Sunday, February 28, 2016

Conspiracies of the 1%: Vast and Deep and Old

Quotation of the Day:

In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can't, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society. They think up all sorts of tricks and dodges, first for keeping safe their ill-gotten gains, and then for exploiting the poor by buying their labour as cheaply as possible. Once the rich have decided that these tricks and dodges shall be officially recognized by society [...,] they acquire the force of law. Thus an unscrupulous minority is led by its insatiable greed to monopolize what would have been enough to supply the needs of the whole population.
The speaker here is Raphael Hythloday in Sir Thomas More's — St. Thomas More's, if you're Catholic — Utopia, published in Latin in 1516, here in the translation by Paul Turner in the Penguin edition of 1965.

Utopia has been available in English since 1551 and can be picked up cheaply on So English-reading grownups have no excuse not to know that there can be "a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests" without meetings of The Elders of Plutocracy or a whole lot of explicit plotting among "the 1%" and their minions and somewhat less obscenely rich associates. The superrich quietly play the game, after rigging it. In More's day the game was more open and, where visible, conspicuous: "privilege and the class system" constituted the ruling ideology. In our day, however, we have incessant media coverage of the lives of the less prudent rich, so we're back to no excuses.

Sir Thomas both was and was not modern here; for sure, Saint Thomas knew the competing and complementary teachings of the Latin Church, Radix malorum superbia est, and, as Chaucer's thoroughly corrupt but here doctrinally correct Pardoner puts it, "[...] my theme is yet, and ever was, / Radix malorum est Cupiditas. That is, the root of all evils is either Pride or Greed, or, frequently, a combination. Such an idea may be overstatement and oversimplification, but it's still legitimate and crucial. Pride and greed are constants, and they are threats in the hands of the powerful. Which is why, more often than it gets done, society needs to be shaken up and the "conspiracy of the rich," for a while, at least a bit, rolled back.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

US Presidential Elections 2016 (and True Believers Forming Up to March)

      If I had to justify the oxygen and other resources I've used the last 73-and-a-bit years on Earth, I suspect my best argument would be that I worked as a teacher for forty years and pretty regularly during those forty years taught Eric Hoffer's 1951 book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

      Now, in one of the more twisted ironies of US politics, Hoffer in the 1960s went on to become, possibly, something of a True Believer on his own, and certainly the in-house intellectual and lapdog for Lyndon Johnson for Johnson's part of US warfare in Vietnam — which is unfortunate primarily because too many Americans turn against literary and artistic works when it turns out that their creators are or have become bad (or horrible) people.

      Hoffer died in 1983, so you can be sure he's not getting any royalties on The True Believer, and it's often available on line as pdf's where it's fairly safe that his estate isn't making money either. So if you haven't read the book and have the skills and time to read blogs, stop reading my stuff and order it now (or download it at no financial cost). The True Believer offers a history and analysis of fanaticism, including a kind of checklist for how in many places on Earth we've been setting up the conditions for the sort of mass-movement fanaticism that resulted in the horrors Europe saw in the 16th- and 17th-century Wars of Religion, including the disastrous Thirty Years War of the 17th century (1618-1648) and larger portions of the planet saw in the 20th century from the followers of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and, a bit later, Mao.

      We have the potential for another round of violent conflicts among various Parties of God and/or truly exceptional nations, but this time in a world a-brimming with nukes.

      As of the end of February 2016, we have in the United States of America a candidate for President calling upon America to wake up and see how we've degenerated and follow him to a renewal of our greatness. For readers of my age and background, think of that as "Amerika Erwache!" Elect Donald John Trump as President and he will "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN".

      How? Wrong question. With the right leader, a leader who embodies the will of the nation, that leader will lead us to triumph over those keeping the nation down and lead us on to the greatness we had and will have again. Or lead some of us anyway: the true, natural-born Americans.

     We've seen this movie before in the Trump Leader-Principle version and in the religious versions of his main opponents. For a program of the show, so to speak, see Hoffer, The True Believer (1951), and don't say you weren't warned.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trump, Toughness, and Torture

      If it got down to a choice, I'd rather see Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President than Ted Cruz. About the last thing planet Earth needs nowadays is another "Party of God," especially one with a chance to control nuclear weapons. That is true in Pakistan, and that is true in the USA, and Ted Cruz could make the Republican Party the US Party of God in ways Donald Trump just can't.

