cruel rogues and incompetent hacks?  Well, turn off Facebook and take a deep breath.  That's my advice to everyone, including myself. 

Because I'm here to give you the Good News.  And sorry, the Good News is not that Jesus died for your sins or that God is watching over us all with some kind of ineffable plan.  No, better than that, my friends.  The Good News is that all this is transitory, and not in a slow way, like the melting of the glaciers.  In less than three years it will be time for another presidential election, if we haven't all been nuked by then.  What if, at any other time in your living memory, someone had told you that in three years things will almost certainly be better.  Would you have believed it?

So relax.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Congratulations, Chumps

Monrovia, California
August 18, 2017

Well, damn it, things aren't getting any less weird.

By weird I mean ever-changing in their bizarreness.  You've got to give Trump credit for one thing--he's a pure egotist and he's got us all talking about him all the fucking time.  Do you think that after seven months in office everyone was talking about Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton every minute of every day?  Hell no.  But this guy has his finger firmly on the pulse of the nation, and indeed on the essential nature of the modern media.  He knows that our attention span has always been short and is getting shorter by the year.  There's just too much information coming at us from too many directions for us to be able to focus on any one thing for more that a few days or even a few hours.  In terms of our appetite for news, we're like little kids on Christmas morning with not just one toy but dozens of them.  We tear one thing open then go to the next one, not bothering to savor or examine anything much.  It's exhausting as well as demeaning to the entire process of gift-giving, or news broadcasting, as the case may be.  And it's just as much the fault of the gift givers, or the news broadcasters, as it is ours.  Meanwhile the guy who controls this absolutely and unerringly is Donald Trump.  The whole time everyone is talking about how terrible he is because of his latest tweet or ham-handed move he's enjoying the security of being the center of attention, which is all he's ever really wanted.  There's been a lot of talk lately about whether we have learned the lessons of history.  Well Trump sure has.  Lesson number one is that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.  And lesson number two is that there's no such thing as bad publicity.  Ask Hitler, a guy who profited from all the publicity that came his way.  Ask a Kardashian.  Ask Satan.

And, what the hell, I'm feeding into that just like everybody else.  But at least I have a point to make about it.  I know it's just about impossible not to pay attention to the President if he wants you to pay attention to him--he's got too many weapons in his arsenal, literally and figuratively.  You can't just take the guy and put him in the time-out room and lock the door and go have a little peace and quiet.  He's spawned an entire pack of parasitic newshounds, some real and yes, some fake, to report on his every move.  If, like me, you've culled out any right-wingers from your Facebook friends, either by unfollowing them or unfriending them altogether, then other than recipes for delicious things, or photos of cute-as-hell grandchildren, or pictures of people holding fish they've just caught, you have only the shrill voices of the opposition, condemning Trump's every move, and demanding his impeachment, resignation, condemnation, etc.  Everything except for his assassination, and I'm not sure why nobody's urging that.  That's probably the only way to ensure his premature exit from office.  (Pence, you say?  Don't worry about him.  He's an amateur, and would be a lot easier to handle at all levels than Trump is.  We should be hoping that that Hoosier fuck-knuckle will be president soon.)  And the regular TV news isn't much better.  MSNBC and CNN's mission in life is to obsess, negatively, about Trump on a daily basis--a laudable goal in theory, but in practice very wearying and repetitive and, let's face it, pretty useless, unless you're Donald Trump, in which case it's very useful because it keeps you in the spotlight.

Just lately the big controversy has been the neo-Nazi demonstrations surrounding the taking down of statues of Confederate (or is it Covfefe?) warriors.  Since just about everybody's memory of history is somewhere between short and nonexistent, few remember that in the 1970s the American Nazis petitioned for, and ultimately were granted, the right to march through Skokie, Illinois, a predominately Jewish suburb of Chicago.  Back then the wounds of the real Nazi regime were much sorer, and a number of Skokie's residents were actual holocaust survivors or immediate family members of such unfortunate victims.  This was naked provocation, pure and simple.  Still, the Supreme Court upheld their right to march, and congregate in Skokie they did, if rather tepidly, and the country went on, just as the country will go on now.  The President at the time, Jimmy Carter, did condemn the Nazis, while respecting their constitutional right to march, and encouraged counter-demonstrations by Jewish organizations and others.  That was the proper response to the whole thing, and it's exactly what Clinton, or the Bushes, or Obama would have done.  And it got Carter nary a nod or a vote in the next election, because no one takes any special notice when you do the correct thing--the thing that's expected of you.

So why do I even mention the Skokie thing?  Just for this reason:  The most significant difference isn't the number of Nazis now versus in 1978 (only a few dozen of them ultimately showed up in Skokie), nor is it that Nazis are any more or less offensive now than they were then.  If anything, they were more of a blight back then due to their offense to the living memories of so many participants in and victims of the Third Reich and the Second World War.  Nor is the underlying issue any different--white power, white supremacy, opposition to perceived encroachment on the prerogatives of the Aryan race.  That's what it was all about then and now.   Nor it is even the fact that this time a guy drove a vehicle into the counter-demonstrators and killed a person and wounded others.  That's being dealt with and would have been dealt with had it happened then, too.  The difference is that this was an opportunity for us to focus our entire, undivided attention on the President, which is exactly what he wants every event in the country, or for that matter in the world, to be.  Tell me honestly--do you know what's going to happen to the guy who plowed his car into the crowd?  Do you know his name?  Do you know the name of the dead woman, or any of the injured?  More importantly, do you give a fuck?  No.  You only care about Donald Trump, and what he said, and what he's doing.  And next week you'll care about Trump for a different reason.  And that's how he likes it.

Tony Schwartz, the individual who ghost wrote Trump's book The Art of the Deal, is in the news predicting that Trump will resign soon.  This strikes me as a very odd prognostication from a person who claims to know Trump well.  Why would a guy who loves nothing better than attention resign from the job that has brought him nonstop attention?  Why wouldn't he hold onto that job until the bitter end?   It reminds me of a joke an old friend told me once:  A man walks into a bar, smelling like shit, and orders a drink.  The bartender mentions that he can't help noticing how bad the guy smells.  The man says, "Well, it's because of my job.  I work for the circus, which is in town right now.  I take care of the elephants, and one of the things I have to do is to make sure they are healthy.  So when they get constipated I have to stick my arm up their asses all the way to my shoulder and sort of stir things up, and then they start shitting profusely."  The bartender is amazed, and responds, "Jesus, that sounds terrible!  Why don't you get a different job?"  The man replies, "What, and give up show business?"

So congratulations, chumps, for all the help you're giving to the most astute student of history the 21st century has yet produced, a man who will never willingly give up show business.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Novus Ordo Seclorum

Monrovia, California
May 22, 2017

Upon the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, both sides of which are depicted on the back of the one-dollar bill, appears the motto "Novus Ordo Seclorum," which means something like The New Order of the Ages.  I suppose that it was meant to declare to the world, in a certainly self-serving and self-aggrandizing way, that with the advent of the of the U.S. government we'd begun a relatively new way of approaching the concept of running a country.  It was nominally secular, or at least not deliberately dominated by any one religion, and did not include the clergy as one of the Estates, fairly rare at that time.  It eschewed hereditary royalty and nobility, as least in name.  It was a confederacy of independently-run mini-states held together by a federal government in charge of national defense and other essential national prerogatives and tasks.  The independence of the mini-states was strong enough that, regarding the issue of slavery, it lead to a civil war.  We sometimes call it The War Between the States, but in reality is was a war between several like-minded southern slave holding states and the federal government acting on behalf of the rest of them.  As such it was doomed to failure from the beginning for the South, because they just couldn't operate as a cohesive unit, so obsessed were they with the idea that each state should be allowed to operate independently.  By the best historical accounts available, running the Confederate States of  America as a country was akin to herding cats.  Vicious, hateful, prideful, self-entitled cats.  So they lost.  Also because they didn't have a hell of a lot of money, whereas we did.  By "we" of course I mean the United States, the good guys.  But as usual I digress.

Since the inception of the United States, and throughout all threats to and by the country since, we have waved the flag, literally and figuratively, of our Novus Ordo Seclorum.  But our New Order has rested on shifting sands, to say the least.  It has been our rallying cry while defending our own shores (only occasionally), while invading other shores, and while railing against perceived threats to our existence.  But no new order can remain new if it's allowed to stagnate and become old.  Some countries declare new regimes when they shift from one major domestic and world view to another. The French are currently in the midst of their Fifth Republic.  They'll no doubt have a few more in the years ahead, following various wars and vicissitudes.  It's their national way of resetting the clock without resorting to the the Pol Pot-style of Year Zero revolution they undertook around the time when the First Republic was declared back in 1792.  A civilized way of correcting their occasional episodes of backsliding into national incivility--new constitution, etc.  The British, our closest role models, just keep on trucking under the banner of their first major shift, through civil wars and new dynasties.  They like to date everything more or less from 1215, when Magna Carta was signed.  Similarly, we still date everything from 1776 and our subsequent (and so far only) constitution, even though we occasionally declare a New Birth of Freedom, or a New Deal, or a New Frontier.  Until now, at least.  This latest presidential election has most certainly ushered in a new order of sorts, more chaotic and fast-paced and overtly antagonistic and radically rule-changing than previous ones in our lifetimes.

