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.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Four Freedoms

Monrovia, California

September 4, 2015

Hello friends.  In 1941, as the U.S. was nearing its plunge into the already-raging Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt made a speech in which he declared the existence of Four Freedoms, which the peoples of the whole world should be able to enjoy, and which, by the way, they weren't enjoying much of at the moment outside the U.S. and a few other countries.  These four freedoms were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  Roosevelt was trying to nudge us into more active participation in the war, a participation that at that moment seemed painfully far off to the British and the other beleaguered countries that became our allies or were eventually released from German or Japanese bondage.  Some time after Roosevelt's speech, in soldierly fashion, Norman Rockwell got out his brushes and turned the Four Freedoms into covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and the rest is history.

Having recently returned from a month in Europe, traveling through several of the countries that were under siege back when FDR gave his Four Freedoms speech, I have had occasion to consider that these freedoms have been achieved in those countries to a great degree.  Speech is generally free, or as free as anyone wants it to be.  People can worship as they please, or in the case of most Western European countries, not worship at all, unless they're Muslims, in which case they worship altogether too much.  Freedom from worship seems to be the highly laudable goal toward which Western Europe is moving, or was at least before the scourge of conservative Islam reared its ugly head.  Churches in the great capitals are often beautiful historical artifacts, and fortunately little else.  And there is comparatively little want or fear in Western Europe today, at least in the economic sense.  Want in the sense of famine or even hunger isn't a prominent factor, notwithstanding the great numbers of beggars outside the train stations.  Fear of political repression, although always a possibility where the not-too-distant past has been so full of wars, inquisitions, genocides, and pogroms, at the moment isn't much of a factor.  In general it's a continent where the economic stance of even the mainstream political right wing would make many Democrats in the U.S. blush at their own stinginess toward their fellows.  Fear of terrorism from radical Islam still exists, I grant you, but most Europeans of today bravely face that threat in the most mature way possible, namely, by trying to live their liberal and tolerant lives with a minimum of rancor.

I know I have just made some rather broad generalizations, my fellow Americans, but on the whole it's undeniable that the particular Four Freedoms spoken of by Roosevelt have been achieved in Europe to at least the same degree as they have in the United States, and that's great.  Indeed, Europeans enjoy much greater freedom from the fear of gun violence on the part of both law enforcement and random nutbars than we do here.  However, we in this country still enjoy several freedoms not entirely accepted throughout the otherwise affluent and socially advanced nations of which I speak.  I would therefore like to take this opportunity to have a little fireside chat with you about a new (if more modest) version of the Four Freedoms, inspired by my recent visit to Great Britain and the Continent.

The first is Freedom to Pee.  Throughout Europe today there is a phenomenon for the most part not present in the United States, and that is that when one goes into a public bathroom, especially in a train station or a museum, and often in a restaurant, one is expected to grease the already greasy palm of a slatternly matron or crusty old dude, or to put coins into a vending machine to obtain a token, or go through a turnstile, or whatever, all for the privilege of taking a leak.  Not everywhere, mind you, but frequently enough that it behooves the traveler to keep some pocket change handy at all times for such a contingency.  Our public bathrooms may not always be as clean as those that cost money, but by God they rarely cost anything.  You might say, in defense of our neighbors across the ocean, that the paid bathroom attendant positions give individuals at the margins of society an opportunity to make some money and help to keep the areas clean; but I would argue that a better use of public funds would be for the national train systems and other public places to hire people for a living wage to clean the bathrooms rather than placing them in extortionate positions outside lavatories where people, due to their need to go to the bathroom, are at their most vulnerable.

The second is Freedom from Caffeine Deprivation.  The European idea of a cup of coffee is closer to the thought of a cup of coffee than to an actual receptacle containing the beverage.  A couple of sips and that's it.  All for the equivalent of four to six U.S. dollars.  You might be under the impression that espresso and dark roast coffee have more caffeine than light or medium roast coffee, but you'd be wrong.  It's all about the same. Starbucks, that overpriced product of American ingenuity, is the only refuge from coffee stinginess the poor Europeans have, and they love it, mostly I'd guess because Starbucks provides you with a decent amount of brew, and a better value, ounce for ounce, than a restaurant does, which is ironic considering that in this country the opposite is true.  In the UK the coffee is slightly more plentiful, but since they're mostly tea drinkers, they tend to make their coffee so weak and insipid that it pretty much tastes like tea.  Apart from Starbucks even a 12 ounce cup of coffee is impossible to come by, and the free refill doesn't exist, as if those things were simply aspects of the grotesque American tendency toward reckless overindulgence.  So the Europeans muddle along on far less caffeine than we do.