     Still —

     Three or four decades back, I wrote letters for Amnesty International, including to one regime that tortured children in front of their parents in order to break the parents, a method that was probably effective. If Mr. Trump continues to say he'd use torture to protect the American people, he needs to be asked if he'd be willing to follow historical examples and, among other things, torture children if it would reduce their parents to a state where they could be manipulated into providing "actionable intelligence" that could save American lives — and maybe if he could quantify the question a bit and discuss how many American lives would have to be at stake before he'd torture children.

     The interrogation of Mr. Trump on the subject should also include questions on specifics from the rich history of torture and whether or not he'd use genital electroshock, the rack, holding people's feet to the fire — the expression comes from an actual torture — thumbscrews, or something more ingenious.

     It is the specifics that real journalists should be pressing Mr. Trump about — and "pressing" has its own nasty undertones — but there is also the more general ethical question of ends and means.

    One can assert "The end has justified the means" and argue that the results one has achieved has justified the means one has used. But to say, "The end will justify the means" is to make a statement of faith: it's a slippery short form for "Our goal, if and when we achieve it, will justify the means we have used." One can be far more certain of the means that one chooses to use than of any results.
     Other problems with "The end will justify the means" include that "end" means both "goal" and "results" and the results of one's actions can include a whole lot more than some straightforward goal: "unintended consequences," as the cliché has it. "End" also implies the end of something, when it's finished, and history doesn't work that way. History keeps rolling on, and the most significant consequences of an act may be not only unintended and unforeseen but unforeseeable, taking place in a distant future.

     Tough guys making tough pronouncements should be asked tough questions. If Mr. Trump thinks a reluctance to torture is part of the pussification of America, he should be asked how brave it is to torture a currently helpless person if it might reduce the risk to Americans. And that can be any person if I recall correctly and understood correctly: my recollection is that Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Eight Amendment to the US Bill of Rights forbids inflicting "cruel and unusual punishments" — but torture of someone convicted of nothing is clearly not a punishment, and, by implication, the more innocent of crime the less the torture would be a punishment.

      Which brings us back to regimes that torture children. Is Mr. Trump tough enough to order such torture — or just the fake killing of children as in a notable episode of the TV show 24 — if necessary to save American lives?

      More important, should Americans think ourselves tough and brave if we allow torture rather than risk terrorism? I wrote letters for Amnesty International and grew up on movies where "Ve haf vays of makink you talk" was the line of a particularly villainous Nazi, so for me the question is rhetorical. Brave people say, "Our means will justify our ends" and choose to do monstrous evil only when it is really, really, really necessary as the lesser of two or least of several evils. And brave and honest people never say that the evil they have chosen to do — however necessary — is something other than evil, and they never, ever praise their toughness for doing it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sometimes the Movie is Better than the Book: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813), and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

Omitted: The novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ("The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" 2009) by Jane Austen for the "Classic Regency Romance" and Seth Grahame-Smith for the rest, and its prequel and sequel by Steve Hockensmith.

            In the background for my writing here are, first, my experience as a Ph.D. candidate in early British literature, specializing in Shakespeare, and, second, a rail vacation in the US West during which I took a small step in filling some gaps in my education by reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (published 1814).

            At Cornell and the University of Illinois (Urbana) in the second half of the 1960s, part of the initiation into Shakespeare studies including reading a number of Shakespeare's sources, and with few exceptions the Elizabethan equivalent of "the movie" — Shakespeare's plays — are far better than "the book": Shakespeare's non-dramatic sources. Indeed, the only exceptions that come to mind are Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra barging down the Nile "upon the river of Cydnus" (Ant. 2.2.187-227 f.) and Shakespeare's character of Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III. Enobarbus's speech, "The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, / Burn'd on the water" is largely a versification of Plutarch's prose, and if it's artistically superior to Plutarch's lines — Shakespeare was very good at writing verse — Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans does have a millennium and a half of priority. And Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester/Richard III is better than the character in Shakespeare's sources in the Chronicles, but not in the parts from the 1513 History of King Richard the Thirde, probably written by Sir Thomas More. "All art is theft" in one way or another — a totally original work would be largely unintelligible — and Shakespeare appropriated and made his own the brilliant hatchet job of Tudor propaganda that produced the monstrous Richard the Thirde of the History. Shakespeare's Richard is a great villain, but Sir Thomas More, or an equally talented Tudor propagandist, was there first.
            There are other exceptions, I'm sure, but until someone argues cogently that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is nowhere as good as Arthur Brooke's much more developed and plausible poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) — I'll stick with my general preference for Shakespeare's plays.
            I'll also note, from this background in early BritLit the irony of the snobbery of assuming "the book is [always] better than the movie." In many cases "the book" is a novel, and it took a goodly while for "The acceptance of novels as literature": i.e., accepting novels as respectable literature, let alone some sort of epitome of narrative achievement.