The New American Order is driving me crazy, to the point where I have become paralyzed when it comes to talking about politics or anything close to it.   Here I have this blog where I can say pretty much anything I like, even if it's outrageous and contemptible in some peoples' eyes, but there's no longer anything I could say that doesn't get topped regularly by the words or actions of the administration.  Where once it would have been at least marginally witty and snarky to point out the idiocy of the Republican Party and its members, these inmates now have such firm control of the asylum that they're changing national expectations of normalcy, with the instantaneous help of electronic social media and 24-hour news stations--not just daily, but almost hourly.  TV stations I used to consider essentially conservative, like CNN and the original three networks, have begun to look mildly subversive due to the fact that, although they still rather slavishly adhere to the established format of trotting out "experts" from different sides of the spectrum of political opinion, they don't hesitate to state, point blank, that in such-and-such an instance the President or Sean Spicer or Paul Ryan or another of that bunch, are simply lying. But because they're all news junkies they have to keep talking about all these monsters, even when what is being said and done ought to be beneath contempt and the notice of decent people.  They do this because, well, that's pretty much all they have to talk about beyond the occasional flood or tsunami or foreign war atrocity.  They remind me of nothing so much as Marilyn Munster, the "normal" member of the TV show "The Munsters," who was considered abnormal by the rest of her family because she wasn't grotesque, when in fact she was rather comely, or at least conformed to the adolescent idea of feminine beauty.  People who watched the show got the joke immediately, of course.  Today those lines between hideously monstrous and normal have been blurred.  And while the news is much funnier than "The Munsters" ever was, it isn't supposed to be.  And the administration and its minions in the legislature have become masters at repeating the Big Lie that what the news stations say is false, or Fake News.  Black is white now, or to quote from Orwell's 1984, "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength." I needn't belabor that point further.

As I write this the president is out of the country, and so help me, I think the news stations are going through a kind of withdrawal.  It's a lull they can't quite stand, and in Trump's absence they're really sort of lost.  Some are falling back on the meager footage of Trump dancing, sword in hand, with the guys in the head scarfs in Riyadh.  Others are repeating the fatuous Impeach Him Now mantra (as if any party in power in the legislature would ever impeach one of its own).  Then there's the question of how many Flynns can dance on the head of a pin.  But it's all just filler until Trump makes his next dumb speech or tweets something in the wee hours.  The press would never say it out loud, but they wish Trump would come back home and start acting like the silly guy we've all come to love and hate.  Meanwhile they're resorting to one of their favorite fallback positions--playing back Trump's campaign speechifying to show how contradictory he's capable of being, as if that's up for debate.
Tomorrow all this could be washed over by some new craziness.  But our favorite nutbar is MIA at the moment, schmoozing with world leaders.

My point, in case it's not clear enough, is that Trump's presidency has made the press, and therefore the entire country, sillier and less reliable and less mature than ever, like helpless parents dealing with an uncontrollable child.  Which is more or less what they're having to do.  And like parents who find themselves in this unenviable position, the best advice anyone could give them is to take a deep breath and try to behave like adults.  Leave the ranting to the bloggers.  We can use the work.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

It Feels So Good When I Stop

Monrovia, California
December 31, 2016

Damn, I've got to get this bad boy finished before the new year, so the few of you out there who follow won't think I've fallen into a rabbit hole because of the election, or something....ahem.....

There's an old anecdote that goes more or less like this:  A man is observed repeatedly hitting himself  in the head with a two-by-four.  When asked why he would be doing such a thing he replies, "Because it feels so good when I stop."

A few weeks ago I was hoping to be able to begin this posting with the immortal words of Gerald Ford, probably the only immortal words that guy ever spoke, "Our long national nightmare is over." He made this pronouncement as he assumed the presidency in August 1974 upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, after a couple of years of harrowing and ever-more-incriminating revelations about the bad actions of the Nixon administration in connection with what we refer to as Watergate.

As I said, I was hoping to open with that quote.  Only of course our long national nightmare isn't over.  It feels as if it's been going on forever, but now it has taken a turn for the worse, and for the somewhat different.  Some might say that it's really only beginning.  In the carnival that has been the campaign of 2015-16, we have left a house of mirrors and entered a house of horrors.

As full of hatred of Donald Trump as I am, and as angry as I might be at the wretched souls who voted for him, or who voted for someone other than Hillary Clinton out of some disinclination to support her despite the obvious alternative, or who stayed home when they could have and should have voted for her, thereby allowing Trump to win the election, I am nevertheless something of an optimist in general.  Don't get me wrong, I'm no Dr. Pangloss from Candide, believing that we are in the best of all possible worlds, nor am I so besotted with the U.S. political system that I think everything is going to work out for the best because, by God, we live in the best of all possible countries.

Our constitutional system is a pretty neat and clever one, however, and as effective in its own way as are, for example, the rules of baseball, in that it works consistently and reliably in spite of who and what comes along to fuck it up, and can tolerate the great, the mediocre, and the downright bad.  Like the rules of baseball, the constitution can be tinkered with (we use the term amended), but not without major undertaking.  And also, as with with the rules of baseball, not everyone who is aware of the basic way the constitution works knows the rules, and only a comparative few know them completely and intimately.

Many citizens of other countries, for example, see only the President and his actions on the international front, and think, erroneously, that he operates the way a premier or prime minister does and that our government operates like a parliamentary system, that is, with almost total control of both the executive and legislative processes in the hands of the ruling party or a coalition of ruling parties.  One of the most striking aspects of world politics is the fact that, despite the great power and influence of the United States in the world at large, virtually no country of any importance has a system of government like ours.  This is due, I think, to two factors.  One is that as a direct colonial power we have done very little worldwide.  We have colonized with our goods and money and weapons and influence, but not with our direct governmental control, as have the great powers of Europe, in particular Great Britain and France.  As a result we have have not spread our system of governance to others the way those two powers have.  So most of the rest of the comparatively enlightened "democratic" world--Europe, Japan, Israel, Canada, parts of South Asia, etc., use the parliamentary approach (whether or not they use the term "parliament"), which gives the majority party pretty much carte blanche run the country as it sees fit, of course within certain established limits.  This is why, in a parliamentary democracy, a new political party in power is called a "new government," rather than a "new administration."  The second reason our particular style of constitutional government hasn't caught on elsewhere is that we were conceived  in a comparative instant of time as a federation of semi-independent states held together by a limited federal government, and not as one unified, centrally-operated country.  The degree of individual power of states--the power to tax, to punish, to regulate, to elect a President--in this country is not really rivaled in other countries, and is little understood elsewhere.

Thus it is that people outside this country, who see only the unifying (or divisive) face of the President, tend to think, and perhaps fear, that he has more power than he really does.  Of course he does have power--the power to nuke us all, for example, which is a hell of a lot of power--but it's of a limited type, and utterly unique and irreversible in its execution.  Our President's power is rather like the power of some ancient god to hurl thunderbolts, but not to control the actions of his own quarreling children.

These days my thoughts have been more and more given over to the subtler nuances of the workings of the U.S. government--to the balance of power among its three branches, those famous "checks and balances."  And also I've been thinking, wistfully, about the power of the minority to disrupt the workings of the majority, a power deftly employed by the Congress against the Obama administration (and in previous years against the Clinton administration).  I admit this a mechanism of mental defense as I prepare for the inevitable takeover of the executive branch by Donald Trump and what is shaping up to be the cruelest gang of rogues, misfits, and ass-clowns in the history of the country.  I say "inevitable takeover" because (despite the musings and prognostications of silly people like Michael Moore, a person whose first few movies were good grim fun, but who has now become a blowhard of the first order and an embarrassment to progressives the nation over) Donald Trump will be inaugurated on January 20, 2017, and will be in charge of the executive branch of the government, barring a completely unforeseen circumstance.

