Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Alligators Always Dress for Dinner

Virgil and I, we really liftoff at Christmas. Holidays have a way of flexing your party muscles and keeping them in condition. It's the time of the year when you might just be inspired to adopt a baby, design a curriculum, or go sailing in some saltwater bay. But when the time comes to open presents, that's when when we both go a little feral, reverting to a wild state. This end-of-the-year holiday blog has been inspired by a Christmas present I got from my friend Jane.

It's a book with the title "Alligators Always Dress for Dinner: An Alphabet Book of Vintage Photographs" by Linda Donigan and Michael Horowitz, a couple who live with their dog, Benny, in the woods of southern Vermont. Combining the alphabet with an assortment of illustrative vintage photographs seems to open up unlimited, over-the-top possibilities for zaniness--none more so than the "A"-is-for-alligators" photo that appears on the cover.

Virgil immediately zeroes in on the two devilish alligators captured in this surreal diorama. While the alligators exchange knowing glances and play to the crowd, the gentleman in the business suit tries somewhat petulantly to get his bowler hat back from the snatcher. Where could this image possibly have come from?

Turns out, it's "From old friend Harvie and his pair of pet 'gators keeping warm during the winter of 1904--in Florida." The image has been cribbed from an old postcard! It seems that in the early 20th century, vacations became part of the lives of working people for the first time--and Florida was a popular destination. By now, Virgil is so excited, he is untying his moccasins and loosening the ribbons from his braids. "Relax," he tells me, "with maybe a little schnapps and a sandwich. Just stretch out while I tell you another surreal story about a man who can ride a unicycle backwards and slice apples in the air with a samurai sword."

Virgil is referring, I discover, to Ashrita Furman, a 67-year-old man and part-owner of a health-food store in Queens, who is the world's leading practitioner of something known as "Guinnessport"--undertaking challenges designed to get you into the Guinness Book of World Records. Amrita Furman, it seems, has set more world records (367) than anybody else. Unbeknownst to me, Virgil had snuck-read all about him in one of my recent New Yorker's.

So I checked out the profile by Alec Wilkenson for myself, and Virgil is absolutely right, of course--this man's exploits will certainly make you whistle over the creek and pound your bare feet on the cold terrazzo. They might even cause you to go bald overnight.

Last June, Furman climbed the mountain above Machu Picchu on peg stilts; in 2005, he covered a mile stretch of The Great Wall of China on a hop ball; and in 1993, he climbed to the snow line of Mt. Fuji on a pogo stick. Furman has also jumped underwater in the Amazon River on a pogo-stick for three hours and forty minutes--and in each case, he set the world record for fastest and longest. I didn't even know people did this kind of stuff!! Twenty-seven thousand jumping jacks done in six hours and forty-five minutes. Walking thirty-three feet in the world's heaviest shoes, which weighed three hundred and twenty-three pounds. Walking, once, in New York, nearly ninety miles with a milk bottle on his head.

But it was really one of Furman's rivals--a widely known French Guinnessport athlete, Michel Lotito--who got my attention, it being Christmas, and therefore the time for culturally ordained overeating. This man cut into pieces and then consumed eighteen bicycles, fifteen shopping carts, some televisons and chandeliers, two beds, a computer, and a single-engine Cessna. In his lifetime (he died a few years ago), he is thought to have eaten nine-hundred tons of metal. Not to be outdone, Furman once tried eating a tree in Queens, having heard that someone had eaten an eleven-foot birch. Can you top this?

Yes, according to the hosts of a new reality show in the Netherlands known as "Guinea Pigs," in which the two co-hosts agreed to indulge in a little cannibalism. They each had tiny pieces of their flesh surgically removed (one from the belly and one from the backside) and then it was sauteed and served up to be eaten. "It is weird," said one of the men, "to look into the eyes of a friend when you are chewing on his belly." You better believe it!

Maybe we all need to rethink our Christmas menus. I mean, Mama Standish's cranberry relish just doesn't play against a metal breakfast of champions, does it? Eating, it turns out, can be a really dangerous edge, if you happen to find yourself up for it. As for me, I'll stick with relish, but I won't speak for Virgil, who has been known to sometimes relish human flesh.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Wonderbread of Civiliztion

In case you've wondered where I've been these last weeks--MIA from my tiny perch in the library stacks of the vast blogosphere--the truth is I've been doing something as ancient and essential as wrapping Christmas presents, even while avoiding the national nervous breakdown known as presidential politics. (Although I confess to secretly reveling in the moral undoing of that world-class liar, Herman Cain, who I think hoped he would be the last cookie left in the jar. Not--unless, of course, he returns as Newt's running mate for VP, and if that should happen, remember you read it first here, but do not blame me.)

There have, of course, been moments of anxiety interruptus: joy at eating a braised breast of duck with a friend at The Blue Apron; excitement at seeing the new movie "Hugo" in 3D with another friend; and a surprise revisiting of the life and work of Carl Andre via Calvin Tomkins' profile of him in The New Yorker. It's been years since I pondered whether or not Carl Andre pushed his then wife, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, out of the window of their Spring Street apartment in New York City. The doorman (Tomkins reminds us) heard a woman cry "No, no, no!" just before Mendieta's body slammed down into the street below. At Andre's request, there never was a juried trial, and eventually Andre was acquitted by a judge who claimed there wasn't enough evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Andre had committed a crime.

Reading about this again recently reminded me that I once met Ana Mendieta when I visited Iowa State University to give a lecture many years ago. She was not yet famous. The professor who brought me there to speak was living with Mendieta at the time, and I was invited me to their house for dinner. Mendieta cooked us the most delicious Cuban black bean soup, and then showed me pictures of her seemingly premonitional work--imprints of her own body lying in sand, as if she somehow had intuited her terrible fate.

Seeing Martin Scorsese's film "Hugo" last week has led me intuitively to want to write a few words about my old friend, James Hillman, who sadly died in his home in Connecticut on October 27th. I think he would have loved this movie. It is based on a children's book about an orphaned boy who lives in a train station in Paris in the 1930s, snitching broken toys from the toy maker's repair shop and hot croissants from the bakery. If the movie has any message, though, it has to be this: if something in the world is broken, it behooves us to fix it. That is our human purpose, and what gives life its meaning. But it is the way the movie mixes it all up and becomes a monumental tribute to the human imagination, that reminded me so much of Hillman and his work.

Like Scorsese in "Hugo," Hillman was committed to the human imagination as the primary activity of the psyche and as the motor force of civilization. Hillman dedicated his life to the "anima mundi," to instigating a return of soul to the world. And, as his good friend Thomas Moore observes in his prologue to excerpts from Hillman's collected writings, "The Blue Fire," Hillman sought to re-vision psychology by moving it away from emotional personalism and its focus on individual suffering, towards a larger consideration of the life of external objects, and the suffering in the world and in nature--attending to which he considered the true work of the soul. As in the movie, Hillman's work often studies waterworks, streets, railroads, buildings, show business, ecology, bombs, work, education, and architecture.

Here is a wondrous example from "The Blue Fire" of Hillman's ability to "mix it all up." In this particular riff, he humorously channels Freud and Nietzsche, in an almost comic-strip parody of their ideas that quickly becomes, in Hillman's hands, a send-up of the byzantine ways of civilization itself. You really need to read the entire excerpt, but as I say, Hillman knew better than anybody else how to mix it all up:

"When Nietzsche said "God is dead," he had just been served a slice of wonderbread by his sister, and his mouth crammed with an unswallowable gulp of the stuff, she misheard what he was trying to say. Never imagining that a diseased mind like her brother's could make an intelligent comment about what he was eating, she transcribed his remark on the demise of bread as yet another of his attacks on deity. Poor Nietzsche. He was never understood."

"In the same way, some decided that my book on wonderbread ("The Future of an Illusion") was a deliberate attack on the illusion of salvation in "white Christian civilization."...But these critics, as always with my work, missed the point. I was not out to get salvation. I was only trying to save bread....The illiusion we call bread has no future. Nor does the civilization that comes wrapped with it. As long as the prayer goes forth daily to Mister Muffin Man in the Sky to give us this day our daily bread, our flour mills will go on grinding and bleaching, our loaves knowing neither ferment nor crust, and our sandwiches dwelling forever in the house of gumminess and goo...."

"I offer no recipe for bread...But advice I do have: if you would live s long as I, if you want a future that is not illusion, get a nice loaf of Jewish rye. Enjoy!" [Cookbook, 174-177]

Unmistakably, at this point in time, we are witnessing the end of the age of Wonderbread. If you ask any Wall Street Occupier, we may even be facing the end of that illusion, civilization itself. People are becoming aware that their future has been seriously foreclosed. In the current non-trickle-down economy, everyone would love to find, hidden behind that empty cookie jar, one really nice loaf of Jewish rye. True to the spirit of James Hillman, it would be a gift, not from the Muffin Man in the Sky, but from a sympathizer at the local delicatessen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Being the Moral Compass for a Nation

All my troubles, Lord, soon be over, all my worries, Lord--about what might happen if Wall Street protesters tried to survive a bitter "Valley Forge" winter in Zuccotti Park--soon were over. Within twenty-four hours of my previous post, the whole Zuccotti encampment vanished overnight without a trace. On November 15th at one a.m., New York police, using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, raided the park, removed all the tents and tarps, and tossed everything on the site into the maws of waiting sanitation trucks. Not even the library books were spared.