            Coming from a background in Shakespeare, I had no problems with the mildly satirical comedy of manners of Pride and Prejudice featuring landed gentry who generally lack jobs (the essence of gentility lying in avoiding crassly productive labor, however much energy might be expended in military operations, scholarship, music, and/or needlework). What got to me on that long train ride was something that Vladimir Nabokov may have priority on spotting. In Mansfield Park, the plot requires getting the family patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram off-stage for a while, and as far as I could see it didn't matter where he was sent by the author off-stage to. Where Austen sends him to his plantation in Antigua, in the West Indies, the main source of Bertram family income. Austen mentions this, and then has the novel's protagonist, Fanny Price ask Sir Thomas about the slave trade, and then, with Sir Thomas's silence, pretty much drops the issue. And I hit the low ceiling of my roomette on the train. I hadn't read much about what should be called blood sugar, but I had a vague idea that Antigua in the West Indies would be like Barbados at least later, with a horrendous history of slavery.
            I later learned that this issue in Mansfield Park had been raised by Edward Said and others and recently saw it discussed elegantly by Diane Capitani (2002); and I saw the issue of slavery raised memorably and movingly in the 1999 Mansfield Park film, with script and direction by Patricia Rozema.
            Rozema can be faulted for imposing her agenda over Austen's in a film that profited from the fame of Austen's work: "The plot changes the moral message of Austen's novel, and makes the story a critique of slavery rather than a conservative critique of the 'modern,'" as the Wikipedia entry asserts. I will not engage in such "faulting," however, and assert instead that Rozema's Mansfield Park holds the ethical high ground over Austen's — and resolves an esthetic "crux" in the novel — and that far the film is better than the book.

            Pride and Prejudice and Zombies lacks the high seriousness of Rozema's Mansfield Park and, arguably on the plus side, Rozema's earnestness. Still, adding the zombies brings in — figuratively, indirectly — social concerns absent in the novel, and does so while giving more than fair warning that this Pride and Prejudice will differ in important ways from Austen's.
            And here I will need to bring in an idea that may seem strange to people not on fantasy and horror ListServs: that it is a cliché of horror analysis, but a true one, that "Zombies Verses [sic] Vampires" = "The Elite Verses [sic] the Masses." I.e., reliably since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), film zombies have been creatures moving in groups, threatening to over-run the living and associated with "mass man," a point made quite consciously and with sardonic humor in Romero's follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), where all-American zombies converge apocalyptically on a suburban shopping mall.
            Adding the zombies to Pride and Prejudice figuratively foregrounds, or at least (ahem) unearths concerns left in the background or relegated to subplots in most romantic comedies of the genteel and on up the figurative good chain to noble, royal, or generally aristocratic — or at least rich — elites. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't give zombies much of a voice (listen to Warm Bodies [2013] for that, or read the novel); still, it simultaneously gives the (ahem again) Wretched of the Earth presence on screen and presents questions of war and peace that are a loud silence in Austen's novel.
            Additionally, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies tells its story in 107 minutes, provides a good deal of gory fun, and presents female leads who both embody and send-up the macha, kick-ass female hero with things on her mind beyond finding a rich husband: however inevitable and oppressing the necessity of "marrying well" was with non-rich gentlefolk generally, and especially with those who could fall in status from lady to mere woman.

