Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Data Deluge Revisited: Junk Mail Fall 2018

Before I left, I tried to unsubscribe from all the commercial operations and Worthy Causes I could. Honest. Anyway—
I was on the road and had my mail held 28 September to 18 October, except I got a stuffed mailbox today, 17 October, with, I assume the rest to be delivered tomorrow. The physical mail came in at 2.2 kg, nearly 5 pounds, almost all mass mailings. Some 520 e-mails were automatically filed under Junk, with 374 getting to my In-Box. A number in my In-Box are items I actually want, and I just learned that somewhere in there is a note from a neighbor on the death of her dog, which I really wish I'd seen before I talked to her since she assumed I'd received it. (I don't have e-mail forwarded to my iPhone — for obvious reasons.)
My vote-by-mail ballots may also be in the USPS pile. 
Almost all of the mail parallels TV commercials, ads, pop-ups, blow-ins, marketing, etc.: commercial, political, religious, and charitable appeals for our money, vote, and/or time. A fair amount of the e-mail comes mediated by a firm with the chilling name "Constant Contact," which suggests to me two bratty children in the back seat of a car on a long trip ... "touching, touching, touching" ... and in "constant contact" by voice and occasional seat kicking with the parental units in the front seats. 
So: my votes will follow the advice of my Party leaders (mostly), and I will try to keep my money local: where I can hand over a check and not get my name on more metastasizing contact lists of potential donors. And buy stuff without the same — very much the same — sort of commodification of data on me.
It's a high-class problem to have, being in a position to be asked for one's vote, time, service, support, and money, but if one does not want interminable if not quite constant contact by strangers — or even loved ones! — it is a problem. 
In some worthy national organizations, I've bought life memberships and may send them a few bucks now and then even though I bought what they called a LIFE Membership (they don't replay if you ask how much it'd cost for them to never hit you up again). And I'll continue to give to national and international organizations I know and respect and feel pretty sure have already sold my contact information to anyone likely to buy it. For the rest, "I'm keeping my money local, and mostly political." 
And giving more. But not as generously as it might look, since I'm trying not to encourage the politics and commerce of invasiveness and Mass (the military principle): which means I'm deleting almost all of the electronic mass mailings and throwing into the recycling bin almost all of the junk-class mail. (Almost certain to be trashed: hit letters from candidates who don't tell me their party affiliation or what the hell they're running for. Like, *no one* runs for just the Congress of the United States. What's the State and district? — since I know who my representative is and already contribute to her campaign.)
________________________________________________
Follow-Up to DEFINING 'OVERWHELMED'"
As scheduled, I received today (18 October 2018) my held mail. It included my Visa bill, Medicare materials, and voting materials for the 2018 midterm election in California and for my Home Owners Association (or "Owners'", for fans of the apostrophe).
The mail hold of some 17 days produced junk mail weighing in at 5.5 kg (~ 12 pounds), in addition to what had been stuffed into my mailbox and reported earlier. It included straight-out commercial materials, plus religious, political, and charitable. No one group was responsible for spamming my physical and electronic mailboxes; the mild harm and figurative pain in my ass was the result of only slightly coordinated group action. (If you know the rabbinic parable, cf. the people of The Wicked City each stealing one brick from the building site for the home of a family they enticed to move there. If you don't, just elaborate on that premise a bit.)
So, again, this is a high-class problem for me, but it will be a problem to worthy causes and for control of waste paper if other curmudgeons just say "Screw it" and start deleting e-mail en masse and throwing out hit letters unopened. 
BTW: I use metric primarily for courtesy and because the scale I set to metric is the one that does arithmetic. Also: The US wrong turn started for me — symbolically — when Ronald Reagan took the solar panels off the White House and abolished the United States Metric Board.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Sentiment and, and vs. Morality: In Praise of the Triage Nurse

WORKING




            If you have to have your dissertation topic “anticipated,” it’s nice if it’s done by a really classic old essay; maybe not so nice if it’s anticipated rather casually as a kind of side-chapter in a book in, mostly, another field. In any event, my original topic for a dissertation in English was on “The Fool in King Lear,” which is more or less the title of a chapter in a classic work on Fools generally, by the major scholar, Enid Welsfordin 1935.