On that November morning, when the rest of the country woke up, Zuccotti Park had been restored to its former pristine state and resembled nothing so much as an old-growth forest that had been newly clear-cut. The ferocity of the Occupiers' resilience and will power would not be tested here. Sanitary conditions reigned again, the messy remnants of those who had been lamenting the disgrace of humanity's rampant greed dutifully hosed away. Gone, too, was the exemplary democratic village they had so carefully constructed as a rebuke to the crummy, second-rate world they have inherited, with its fatal indifference to those in need and to the very earth itself.

"They had to go," a friend's husband, now 92, told me the next night over dinner. "What they were doing was illegal, camping on someone else's property, and it was unsanitary." Maybe so, I said, but was it more illegal than when we went into Iraq to "shock and awe" the population? Was it more unsanitary than the mess we created there?

Previously, police had brought prisoners released from Riker's Island who had nowhere to go into the park. The homeless and the mentally ill also arrived, but the protesters did not recoil from this invasion. On the contrary, they included these people in their tiny model society, even arranging for on-site treatment by drug counselors and social workers. In one tent, you could get vaccinated against the flu. In another, you could borrow a business suit to go to the bathroom in one of the restaurants nearby without attracting undue attention.

"We decided we wouldn't marginalize these people like the rest of society does," one of the movement's most devoted organizers, Katie Davison, a film-maker in her early 30s, told Michel Greenberg, who has written about Zuccotti Park in a recent New York Review of Books. "I guess we've created our own welfare state, and I mean that in the best sense of the term." Zuccotti Park was not just a tent city. "I want us to be the country's moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience. It's a model for what is good." (I actually cried when I read that.) It was part of the movement's effort to show the world a better, more humanitarian form of democracy, a new kind of social system, not motivated by a corrosive appetite for power, influence, and control of the political system. Occupiers cherish their status as ethical defenders of the 99 %.

"At some point in time," a character muses in Haruki Murakami's latest novel, "IQ84," "the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place." Sadly, on November 15th, that analogue replacement world also vanished: it was forcibly evicted. Fortunately for us, however, the story doesn't end with eviction or pepper spray. A huge network of like-minded people has been galvanized, who will not back down in the campaign against plutocracy and greed. Exactly what direction that energy will take now that the model community in Zuccotti Park--symbolic of the movement as a whole--has been dismantled, still remains to be seen. Plans are being developed for a national occupation of the National Mall, the big park that runs between the Capitol and the Lincoln Monument. A national General Assembly is in the works for April 1, which will focus on the failure of Congress to represent the views of the majority of people, and allowing special interest groups to dominate the political process in favor of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

One Occupy member reports that a rotating team of thirty to forty volunteers, minus their sleeping bags, still patrol the park all night, drinking hot chocolate for warmth. Other Occupiers who came from out of town have found places to sleep at friendly neighborhood churches, and the kitchen still operates out of nearby Trinity Church. It is both ironic and compelling to me that humanity's fate, now playing itself out in the grimmest of ways, will depend on the fate of tandem teams of men and women standing watch and drinking cups of steaming cocoa at two in the morning in an otherwise deserted park at the bottom of Manhattan. But as their story goes, so will go ours as well. Whatever happens to them will be what happens to us. We are the 99%.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Freezing for a Fair Deal

When, much too early, winter made a sudden, unwelcome appearance in New York City, arriving in the form of a freak snow storm late in October, the impromptu OWS encampment in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park was likened by some to General George Washington's beleaguered brigades at Valley Forge. Struck by the analogy and concerned for the protesters, I checked out Valley Forge in Wikipedia, because I worry about how these (mostly) young people currently putting their lives on the line for the future of humanity will get through the freezing winter. Here is some of what I read:

"In 1777, with winter about to set in, General George Washington moved his army to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania where new grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and new defense lines were planned and begun. The troops were poorly fed, ill-equipped, weary from long marches, and plagued by critical shortages. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry or warm. Soldiers received irregular supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "fire cake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. . So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place ... this Army must inevitably ... starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can."

Shortly after that, I found this testimony on the Occupiers' chief website,, which I check in with every day. It chronicles life inside the movement--people telling their stories and op-ed writing by other well-known figures who support the movement.

"I opened the tent to freezing sheets of blowing, icy rain. Within moments my hands were so frozen they were barely usable...It was my own fault, I should have put on my gloves, but I had lent them to another woman whose hands were purple. It was a trying morning for all of us." Thus writes Bre Lembitz, a 21-year-old student majoring in Economics and Political Science, who took up residence in the park on September 25th, and plans to take another semester off to s continue her organizing efforts on the medical and financial committees. Lembitz sees OWS as the most important movement of her time.

"By five PM, tempers were short," she continues. "No one was dry or warm, we were all standing around in the cold, performing our various duties, and dealing with the other symptoms of the storm. A large majority of the people who are living in the park have never camped before. There had been twenty six cases of hypothermia, and there were emergency procedures in place to take people home...Panic was every where, people were not thinking clearly, but the community came through. One woman showed up three times, once to bring blankets, once to bring shopping bags full of soup, and another time to bring hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes, she brought me the bags of soup and said, 'I wish there was more I could do. I am so proud you are all here, and I beg you not to give up.' ”

The Occupiers have declared themselves allies to "all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world." They are unwilling to leave. Polls show that a majority of Americans agree that wealth is unfairly distributed, with the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent nearly tripling since the 1980s, while everyone else's income has fallen. One of the first people to show up in Zuccotti Park and address the crowd was Naomi Klein, author of"The Shock Doctrine." She spoke about how the system is deeply unjust and careening out of control--how corporations have become more powerful than governments, selfishly trashing the natural world as well as the economy. The struggle to overcome the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet will take many years," she warned in an open-forum discussion on October 6th. "Let's treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is."

During that devastating year at Valley Forge, clothing was wholly inadequate and many soldiers, already wounded from previous battles, died from exposure. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for diseases to fester. Although General Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, Congress was unable to provide it, and the soldiers continued to suffer. Female relatives alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services, such as laundry and nursing, that the army desperately needed.

A report last week in the New York Times says that germs are spreading in Zuccotti Park, and many people are getting sick. Under these conditions, new recruits have become harder to find. Meanwhile, the response of the Congressional "Super-committee" has been to debate how much money to take out of the economy by cutting Medicare and Social Security for the elderly, along with many other essential government services--while otherwise seeking ways to lower top income and corporate tax rates. Two days ago, the following urgent request appeared on NationofChange's web newsletter:

"Freezing cold temperatures have hit the east coast and other parts of the nation. We have set out to raise $10,000 to purchase critical food and warmth supplies for protesters in New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Denver, and Chicago. We will put 100% of our goal amount raised towards the purchase of prepared food, zero-degree blankets and sleeping bags, camp cots, tarps, men’s and women’s underwear, rubber boots, wool socks and other essentials.

Help us support these heroes who are making personal sacrifices for our future. Donate generously today!"

"It's time to take sides, folks," Tom Degan writes on his blog, The Rant. "This isn't a fad. This isn't some kind of mass, childish temper tantrum that will pass the moment the weather hits the freezing mark. Wake up and face the dawn. You're either going to be on the right side of history or you're going to be left standing in the sewer. The choice has not been this stark in a century-and-a-half. We've got to put hideous bastards like the Koch Brothers on notice. We need to make all of them realize that the people are standing up and they're not going to stand down under any circumstances."

Herman Cain, who recently bragged that he is "the third brother of the Koch brothers, by another mother," is also bragging that he pulled in $9 million in campaign contributions since October 1. Now just suppose Brother Koch-Cain were to take a paltry $10,000 from that amount and give it to the OWS movement. I expect he would either laugh in my face or snore low in the weeds at such a preposterous thought. It will never happen. That is precisely the reason so many people have become explosive, forging another Valley Forge even at the risk of freezing themselves to death.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Mink Coats Don't Trickle Down"

So how to begin to describe this latest protest movement, Occupy Wall Street, anyway--is it fish, flesh, fowl, or (as my mother used to say) good red herring?

Reactions vary extremely across the board, all the way from it's "the beginnings of a possible second American Revolution" to the crude referencing of "growing mobs that are pitting Americans against Americans" by Eric Cantor. So is this really "class warfare," as the Republicans would have it, or rather "a holy space between the towers of money?" as Naomi Klein describes it? Is what we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park just a few "soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism" or is it "a wide-open place for people to find each other" during "an inevitable moment for America"?

The answer is that nobody really knows. That is why both Zuccotti Park's cheering supporters and its mocking detractors are all holding their breath in anticipation of how this will turn out. What is yet to be determined is whether we are, finally, in the past 5-6 weeks of an unforeseen occupation, witnessing a brave new world rising up out of the ashes of right-wing nihilism and corporate greed, or the beginnings of a nightmare scenario that will end in chaos and destruction--an updated version of the French Revolution where the streets were running with blood.