The third is Freedom to Be Cool.  Air conditioning as we know it is painfully lacking in most hotels and private residences in Western Europe.  This has a great deal to do with the fact that many buildings in Europe are old and do not have central forced air heating, and hence lack the capacity for central air conditioning.  The task of retrofitting buildings is far too expensive, which leaves less effective window units as the only alternative, assuming you have the type of windows into which you can fit such units, which most buildings do not.  Furthermore, in Europe getting anyone to come and do a job at your house in an inexpensive and timely manner is, apparently, an almost unattainable feat.  In the cities at least, the idea of tackling a project on a do-it-yourself basis, so common in the U.S., doesn't seem to occur to the average middle class European.  At any rate most people, from habit since time immemorial, just put up with the heat.  Buses are notoriously hot and stuffy, usually equipped with tiny dormer windows that let in precious little fresh air and almost no relief from the stifling and rank atmosphere of bodies that are often noticeably free from deodorant.  When a heat wave hits, the elderly die in droves.  Western Europe has given us many of the most important scientific advances of our time--in mechanics, medicine, chemistry, and architecture to name just a few areas.  But it has been painfully slow to address the issue of personal comfort with respect to heat and humidity.

And finally we come to the fourth freedom.  This one I call Freedom from Ridicule.  Europeans are a fairly tolerant people (except when they go on fascist bloodletting terror-trips every other generation or so).  But that does not mean they really like what anyone else does, or how they talk, or dress, or conduct themselves.  A small continent filled with several dozen countries and as many separate languages and cultures cannot, it seems, exist successfully without each country and culture looking down its nose at all the rest.

The English are far too polite and reserved to say so, but when they look at a foreigner they're thinking, "Who is this daft wanker, and why is he talking that way and when is he going to leave?"  They tolerate their former colonials from the Middle East and the Subcontinent (and also the Italians), because, devoid of things like kebobs, curry, and pizza, English food would be inedible.  As for the Scandinavians (and by that I mean the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes--essentially one people speaking three different dialects) they most definitely don't need either you or your money.  It has been a thousand years or so since anyone in Scandinavia seriously thought about anyone else, and that was only to kill, rape and pillage.  Now that they've gotten all that out of their systems, they're fine with just staying home.  When visitors come they do muster some crisp, detached politeness.  Unlike the British they don't even value other people's food, remaining content, as they have for millennia, with fish and cheese.  The French regard anyone who isn't French with a mixture of pity and contempt, cut them off when they try to speak their language, and then look past them to the next customer.  And the Belgians, well, they're just boorish and rude, in a quaintly medieval way.

Most, if not all, Europeans tend to blame whatever problems they might be having at the moment not on themselves, but on whichever group of foreigners is currently intruding on their otherwise happy lives.  I will grant you that in this respect they are not unlike Republicans in the U.S.  Everything that's happening that's wrong is because of foreigners.  However, the big difference between Europe and the U.S. is that in this country people don't generally remain foreigners for long.  We are a country of immigrants, none of whom can claim that God gave us this land (excepting the Native Americans, who do think just that, while conveniently forgetting that they too arrived here from somewhere else and spent many thousands of years moving around and slaughtering one another before the white man arrived).  We Americans may hate others, but we're not united enough, ethnically, to engage in collective ridicule of them.  In America, if someone sticks it out long enough, and has children while situated in this country, at least those children will be citizens, entitled to all the privileges that the law allows.  (The glaring exception to all this is African Americans, but that's a subject for another speech.)  The idea that belonging can be attained, taken pretty much for granted over here, isn't a foregone conclusion Over There.  You want to be Swiss or German or Austrian?  Such a desire is understandable from the point of view of the Swiss, the Germans, and the Austrians, but good luck if you aren't one of them.  And good luck to your spouse and children and your children's children, unto the third and fourth generation.  Once a foreigner always a foreigner.  That's because the European countries aren't just countries.  They're cultural and ethnic bastions.  In fact, they were that long before they ever became countries in the modern sense.  Things are changing in Europe, albeit very slowly.  In the meantime, they indulge in the continental pastime of ridicule, the anodyne alternative to outright bloodshed.

These modest proposals are not meant as criticisms or condemnations, but as ways to improve an already richly varied, often beautiful, and always fascinating part of the world.  And with that, my friends, I bring my little chat to an end.    

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tell Your Doctor If You Die

Monrovia, California

August 31, 2015

You've got to love the ads for prescription drugs that run on TV.  After telling you about the wonderful things the medication can do for you, the voice-over then spins out a string of caveats, some of which leave the viewer's mouth agape with wonder that the drug is being sold at all, much less that anyone would buy or use it.  Since you need a doctor's prescription to get them, you have to ask your doctor various things, and hope that he or she is going to know the answers.