            Still, the Fool in Lear remained the heart of my dissertation, and the upshot of my reading of Lear was that it’s a rigorously, almost militantly logical play coming to the sentimental conclusion that human morality and ethics rest in compassion, in suffering — if necessary — with other people, in learning to see the world “feelingly.” 

            So I argued in 1970-71, so I still believe about King Lear and about the real world. If God is dead or never existed or doesn’t get involved much in human affairs; or if God is a hard-ass Christian God who’ll damn you to eternal Hell for getting your theology wrong — and definitely if you're a heathen like all the people in the play — or a Calvinist God who’ll save or damn you as He damn well pleases. Or if “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.They kill us for their sport”. If Nature is not a compassionate Mother Goddess but indifferent, or favoring as fittest the strongest and most cruel; if social ranks and law and rules and customs, if respect for old age and condemnation of cruelty are just human conventions and unreliable — If the world is pretty much as a naturalistic, materialistic, thoroughly modern vision sees it; then pity exists if people feel it; morality, too, exists only if its restraints are felt.

            That’s not very respectable philosophy — it’s “Intuitionism” or something equally disreputable — but that sort of stress on feeling (with) is one logical reaction if you want to drop a moral God and maintain a modern but moral approach to life. It’s a position, though, that nowadays, must be balanced.

            The first Age of Sentiment in the West was roughly 18thcentury, between the Enlightenment and the Romantics; we live in a second one. «Trust your feelings, Luke» does not actually occur in the STAR WARS saga, at least not that I can find on line, but it’s a good statement of the “ethos” of the movies, and of our era.

            I’m suspicious of the idea, starting with me and some of my feelings but going on to more general and ultimately appalling possibilities: “The devout,” Eric Hoffer asserted in 1951, “are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. […]Rudolph Hess, when swearing in the entire Nazi party in 1934, exhorted his hearers: ‘Do not seek Adolph Hitler with your brains; all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts’” (The True Believer §57). And closer to home and far less sensationally, Barry Goldwater campaigned in 1964 on the slogan "In your heart, you know he's right" — and Goldwater scared me enough that I worked on the local campaign for Lyndon Johnson, a man I didn’t really trust. 
 (Take away his crudeness, and you can get a tragic figure out of LBJ: serial mass murder can go with a tragedy — Macbeth — but not, the folklore has it, humiliating high-ranking underlings by making them confer with him while he took a shit, or showing his penis and asking if Ho Chi Minh had a dick like that.)

            Now an emergency-room nurse once told me to fill out a form when I was in there for what turned out to be bilateral corneal abrasion — the top layer of cells ripped off of my corneas by my contact lenses — and couldn’t open my eyes without severe pain (the cops had given me a lift to the hospital); so I know this can go too far. Still, my most-excellent introduction to an ethical imperative to suppress feelings was when I regularly stopped by the emergency room at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago.

            In college, I was a summer worker at Reese in the Microbiology Department, and being low-person in seniority I got the job of walking a route in the hospital first thing in the morning and collecting blood-agar plates from various other departments, including my first stop, the ER.

            There had to be some exceptions, but there was remarkable consistency: Every Monday, there’d be a trail of blood leading to the ER, and most days there was a cop car in front. And I’d walk in, and wait while the receptionist-nurse talked to a couple of parents trying to suppress hysteria and getting “Father’s Name / Mother’s Name / Address …” and with barely looking up and not missing a beat motioning with her head at the keys hung behind her. I’d get the keys and unlock the small refrigerator where they kept the narcotics and the petri dishes, and I’d pick up whatever needed to be picked up and drop off new plates as needed.

            And I’d go out, and replace the keys, with the receptionist still not missing any beats, watching me to be sure I replaced the keys and hadn't stolen any narcotics, and nodding at me her thanks. 

            She did that every day, and the folklore was that ER nurses got terminally bored with just about every other job at the hospital. Anyway, I got to watch the receptionist carefully and every day got glimpses of the work of the rest of the staff and later in life learned more.

            In I and Thou, Martin Buber celebrates the “encounter” and the I-You relationship; but our usual interaction with the world and our fellow beings is I-It. And part of my take-away from the book is that it is the potential for an I-Thou relationship that is crucial and not to get too hung up if most of my interactions with people are just, well, interactions, transactional. Later this got clarified when my relationship with bank clerks got usually replaced by my relationship with ATMs. Earlier, and relevant here, was coming to understand that for the ER personnel especially, but many medical people, the I-Thou potential was indeed crucial, but more immediately important was the ability to tamp down feeling and deal with injured people, often people in great distress, dispassionately: I-It. 