So where am I, in trying to assess all of this? Caught, I expect, in the crossfire of my own acute emotions, somewhere between elation and fear. There seem to be as many ways of responding to what is happening as there are protesters out there protesting. No one knows for sure whether the movement can continue (the protesters claim to be unstoppable and insist that they can and will continue indefinitely). So far, what they have accomplished is to annex a park near the New York stock Exchange, hold marches and meetings, fend off eviction, spur similar protests around the nation and even the globe, and set up a leaderless mini-society that functions, so far, in a remarkably orderly way, with working groups that run everything from meals and media technology to sanitation. They have even organized a library, as well as "family sleep-overs" so that sympathizers, who feel that their children's futures have been compromised, can bring them along and spend the night.

No one really knows, however, whether Occupy Wall Street will change anything or has a chance of succeeding, given the entrenched forces arrayed against it. One thing we do know is that when leaders pursue their own agendas and stop thinking about the interests of their people, they lose the support of their people. The movement, with its motto of “we are the 99 percent,” has been criticized by many for its lack of coherent demands, but one of the organizers, Yotam Marom, claims that's silly. "We're occupying Wall Street. It should be pretty well clear what we want changed." OWS is fighting both to strengthen democracy, and to end the domination of the big money interests which are seeking to destroy it.

"I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific demands," says George Lakoff, the world's expert on how best to frame your agenda to get the results you want. "If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed." In his essay "A Framing Memo to Occupy Wall Street" published in the Huffington Post, Lakoff proposes that the OWS movement is moral in nature, and that what the occupiers really want is for the country to change its moral focus.

"It is easy to find useful policies; hundreds have been suggested," he writes. "It is harder to find a moral focus and stick to it. If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands." If the moral focus of America changes, new people will be elected, and the policies will follow. "Without a change of moral focus," Lakoff says, "the conservative world-view that has brought us to the present disastrous and dangerous moment will continue to prevail."

For the moment, I'm totally happy with his idea of trying to change the moral focus of our country. Let's see what happens when crosses are painted over with polka dots. If it works--if somehow, against all the odds, OWS manages to steal the right-wing Putsch--then maybe, in some better future, crosses will stand, not for the crucified Jesus, but for some new, emergent X chromosome in our species that will no longer be hellbent on its own destruction.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Herman Cain Is Not Red Riding Hood

I was amused almost to the point of desperation at Deborah Ring's characterization (Oct.13th in the Roanoke Times) of Herman Cain--the former Godfather's Pizza CEO who has recently catapulted to the top of the GOP presidential race--as someone who will clean up the mess in Washington because he is a "new face," and not an insider. "He does not owe any PAC, union, or corporation anything," she writes.

Cain may not come from the ranks of professional politics, but he is absolutely marbled with the financial fat of those corporate billionaire backers of the Tea Party, the Koch brothers. This is meant to be a well-kept secret,Tea Party affiliation no longer being quite the passport into politics it was just a year ago--and so far, the connection seems to have gone unnoticed by political and talk-show pundits. It was not surprising, therefore, that on his kick-off bus tour in Tennessee the other day, Cain told the crowd he will not name his policy advisers to protect them from attacking critics. "They're my advisers, not yours," he snapped.

If you want the real scoop on exactly how lily-white the latest Republican front-runner really is, you can check out the particulars online in Scott Keyes' article about the relationship between Cain and his billionaire pals at There you will find a spectacle with a kick: Cain's rise from niche radio host and pizza CEO to presidential front-runner appears to have been largely fueled by the Koch network.

In an article thick with well- documented links, Keyes maps out the history of this extensive connection, showing how, dating back to 2005, Cain held an official position in the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity that offered him immersive opportunities to barnstorm the country, give speeches, hold town-hall meetings, and generally spruce up his skills for an eventual presidential bid. Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, was a former president of Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter and is credited with persuading Cain to run for president. Block also has a history, it seems, of electoral dirty tricks, and was once fined $15,000 for violating Wisconsin electoral law.

In January, Cain attended the Koch brothers private biannual meeting in Palm Springs of top right-wing corporate and political figures in order to coordinate strategy and raise money for the conservative movement. He also traveled to Wisconsin to support Governor Scott Walker's union-busting efforts, which were equally fueled by the Koch brothers, as well as to a Koch-based anti-climate rally in New York in June. If Cain's catchy "9-9-9" across-the-board tax plan were ever instigated, the Koch brothers would personally see their tax rates fall from 23 percent to around 11 percent.

In sum, we are not talking about some free-wheeling pizza populist here, with no campaign structure and very little money. Herman Cain is not quite the untainted, folksy, down-home "new face" that Ring makes him out to be. Rather, he is quite the clever teacup, whose bristling subtext is that of being front man for the most dangerous right-wing corporatists now threatening to take over our country. Cain has already named Paul Ryan and Jim deMint for unspecified slots in his administration. Does all this make your radar system flash on red alert? It does mine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Black Marbles

"I have never had so challenging an assignment as finding people who approve of Congress," Joel Stein writes in the 10/10 issue of Time. Stein has spent the last two weeks on assignment in Los Angeles, searching for people who would join him for a meal and tell him why they don't hate Congress. "It was the hardest job of my life," he says. Recent polls show a 12 percent approval for Congress, which matches the lowest rating ever recorded, and Stein considers even that has got to be over-inflated. Finally he did manage to track down five people willing to talk with him, two of whom wouldn't allow him to print their names because they didn't want anyone to know they actually think Congress is okay.

Three of the five who ended up convening with him for brunch at the Alcove Cafe were Tea Party enthusiasts, one of whom declared, "A Congress that doesn't get anything done delights me." This was a doctor who wanted to remain anonymous because he feared if his patients were to know his views, they would leave him. One of the others, a housewife with a PhD, proclaimed her nostalgia for the time Newt Gingrich succeeded in shutting the government down. When asked by Stein to name something they thought the Senate and House did well, a lawyer answered, "Give me a second. I know it's there. It'll come to me."

For almost three years, Barack Obama tried to work with both parties in Congress "to get things done," until he finally got it that he would never get any cooperation or support from Republicans. So now, with his approval rating at an all time low, he has taken to the hills to campaign for his American Jobs Act--a mixture of tax cuts and government spending totaling $447 billion--entirely on his own, looking exhausted and demoralized, but hanging tough, like Atlas holding up the world. Republicans may never even bring the bill to the table for a vote. For them, nothing happens unless the rich get their tax cut.

"The country needs a leader," Peggy Noonan crooned on "Meet the Press," this Sunday, back to her latest refrain--Obama hasn't managed to bring the parties together, nor has he succeeded in making Republicans fear him. Meanwhile, America's politics have turned into a chicken-and-egg game over which came first: Republican obstructionism or Obama's failure to lead. Meantime, the rest of us have become like black marbles caught in a whirlpool of blame.

In The New Yorker [09/26], James Surowiecki presents reasons the GOP could actually get away with their obstructionism without being punished for it at the polls. Responsibility for the economy, he claims, now belongs to Obama and and the Dems, and since Republicans control only one house of Congress, they can more easily dodge blame because they've had little chance to enact anything on their own. According to polls, most swing voters are strongly in favor of reducing deficits, and voters in general don't expect Republicans to do much about jobs anyway, so they are not penalized as much for their inaction. (This last has got to be an argument that depends, in all good faith, on the rain.) In fact, uncooperative Republicans are really just delivering what their constituencies expect. In the run-up to last year's midterms, Republicans were explicit in their opposition to stimulus programs and to any tax-and-spend policies--and they won a landslide victory. Surowiecki concludes that Americans may want the government to get the economy moving again, but when push comes to shove, they vote for a different story. So, for now, he claims, it is not only our representatives who are to blame. It's ourselves. We are the culprits who voted them in. And, as black marbles caught up in the whirlpool of blame, which of us can honestly claim NOT to have felt all the emotions as itemized below?

To BLAME, [per Roget's Thesaurus] = to disapprove, not admire, fail to appreciate, have no praise for, not think much of, take a dim view of, censor, disfavor, lament, shout down, boo, hiss, throw mud, pour vitriol, lambast, call names, curse, vilify, reproach, denounce, stigmatize, sneer, taunt, trounce, come down on like a ton of bricks, revile, think the worst, condemn.

Who, at this point, is not in search of a wailing wall, not feeling a need to cram hair balls down somebody's else's throat? In doing so, however, we ignore at our own peril (in the words of Ray Bradbury) that "poison can destroy minds even as it can destroy flesh." "Teach me, he writes in "Zen in the Art of Writing," "how to be sick then, in the right time and place, so that I may again walk in the fields, and with the wise and smiling dogs know enough to chew sweet grass."

If these are really our choices--becoming black marbles or chewing sweet grass--which of them should one choose? I ask Virgil, my trusted alligator-muse, to give me his opinion. Considering the state of everything today, how can one NOT want to play the blame game? It would be like asking tribes give up their bingo rights on the reservation.