While I was still writing this people like the aforementioned Michael Moore and tons of handwringers on the leftish side of things were hoping for an electoral college miracle, which of course didn't happen and was about as likely to occur as the earth getting threatened by a giant meteor and then being saved by Billy Bob Thornton.  The next things these feckless folks will have to let pass are the opportunity for President Obama to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court while the Senate is in recess, and the chance that no one will show up at the inauguration except one Mormon and Ted Nugent, pissing Trump off so much that he'll decide not to take office.

So, back to the realm of the possible.  The Senate minority does have the power to filibuster nominees for cabinet positions and the Supreme Court.  Let's see if they have the energy or the guts to do it.  (And no, signing some stupid petition on Facebook isn't going to make it happen.)  And let's see if the two or three Republicans who seem to be more pissed at Trump than the others will be willing to switch sides from time to time.  And even with an even-trade replacement for Scalia on the Supreme Court, that body will be composed exactly as it was when gay marriage was legalized nationally.  So as long as the octogenarians don't croak we're okay there.

Oh, and a word about constitutional amendments.  Stop talking about them, everybody.  They're not going to happen because they're too difficult to enact, and I'm sick of hearing people bandy about the idea that we should ban this or that by an amendment.  Like the electoral college.  Really?  A Republican congress that has just acquired a Republican President who got less votes than his opponent did, for the second time in 16 years, is going to decide all of sudden to eliminate the thing that allowed that to happen?  (Oh, and 38 state legislatures are going to go along with it?)  I've got a better idea.  Let's amend the constitution to ban Facebook and Twitter.

Well, I'm rambling.  Got to wrap this up and get it out before the new year.  Tell you one thing: it'll feel good to stop thinking about this shit, whether it happens via the ballot box, by fire, or by the sword.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Mother of Exiles

...Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles....

--From "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus

Monrovia, California

October 24, 2016

In a recent posting I accused Los Angeles County of being physically ugly, dirty, and overcrowded.  It is all those things. But in fairness to the place it does possess a few positives as well.  One of the most fascinating and invigorating aspects of life here is its human diversity.  Certainly there are other places where ethnic and cultural differences are the norm.  New York City comes immediately to mind, and I doubt that LA County can compare to Brooklyn or Queens.  Other big cities on earth, like Paris and London, in recent years also have become places where folks of many stripes rub elbows, however uneasily.  Then there are locales where more than one race or ethnicity or religion coexist, but where the number of different groups is limited to two or three.  Any number of US cities have large white populations and large black populations, with only a sprinkling of brown and yellow people.

There are also spots on earth where diversity barely exists, and if it does, is not prized all that much.  Whole countries, or parts of countries, or tribal lands, just love the sameness of their people, and take pleasure not only in how much alike they all are, but in how long they've occupied their particular pied a terre.  Hundreds or thousands of years is the norm with such prideful folks.  This comparative permanence in one spot, going back to before their own written history, is what leads some nations or ethnic groups to imagine that they sprang, wholly formed, from the very soil on which they currently urinate and defecate--planted there by God or the gods.  Autochthony, they call that, and of course it's the stuff of myth but not of history.  Anyway, bless their homogeneous little hearts and their shallow little gene pools.  If there is merit in staying put and not venturing forth to new places, then I congratulate them.

In this country it is taken for granted that no one has been here since the dawn of  human existence.  We understand that the pair of continents known as North and South America were once uninhabited by human beings even while Europe, Africa, and Asia were.  Nevertheless, and rather curiously, those of us in the United States who know damn well that our cultures and races didn't originate where we currently live still tend to prize the more longstanding presence of the older groups.  The people who were on this continent before Europeans came seem to us to be, like heirloom tomatoes, better and more pure and somehow stronger, in a deeply spiritual and nostalgic and nourishing sense, than we comparative newcomers are.  This, mind you, in spite of the fact that our European ancestors had the wherewithal to travel halfway around the world in a very short time and to systematically, through their tenacity and technological advantages--and yes, ruthlessness--take over.  About this latter fact we feel guilty, without ever stopping to consider where we ourselves would be if we hadn't done the dirty deeds that besmirch our continental past.  Maybe we could have settled North America more humanely, we imagine.  Maybe we could have established and spread ourselves out by more charitable degrees, leaving bigger swathes of tribal lands alone and forgoing the genocide and forced migration we perpetrated.  Maybe, we think, in our most self-effacing moments, we never should have come at all. We didn't always think this way as a nation, but in the early 21st century we tend to do so.

In truth, nobody has been in the same place for even a fraction of the entirety of human existence, except possibly for the people in a few spots in east Africa.  The rest of us, which is to say almost everyone, came from somewhere else.  Because written records don't exist before a few hundred or thousand years ago, the most that scientists and historians can do is to generalize--for example, to tell us that certain people, like the Celts, came from "somewhere east of modern Europe, perhaps from central Asia," and swept across northwestern Europe, settling in northern France and throughout the British Isles.  Here's a curious fact: as far as we know, a hell of a lot of people seem to have come from somewhere in central Asia for some reason, no matter which direction they went.  The Celts, the Huns, the Mongols, the various Germanic tribes, even the Mongolian-type people who went east across what is now the Bering Strait and down into North and South America and became our revered Native Americans.  Nobody seems to have figured out how they all got into central Asia in the first place.  But the commonality of practically all people on the planet, no matter who they are, is that they picked up and left where they were and went some place else.  Maybe a few of them went first, then let the others know it was a pretty good deal, or at least better than where they had been, and the rest came.  Maybe they skirted the coastlines, trading or raiding, and saw new places worth looking into.  Or maybe they moved en masse, killing, raping, and plundering as they went in the good old fashioned way that nomads of all colors seem prone to do.  But they moved around, following the ocean currents, the herds, the seasons, the easy victims, whatever.  And in moving, in the very process of traveling and adapting, they seem to have gained technological strength and versatility.  In traveling they adapted.  Then they traveled some more and adapted some more.  That's the thing about travel--it tends to broaden one's horizons.

Oh, and there's another common denominator in the tales of the history of peoples who moved about.  In the felicitous memory of their descendants (us) they seem often to have been kings of wherever they were, or at least very noble, and pure, and generally good, and somehow more in touch with the earth and the gods than we are today.  This despite the fact that what may have driven them from one shore to another was not success, but failure; not ease and comfort, but desperation born of privation or shortage or loss or religious nonconformity.  Irishmen like to think they're descended from Brian Boru, notwithstanding the fact that the potato famine might have been what starved their peasant ancestors into braving the Atlantic for the New World.  Every poor African American was kidnapped from a race of chieftains.   I guess fantasizing about having once been great makes people feel better about their sorry pasts and their present circumstances. But who leaves a country they're in charge of already to go to a country where they're uncertain about anything?  The majority of European Americans know better about themselves.  They are taught, correctly, that their ancestors were the dregs of their native countries, or at least outcasts for one reason or another, or political losers.  Religious nuts, younger sons who didn't inherit anything, soldiers of fortune, prisoners who were spared the gallows.

Anyway, back to LA County, my home for the time being, nomad that I am.  Here we have a fascinating welter of different people from different backgrounds.  The largest single group, with a plurality that is rapidly approaching a majority, is Latinos.  The common denominator of most Latinos is that they speak Spanish as their first or second language.  The bulk of them hereabouts are of Mexican heritage, but increasingly they come from South and Central America as well.  But Latinos aren't all of the same stripe.  Some are far whiter than others, some identify as descendants of the Aztecs, some claim to have come from the Mayan culture, but most just think of themselves as Latinos.  Some appear to be almost pure pre-Colombian Indian, looking like they just stepped out of a tropical jungle or desert, and some evince a great deal of Spanish or other European blood in their veins.  In the regions south of our border, as here in the US, the lighter your skin color the more likely you are to be better off financially and politically, and hence the less likely you are to feel the need to move elsewhere.

But there are lots of other non-European groups as well.  Asians probably constitute the second-largest segment of these people, and they're far more diverse than the Latinos are, speaking many different languages.  They are Chinese, Koreans, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesians, Filipinos (who can claim to be either Asians or Latinos as they choose because of the former Spanish colonial presence in their native country), and also South Asians, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other nearby places.  We also have a good number of Middle Easterners, from Israel, Palestine, Iran (who prefer to be called Persians), and various Arabian countries.  In the Glendale and Burbank areas, in particular, there are large settlements of Armenians--a perpetually pissed-off bunch on the whole.  They of course are Caucasian, because they come from the Caucasus region, with a language and alphabet they regard as practically timeless and greatly superior to all others.  They're brimming over with resentment toward Turks and naked hatred of Russians, of whom we have a fair number as well.  Many of the Russians are Jewish, and in any event are generally thought to be mobbed up.  And of course there are African Americans, always present and always occupying the bottom rung of the social ladder, no matter who arrives next, forever held down by the color of their skin and their slave past and forever complaining about it--with absolute justification.  I'm sure I'm forgetting a few prominent groups, but that gives you a fair sampling of the diversity of the region.  Amid all these folks are people of non-Spanish Western European heritage--Jewish and gentile--who make up at most a third of the total population, though a much greater percentage of the financially and politically powerful.  They're called Anglos.