            This is very clear with the Triage nurse and what we can call “Triage situations” — which you should do your best to avoid and to try to prevent. However, in a Triage situation, there’s an ethical imperative to perform Triage: roughly, to establish priorities of treatment by dividing the incoming wounded, injured or whatever into those likely to die no matter what care they receive; those likely to live even if not treated or barely treated; and “Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome” (to lift a phrase from the linked Wikipedia article). If resources are limited, this is definitely not “Women and children first” or any other sentimental association: a strong man who might live with treatment gets preference over a child whose injuries could break your heart, but are going to be soon fatal. If you’ve got morphine or something more modern, you shoot the kid up and move on.

            A “Triage situation” burned into my memory just reading a report years ago concerned a UNESCO or similar group responding to a famine and having to deal with a starving village. The relief workers were doing “Women and children first” until the young men of the village confronted them and told them to give the food to them and to young women: they’d make more babies later. Some self-preservation was involved here for the relief workers (many of the young men were armed), but they decided to give the food to the strongest of the young and to the strongest of the skilled elders and village leaders. In that desperate situation, the best they could do was to save the village as a functioning social unit, and the young children could indeed be replaced. 

            As I said, Lesson One: Try to prevent “Triage situations.” When in one, however, the ethical duty is to choose the least evil and maybe least downright horrific choice, while recognizing that choosing the lesser of two or least of several evils is still evil — and that failure to choose or refusal to choose is also a choice.

            And in such extreme contexts, «Trust your feelings, Luke» or «Following your heart» could lead to terrible, immoral choices.

            Sometimes also in less extreme situations. 

            I’m confident if you’ve gotten this far in the blog, you’re way ahead of me on this: The ideal, maybe of course, is someone like the character Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear, who is compassionate and strong and rational for as long as reason can work. 

            On the way to such an ideal, though, we need to first keep in mind that King Lear is a play, make-believe, and relevant for my point here reconsider the soft spot in the American heart and head for the person of correct feelings.

            So look, when a great politician like Bill Clinton says, “I feel your pain,” tell him, thanks for the effort, but if you felt all of our pain it would destroy you, and that now that he’s considered our pain enough to throw out a properly sensitive comment what does he intend to do for us? 

            Or consider this thought experiment on sensitivity and feelings’ variation: attitudes. Politician Boll Weevil tells you that he don’t (sic) much like Colored folk, but his family owned a number and he and the rest of White America have inherited wealth stolen from slaves. “Guilt ain’t inherited,” he says, “but the loot is; and we who are recipients of stolen goods have to discuss how we’re going to make restitution.” He doesn’t much like African-Americans, but he wants to discuss what would be the most rational and ethical way to do the honorable thing and pay reparations. Politician Tear Duct — and as a male writer I’ll make both my stereotypes male — politician Tear Duct just loves members of the African Diaspora, and loves and likes and respects them/you so much he won’t insult you with re-establishing condescending, dependent, subordinate, subaltern relationships … and no way is he going to discuss reparations.

            Most of us have problems dealing with snobs who dislike us, but if Boll Weevil’s sense of family and national — hell, even racial — honor gets him to start negotiating reparations, support him and vote for him even if he’s not feeling your pain and has no intention of having a beer with you, ever. 

            Boll Weevil is not trusting his feelings, and if you dislike him, feel that, treasure your dislike, and deal with him if, when, and as long as it’s to your advantage to do so.

            Ursula K. Le Guin has a political saying on a planet nicknamed Winter that would translate into our terms as “You don’t have to be lovers to haul a sled together.” And sometimes you — I, we — can form effective coalitions with people you dislike and who may really dislike you. 

            So have feelings, Luke, and consider them and be capable of caring relationships. Be compassionate and sensitive. But get into the habit of critical thinking and hard-headed, sometimes hard-hearted ethics. That paradoxical injunction by the Prophet Micah (6.8) — that ethical parallel to the paradox of “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!”: it’s like that. “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly”: combine logic with compassion and have the humility to understand that you’re dealing with contradictions much of the time, and there’s really no right answer here.

            But in our time, another age of passion, let’s stress that reason and logic. 