In the winking of a lighthouse, Virgil has his answer at the ready "Your country lost its legal standing when it argued and convinced the Supreme Court that corporations are people and have rights. Now, all the cases in which you are still hoping to defend your rights are prepared by skeletons in a bone court."

So what does that mean?" I ask. "Listen," says Virgil, "you people are insane, without a doubt insane. Not every donna can be prima. You're going backward into the future, where you are surely going to lose. To paraphrase from one of your most illustrious poets, you would rather be ruined than change. The national debt is rising at $46,000 per second, so I would bag the marbles and ditch the sweet grass. It is already known that resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die. Personally, in a predicament like yours, I'd reach for pistachios, with maybe a dash of wild ginseng."

After dropping that bit of alligatorial advice, Virgil brushes the dust from his leather trousers and rises to go. He has new orders to fill from more than a dozen states and countries, and even though his percentage is pretty low, he still earns more than he needs to expand his empire and add to his collection of ladies' shoes. Riding waves of electrified delirium, the crafty alligator quickly disappears, sleek as a Bedouin in the night.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Look Ma! No Taxes!

Anybody still wondering whether President Obama will finally acknowledge to himself that the Republicans aren't much interested in putting party politics aside and working with him for the good of the country got their answer this past week. It looks as if he has finally had enough of being shunned by members of his own party and actively abused by the not-so-loyal opposition. Obama finally seems to have found his sweet spot of anger, and he is using it to fuel an effort to attack and hopefully destroy the Republicans' oppressive credo of no taxes. He seems ready to stage a revolt against the collective values he believes are spiritually wrong.

So hold on to your hats, everyone. A war has been declared--not on Libya, Syria, Yemen, or Palestine, but on Republicans. The president has drawn that line in the sand his base has been howling for: he is now seeking to raise taxes on the rich. Of the $3 trillion-plus in deficit reductions being proposed, $1.5 trillion would be made up of tax increases--which would include letting the Bush tax cuts for people with incomes above $250,000 expire. A consistent 71 percent of voters in polls favor reducing the deficit through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Part of the funding for Obama's jobs' plan will be the closing down of special interest tax breaks, deductions, and loopholes for corporations.

Already I hear the sound of enormous fans whirring near the door to the latrine, and the noisome stench of urine circulating. We already know the GOP would rather have O's head on a platter, the better to be able to piss on it, than pay a single cent more in taxes. So bye-bye, common ground! Let the games begin. So long, compromise, it's been good to know you! Sayonara, John Boehner, you walking-out-AGAIN piece of crapola! Cutting deals with you just didn't work out, did it? Hello to the new world of vicious tax wars--but with some fair warning: the rest of you may not like the end of this movie as much as you like the beginning. Will the political gridlock improve? Definitely not. Will things get worse? There Will Be Blood. Maybe even as far as your front door. It doesn't matter if the president is friendly or hostile or angry--the lions will not lie down with the lamb any time soon.

The right-wing spin machine has spent years persuading millions of Americans that Democrats are spendthrifts and liberals are evil, that the poor are lazy, and that government is the problem, not the solution. Government only manages to survive on the tax payers dime and is the bane of every liberty-loving individual's existence. Today, however, believe it or not, I am not here to depress you; I want to make you laugh. I wish I could claim authorship of the following vignette, but I can't. I found it in Vanity Fair, "as relayed by Henry Alford." Enjoy this hilarious vision of self-reliance in a Tea-Party world (once government has been duly shrunk and then drowned in a bathtub). Laugh, while laughing is still a possibility, laugh while your heart is breaking, laugh before everything around you crashes. I am laughing with you. Here it comes:

"TAKING AMERICA BEAA-YACK: The Campaign Journal of Krysti McCandless, Rising Tea Party Superstar"

"My hubby, Critter, keeps me afloat--he is my pool noodle. But who wouldn't love a guy who looks like Will Ferrell and speaks like Ron Paul? Dude is hot. Cable-repairman hot. And it was Critt who brilliantly realized that in our our efforts 2 dismantle the fed'l gov't, we shouldn't be fighting just for states' rights or even cities' rights. No. we gotta drill it down to fighting 4 cul-de-sac rights! Lock 'n load, people!
So how did we take control of our sac? It started, like everything gr8 does, with a trip 2 Costco. I bought rope and PVC tubing so Critt could build a crow's-nest lookout on our roof. Then he dragged the boat that's been sitting in our front yard all these years out to block the end of the sac property line! Then he told the other two families in our sac that we three families are now a mini-state under its own jurisdiction. They looked surprised, but very, very alert.
Now the mail-carrier leaves all mail at the boat and we auto-sort it ourselves. The 3 families are on the gold standard and we formed a militia. We home-school. We'll get all Willie Nelson-ish re tax-paying in April. We call ourselves "the 51st state," and on the back of the T-shirts it says, TAKE THAT, GUAM!
The Vastreps, on our left, have been totally on board: they are true Americans. But the Lancasters, on our right, have been a little weird ever since I had both their gardeners deported last summer. The Lancasters own a restaurant in Baltimore called Banc, which, hilariously, is pronounced "bonk." (Sometimes when Critt and I are walking around the house, we'll smash our bellies together like two tympany drums and cry, "I work at Banc!" Then I scream "LOL!") Anyway, the Bonkcasters needed more convincing, but I talked them off the ledge when I said "no taxes": everybody loves the kuh-ching.
All this sac stuff has been amazing, like summer camp without the bed-wetting. In my run for County Council here in Montgomery County, I've often invoked the early colonists and their bravery, but now I just talk about the sac. Because once you take your own future and your own welfare into your hands, you make an important realization: Destiny--it's not just a name for strippers anymore."

Before Virgil and I sign off, here's one more piece of information you should have: by a 53 to 28 percent margin, independents say they plan to vote against the president in November 2012. So this is some advice from my usual fav, Andrew Sullivan, with whom I am in total agreement here:

"Every time you think the ultras in the current GOP won't go there, they do. They'll sabotage economic growth for short term political advantage. They'll sabotage their own president in negotiating with allies. They're happy for the US to default if it means they can damage Obama. Their own plan for immediate, drastic austerity would be catastrophic for the global economy. Their pre-Arab Spring belligerence would shut America out of a critical opportunity to ease tensions with the growing and burgeoning Muslim world. And they have no problem treating the world economy as a partisan plaything.

If they claw their way back to power this way, our system really will be broken for a long time. And the great possibility of an adult conversation on pragmatic grounds to help the economy will be lost. And this is emphatically not Obama's fault. He tried. They threw it back in his face again and again. Which means, I believe, that we should double down in backing him, instead of the ear-splitting whine coming from the left."

Personally, I'm not sure I can survive a Rick Perry ferry. But I KNOW FOR SURE the country can't--and it won't.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Vying for the "Cojones Vote"

"Let them eat cake," Marie Antoinette once famously said of the unwashed masses whose lives were less fortunate than hers. Today we have the latest incarnation of that philosophy (minus the white wig), in the persona of presidential candidate Rick Perry--said to be capturing the "cojones vote" with his more candid approach to the disempowered underclass: "Let them Die." Cake, after all, is for sissies.

Applause audibly ramps up at Republican rallies and debates when Perry boasts about his record while governor of Texas for having had 235 criminals executed, and vetoing a bill that would have exempted the mentally ill from Death Row. His audiences love it when Perry says things like "Anyone convicted of murder in the Lone Star State faces 'the ultimate justice.' " So does this guy have balls made of human molars, or what? When bulbous fingers rise up in a victory "V" around Perry, the question rolling around on other people's lips is, "What about he of the watery spine? Is Obama ballsy enough to be president?"

Last week, the consensus seemed to be, "Yes, finally!" as pundits from David Brooks to Paul Krugman to Thomas Friedman all breathed a big sigh of relief and rallied round the President. On Thursday, Obama had actually shown some fire in the belly when addressing Congress on television and presenting his new American Jobs bill. The President seemed angry enough to launch an attack on the Republican solution to the economic crisis: "The only thing we can do to restore prosperity [according to them] is just dismantle the government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules and tell everyone they're on their own." But, Obama added, "That's not who we are. That's not the story of America."

It may not be who we have been in the past, but it is definitely who we are becoming. Obama may have shown more toughness this past week, but he still seems unwilling to acknowledge the depth of the forces aligned against him--not just an intransigeant G.O.P. (who in Maureen Dowd's words, "wants to eat him alive"), but also the relentless damage to the economy being done by a constant stream of natural disasters. Disaster relief funds will run out in two weeks, and while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to pass a $6 billion emergency disaster relief bill in the Senate, his counterpart Mitch McConnell has already announced his unwillingness to "pass this bill now," as the president exhorted Congress to do, declaring the Republicans' lack of interest in any short-term relief. "No one believes," he said, "that this package will do any kind of long-term, have any kind of long-term stimulative effect on our country."

Meanwhile many states are broke, and new statistics just released show that an additional 2.6 million people landed in poverty last year, bringing the total to 46.2 million--the highest number since the government started tracking poverty in the 1950s. FEMA estimates that states have been hit with over $36 billion in disaster damages. The Census Bureau credits Social Security with keeping nearly 14 million seniors out of poverty in 2010--which must be the reason Rick Perry describes it as a monstrous lie, a Ponzi scheme, and a failure.