As with any area that brings together people of many recently-abandoned nationalities, people here tend to complain about each other, to mistrust others outside their own families or ethnic groups, and to consider themselves innately superior to, if not everybody else, then at least someone else.  That's standard human behavior, it seems.  Cubans look down on Mexicans and Mexicans look down on Central Americans; Chinese and Japanese look down on Vietnamese and Cambodians; European immigrants look down on Latinos and Asians of all kinds; blacks from Africa or the Caribbean, as well as just about everyone from anywhere else, look down on African Americans; Israelis and Persians and Anglos look down on everybody.

Newcomers, from whichever direction they have arrived here, also tend to believe that they should probably have been the last persons allowed to come into the United States, and that the doors should henceforth be shut to any more latecomers.  This has been going on in the US for a long time, going back to when the original white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were beset by influxes of Irish, Chinese, and then Southern and Eastern Europeans.  It is amazing how quickly this desire to exclude others begins to prevail among new immigrants and their children.  Identification with, and aspiration to belong to, the dominant elements of social and economic power in the country tends to trump (pardon the pun) any leftover sympathy and identification with our sad histories in whatever old countries we traveled from, leaving only nostalgia for grandma's cooking and for grandpa's folk songs.  America is, above all, a land of new birth.

All of which leads to one basic point.  This is no country for old men or old ideas.  We are a land that has been forever populated by newcomers, almost always looking for a better deal than whatever deal we left behind.  No one who came here came on a winning streak.  Some, perhaps, would have preferred to stay put but for the fact that they weren't wanted, or couldn't make a decent living, or couldn't be free, or hated the government, or were hated by it.  But they had to leave.

First, thousands of years ago, it was the central Asians who were driven through Siberia and into our land for reasons that have become obscure.  But we know one thing: they didn't want to, or couldn't, stay where they were.  Then, half a millennium ago, people came from the other direction for all those reasons.  Not because they were fat and happy and secure and in charge where they were, but because they weren't any of those things.  Today, they come from all directions at once.  But always for the same reasons.  This phenomenon isn't new, and we can't pretend that it is, nor should we.  Other countries may have the dubious luxury of identifying themselves with their ancient and mythological pasts, but we do not.  The Western Hemisphere was been populated by wanderers and escapees, not by persons chosen by God to live here.  Today the US exists as a nation because many other parts of the world are worse places to live.  Having moved here out of necessity or opportunism, we can't decide that the necessity and opportunity no longer exist for others. We have tried to lock the gates, but have never permanently succeeded in doing so.  Immigration quotas have existed and still do exist, biased in favor of the whiter and less foreign-looking and grubby of our world neighbors, but they will always be subject to challenge and will be brought back into line by the better angels of our national nature.

And there is no better way to round out this sentiment than with the sestet of the sonnet with which we began--both a rebuke to the European feudalism and intolerance of that time and an exhortation not to fall back into the same intolerance on this side of the ocean:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.  "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

The golden door, indeed.  In part, of course, Ms. Lazarus was referring to the often-cited belief by some that the streets of America were paved with gold.  Silly, but idealistic and tempting.  Paved they were, back in the late nineteenth century, but in horse shit and sewage, just like in the cities of the Old World.  In a metaphorical sense they were paved in the gold of opportunity, as rough and tumble as it was.  Work your ass off and you might, just might, get a little ahead, and out of perpetual peonage.  And if not you, then your children, or their children, which was a better hope than what you left behind.  Almost a century and a half later this is still what many folks hope for.  It's not a hell of a lot to want, but it is worth wanting for them.  The thing we have going for us isn't that life will necessarily be good for the immigrant, but that life will be a little better for the immigrant's children, and that the rest of us will be better for that.  If we shut the golden door now, we shut it on ourselves as well as those on the other side.  We lose our lifeblood and begin our decay.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Show Your Face

September 26, 2016
Monrovia, California

As the 2016 presidential race moves into its final few weeks, it occurs to me that the contest is falling further and further away from what should be its proper point of focus.  When we elect a president from either of the two main political parties, we are electing someone who represents the essential values of the party he or she represents.  

In the case of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, I think she pretty fairly represent the values of the party--generosity, liberality, inclusiveness, a measure of redistribution of wealth, and most importantly a view of the future that does not seek to restore the real or imagined glorious past but to use the government to make things better for people, in particular those less fortunate than the majority of us are.  To be sure, Clinton as a person is nakedly ambitious, as well as rather dull, awkward, and wonky.  But in aligning herself with the Democratic Party she has chosen to represent those values, whether or not she actually gets to impose them or further them.  Give her credit for that.

Most of us who oppose the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, have fallen into the trap he has set for us by becoming almost obsessed with his personality rather than with his politics.  Some of us even say he has no particular politics--that he will say anything to anybody in order to get elected.  The campaign has focused almost entirely on ad hominem attacks against Trump the man, and we profess to be astonished that a major candidate could be such a bald-faced liar, so silly, so pompous, so utterly lacking in real substance and character.  Of course he's all that, and worse.  He's a shallow, immoral, hateful, careless, and essentially incompetent guy, not to mention mentally unstable, and as ill-equipped to be president as anyone in our nation's history has been for a long time.  We say, "How could the Republicans have picked such a horrible person to be their standard-bearer?"

But we're still missing the most important point.  While Trump is a scoundrel of the first order, and makes no pretense at being otherwise, both he as an individual, and the views he espouses, DO represent the very essence and substance of what the Republican Party has stood for and tried to accomplish at least as far back in our lifetimes as Ronald Reagan, and with only a couple of exceptions for over a hundred years.  Trump as a man and as a candidate is not an aberration; he is the apotheosis of the social, economic, and moral philosophy his party embodies.  The biggest difference between him and other Republican candidates and presidents who have appeared to be reasonable and respectable is that he makes no pretense at being those things, because reason and respectability have no meaningful place within the party.  The core values of the Republican Party he represents are entirely in keeping with his personality.  

What are those core values?  What is it that makes people vote for a Republican in the first place?  Mostly this--Fear.  Fear of change, fear of the future, fear of newcomers, fear and hatred of people who look and believe differently, fear of real or perceived threats to our national security, fear of threats to our pocketbooks.  Republicans pander to all the prejudices that are based on religion, race, and contempt for the poor.  Most of all, Republicans worship wealth for its own sake.  The typical Republican voter is essentially, in his or her tiny heart of hearts, frightened, greedy, selfish, small-minded, and pissed off.  Pushing the buttons that evoke these emotions and reactions have been the mainstays of all Republican campaigns for as far back as any of us can remember.  And this year, more than ever, if you could give a truth serum to the average Republican voter, he'd say something like this:  "It's bad enough that a nigger has been president for eight years, but now they want to put a bitch into the office.  Enough is enough."

Previous GOP candidates have pandered to these core party values or disguised them with code words, by claiming that they stand for a return to the Glories of the Past, or for Law and Order, or for Family Values.  Most importantly, they've effectively used The Big Lie--the idea that the more extravagant and colossal a lie is, the more people will be convinced that no one could have the impudence to distort the truth so drastically, and that therefore it must not be a lie. They've rationalized tax cuts for the wealthy by promising Trickle Down Economics, and they've justified cuts in aid to the poor by claiming that the middle class is losing all its money to cheats, leeches, and losers at the bottom end of the income scale.  They've destroyed trade unions by promoting so-called Right to Work laws and by declaring that workers are paid too much and have too much power over their masters.  They've put Wall Street speculators in charge of pensions.  They've destroyed reasonable government oversight of the production and sale of food, drugs, and energy by declaring that Washington has too much power over competition in the marketplace.  They've stoked our fear of foreigners.  They've consistently deluded our military personnel by placing them in wretched, no-win situations that encourage and empower young people to commit atrocities.  Then when they come home permanently warped and disfigured, they repeat, ad nauseam, that these children have served honorably in the cause of Preserving our Freedom as a Nation and encourage us to thank them for it, lest anyone who returns from these horrible pointless wars, or their friends and families, should question the wisdom of their having been sent there in the first place.  The Republicans have, in short, placed foxes in charge of virtually all the hen houses we maintain as a nation for the good of the general public, by reasoning that, after all, foxes are smarter, stronger, and more resourceful than chickens are.  And Republican voters have believed all these abominable lies.  A few have profited handsomely from them, and the majority are worse off than ever, without knowing why--still not getting it, but still, above all, believing that the fault lies with those who are darker-skinned and poorer even than they are. 