Vic and Jerry and “Frat Boys Need Not Apply”


            Vic and I were the political equivalent of what one of my fraternity brothers had years before called “bundling-board buddies”: associates on the anti-War Left in the late 1960s and 1970 at the U of Illinois (Urbana) and that far “in bed together,” but/so we would not fuck each other (over), but neither would we act out any love. 

            At best, Vic and I were polite to each other, so it’s unlikely I arranged for him to speak at the fraternity where I was an alumni brother, but appropriate for me to be there to hear his pitch. Anyway, speak Vic did, and very well, and his argument against US fighting in Vietnam was cogent enough that he got some volunteers for “The Movement” and an indication that the chapter as a unit would support resistance to the War.

            And then he got a kind of question from one of the house officers, the immediate past president if I remember right: Jerry. Jerry told how after a fairly formal appointment he’d gone over to an ad hoc Movement HQ to volunteer. “And I was wearing my blazer and slacks from the meeting I’d been at”; and he’d been sent off with some sneers about the Movement not wanting his type. And Jerry politely asked what I’ll crudely put, «What the fuck was that about?!» And Vic chuckled and said, more or less “Hey, we’ve got prejudiced people on the Left same as everywhere else,” people who’d judge others by their clothes and living arrangements — and Jerry should go over again and tell them he was going to resist the War and they should just tell him what work he could do.

            Vic was smart and an effective politician, and Jerry in his own way was a good organizer and would help the cause. 

            One other guy from the house was ex-Marine ROTC  (there is such a thing), who helped me with “marshalling” at a couple peace marches and provided the backup muscle to stop our possibly Government-Issued Anarchist and Potential Provocateur from starting a fight with the Champaign-Urbana contingent of the FBI and other armed and nervous agents of Law’n’Order. Another house officer — the current president, I believe — provided one of the great images from the Student Strike of 1970 on the U of I Urbana Campus. He marched around the very large Engineering Quadrangle, alone, with a picket sign proclaiming, “ENGINEERING SCHOOL ON STRIKE!” 

            There weren’t many, but my former fraternity chapter was one of the “radical houses” among the U of I Greeks, and a high point of the strike was when Pan Hellenic endorsed it, and the president thereof, from a balcony of the Illini Union announced to the crowd below, with a slight pause, that “Illinois student aren’t going to stand for this … shit anymore!” (quoting from memory).

            Times change, and student cultures change; but there were “radical houses” during The Troubles of 1970 or so at the University of Illinois, and there is nothing intrinsic in fraternities or sororities to prevent that, although most of the fraternities were conservative, and at Cornell about that time one could see at least one militantly conservative fraternity in action on racial issues. 

            The key variable we noted at the U of I (Urbana) at that time was less living unit than age: older students tended to be more militant. Part of that was being closer to graduation and the draft for guys and for women with bothers and friends and lovers who could be drafted. Part was just being older and knowing more: most 18-year-olds probably should be pretty conservative until they know enough to be knowledgeable activists. Anyway, the leadership and hard-core of the activists tended to be older students: juniors and seniors and graduate students.

            “Effective politics is coalition politics,” and for the US Left ca. 2018 this means, I think, mostly getting the secular and religious Left together. On a much lower level of importance, though, is getting across the general principle of excluding no one unnecessarily. If people on the Left can look at the Right and think, “Goll dang and thank God, those guys can act dumb with their bigotry: they’re missing out on a lot of conservative Blacks and Latinos!” — and other groups. Even so, the academic Left may be missing out on a few or more “Jerrys” in just dismissing “frat boys.” 

            The correct terms I believe are still “frat rats” and “dorm rats” (cf. “gym rats” and “lab rats”); and the rule is still to take recruits where you find them, wherever they live. 

            If you believe fraternities are essentially pernicious, okay, work against fraternities. But they’ll be around for a while, and it might be better to work against bad behavior and systemic problems, without snarky and lazy personal attacks like casual use of “frat boy.” 

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Dog at Reese


            I told this story repeatedly — possibly obsessively — for years. I needed to shape it into art. Not necessarily good art, but art: a story, a narrative, a made thing outside of myself, outside of me, something I could then deal with as part of my Self.

            Apparently, though, I never wrote it up or put it on my computer or on line.

            I will now.