I had to take a little media fast this past weekend, because I couldn't front up to reliving the 9/11 attacks all over again, but Obama, unfazed, attended all the ceremonies--hailing American resilience, claiming the ensuing decade has proven that America does not give in to fear and has emerged stronger after the attacks. Stronger? Really? Personally, I was more in agreement with Kathleen Parker, who took a different tack in her column, claiming that the real legacy of 9/11 was a sort of emotional breakdown in the sense of who we are.

"Simply put," she wrote, "[9/11] damaged our collective soul and seems to have released a free-ranging hysteria that has contaminated our interactions ever since...[and has] caused us to go temporarily insane." The moral panic she describes rings more true to me than anything the president said. However, as she also rightly points out, no president can afford publicly to speak of such things--so maybe she'll be right that journalists could actually acquire a new sense of purpose by ponying up to the job instead. But I'm not holding my breath.

It is, of course, possible to argue that there was a kind of bittersweet unity in the aftermath of the attacks, but that singular joining of hearts and minds soon dissolved over the decade into what Nancy Gibbs refers to in Time magazine as "pitiless cage fights." Yow! In his essay on 9/11 in The New Yorker, George Packer also takes a dim view of the decade that followed the attacks. For all the talk about unity and a new sense of purpose, he argues, the attacks did nothing to unify the country--which was already entrenched in two politically opposed camps with the moderates in the Republican party barely surviving. Today that division is so extremely hardened that the very possibility of a common national narrative has been destroyed. Today. we live in mutually hostile and unintelligible, red and blue, partisan universes.

With what has to be a Pulitzer prize-winning comment, I will let Thomas Friedman have the last word on this, our sorry plight: "Our cupboard is bare, and the only thing we have in surplus is political venom. Indeed, if political venom could be turned into a transportation fuel, we'd be energy independent today! Alas, it's just venom, and it's weakening us--along with everything else we've done to sap our national vitality."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Baby Palins: Feminism, Republican Style

The eye-catching name of Regis Giles (see her photo above) first came to my attention via an article in Elle magazine. Called "The Best and the Rightist" by Nina Burleigh, it delineates a new, up-and-coming, voting demographic of conservative women, ages 18 to 35--in her article Burleigh refers to them as "Baby Palins"--who deride liberal-style feminism and have a real passion for guns. Regis Giles is 20 years old, owns a spear and a CZ 550 rifle, and already has acquired an impressive kill sheet: one white-tail deer, one black buck, one giant bear, one antelope, a behemoth buffalo, and the wild boar she regularly spears on the shores of Florida's Lake Okeechobee. In large part because of her extraordinary hunting prowess, Giles has emerged as the new face of conservative womanhood: "thousands of young women in cocktail dresses who profess their love for guns, low taxes, and red meat."

Many of these women were to be seen at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee Conference [CPAC], an annual gathering of 10,000 political activists, more than half of whom are college-age, and nearly all of whom are white. Giles was there and made a provocative speech in her distinctive nasal drawl. "I'm sick and tired of seeing defenseless girls being abducted in broad daylight. My company stands for those girls who've decided to arm themselves with a gun that will pump lead into an attacker at 1,200 feet per second." No kidding! Talking this way at conferences causes her audience to stomp, whistle, and cheer, and she usually, effortlessly, brings the house down.

Regis Giles claims to be at her happiest when she's hunting. "I'm driven to hunt by the love of the sport, the thrill of the kill--hunting rejuvenates my soul. It's an awesome experience," she states. But she isn't a Palin clone, having been trained since the age of 9 to hunt by her father, Doug Giles, a conservative radio talk-show host and pastor of his own "clash church," long before Palin ever emerged on the scene. And she frequently donates her kill to a local homeless shelter, where the meat is fed to the needy. This young, Republican, female political activist may look like she just stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, but rest assured, she does not spend her time decorating with crepe paper or building miniature windmills.

"Regis' niche," according to Burleigh, "is as the ambassadress of the polished trigger finger." Her website, Girls Just Wanna Have Guns, currently offers a variety of t-shirts, buttons, and coffee mugs for sale. Next year, however, at 21, she will be eligible to get a federal license to sell guns. Thanks to the 'Palin effect,' female membership in the National Rifle Association has risen by 20 percent.

The same issue of Elle magazine also contains a contrasting article, profiling a Democratic activist named Louisa Kamps, from Wisconsin. Kamps describes her conversion into activism thusly: she was driving out of town when she heard on the radio that Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, had announced a surprise plan to strip unionized workers (primarily nurses and teachers) of their collective bargaining rights. Horrified and appalled, she turned the car around and came back home to join the battle lines of irate protesters converging in hordes around the capitol building. Kamps claims that although she never voted for Walker, she hadn't realized his sinister union-busting intentions, or how deeply he was in cahoots with anti-regulation conservatives like the Koch brothers, who are among his biggest financial backers. The realization changed her life dramatically; it wasn't long before she became a revolutionary.

"We have a long history," she states in Elle, "of looking out for each other here in Wisconsin, birthplace of the nation's largest public-sector union and the first state to create worker's compensation and unemployment insurance....I never dreamed a year ago I'd be where I am now....I'm up late at night writing Republicans to register how strongly I oppose cuts to services such as recycling, public transportation, and libraries....Over a brutal couple of weeks recently, the Republicans passed legislation that will make it harder for students and seniors, who typically lean Democratic, to vote, and they introduced bills to roll back child labor laws and make it simpler to carry concealed weapons." She thanks Walker for one thing, however. "He's taught me exactly what I don't want government to look like, and how fervently I must work as a citizen activist if I want to live in a place that reflects my values."

So I put these two contrasting profiles together, feeling they were significant, and wondering where I needed to take them next. What was the punch line here? Then I began reading more of James Gilligan's book, "Why Some Politicians Are Worse Than Others," [see my previous blog about how levels of violence rise significantly during Republican administrations], Chapter 6 of Gilligan's book maps out the radically different cultures between Red States and Blue States. These differences, Gilligan suggests, are not merely differences in political agendas, but reflect different personalities and attitudes in relation to core indices of violence--such as guns, militarism, torture, capital punishment--that differentiate Republican voters from Democratic ones.

Gun ownership, he asserts, is much more prevalent among Republican groups (especially social conservatives), citing a Pew Research Center study which claims that nearly 60 percent of Republican groups have guns in their homes, in contrast to 23 percent of Democratic ones. (Eighty percent of social conservatives have a favorable view of the NRA.) So, not only do Red states have statistically higher rates of violent behavior, but the gun is deployed by Republicans as a moral and culturally potent icon that serves to breed contempt for non-violence and to encourage punitiveness, like public support for lynchings, capital punishment, and the concealed carrying of weapons. It is why "civility" candidates like Jon Huntsman and Barack Obama are ultimately met with contempt by hard-core Republicans for their "stupid altruistic urges." (The phrase is Ayn Rand's.)

And then suddenly, the goose laid its golden egg: I had a positively golden insight into why Obama's presidency has not succeeded the way so many had hoped it would. (Of course there is the obvious reason, that Republicans, come hell or high water, will never let that happen.) But beyond the obvious, there is also something else, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Obama was elected in large part because he stood on tiptoe on the misty mountaintop and proclaimed there were no Red States or Blue States; there were only American states. We all hoped to god it was so, and In a note to himself, he vowed to become our first post-partisan president. Obama has failed to deliver on this, but not because of his personal inadequacies. He has failed because that core conviction has proven itself to be just plain WRONG. Not Obama, but Sarah Palin, was the one who got it right: there are really TWO Americas, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Sadly for us, the noble vibration of unity Obama so badly wanted and gallantly pursues, has not proved to be a winning hand in American politics. To believe there aren't Red States or Blue States at this point in time is a bit like driving through a plate glass window you didn't know was there--until it shatters, and there is broken glass everywhere.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Brushing My Teeth with Whiskey

I kid you not--this is what my horoscope recommended I should do this month: brush my teeth with whiskey, Jack Daniels to be exact. I'm absolutely good to go. The only problem is that I'm a gin girl at heart, but never mind, I haven't let that stop me from doing what a girl's gotta do. The horoscope also suggests that at least for the next two weeks or so, it wouldn't be totally crazy to keep myself more or less permanently in a party mood. This is not a bad suggestion either, given that Texas Governor Rick Perry is now the Republican frontrunner, ahead of Romney, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, and the stock market continues to wobble dangerously.

Within hours of declaring his candidacy, Rick Perry managed to turn a sleep-inducing race into a demolition derby with a single, atomic remark. Referring to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Perry said:, "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y'all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion." Nice going, Ricky.

So, I took me to the nearest whiskey bar, and like Greta Garbo, made that a double, and brushed furiously. (Then a friend of mine called from Arizona to say she'd been to a local gay bar for the first time, at age 75, and driven through a 100-foot dust storm, in order to get free line-dancing instruction--hoping to accelerate her exercise routine, she says. She had a blast.)