So the wonder of the Trump candidacy isn't how a guy like that gets to lead his party, but rather how the GOP has managed NOT to have a Trump before--how it has succeeded in disguising its true motives and garbing them in respectability up to now.  Donald Trump isn't an anomaly--he's the perfect personification of Republicanism, without any cover-up, without any pretense at fairness or decency.  Republicans who think he doesn't represent them should take a good look not at him but at themselves, and if they really think the lies, hatred, disrespect, and absurdity he spouts on a daily basis don't represent their own beliefs, they should consider changing parties.  

Donald Trump is reminiscent of a scene from a cheesy movie about Satan, when the devil disguised as an ordinary human being is unmasked, however briefly, to reveal beneath his bland face the hideousness of true evil.  Or maybe he's like the picture of Dorian Grey, in the upstairs room, that bears all the ravages of time and dissolution and immoral deeds committed by its seemingly ever-youthful and handsome subject.  Either way, Donald Trump is the true face of the Republican Party in America.  If it horrifies or puzzles you, then don't blame him.  Blame the party whose standard he bears.  There is no "good" Republican Party, no "decent" Republican Party, no "traditional" Republican Party whose message he has distorted and misused and misappropriated.  There is only the party of Donald Trump, out there for all to see.

Monday, June 6, 2016

So Sorry

Monrovia, California
June 6, 2016

I have noticed a tendency of people when they're in public to say "sorry" rather than "excuse me" when they've committed a minor faux pas, such as bumping into someone or cutting ahead of them in line.  Okay, so what? you say.  What strikes me about people saying "sorry" on such occasions, here in California at least, is that I get the feeling they actually mean it literally.  It's in the intonation.  They say it as if they've just run over your foot with a bulldozer and left you crippled for life.  "Oh, sorry-sorry-sorry.  Sor-ry," they say, in a verbal version of biting a cuticle.  It's as if they've arrived at this particular moment of sorriness after a lifetime of having been pounded into apologetic submission.  In the briefest of moments, such a "sorry" in the grocery store line sums up a lifetime of chastisement and fear of impending rage, or perhaps a more recently acquired apprehension about the volubility of other humans, as opposed to the expectation that the wronged person will respond as he or she almost invariably does, namely, by saying "Oh, that's okay," or words to that effect.

I confess I'm not sure if this excessive sorriness is part of a nationwide trend or merely peculiar to this part of the country, or even just this part of the state.  Come to think of it, people up in the Bay Area might not act like this at all.  I rather suspect they don't, especially in Oakland, where the prevailing mood of the populace seems to be one of surly mutual disrespect and a sense of exhausted hyper-entitlement produced by two generations of largely fruitless political militancy.  Being in Oakland is like being in a large university town (only without the university), where everyone expects you to behave in an especially responsible and self-sacrificing way and the rules are constantly changing and it's up to you, god damn it, to figure it all out and get with the program.

Of course being sorry is generally a good thing when one has done wrong, intentionally or not.  It is what's known as apologizing, which is the accepted method in most societies of acknowledging that one has done a bad, illegal, or hurtful thing.  And most people, unless they're exceptionally warped, really do know what's bad, illegal, or hurtful.  More apologies and acknowledgements of wrongdoing are needed when people do wrong, especially at the public level.  Frequently politicians will go in front of cameras and say that they "made mistakes" or that "errors in judgment were made," or employ some other such weaselly expressions when they really should say, "I did wrong, I knew it was wrong at the time but I did it anyway, and I'm sorry."  This is something most of us take pains to teach our children when they're young, so they'll understand the concepts of being accountable for their actions and considerate of the feelings of others.

One of the reasons people cite for not apologizing more often, in the simple straightforward way we are taught to do when we're kids, is that an apology might be taken for an admission of liability in a legal sense, and might expose the person to civil damages.  This is largely a myth perpetrated by lawyers and insurance companies, who stand to profit or minimize their losses from peoples' fuck-ups.  But speaking as someone who has worked as a lawyer and a mediator for some years I can tell you that if more people apologized there would be far fewer lawsuits, and not the other way around.  An apology won't always obviate the payment of money damages, but it can be worth many thousands of dollars, especially in the area of professional malpractice.  Hell hath no fury like a wronged plaintiff who perceives that the defendant isn't even sorry for what he's done.  Naturally there are times when the defendant and the plaintiff view things so diametrically differently that neither has a consciousness of wrongdoing, but I have observed many situations where apologies all around have had a profound and salutary effect.

Sometimes saying sorry doesn't get it, of course, and forgiveness is in any event up to the receiver of the apology, whether it be an individual or the public at large.  But it's almost always a good way to go.  If Richard Nixon had gone on television and told the American people that he was sorry for having condoned and engaged in political dirty tricks and subsequent attempts to cover them up, who knows how differently things might have turned out?  Maybe Gerald Ford would have remained an obscure footnote in Vice Presidential history rather than the obscure footnote in Presidential history that he is today.  Then again, an apology probably would have been impossible for the Nixon we knew.

But let's get back to "sorry" as a substitute in superficial public discourse for "excuse me" or "pardon me."  To be sure, the people of Southern California have plenty to be sorry for, collectively speaking.  The invention of the word "bitchin" for one thing.  Plastic surgery, for another. The Kardashian family.  A hell of a lot of movies.  Most of what's on television.  Really, the list is almost endless.  Maybe that's why the way people say "sorry" in the LA area seems so much more personal than it should under the circumstances, as if they were sort of carrying the weight of all the truly bad things produced around here with them.

On the other hand, the English have been using "sorry" instead of "excuse me" for a long time now.  Maybe we over here picked it up from watching all those BBC productions on PBS.  I don't know.  But theirs is a supercilious and slightly irritated sorry, and everybody knows when the Brits say "sorry" in that way they don't mean they're really sorry.  The British simply aren't sorry as a general rule.  There's no hint in their long history as a nation and a people of anyone being culturally or nationally apologetic.  Britons have never, as far as I know, been sorry for a single thing they've ever done, so we know automatically that "sorry" stands in for "excuse me" or even "get out of my way."

Likewise the French, who might say "pardon" when they jostle or bump you, aren't really asking to be pardoned for anything.  Frenchmen are no more sorry for anything they've done than the British are.  They may regret having been beaten in a war or two along the way (the British don't even regret that), and they may feel sorry for themselves for having to live so close to the British and the Germans and having to put up with Americans, but they're not the least bit sorry.  Not in any sort of national hang-your-head sense, the way the Japanese are capable of being.  That kind of regret just isn't in the DNA of the northern European peoples.  That's why when the Allies tried to force the Germans into being really sorry after World War One the result was an equal and opposite reaction, leading to, well, you know to what.

Maybe also we in this country, and even more so in this politically liberal part of the country, are especially aware and uncomfortable about how and why we got here, and are sorry for it, even though we may have profited from it.  We're reminded that we should be sorry for our horrible treatment of the Native Americans, a treatment which, we must nevertheless acknowledge, paved the way for our conquest of the continent.  We're also reminded that we should be sorry for the enslavement of Africans, and the appropriation of the West from the Mexicans.  And then there's the exploitation of immigrant labor, the rape of the land, our contribution to global warming, and the list goes on.  These are things that we, as a nation, must acknowledge were bad at the time, but which we must also admit seemed okay at the time.  We sit, like all nation-states, atop a pile of bad deeds that forged our history and led us to the present for better or worse.

You can see why the more insensitive among us admire a guy like Donald Trump, who absolutely never apologizes for anything he does, no matter how shitty it might be.  And you can see why the more socially and politically mature among us walk around feeling a little guilty much of the time.
Maybe that's why the woman with the botox face and the jelly lips who bumps me with her shopping cart in the overpriced but ecologically responsible supermarket has to say, "Oh!  Sorry.  Sorry.  Sorry."  Sorry.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Big Ugly

March 28, 2016
Monrovia, California

As counties go, Los Angeles County is huge. Its population, at well over ten million, is the largest of any county in the U.S., and exceeds that of all but seven states.  In terms of area, it is more than three times the size of Rhode Island.  Then again, a comparison of any place to Rhode Island is always a little weak, since it's really all about how ridiculously small Rhode Island is, not how large whatever you're comparing it to is.  In this case, however, compared to the tiny Ocean State, Los Angeles isn't just three times larger, it's many times uglier. What makes it ugly is not any one particular thing, but rather a collection of aspects which, when put together, exceed the the sum of the individual parts of its ugliness.