            For sure it was in the summer, probably of 1963 or 1964, and I was in my late teens. And for sure I was working a summer job in the Gastro-Intestinal Research Lab at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center (“Reese,” now out of business). My official title was “Student,” and I was there, primarily, in theory, to work on a project to determine, “Would it be feasible to utilize strips of rat gut for the in vitro determination of the effects on stomach motility of various pharmaceuticals?” The answer was “No,” and my final report consisted of my writing out the question on a 3x5 or 4x6 notecard and gently telling my employers that if they’d done sufficient library research before assigning me the project they’d have known it’d been tried and never gotten to work — but guinea pig uterus would work. 

            Anyway, I had more time for the “Student” aspect of the job, which was primarily “To ask stupid questions.” I’d been represented to the precursors of a Human Resources department as someone who’d been trained in microbiology — which was true — but my boss knew I had switched over to a major in English. What he wanted was a young person from outside gastroenterology who’d ask intelligent but na├»ve questions and make him explain what they were doing. For thatI was definitely, and sometimes embarrassingly, qualified. 

            I also found a lot of time to read — much of research in the life sciences is waiting for timers to run out — and I helped doing whatever needed to be done.

            One morning what needed to be done included killing a dog who’d been the victim of an operation that went wrong. 

            I don’t know what the experiment was, but it involved a large incision in the dog’s rib cage, one that couldn’t be just sewn up. It had to be wired closed, and the wire had gotten kinked, which weakened it, which … — well, which resulted in the dog lying in our courtyard area with its ribcage open and in extreme distress.

            It was only years later that I learned the euphemism “put down” — one euphemism I approve of — and my memory is that I was asked to help kill the dog. Anyway, the more senior lab tech prepared the lethal injection, which consisted of a palm-full of Nembutal (pentobarbital) put into a large syringe and then adding water; and I went out into the courtyard, squatted down, and “popped the vein” on the dog’s left front leg. 

            And the other guy came out, injected the dog with enough barbiturate to quite literally kill a horse — and the dog didn’t die.

            Background 1: On the wall in each room of our lab was the code of ethics for dealing with experimental (nonhuman) animals, which stated that no animal was to be made or allowed to suffer more than or longer than necessary for the experiment.

            Background 2: Someone had put the wrong barbiturate in the Nembutal bottle. I don’t know what it was, but obviously it was something weaker, or maybe not a barbiturate at all.

            Background 3: For P.E. the preceding semester, I’d taken Personal Defense. I’m small and hardly excelled in the course, but one thing I was good at was what was called “the Japanese choke hold,” which undoubtedly has another name nowadays since the “Japanese” part may’ve been racist, and anyway it’s now the name of something pornographic (I didn’t click on the links that came up on a Google search). 

            Background 4: I grew up with dogs and very much like dogs and bond with dogs.

So I’m there still squatted down holding the leg of a dog trying desperately to breathe, and two thoughts go through my head simultaneously (although I must narrate them one after the other). I was an English major, already specializing in mostly-early drama, so I experienced this as a kind of Morality Play with the relatively good angel on one shoulder saying, so to speak — none of this was exactly in words — You canbreak this dog’s neck quickly and cleanly; therefore it is your duty to do so. And I started to straighten up — and then there was a very archaic voice saying, Yes. You’ve killed with a needle, but what does it feel like to kill with your hands?

            And about half-way up — I’m sure of this because my knees ached for the next few days — half-way up I froze and went into a kind of a fugue with the line from Murder in the Cathedral going through my mind, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / 
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

            Eventually — I have no idea how long — the other lab tech came out with a different syringe, shook me, and we “put down” — killed — the dog.

            Two things.

            First, I understand better than most people that line in Murder in the Cathedraland what it means in the context of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama about martyrdom and what it can mean in a situation like mine with The Dog at Reese. This is good because it puts me in a strong position to say that in most other contexts, certainly most political contexts, Eliot’s line is beautifully-written bullshit. Far better generally is the idea in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together […].” People’s motivations are complex, and with most people, most of the time, if they’re doing the right thing, just accept that, sometimes with gratitude. 

            Second, however flawed and outdated Carl Jung’s analytical psychology may be, he’s on to something with the concept of the Shadow. I’ve met mine. And I have tried to make him mine: a part of me that on at least one occasion took charge to do a good deed. It was not a great good deed, but it was good and it was done by me, including the Shadow-me, using the strength of that archaic, dark voice. 