Coincidentally, or synchronistically, I happen to be reading a book by James Gilligan entited "Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others." Gilligan claims to have discovered a devastating truth that has been "hiding in plain sight" for the past century--namely, that whenever Republicans gain the presidency, rates of suicide and homicide consistently skyrocket, and inequality, unemployment, recessions, poverty, bankruptcy, homelessness all balloon to epidemic proportions. They then remain at epidemic levels until the more liberal party, the Democrats, regain the White House, reducing the amount of deadly violence by diminishing the magnitude of the economic distress that has been causing it.

This pattern, the author shows, has been documented since 1900, when the U.S. government first began compiling vital statistics on a yearly basis. Not only is this not just a coincidental correlation; Gilligan statistically proves that there is a specific causal relationship between the political parties in power, their policies, and the violent death rates. Yet the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are the ones to vote for if you want economic growth, whereas Democrats stifle growth, But the facts, he claims, show otherwise.

As someone who has uncovered these patterns of statistical truth--namely, that from 1900 through 2010, the country suffered approximately three times as many months of recessions when Republicans were governing the country--the author confesses to astonishment at his own findings: "I was genuinely surprised--I would even say shocked--to discover that the reputation of the Republican party appears to be the diametric opposite of what the numbers show. I am referring to the numbers gathered and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is hardly a liberal or left-wing think tank."

Another unexpected discovery in Gilligan's book is that recessions began during Republican presidencies seventeen times, and only six times during Democratic ones (and these were mostly inherited, as in Obama's case). Republicans were four times as likely as Democrats to "bequeath" a recession that had begun during their own administration to their successors (which happened to Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, and Obama). As for the Great Depression of the 1930s, Republicans showed themselves incapable of reversing it throughout the entire forty-three months in which they were in office (19290-33). When FDR took office, he immediately reversed it and began a period of economic expansion that lasted uninterruptedly for the next fifty months.

The fact that statistics show that unemployment has increased and lasted longer during Republican administrations, with recessions occurring much more frequently and lasting longer, prompted Giiligan, a professor of psychiatry (formerly from Harvard Medical School, now teaching at NYU) to formulate the central mystery of his book, which is summarized on page 9 as follows:

"Why is the party that proclaims itself to be the party of prosperity and economic growth and of public safety and law and order, the party that mounted the 'wars' on crime and drugs, associated with higher rates of lethal violence and of poverty, unemployment, and recession? And if the party is consistently inflicting a greater degree of economic stress and distress upon the American public and achieving a lower level of prosperity and economic security than the other party is, and in that sense achieving economic failure rather than success, how could it continue to win elections and remain a viable party?"

Yo, I have only read half the book thus far, so I'm not sure how, or if, Gilligan finds answers to his own questions. But if you have any, then please send them on--you might even win a free bottle of whiskey from me. Meanwhile, if I were in charge of the universe, I'd make it a rule that EVERYONE NEEDS TO READ THIS BOOK! And then, brush their teeth with whiskey.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Michele Bachmann Parts the Red Sea with a Corndog

If you want to know what is really happening to this country, I've already said it many times before: the right wing of the Republican Party is staging a full-frontal government coup. It's been going on for some time now, one of the first signs of it going way back to the election of 2000, when Al Gore's Florida win was posted, and then suddenly withdrawn minutes later, from the electoral map board. Foul play then followed upon foul play and ultimately, the Supreme Court handed over the presidency to George W. Bush.

If you don't want to believe me that we are having a coup d'etat in the U.S., I recommend you watch the movie "Jesus Camp." Republican right-wingers have been training themselves and their children as Christianist warriors to take over the government for a long time. They make a big show of talking about the Constitution, but in reality, it's the Bible that is their final authority, the absolute, infallible word of God. The Bible is not just a book; it's "the total truth." If you saw snippets of Governor Rick Perry's "prayer meeting" just before he announced his campaign for the presidency, it was a scene lifted straight out of "Jesus Camp": people with their arms raised beseechingly in the air, eyes swooning upwards, tears streaming downwards. Don't think it can't happen.

"The man who laughs," Bertolt Brecht once wrote,. "just hasn't heard the terrible news." Michele Bachmann won the straw poll in Iowa. Maybe, like me, you didn't know whether to laugh or cry--and find yourself pointlessly wondering what the Beatles would make of this latest incarnation of their old fluff song "Michele"? Bachmann's current claim to fame, however, is probably fated to be a 15-minute, Andy-Warhol, ephemeral affair--ending almost as soon as it begins--now that the fiery Rick Perry, arch-conservative, big-guns governor of Texas, and Secessionist who deems social security unconstitutional, has made his grand entry into the race, upstaging her. Perry, who is definitely not Santa Claus, officially declared that he is coming to town--so you better not cry, I'm telling you why. To become a Republican president now means you have to NOT walk softly and you have to carry a Christianist big shtick. And, like it or not, Perry's shtick is definitely bigger than Michele Bachmann's. So wait for the sparks to fly.

Of course, as the cover story on her in Newsweek points out, Bachmann clearly flipped "the other middle-aged drab men running for the nomination" right off the board. So maybe she'll manage to flip Perry off as well. But meanwhile, if you want the really scary scoop on Bachmann, you need to read Ryan Lizza's profile of her in the August 15th New Yorker. He provides the context and background for Bachmann's meaty fundamentalism:

"Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns," writes Sara Diamond, the author of several books about evangelical movements in America. These movements, to whom Bachmann is now central, believe that a Biblical world view should suffuse every aspect of one's life. According to Lizza, while enrolled in 1979 at the O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Bachmann imbibed the fundamentalist content of essays published in the school's Law Review, and was inspired by writers like John Rushdoony, who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law--execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for instance--would be instituted. (Sharia, anyone?) Lizza quotes Rushdoony condemning the secularization of public schools:

"With the coming collapse of humanistic statism, the Christian must prepare to take over, he must prepare for victory." Lizza adds that the success of Bachmann's campaign will rest partly on her ability to keep these influences, which she has talked about for years, out of the public discussion. In the end she refused, when he tried, to talk about them with him.

But since then, she was all over the talk shows on Sunday, looking beautiful and smooth as satin. True, she didn't breath a word about any of this theocratic takeover, and her answers were so practiced and predictable that, after a while, I was able to mouth them to the interviewers myself, along with Bachmann. After she won in Iowa, Steve Clemons wrote on the Huffington Post that "This straw poll result shows that a group of people are willing to place bets on people who have virtually no chance of really winning on a national ticket. My view anyway."

I wish it were mine, too, but it definitely is not. The way things are going, I think Obama has quite a decent chance of losing the election to one of these crackpots.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

No More Days of Wine and Roses

I got a flyer in the mail this week from the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, inviting me to join writer and therapist Ginette Paris for a "heartbreak clinic," intended to "understand what happens in the brain when we are heartbroken," and to develop strategies for navigating the darkness and beginning the healing process. But it was one particular statement that really set me thinking--which was that, in the psychic realm of mourning, the brain does not distinguish among various types of loss. Whether it happens to be loss of love, professional identity, country, vocation, health, youth, or wealth, loss is loss. The unexpected insertion of the word "country" on this list is what got my attention and struck a chord. I realized that I am now grieving the loss of my country.

Truth is, over a long lifetime, I have actively experienced all the other losses on this list at one time or another. And since these days I no longer have a salary and currently survive mostly on income from investments, I am also bracing for an imminent loss of wealth. If/when the stock market crashes, my clean, well-lighted days of wine and roses will also come to an abrupt and unkindly end. I expect I will endure these losses as I have previously endured all the others, and certainly when it comes to wine and roses, I have had my fair share. (Item: I once received three dozen long stemmed red roses from the writer Michael Crichton, after he had dined at my house in London, having been invited by Jasper Johns, who was staying with me at the time. Jasper became very cross when he discovered that I had no suitable vase to put them in.)

But this time, unlike others in the past, the failure to come to an appropriate congressional agreement may just sink the global economy, which is already on life support. This time the growth economy will probably not come back. Stock portfolios will not rebound again in the foreseeable future.

That said, we really didn't have to lose our triple AAA credit rating, and along with it, the respect and trust of the world. Before the rotten deal was struck, credit agencies had warned the president exactly what was needed to avoid a downgrade: at least $4 trillion in deficit cuts, and some revenues on the table. The president knew it, and John Boehner also knew it. The deal they put together followed those guidelines. But the Teasies and their corporate backers wanted to make a stink. They wanted to show everyone who was boss. Some of them even salivated over default as a good and great thing. In the end, they would only allow passage of a smaller, weakened bill that would not fulfill the necessary parameters. It was a given that this bill would not stave off a downgrade in our credit rating.

Along with everyone else, Standard and Poor's took note of the mayhem and were duly appalled. In the end, America was downgraded, not because of the size of its debt, but because of its political brinksmanship--and a perceived inability on the part of the U.S. government to come together and rectify its problems. The political brokenness was on full view, for all the world to see, Extreme polarization had resulted in paralysis. The lack of any remaining moderates, of the sort who used to engineer compromises, was obvious to all.