New York City, like all densely-populated urban areas, has its ugly parts--the sprawls of soulless high rise housing projects, the decaying waterfront factories and warehouses, the ubiquitous pungent smell of garbage.  But on the whole it has a vertical solidity that inspires the human spirit rather than crushing it.  It speaks of dreams and inspiration and great attainment and reaching for the sky.  Los Angeles County is supposed to be all that, and more.  After all it's the home of the movie and television industries, those creators and purveyors of practically all the dreams and fantasies that fill the large and small screens, which in turn preoccupy us during most of our waking hours.  It purports to be the bright nugget at the base the Golden State and the end of the sunny westward trail.

But still it's ugly.  Part of the problem is simply a function of climate and geography.  This area lies at the edge of the desert.  At its prehistorical best and most pristine, it partook of the dry ruggedness of a semi-desert--scrub brush, tumbleweeds, cacti, dust, and streams that flow out of the mountains only sparingly, and only during the few comparatively damp periods of the year.  We're in the midst of a drought now, but even in the best of times the annual rainfall in Los Angeles County is perhaps 15 inches.  That's about how much rain falls in a typical April and May back in, well, Rhode Island.  As a result of this paucity of moisture, the low rolling hills in the north part of the old city of LA (not including the vast expanses of the San Fernando Valley above it) are brown and grey most of the time.  In a place like Arizona, or even in the Mojave and Sonoran Desert regions of eastern California, these hills would possess a certain sere beauty.  But here in the overpopulated metropolis they are cut with trails and roads, crisscrossed with high voltage power lines and towers, and dotted randomly with a mishmash of ugly 20th century houses that cling to their steep sides like peeling scabs.  The little vales between the irregular promontories are packed with a random crunch of cheap stucco-sided residences thrown up on top of concrete slabs.  The riverbeds of the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo, San Gabriel, and a few other rivers are mostly dry concrete drainage ditches used for flood control, if any floods ever occur.  Down in the central and southern parts of the city and county, and off to the east, the landscape is flat and colorless, with houses and other buildings jammed together as closely as possible.  There is no such thing as a set-back from one lot to the other.  Houses, huge and tiny, are mere feet from one another.  Viewed from atop a mountain at night, aglitter with lights the way it is depicted in the movies, LA County may possess a certain bright beauty approximating a gigantic airport runway.  But during the day it more closely resembles the endless suburbs and slums of a third-world capital, or the soul-sucking horizontal bedroom communities of a grimy rustbelt Midwestern U.S. city.  And the whole place is tied together by a vast accumulation of Gordian knots of perpetually congested ten-to-fourteen lane freeways.  Hanging over it all on most days is a layer of brown dust.  These days it's less the industrial and auto-produced smog of decades past and more the natural byproduct of hordes of people and things stirring up the dirt in the desert.  The air above the host of Israelites migrating across the Sinai from Egypt toward the Land of Canaan must have looked like like the air of LA County does most days. Only this is no midpoint in a migration; it is supposed to be the very promised land.

Hollywood is what most people think of when they imagine Los Angeles.  Let's consider Hollywood.  It's a comparatively small neighborhood near the center of the much larger City of Los Angeles, maybe four miles square.  During the 19th century it was an unincorporated neighborhood before being subsumed into the growing metropolis.  Its most iconic avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, runs east-west through its middle, and off to the north, on a hillside in Griffith Park, stand the letters of the famous Hollywood sign. Comparative oldtimers like to talk about how, back in the 60s and 70s, once-glamorous Hollywood was "much worse" than it is today--a cesspool of whores, dopers, drifters, grifters, and strip clubs, like New York's Times Square used to be before it became a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas, sans gambling but avec neon.  While it's possible to imagine, when in Hollywood, that it could be much worse that it is now. in truth it's still pretty gritty, replete with strip clubs, dirty lingerie shops, cheapo t-shirt and souvenir stores, no-tell motels, and yes, still plenty of whores, dopers, drifters, dumpster-diving bums, and crooks of all kinds.  And lording it over all the smaller crooks, behind the scenes and in ways that most people don't realize, a good portion of Hollywood is now owned lock, stock, and barrel by the consummately crooked Church of Scientology, the way Delaware is owned by the Duponts and Providence is owned by the Mafia and Boston is owned by the Catholic Church.  Whatever people are selling, be it flesh, dreams, or servitude to a cult, Hollywood is, above all, a nasty business proposition.  It's where people who don't know any better go when they get to Los Angeles, partly because they think movies are still made there (true but to quite a limited extent), and partly because they know of few other really interesting places to visit within the city.  And it's ideally suited to accommodate pedestrian out-of-towners who don't know better.  Think about it: where do you want to go when you get to Los Angeles, if you're a German tourist or a starry-eyed youngster looking to break into show business, or someone who thinks they might have a celebrity sighting?  You go to Hollywood.

For mobile visitors to LA County there are more options--Disneyland and Knot's Berry Farm in Orange County, and Universal Studios up in Burbank.  And there's Griffith Park, from whose observatory on a clear day you can see forever, but on most days you can see for a mile or two, and which is home to a bachelor mountain lion that likes to dine on deer under the letters of the Hollywood sign, as well as the occasional hapless wanderer away from the LA Zoo. Other than that there are no really iconic places to be in in the county.  Oh, okay, there are a few art museums worth visiting if you're already here, but not to make a special trip for.  And there's the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, which is empty most of the time.  And we have the nation's largest cemetery, Rose Hills, in Whittier, and Forest Lawn in LA and Glendale, and the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, where some famous people are buried.  And Irwindale, a city that comprises a huge gravel pit and industrial park, not far from which there's the factory that makes Sriracha sauce.  And Beverly Hills, of course, and Venice beach with its sleazy muscle people pumping iron like aging inmates in a prison yard, and lots more cheapo t-shits shops and a bunch of marijuana dispensaries.

But to live here?  There the attractions are less enticing.  Exacerbating all the ugliness of the landscape and the haphazard buildings and infrastructure upon it is the fact that real estate prices are among the highest in the nation.  The amount of money that would buy you a 2,500 square foot house and an acre of land in many other parts of the country might get you a garage here.  And as for having an acre of land, well, forget it.  Unless you're a jillionaire movie star you're not getting much more than a few thousand square feet.

So why on earth do people keep coming here to live?  For two main reasons, as far as I can tell.  One is that people they already know, including family members, live here.  It's the "birds of a feather" idea.  This applies especially to immigrants.  They've come either to keep their wealth or to get richer, or in the case of most of the Latinos, to receive some respite from the brutality and poverty of their native lands, even at the price of being second-class citizens here.  The other reason, which applies mainly to native-born Americans, is the climate.  As ugly as this area is, for all the reasons I've mentioned and more, it is warm.  As I write this today in late March, it is about 80 degrees under a cloudless sky.  Snow and ice are things of the frightening world of imagination for Angelenos, or to which, if they can afford it, they may travel by going up to Big Bear or into the Rocky Mountains.  While the weather is almost maddeningly the same, give or take ten or twenty degrees, it is pretty comfortable and easy to get used to if you're from a colder climate.  Roses bloom almost year round and the citrus trees seem never to be without fruit.

So there's the weather.  And there's the fact that no matter where we come from we sort of feel as if we know Los Angeles County because we've been seeing it on TV and in the movies all our lives.  The place has imprinted itself on us from early childhood, from the large frame houses where Ozzie and Harriet and the Beaver lived, to the sagebrush-covered chaparral just outside the studios that has been the scene of thousands of westerns, to the mean palm tree lined streets of a hundred gritty cop shows and movies about this incredibly brutal and corrupt city and county.

Here I must ease away from my screed and say that I have been trying to wrap up this posting for about a month.  I'd like to be able to end it with a few witticisms, but at this point I just want to give birth to it, so to speak, and send it on its way, bitter and imperfect and comparatively unfocused.  I've said what I wanted to say, which was mainly to complain about how damned ugly it is here, physically speaking.  We all have our reasons for being here, and my particular reason is a good one, but I can assure you it has nothing to do with any desire to settle in the Golden West or to partake of its climate, or to deal with the maddening jam-packed, dry, litter-strewn, semi-third world sameness of it all.

Recently I was talking to a colleague at work who grew up in Buffalo, New York.  I've been to Buffalo many times, and I think of it as one of the least attractive urban areas of the eastern United States.  Surely, I thought, that is a place from which someone would gladly escape.  But she said she missed Buffalo and hoped to go back there some day.  Wow, really?  Then it hit me.  LA County is a place you go to in order to remember, from a safe and warm distance, the place you left.  Mexicans think fondly of Mexico, despite how poor, nasty, brutish and short life is there for all but the upper classes.  Chinese think fondly of the pollution-choked, post-Stalinist land of lack of opportunities from which they departed.  Buffalonians remember the heavy cloud cover and relentless snows of the Niagara River winters.  LA County isn't so much a place of comfort as it is a place where the restless and uncomfortable have come to indulge those feelings, which, quite naturally, never leave them.