            And that’s pretty much it. That’s the story and most of what I’ve learned from it. 

Other results …? Well, for ecological and ethical reasons, in part, I don’t eat mammal meat; but also because of that dog and other dogs and — unmentioned by the Shadow-voice — the rats I killed to get the gut to make the strips to answer the question of my unnecessary project. (Although it would have saved the lives of many rats and guinea pigs if one rat gut could make many strips to test “various pharmaceuticals.”) Also, it helped radicalize me as they used to say in the late 1960s, although I didn’t see my position as all that radical. It was just, “Don’t kill complex organisms — humans especially (although that may be just sentimental) — unless you really, really have to.” Not, say, out of pride or greed or wrath or gluttony — for four of the old Seven Deadly Sins— or nationalist fervor or only following orders or because some part of you is sincerely, deadly curious, “What is it like to kill with your hands?”

            Well, and I — basically a good human being, as humans go — remember and appreciate the upshot of a great line from a so-so play, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together […].”

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Like Lives, Words Matter (And — in non-Racial Contexts — Some More than Others)



In our local newspaper, The Ventura County Star for 18 September 2018, there was what turned out to be a nice letter to the editor calling for people to help other people, with the title (possibly requested by the letter-writer) and final line "All Life Matters."

There's a problem with that line other than its subtext if applied to the US politics of race.

A snarky but important comment goes, "Don't say 'All life is sacred' while eating a hamburger," to which I add "Or a carrot." The great mass of life on Earth, the dominant forms of life through the history of life on this planet have been microbial: what are currently called archaea and bacteria; and if bacterial life is sacred, in the time I worked in microbiology labs, I was a mass murderer.

I don't feel guilty about the billions of bacteria I killed; I do feel some guilt about the rats, dogs, and other mammals I killed, and that is one of the reasons I don't eat mammal meat.

Even if you're a scrupulous practitioner of Jainism or a rigorous Vegan, your immune system kills other organisms, and most of us squash cockroaches, spray mosquitoes, spritz disinfectants, gargle mouth wash that "kills bacteria on contact," and eat organisms more closely related to us than insects and bugs, and/or, with octopuses, arguably of high intelligence (squid I guess I can eat).

When people say "life is sacred" they usually mean to say "human life is sacred," and they really do need to go to the trouble to add the two syllables of "human" or prepare to argue for a definition of "life" that excludes so much that is clearly alive. And they might do better to make that, "Human life is sacred, and all life should be respected, even when we kill." (Peoples who ask an animal’s forgiveness before killing, or recite a blessing implying that even culturally permitted or valued killing is in some way problematic and needs sanction — may be on to something.)

Words matter, and some more than others. To use some key words and say that "There’s a death in every abortion" is correct. There’s also a death with every hamburger you prepare or carrot pulled from the ground and eaten. The question is what’s being killed and from there its or his or her ethical status and from there the status of that organism under the law. "Abortion is murder," always and necessarily, if, but only if, we’re dealing with human beings from the zygote (fertilized egg) through the stages of a developing embryo to a fetus and then on to a human being with "the breath of life." Personally, I have trouble seeing a single-cell organism as human or even a ball of human cells; potentially human, yes, and a human individual — with "monozygotic siblings" (so-called identical twins and triplets and all) as a limiting case on individual, but not a contradiction. ("Identical" twins aren’t literally identical.)

It may turn out that on abortion and related issues we American would do best to remain vague and contradictory and muddle through with muddled reasoning. Maybe. That hasn’t worked too well so far, though at least we haven’t gotten resorted to heavy weaponry yet. We might try clarity. 

Words matter, and some matter a great deal: "human being"/"person under the law," life are among those that matter a lot. In America, we fought a Civil War to recognize that Black people are fully human and as much as anyone full citizens under the law.





Monday, September 10, 2018

Kol Nidre and the Constitution: 5779/2018

I don't often commit acts of poetry, and the last time I inflicted a poem on the public was 1987, with a relapse in 2016, republishing the poem in a blog. On these rare occasions, though, something in my head has something to say, some concern to work through, which the prose part of my thinking can't handle. 