On page 4 of the official Standard & Poors' report on what they did and why, published on August 5th as the explanation for why they believe Congress--and even the as yet unformed Gang of Twelve--will be unable to actually deal with the US debt crisis, states: “We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.”

The final outcome, however, now provides Republicans with the perfect opportunity for attacking Obama's leadership, To blame the Tea Party, if you are a Republican, is absolutely off limits, a recipe for sudden death, and nobody is willing to risk it.

And so, the new GOP mantra issues daily from the rancid mouth of Mrs. Electrico (and wannabe presidential candidate) Minnesota Republican Michelle Bachmann: "President Obama has destroyed the credit rating of the United States through his failed economic policies and his inability to control government spending by raising the debt ceiling. He is destroying the foundations of the U.S. government one beam at a time." You better believe it!

In an essay that appeared recently on (which is also where I found the illo for my blog of today), Noam Chomsky has this to say: "Another common theme, at least among those who are not willfully blind, is that American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted. The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.
The spectacle is even coming to frighten the sponsors of the charade. Corporate power is now concerned that the extremists they helped put in office may in fact bring down the edifice on which their own wealth and privilege relies, the powerful nanny state that caters to their interests."

So, if the market tanks, and Michelle Bachmann becomes president of the United States, I expect I'll be jumping off my roof--that is to say, if at that point. I still have one.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Democrazy in the Scapehouse

"Above all, sicken me not unless you show me the way to the ship's rail....
Even beasts know when it is good and proper to throw up."
Ray Bradbury

I had to hang out at the ship's rail in slum paradise many times this week, not least after an encounter with that grievous article by Washington Post columnist Peggy Noonan. Entitled "They've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," Noonan confides to the world her astonishing discovery about Obama, never before seen in politics with any other president. Although he has many supporters, bundlers, contributors, and voters aplenty, she asserts, the support is "all grim." The truth is, nobody really loves him, This she knows, because of personally having talked to many people. (What ho! she hasn't talked to me.) "The secret of Mr. Obama is that he isn't really very good at politics...because he doesn't really get people." Not only that, she adds, he never offers a plan.

He never offers a plan? What about that "grand bargain," the truly large budget deal he pieced together with John Boehner a few weeks ago--until Boehner had his Judas Iscariot moment and, at the midnight hour, chose to betray the president's trust in him? Was that not arguably a good-faith plan, better than the one they have now ended up with? ("I stuck my neck out a mile to try to get an agreement with the president...I tried to lead....Put something on the table, Mr. President," a red-faced Boehner howled on television after his betrayal, perhaps in some twisted bid for the Nobel Prize in hypocrisy, or maybe a write-up in the annals of American shame.)

But back to Noonan. She clinches her piece with yet another outrageous assertion: "[Obama's] not a devil, not an alien, not a socialist. He's a loser. And this is America, where nobody loves a loser." It was a shot heard around the world.

Memo from the ship's rail to anyone who's listening: our problem is not America's lack of love for Barack Obama. Our problem is that Republicans are orchestrating calculated chaos as part of a long-term coup d'etat to change the balance of power in Washington. First they got the Supreme Court, and now they are after the Executive. In January 2010, the same folks shot down democracy in the Citizens' United case, when the Supreme Court judges, controlled by a conservative majority of one vote, awarded First Amendment rights to corporations, allowing them to have unlimited financial (and thus policy) influence on elections. I wrote at that time:

"Make no mistake, on January 21, 2010, we lost our country, A velvet coup took place in the Supreme Court....The Swiftboating of Obama by impugning his motives--implying that he is something destructive to America and opposing everything he does--is but one segment in a planned takeover of the whole political system." The next segment of this extensive co-optation--an artificially contrived debt-ceiling crisis enacted with unbelievable callousness and cunning--is happening right now. And once again, what I wrote in January 2010 could have been written today:

"We are now in a world-wide economic crisis because of excessive deregulation. Popular faith in government as playing any constructive and necessary role in constraining market excesses has collapsed. Extreme polarization renders our nation ungovernable. With ridicule and lies as the new form of social control, politics has been reduced to 'a war of nerves.' "

Mitch McConnell's slick appearance on Face the Nation yesterday was quite shocking. Suddenly the normally vicious, mean-spirited, take-no-prisoners wolf, known for his determined dedication to Obama's demise, appeared disguised in sheep's clothing and sporting a sneer of satisfaction. He was now the "go-to" guy, the primary broker of a deal, reassuring everyone that there WOULD BE A DEAL. "The country will not default on its obligations," he declared. "This is America where people like to compromise."

It was cynicism at its apogee, coming from the very man whose whose far-right radicalism is determined to never cut a deal with anyone. I felt I was witnessing a blatant case of identity theft; McConnell morphed into the president's doppleganger to emerge as the last man standing, the most reasonable one in the room. All the chaos he and his colleagues had orchestrated during the past month was over, the dirty work finished, at least for the time being. A knock-out blow had been delivered to the economy sufficient to keep it reeling backwards through the 2012 election. There will be impact to state and local governments from spending cuts. Many more people will lose their jobs. And then, we can wait for the next titanic struggle, when the extension of unemployment benefits runs out in December.

In a recently published novel, John Sales has one of his characters speak lines in a disturbing scene that are verbatim quotes from an actual speech by South Carolina Senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tiilman. He tells a crowd at a political rally, "We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men and we never will."

The Senate Majority Leader is from Kentucky. The day after tomorrow is Barack Obama's 50th birthday. Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times today that the president surrendered--showed himself unwilling or unable to stand up to blackmail on the part of right-wing extremists. Instead, he has chosen to demonstrate the opposite. What we are witnessing here, Krugman claims, is a catastrophe on multiple levels. "This is a shameful day to be a Democrat and a shameful day to be an American," one reader responds. Another, more sympathetic, states "Unless a president has a majority of Senate and House Representatives willing to vote in support of his programs, he has NO real power."

One has to wonder what kind of birthday the president is likely have this year. The mood can't be very celebratory, but he plans to be in Chicago.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Frankenstein's Pledge Puppets

Former Virginia governor (and current U.S. senator) Mark Warner describes a failure to halt a debt default as "the single most irresponsible act, almost unprecedented, in American politics." New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has stated that "The biggest threat to the United States this summer probably doesn't come from Iran or Libya but from the home-grown risk that the nation will default on its debts."

Once again Speaker Boehner has walked away from a deal with the president because of the fact that 95 percent of Republicans have previously signed a pledge put forth by the Republican strategist, Grover Norquist, to oppose any legislation that involves tax increases, including the elimination of tax loopholes. Despite Obama's having offered Republicans a deal that gives away the store from the Democrats' point of view, at the last minute Boehner defected yet again and walked away.

"I've been left at the altar a couple of times now," the president responded, rueful but distinctly peeved. And who wouldn't be?The truth is, Boehner couldn't get his Frankenstein Freshman clones, the pledge puppets, to go along with the deal, and so, rather than lose face by admitting to the real problem (which would likely cost him his job), he did what Republicans always do in the Age of Obama: raise the gun smoothly, look over to his right, and then in full view, shoot down the president.

I have to agree with Andrew Sullivan who states "The GOP believe they can destroy the U.S. and global economy and from the wreckage ensure Obama is not reelected. That is their sole guiding principle. They terrify me....What Cantor and Boehner are doing is essentially letting the world know they have an economic WMD in their possession. And it will go off if you do not give them everything they want, with no negotiation possible."

While I was writing this, NPR did a quick interview with Norquist, who stated that it had not been necessary to twist anybody's arm to get them to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge before the 2010 election. "They are all true believers," he said. Whenever you increase taxes, he further explained, politicians spend more--and that is not the way to shrink government. For the record, Congress first agreed to raise the debt limit in 1917 to fund World War I. Since then it has done so 102 times without ever being a partisan or a contentious issue, or being used as a tool to blackmail the president.

Norquist's influence in all of this cannot be overstated. However, when asked if he was worried that perhaps he might get the blame if the government defaults or loses its triple A credit rating, he responded, without missing a beat, "No. Obama will." Defending himself earlier in a New York Times op ed this week, Norquist wrote: "Contrary to the hopes of some that I am somehow softening the pledge, it is stronger and more important than ever: it has made it easier for members of Congress to credibly commit to voters that they will refuse to increase taxes and instead focus on reducing the cost of government."

I've asked myself several times already in these pages the question of when intractable obstructionism from Republicans that damages American interests morphs into treason. The answer, I see now, is never--or only when it will be too late, which at this point in time, could be as soon as next week. Mark Halperin of Time magazine writes: "It will probably take a market crash to get enough House Republicans willing to compromise." In Washington's current GOP, compromise is the new dirty word. "When Grover Norquist, the de facto head of the Republican Congress, has defined bipartisanship as 'date rape,' and any tax increase as heresy." a regular commenter to the New York Times' columns wrote recently online, "you can see why the GOP has boxed itself right into a corner."