Friday, February 19, 2016


Monrovia, California

February 19, 2016

I promised myself I wouldn't start with politics until the primaries were over, and here I am breaking that promise.  The reason for the promise was mostly to avoid writing a blog posting that would become outdated, if not completely obsolete, within a few days or weeks.  This isn't an editorial column, after all.  But any election-related posting will inevitably be out of date sooner or later, so what the hell. For example, who cares any more about someone's fulminations regarding the possible outcome of the Bush-Kerry race in 2004?

The temptation to talk about the parade of fuck-knuckles currently vying for the Republican nomination is just too strong.  Personally, I'd love to see any one of the current contenders--Trump, Jeb Bush, Rubio, Cruz--get the nomination.  At least it would assure the country of four more years of Democratic executive leadership, which, while not exactly ideal, would be far better than the alternative, especially if another Supreme Court Justice were to croak during that time.

Donald Trump is particularly fascinating, as everyone seems to agree.  You might certainly wonder whether he's a plant by the Democrats, he's that buffoonish and jingoistic.  You might wonder that, except for the fact that some of his fellow would-be candidates are equally silly, and as for the Republican electorate in general, well, we know how hopelessly mentally challenged they are.  The sad fact is that we do live in a country where millions of people, though probably not a majority, would vote for a guy like Trump not merely to see what might happen, but because they actually believe much of what he says.

Even though the U.S. is a two-party country, and has been with a few minor exceptions from the 1790s to the present, we have to include several viewpoints within the broader bandwidth of each party.  Those ranges are, in the case of the Republicans, from the far right to somewhat right of center, and in the case of the Democrats from the same somewhat right of center to the slightly left of center.  There's no viable left wing in U.S. politics.  Bernie Sanders is as far left as we get here, and he's the only significant politician to call himself a socialist since Eugene Debs, a hundred years ago.  Bernie Sanders could be safely cradled within the mainstream of the European left without seeming at all beyond normal progressive thinking over there.  But I'm grateful for his presence in the mix this year, if for no other reason than that he's gotten the country, and especially generations younger than mine, accustomed to the word "socialist," so they aren't viscerally afraid of the idea, and don't automatically equate it with bleak Soviet-era governance.  Who knows?  Maybe after Bernie more politicians will run for local and national office as socialists, and we will eventually have something like a political left wing in the U.S.  (And maybe monkeys will fly out my butt.)

What is singular about the current mishmash of Republicans so far, besides their insistence on making fools of themselves in debates every other week, is that not one of them is even close to being moderate on any economic, diplomatic, or (least of all) social issue.  The votes of the entire middle-of-the-road chunk of the GOP, without which none of these candidates can hope to win an election, appear to have been at least temporarily abandoned while this gaggle of ass clowns grind away at each other to compete for the support of the fringe right.

What's even more amusing and revealing about Trump and his supporters are the reasons they like him.  Ultra nationalism, of course.  Racism, of course.  A typical Republican usually longs for some idyllic white man's American past that never existed (or if it did, only because of the progressive left-of-center, labor-tolerant policies of the FDR and LBJ administrations).  But what most people seem to like about Trump are two things in particular.

The first is that he appears to speak his mind, without regard to the consequences.  He's like Howard Beale in the movie Network, who's "mad as hell and not going to take it any more." Of course in that movie, as in Trump's case, Beale was simply a fortuitous media creation who very quickly became nothing but entertainment TV writ large.  But people like that, evidently.  A guy who's going to say what they, in their stingy little hearts of darkness, would like to shout from the windows.  "I hate foreigners!  I hate minorities!  I hate Islam!"

Actually, with regard to that last one, I can't help agreeing.  I do indeed dislike Islam, just as I dislike every other religion that thinks it's the only way in this life and the next (Roman Catholicism, conservative Protestantism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, etc.) and every religion that denies women equal access to its own clergy and decision-making processes and forces them into a subordinate role within humanity (Roman Catholicism, conservative Protestantism, Orthodox Judaism, and of course our old friend Islam).  And those are just the western religions with which I'm fairly familiar.  No amount of cultural relativism and ignorance disguised as tolerance can justify condoning or turning a blind eye to a religion or branch of a religion that requires its womenfolk to go around with their heads covered, while the men get to dress more or less as they want to, even if such women are allowed, for example, to hold political office or practice professions, or drive cars.  And if we tolerate such religions, it seems to me that we've missed the entire point of social equality, and particularly gender equality, by a country mile. It has been said that if you're too open-minded your brains will fall out.  That has, I'm afraid, happened in the arena of religious tolerance.  But I digress.

The second thing people seem to like about Donald Trump is that he is financially self-sufficient and therefore (they think) not beholden to any special interest groups.  They also like the fact that he's fabulously wealthy, combining their worship of money with the mistaken idea that if such money has been bestowed upon someone he must somehow deserve it.  Gee, they think, Trump doesn't have to take money from, say, the Koch brothers or big pharmaceutical companies, or giant manufacturers, so he must be an independent thinker.  What they forget is that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and has already sucked his money from society through high-end real estate dealings and casinos and golf courses and product branding and television, so he doesn't need to obligate himself to any of the other major wealth-sucking groups at this stage.  But to assume that he's not a loyal member of the financial elite who pull the strings in our government is a ridiculous mistake.  He's a happy prisoner of his own economic class, lacking even the sense of noblesse oblige that has motivated rich men of the past to become advocates for positive social change.  Trump's version of "let them eat cake" is "let them eat shit."

The reason that Donald Trump wants to be president is by no means dissimilar to that of the other candidates--he's ambitious and craves what he hopes will be the power of the office.  But he's a little different from his fellow office seekers in that he's already had much more experience being rich and powerful.  He's like Alexander the Great, with no more worlds to conquer.  What's left for him to do in this country, except to run the biggest Corporation we have, and to sit at the table of the grandest board of directors in the world?  That's the sad paradox faced by most people who long to serve the public in our highest office.  Unless you are far too arrogant and ambitious to be a decent human being, you probably can't reach that office.  It is the reason that so few former presidents have done anything much other than to languish in retirement.  Jimmy Carter might be an exception,  Barack Obama perhaps will be, too.  John Quincy Adams, whom most people have forgotten, was another.  He went back into the House of Representatives (the House, mind you, not the Senate) and spent the rest of his life trying to eradicate slavery.

Could you image what would happen to Donald Trump if he became president and lived to be a former president?  Or more likely, if he loses or doesn't get the nomination in the first place?  I picture him chasing his tail until he melts down into a puddle of yellow ghee, like the cruel tigers in Little Black Sambo.  Then, at least, he might serve some useful purpose.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

That's The Hell Of It

Monrovia, California

November 1, 2015

In heaven there is no beer.
That's why we drink it here.
And when we're gone from here,
Our friends will be drinking all our beer.

Let's take a look at heaven.  When people consider death they frequently talk about a the existence of the dead in some realm where they can look down upon us living folks with approval, or perhaps with disapproval.  "I can't help but think that Uncle Joe is smiling on us right now as we barbecue and watch football."  Or "Your mother is up there watching you two fight right now, and you're breaking her heart." You know the drill.  But it's not so much what Uncle Joe or Mom are supposed to be doing from the afterlife that interests me as the fact that we "can't help but think" about it.

Evidently, as the human brain evolved we acquired the capacity to wonder about the answer to the ultimate question of "life, the universe, and everything," as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it.  And as deep as our thinking has taken us, most of us have not been able to accept that the answer, while perhaps not "42," is equally pointless and beyond our reach from a purely utilitarian perspective.  We have, for some reason, been given the ability, and indeed the compulsion, to ponder an essentially imponderable thing. Maybe it's to help us wile away the time.  Maybe it serves a species-wide behavioral purpose, as though we've had some drivel-filled motivational seminar by a headset-wearing snake oil salesman hardwired into our brains.  Whatever the neuro-chemical basis of the phenomenon, we do tend to dwell on the hereafter.  And because there's no precisely correct answer, we manufacture answers.  Our natures apparently abhor an information vacuum when it comes to the idea of an afterlife.

Some say we think about all this because God puts the ideas into our heads.  It is not to such people that I address this posting, though of course they are invited to read on if they wish to.  Whatever the prime mover of our curiosity, internal or external, we humans have for most of our existence spun out the most outlandish theories of which we're capable--heavens, hells, purgatories, beliefs in ghosts, spirit worlds, reincarnation, and the presence of ancestors in our daily lives, to name just a few.  First it was because we didn't understand jack shit about science and nature.  We had little understanding of chemistry or biology (not that we've reached any pinnacle there).  When people died, we knew they were done for, of course, but we didn't know much more than that.  Today, armed with a better knowledge of the human body and the role of the brain, not to mention of the basic elements that make up life, we still don't seem to know, or to wish to know, jack shit about what happens when we die.