One of my favorites is the one that goes something like, "Ask your doctor if you've been to a country where certain fungal infections are common." What I always wonder is how anyone is supposed to know this.  I picture a patient sitting on the examining table with the disposable paper on it and saying, "Doctor, have I been to a country where certain fungal infections are common?" and the doctor replying, "How should I know?  The last time I saw you was six months ago when you were here.  You've been somewhere?  Well, so have I.  I went to the Caribbean for a medical conference  and my trip was paid for by Pfizer.  Now let me write you a prescription for Exculpia for that itching.  Be careful, and good luck."  I mean, do doctors, much less their patients, know what countries have "certain fungal infections"?  I doubt it.  My doctor doesn't even know exactly where Michigan is.  Okay, okay.  I understand that part of the problem with the caution in the ad is semantic, or more precisely, grammatical.  What they obviously mean is, "If you've been traveling recently, tell your doctor where you've been, and then the doctor MIGHT know, if it's some God-forsaken third world country, that some sort of horrific galloping crud is know to exist there, in which case our drug may so seriously impair your immune system that you shouldn't risk taking it and being eaten alive by a disease that could be latent in your system and which a normal healthy person would be able to fight off without even knowing they had it."  But that would take too long and would turn people off to the idea of begging their doctor to prescribe the medication even more than the shorter warning would.

Other warnings seem equally sinister.  For example, "Women and young girls shouldn't even HANDLE this medication, much less take it."  There's a problem there, too, wouldn't you say?  Big red flag.  Or, "Do not take this medication if you are now pregnant or might become pregnant."  Or have ever been pregnant, or if your mother was ever pregnant or if you have been to a country where pregnancy is common.

Then there are the ads where one of the side effects of the medication is Death.  Man, that's got to turn anyone off from using the product.  It's one thing to use something like booze, where maybe you could drive drunk and kill yourself or others, but that wouldn't be your intention.  Or to be busy eating a Whopper and fries in your car and veer into a guardrail while you're dealing with the wrapper, or the sauce.  Again, purely unintentional, and not the recommended (although probably a very common) way to consume the products.  But when the advertisement specifically states that one of the consequences of taking the product is that it might kill you, you have to wonder.  We know this to be the case with cigarettes, and the ads do most certainly warn you of their danger.  And no one pretends any more that cigarettes are in any way safe, or healthful, or beneficial, or that you should ask your doctor if it's okay to smoke.  But to have a DEATH warning as part of the advertising campaign for a doctor-prescribed medication that's supposed to help you is another story entirely.

On a less sinister note, my all-time favorite warnings are in connection with erectile dysfunction medication ads.  Let's just call them Viagra ads for short, even though there are at least three such brands commonly touted on TV.  The promise of these products, of course, is that they will give you a hard on, with the implied promise, created by the women in the ads, the blues music that plays in the background, and the walks along the beach at sunset, that they will turn you into a hootchie cootchie man, a porn star, or Casanova himself, and that you will at last be able to service and satisfy those ravishingly beautiful and sexy women who desire you but just can't get enough of you.  Okay fine.  Advertisements for all kinds of products routinely deal in the creation of moods and in feel-good imagery.  Nothing new here.

But then comes the warning: "Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex."  This warning alone is enough to make someone go limp and to make the women in your life run for the exits.  Think about it.  Who wants to have some guy die on top of you while you're both naked?  Suddenly the man toward whom the ads is aimed isn't the good-looking, square-jawed, late-middle-aged stud who plays the parts--the Most Interesting Man In the World--but a wizened old dude with a pacemaker and an oxygen tank sitting in a ratty La-Z-Boy chair smoking Pall Malls and watching football.  A feast for the imagination, whether you're a man or a woman watching the commercials.  And I can again imagine the doctor-patient conversation.  "Doc, is my heart healthy enough for sex?" asks the man.  The physician answers, "Well, Mr. Jones, I think you know the answer to that one.  Right now your heart isn't healthy enough for you to walk across the room, which is why you're in a wheelchair."

On the plus side, however, is the other warning in the Viagra ads, probably the only instance where the possible side effect is designed to sell the drug, rather than to put the purchaser off: "Call your doctor or seek immediate medical help if you have an erection lasting longer than four hours."  Yeah, right.  That's what I'm gonna do if I get a four-hour woodie--call my doctor.  And he's going to say what?  "Mazel tov.  Enjoy yourself and call me in the morning."  Seriously, although I'm sure this could be a painful experience, in the imaginations of most men watching the commercials the idea of getting a marathon boner doesn't seem so much a problem as a blessing from the gods.  Take a number and wait outside the door.  If my heart holds up I'll be with you in a while.

Well, enough of this silliness for now.  Stay thirsty my friends.  But don't drink the water in a country where certain fungal infections are common.  And tell your doctor if you die.