The occasion of this occasion was my thinking about upcoming Kol Nidre (the start of Yom Kippur, 18 September 2018) and thinking of an oath I'd taken at least twice, and maybe several times: possibly for Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), definitely, and in writing, to teach in the U.S. States of Illinois and Ohio. The people administering the oath (or affirmation — this is America, after all, and one cannot be forced to swear an oath) — the people administering the oath weren't all that serious, but I take my word very seriously. And I wondered if in old age, I'd finally be challenged to keep my word. 




We would've kept it for the tune, 
Or that's what many think, or guess
And the memory — 
Remembering is big this time of year —
Memories of hidden Jews in places made less judenrein than
The early purifiers sought and thought.

The lyrics of Kol Nidre though, the words as meaning
With all the charm of a car-rental contract,
And in need of a note
That only vows to God, by God get voided
Yom Kippur or ever.

Those made I to you and we to us,
Those vows to humans hold.

All our oaths and affirmations,
Promises we make to one another … 

And to the Republic?
The one of the ideal, the Republic of the Promise, 
The Constitution of the Dream?
Are we still sworn to that?
Sworn to preserve, affirming we'll protect,
Still dedicated to defend,
A Republic ours if we can keep it,
Ours only if we can keep it?

Defending against all enemies — 
Did I swear that part?
ROTC — registration freshman year, 
Getting Army shoes, and that great greatcoat
We wore against regs on rainy days —
And at one station on the line did we swear
(Or affirm) defense
Against all enemies, foreign
And domestic.

Did we all (there or elsewhere, other whens) swear, affirm, and 
Vow kol nidre,all our vows —
All of us who talk of "rule of law" and decency and 
Putting all that is our selves against the latest enemies,
Foreign and domestic?

And is now the time of testing?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Democracy, Republic, Trump and the Twenty-Fifth

Miami University (the one in Ohio) once had a rule worded that professors could be stripped of tenure for cause if their performance significantly deteriorated. One or two of us wise-asses asked if a sufficient defense would be, "Hey — what deterioration?! I was incompetent when you hired me."

I've been thinking about that joke when I hear assertions that it would be a denial of American democracy to invoke the 25th Amendment (section 4) to make President Donald Trump step down until he ... let's say "got better" because the sovereign American People knew what they were getting when they elected him. 

Ya gotta love that "democracy" appeal when talking about the Electoral College, a specifically undemocratic part of our "mixt Constitution" as originally written and still not screamingly democratic when candidates with fewer popular votes get more electoral votes and become president.

I'll defer to PoliSci and history folk on this topic, but my memory from high school civics class and my youth is that that United States is a Republic, not a democracy, and democratic aspirations on the Left are often for liberal democracy, where the sovereign will of the People as indicated by a majority or "power majority" is thwarted when that temporary "power" or actual majority are messing over minorities. 

Also, "majority decision" ≠ "majority rule," and the capital "R" Republicans have been practicing much too much majority rule, where a temporary majority does what it wants, without much concern for the desires of the minority party, or minorities more generally. Athens was much more democratic than the USA, and after its fashion so was Sparta — if, but only if, you were "Athenian, male, of age, and free" or Spartan born, not a helot-slave or resident alien (and if Spartan women were better off than in most Greek cities, that's a low bar). Well, and Sparta was a kind of democracy if you didn't mind spending most of your life as a Spartan damn it, a soldier under military discipline, or a female popping out and initially raising Spartans for military duty. (Plus that the inspiration to young Spartan males going off to battle with Mom's loving words for her precious boy, "Come back with your shield — or on it," i.e., honorably alive or honorably dead.)

But yet again I digress.

Donald Trump after his fashion and that of a big part of the 20th century, could claim (had he the wit and education) to be an ultimate democrat: the Leader embodying the will of the Nation, with the sovereign Nation performing that will though him without those republican checks and balances, i.e., without restraints. And the real American Nation is like that of Athens or Sparta or the real nations as they now imagine themselves as always having been (screw the messy facts of history): a single people based in "blood and soil," descent and race and religious faith and no outsiders allowed in to "sap and impurify" the Body Politic.  

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There's a legend that Ben Franklin walked out of the close of the Constitutional Convention to be accosted by a lady who asked, "Well, Dr. Franklin, what sort of government have you given us?" To which he replied, the legend concludes, "A republic, madam — if you can keep it." We have a Republic, with democratic aspirations I hope we keep liberal. If we can keep it.