Why?  Probably because the truth is simply too simple, and too brutally final, at least from a local terrestrial perspective.  What we have no trouble believing about the end of the lives of animals other than us--dogs, chickens, goats, fish, bugs, microbes--we cannot or will not apply to ourselves as a species.  We're different and special, we think, and figure that God, or the gods, have some Special Purpose for us.  Surely our own lives can't end with just a whimper and a final exhalation and then ,,, nothing.  Food for the worms.  I don't think that such finality--the fizzling out of the human spark into nothingness and ultimately into the elements of which we're made (carbon and oxygen primarily)--is such a bad thing.   The fade-to-black scenario is certainly a form of eternal life; just not one that most people care to embrace.  Better than burning in hell and having devils stab you with a pitchfork every couple of minutes, if you ask me.  But some folks, perhaps most, would rather imagine risking an eternity in hell than to imagine no eternity at all except for an eternity of oblivion.  The anticipation of a real, lifelike afterlife tends to motivate them in some way, and also to take their minds off the more immediate and mundane tasks at hand.  Well, I'm not about to deliver some explanation for this rather singular phenomenon of the mind, either in religious terms or Jungian terms, or in any terms at all.  As usual, my job isn't to come up with the answers, just to bitch about the facts.

The western scriptures, always maddeningly contradictory and only occasionally insightful, do anticipate the physical nothingness of humans--dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  Where they veer away from reality as we know it is in postulating that the "soul" exists on a nonchemical and nonbiological  plane, and also in propounding the idea that the dead will rise.  But once the dead do rise, and are judged or whatever, and sorted into the keepers and the losers, what happens?  The most common images of the afterlife perpetuated by the world's religions are, if you ask me, sorely deficient as positive motivational tools.  These images, whether they are of the so-called "good" postmortem life or its painfully bad opposite number, are hardly designed to inspire confidence, or comfort, or fear, in any intelligent person over the age of ten.  Religion really hasn't kept pace with either scientific knowledge or political evolution.  Religion used to be out in front, inextricably merged with science and politics to form a solid truncheon with which to beat all of humanity into submission and obedience, leading and scaring us with its eerie sophistication.  Wise priests, witch doctors, the infallibility of the Pope, the divine right of kings--they're all gone except in fiction.  Priests are now drunken pederasts, witch doctors belong in Abbot and Costello movies, and wise kings are the stuff of Disney cartoons and Broadway musicals. The Pope, well he's just a laid back guy in funny clothes who wants us all to get along, like the Dalai Lama.  During our centuries of progress in science, politics, and the arts, religion has remained steadfastly and stodgily ancient in both its view of mankind and its depiction of eternity.  While we've been busy streamlining our physical lot as a species, nobody has been modernizing our conception of the hereafter.    

Plenty has been written about hell already, and it's easier to imagine than heaven is.  Hell is a lot more lurid and interesting than heaven is because it includes things we already know--pain, fire, stench, deprivation, isolation--carried to the nth degree.  But still it's your grandfather's hell--full of old fashioned images, at least for more affluent westerners.  Yes, we're always being warned about how bad and nasty hell is, but when it comes to describing heaven, we fall far short of creating enticing incentives.  Maybe at times in history (or even in parts of the world currently) where just offering someone a clean realm free of the smell of excrement, the sight and feel of open running sores, death at the hands of soldiers and hemorrhagic diseases, and the drudgery of the wheel sufficed (or now serve) to get people to behave themselves and strive for paradise, a cloudy fluffy white city of gold in the sky is enough of an enticement.  But for most of the developed western world our comparative removal from such daily horror and wretchedness ought to encourage the purveyors of heaven to kick things up a notch.

I was at a Christian funeral not long ago, and one of the preachers talked about the departed being with God forever, sitting at the feet of Jesus, grooving on salvation, and all that.  It sounded boring, particularly because the guy who was talking about it was sanctimonious and dull and a lot more judgmental than he probably thought he was being.  I definitely wouldn't want to spend eternity with him; that would be pure hell.  Jesus might be a great guy, but the thought of spending eternity with him sounds a little like being at an endless Bernie Sanders rally.  There's something lacking in the human imagination when it comes to picturing absolute bliss on an incorporeal plane.  Being in the presence of divine light sounds like maybe the beginnings of a good acid trip or that first snort of cocaine, but in order to appreciate such things you have to be able to contrast them to the mundane.  Otherwise, if there's no end to the joy (particularly if you have to share it with self-righteous hymn singing TV evangelists, or Mother Teresa, or your old aunt Minnie--the one with the moustache) the fun goes away pretty fast and it becomes the norm.  Where's the bliss in that?  If there's going to be a heaven, can't we make it at least sound more heavenly in human terms?

Heaven shouldn't just be the lesser of two evils--the devil we know versus the God we really don't know.  Christian heaven is sometimes spoken of as a beautiful city where God dwells, and where there is no more pain and sorrow.  No more pain and sorrow?  Is that the best we can do?  We have drugs for that right here on earth.  And on top of all the bliss, we're told we get to worship and glorify some absolute Master.  All the paradigms of religious worship are based on a pre-modern Hobbesian social model involving benevolent dictatorship.  Ultimately, whether we're on earth or in heaven, we seem destined to prostrate ourselves at the feet of some all-powerful being.  To kiss his ass, to adore him, to love him, to do his every wise bidding, whether we want to or not, because it's for our own good.  As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the King."  But how good is it to be the King's subject?  A very uninviting kind of cosmology.  Satan, we're told by John Milton, got tired of all that, and lit out for greener pastures.   In theological terms, that was a horrible rejection of all that was good.  In human political terms we'd call it a fight for the Rights of Man.  Indeed, our own country was founded on such a rebellion, and we keep insisting that it's the Greatest Country on Earth.  If any of that is so, then you have to wonder why the absolute hierarchy of heaven is so great.

So how is any human being expected to imagine such a place as heaven, and if it is unimaginable, why is anyone expected to aspire to it?  As best described in Christianity it almost sounds like living in a sensory deprivation chamber, and it lacks all we have as a species that keeps us striving and moving and progressing.   For God's sake, promise us some pleasure to which we can relate.  Here the radical Muslims have an edge, (at least according to rumor) in that they promise martyrs a large number of virgins with which to copulate in the afterlife.  This concept of Muslim heaven is of course sadly adolescent in both its promise and premise, as is, I'm afraid, the entire religion from which it stems.  But at least it promises something palpable.  The far Eastern idea of death and reincarnation on the great Mandala, coming back as other animals and all that until at last, after many such rebirths, one attains some sort of blissful nothingness, sounds a lot more like repetitive punishment than reward.  In Christianity apparently we don't even get to enjoy any carnal pleasures after death--one of the reliably fun things we have, along with eating, drinking, taking drugs, watching TV, and sleeping.  In the religion I grew up in, if we're virtuous enough to make it to heaven, we're supposed to be above all that earthly stuff.  But to my way of thinking, the prospect of spending eternity surrounded by nothing but virtue is a little like promising a kid that when he grows up he'll actually love green beans and want to eat them at every meal.  Makes you want to avoid growing up, doesn't it?

Each culture's conception of heaven seems to reflect the values of the religious group that dominates it.  The radical Muslim heaven to which I referred (accurately or not) incorporates the profoundly immature misogyny of the entire culture from which it springs.  The far eastern heaven reinforces the set-in-stone caste system that yokes all humans to the same lot, good or bad, for their entire lives.  To escape from it you have to expect to be stuck in some other, maybe better and maybe worse, existence for another lifetime.  The western Christian heaven incorporates our denial of the validity of the enjoyment of normal human impulses.  If heaven is such a great place to aspire to be in, why can't we make it at least sound inviting, not just for frustrated young men strapped with explosives and stinking of tobacco and coffee, but for all humans?

All this, I'm thinking, is what makes it so damned difficult for the clergy to keep their would-be subjects in line.  If life is so bad, rather than just trying to scare us with something that sounds comparatively worse, entice us with something that seems immeasurably better--in solid human terms, not just in abstract wispy images--dudes in halos standing on clouds in New Yorker cartoons.  Offer us a heaven we can sink our teeth into, and I'll consider believing in it.  Promise me pleasures and palaces that sound interesting and tasteful, and foretell good company and good times, not to mention good food and good sex for all, and I'll behave myself.   Otherwise, leave me the hell alone.