Finally, allow me to indulge in the poignant words of yet another reader's comment: "If I hear Boehner or that creep Cantor moan one more time about not putting a 'tax burden' on the wealthy who create all these wonderful jobs, I'll vomit." To which I would add that maybe, when all is said and done, THIS is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a vomit.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Infusing Hope Into the Dark Night of Our Species (2): The Annunciation

Following up on my previous blog referencing Andrew Harvey's book "The Hope," I want to recount the particular mystical experience that jolted Andrew's life-long journey as a spiritual seeker into a new realm of what he calls "sacred activism," and caused him to dedicate his life from then on to relieving the world's suffering. I believe it was an Annunciation of sorts that led him to his future role as a "sacred activist."

By his own account, a Divine intervention occurred in Andrew's life at the time when his father was dying in Coimbatore, India. In conversations they had at his deathbed, his father told him how he had come to see that the future of the world was in danger and that only a revolution of the heart, expressed in action, could transform the situation. "I hope to God we still have time," his father kept on saying.

While his father was dying, Andrew went to a local Catholic church nearby, on the feast day of Christ the King, where he heard the priest sermonizing about the power of the resurrected Jesus, whose fiery love no cruelty could deter or defeat. The priest informed the congregation that this was the model for what would resurrect the world from its suffering, poverty, despair, and apathy.

"After the priest finished talking and sat down," Andrew writes, "I looked up at the statue of the resurrected Christ at the end of the church. The only thing i can say about what happened next is that the statue became alive. For almost 15 minutes I saw the Christ in majestic, radiant golden light...It was both an ecstasy and an agony beyond anything I had ever known or even imagined." He goes on to describe how the fire streaming between his heart and the heart of the resurrected Christ felt like a knife plunging again and again into his heart--and that what was being revealed to him was the cosmic force of Divine Love and the potential divinity of all human beings who would allow themselves to be possessed and transformed by Divine Passion. This fire was what it will take for us to survive the coming ordeals and cataclysms, according to Andrew. "This was the fire in which a new world would be created out of the smoldering ashes of the old."

As he emerged from the church, Andrew saw an emaciated man with no arms or legs, "planted in a filthy puddle." Thinking he saw the re-embodied Christ in this figure crucified by suffering and poverty, he ran towards him to offer help. It was then that he heard a voice, which seemed to come from inside him, speak. It began by upbraiding him for his selfish spiritual ways-- exploiting mystical teachings for his own personal pleasure and career, when what he needed to be doing instead was devoting all of his actions and resources to ending the horror everywhere around him.

"The world," the voice said, "is burning to death in the fires of greed and ignorance. All of animal and human life is now threatened. This being you see before you is one of billions in anguish. See behind him and around him the burning forests, the polluted seas, the vanishing tigers and polar bears. The Divine is being crucified again and again by a humanity obsessed with its own needs and driven dominate and control and exploit everything."

At that point, I couldn't help thinking of the Republican blowhards sitting in the West Wing, even as I wrote this, and playing Russian roulette with the debt ceiling, their pretzel brains working overtime to corner and defeat the President politically under the camouflage of claiming to want to reduce the budget deficit. (Despite their current posturing, Republicans voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling during George W. Bush's administration, even while Bush was busy doubling the national debt.) Then, quite unexpectedly, I had my own epiphany. Teleported straight into the White House, I crashed one of these meetings, ongoing exercises in Republican futility. I looked hard at Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and Mtich McConnell--who, whenever a bipartisan agreement is within reach, turn on their heels and leave the president holding the bag--and I read out loud to them the final comments spoken to Andrew by his mystical voice:

"Everything you are and everything you do from this moment on must help human beings awaken to their inner divinity and to its responsibilities of urgent sacred action. The only questions you will be asked when you cross over the waters of death are 'What did you do while the world was burning? How did you work to heal the horror of a world on fire? What did you love enough to risk and give your life for?' Nothing else will matter. Understand this now."

The voice then advised Andrew to turn away from everything he had been and done and believed, and to dive into the furnace of a Divine Love that embraces all beings. It demanded that he give his whole life to spread and embody the message of its passion to the world. The only hope, both for him and for humanity, is to take up the challenge of the Divine and put the fire of Divine Compassion into radical action in every arena of the world."

Would it have any effect, make any difference? Probably not with these guys. By his own account, the call to action dramatized by the "voice" terrified even Andrew. "It left me nowhere to turn and no self-justification to cling to. I felt vulnerable, naked, broken, and exposed, a fraud and fool, absolutely inadequate to what was being asked of me, afraid of what the voice was revealing about the world," he writes.

I found myself wondering if anything--or anyone--could ever make men like Cantor, Boehner, or McConnell feel vulnerable, naked, broken or exposed--much less a fraud or a fool.

"If I," Andrew continues, "who had pursued spiritual truth for 20 years, could be so resistant to a vision I knew came directly from the Divine, how would others...even begin to receive the message, let alone act upon it?" The question cannot be improved upon, and it begs answering. Annunciations, it must be said, are all-encompassing. Once they strike, you cannot really avoid their imperative. You can recoil, but you cannot really refuse them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Infusing Hope Into the Dark Night of Our Species

When he was 41, Andrew Harvey met Father Bede Griffith, a renowned mystic and teacher living in India, who was 85 years old at the time. Harvey, a serious seeker, mystic, and teacher himself [check out his particulars on Amazon or at www.andrewharvey,org] spent 10 days at Griffith's ashram, taping interviews with the Master for a friend's documentary film. One of the first things Father Bede said to him was "You know, Andrew, don't you, that we are now living in the 'Hour of God'?" Andrew asked him to explain what he meant by the 'Hour of God'."

"I mean that humanity has come to the moment when it will have to choose between trying to play God, with the catastrophic results we see all around us, and trying to become what all the true mystical traditions know we can become--one with God through grace in life. This is a dangerous yet wonderful and hopeful moment because if enough of us can choose the latter, the birth of a wholly new kind of human being, and so of a new world, is possible."

This is where I always have my fatal stumble with spirituality today: its presumption of a new kind of human being and a new world that will miraculously unfold after humanity has traversed a near-deathlike dark night of the soul. Standing lonesome watch as I do when I often feel like I am live-blogging the end of the world, what I see is one unforgiving catastrophe unfolding after another. It seems relentless. (Check out the new oil spill currently polluting the Yellowstone River.) From these circumstances, the leap into envisioning "a new kind of human being and a new world" frankly eludes me. I feel only dread at what awaits the human race.

Reading Andrew's book "The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism" this summer, however, is helping me to pass, like a fitful camel, through the eye of that needle. The words he writes and the stories he tells have made me feel less alone in my heartbreak. This is because Andrew minces no words when he describes the depths of his own dread and despair, and how difficult it has been to confront them. "How could any half-conscious human being NOT feel dread at the enormous suffering that is erupting all over the world?" The extremity of it is overwhelming.

"Dread," Andrew writes, "is the most paralyzing of all human of all human emotions and the one I, and everyone else I know, will do almost anything to avoid. Facing the depth of my dread has threatened me, at times, with hopelessness. What I have found, however, is that acknowledging my dread and treating it not as a weakness to be repressed at all costs, but as an inevitable response to real circumstances, has helped me start to heal it."

Personal disclosure: I haven't read too many people willing to be that unflinchingly frank, and so I clutch onto this book as I would to a life raft. I relish the company of someone who writes the way I would like to write, who thinks the way I would like to think, and when I read him, I know myself a little better. Harvey asks questions the way no one else would: "How exactly do we acquire a 'lover's heart" [he is paraphrasing Rumi here] that stays 'a rose garden' however 'choked with thorns' our circumstances become?" I feel a little less lost in emotional Siberia when I read him.

It was Harvey's own "radical descent" into a fierce and angry disillusionment with humanity, he claims, that ultimately saved him. To experience this disillusionment, he now believes, is to face without denial the reality of the evil that we as a race have done to ourselves, to the animals, and to Nature. He catalogues the list of evils we have perpetrated thusly: brutal wars, genocides, the systematic rape of Nature, the creation of a free-for-all financial system that makes an elite few obscenely rich while billions of people live in terrible degradation--with the result that humanity is now in danger of losing its conscience and soul just when it needs them most. In the end, Harvey is convinced that only by "weathering the storms of grief and heartbreak and the hopelessness of a long, hard look at our crisis, the state of humanity, and the state of my own character" was he able to alchemically transmute the hopelessness and the heartbreak into an infusion of more illuminating energy.

For me, the lesson learned here--and there will be more of them to recount as I make my way through this remarkable book--is that hope is not some giddy, feel-good, Oprah Winfrey thing meant to spackle over your despair and keep you comfy while you go on about your daily business. Given where the planet is at this point, hope must be earned, by walking on the hot coals of a crisis-ridden world and running the gauntlet of a sickening chagrin and dismay. Only then can an authentic and embodied hope bloom into place and become a realistic possibility. Any hope, according to Andrew, that "glosses over the reality of evil or does not respect its power will not be of any use." And so, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. [To be continued.]

The illustration above was sent to me by my friend Jane Vance, who says it is the torso of a poor village Indian who saves and befriends animals, a detail from a painting-in-progress called "What Light Does to Fish."