            All in all, if we must have another film of Pride and Prejudice, there's much to be said for the zombie version, especially — not really a SPOILER!!! here — especially given the fairly standard horror ending allowing that, after the credits roll, the zombies may complete their revolution and literally, as the joking slogan has it, Eat the Rich.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Marijuana (Yet Again): Drug Policy for American Drug Culture

            In a letter to the editor posted on line on Feb. 3 and later printed in the Ventura County Star, Al Knuth of Camarillo, CA, argues that marijuana is "Not a harmless drug" and notes that he has "personally witnessed the recreational use of marijuana destroy the lives of some relatives, friends and others [… through] divorce, loss of jobs, loss of friends, loss of ambition, criminal acts, etc." and adds, "the use of alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths and more than $224 billion in damages per year in the United States," finally asking rhetorically, "Do we really need to encourage and legalize yet another 'harmless' drug for our society?"

            A very close friend of mine had addiction problems leading to criminal acts, loss of job, divorce, and ultimately his death. His addictions started with beer and cigarettes and ended with beer and cigarettes, but I don't conclude from that personal experience, nor from the clear facts of the harm done by alcohol and tobacco, that we should make nicotine an illegal drug and return to alcohol prohibition.

            What I do conclude is that we need to recognize that mainstream America has drug problems, and we need a rational approach to dealing with them.

            A rational approach would classify drugs dispassionately and scientifically, do the math and public-health analysis, and attempt to limit harm; and a rational approach would get over our puritanical heritage enough to acknowledge that most people use psychoactive drugs because it gives them pleasure and to acknowledge pleasure as a good thing and to be placed in the equations along with harm.

            The US federal and local governments gave up on alcohol prohibition for complex reasons, but most justifiably because capital "P" Prohibition did far more harm than good. If you count jail time as often justified harm, but still harm; if you count sucking people into the US criminal justice system as punishment in itself, even when they're acquitted; if you count punishment disproportionate to crimes (and historically racist) as an outright evil — then marijuana prohibition currently does great harm.

            Better to treat psychoactive drugs as a group and regulate stringently drug pushing. For net harm reduction while allowing drug users to seek pleasure and drug addicts to avoid pain, it would be useful to legalize for those over 18 possession of any recreational drugs while limiting advertising and aggressive marketing. Like, it makes no sense to put people in jail for selling a few grams of marijuana while allowing brilliantly-executed alcohol ads on television and "happy-hour" at your local bar to ramp up the use and abuse of booze.

            We need tough-minded policies on drugs: on all and any drugs, of both underclass and mainstream American drug culture.

            If there are First Amendment issues with limiting advertising and marketing of alcohol as a recreational drug — and there are — well, we dealt with similar issues with tobacco.

            If people aren't doing their jobs because they're stoned fire them: not for using drugs but for not doing their jobs. If people are endangering others because they're driving while zonked, punish them for endangering others. If limiting the pushing of currently legal drugs will result in increased unemployment, then former bartenders and others of the deserving unemployed should be given generous support and aid finding other jobs, and ad agency flacks and marketing folk can be offered retraining for more honest work.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bernie Sanders vs. Trump and/or Cruz: A Defining Moment

            My parents and others of their generation had an expression something like, "Ten years after America elects a Jewish president," meaning pretty much what the more secular and sardonic of their parents and grandparents meant by "When Messiah comes": that is, somewhere in the distant future, or never.
            Now hold that thought while I repeat a personal story from my days in the higher ed. biz and provide a link to a Mort Sahl routine from a generation earlier.
            After I'd worked at Miami University (Oxford, OH) for a few years — let's say 1980 or so — I found myself at a Faculty Senate meeting notably boring even by the high standards for boredom of faculty senates. I couldn't just walk out because I needed to be there for what was to be a close vote, but I could start a conversation with the guy next to me, a US Navy officer from our NROTC unit. If we'd been crass enough and clever enough to just ask, we probably would've found out that our votes would cancel out, and we both could've left and had a beer and not disturbed the slumber or stupor of the colleagues around us. Anyway, we had a low-volume conversation that lasted long enough that we exchanged names, and upon hearing mine the Navy guy said, "Oh — you're Erlich! They told me about you down at the unit." And I said something cool and sophisticated like, "Really?!? What did they say?" What they said was, "There are two really big radicals to look out for on campus, Momeyer in Philosophy and Erlich in English." And I repeated, "Really?!?", at which point he pulled back, stroked an imaginary beard, considered for a moment, and said: "Let's see, Jeffersonian republican plus a dash of Jacksonian populist, modernized to the sort of social democrat the CIA would support if you were foreign?" Assuming I could modernize out the racist stuff with Jefferson and Jackson, I said, "Close enough." And he said, "Yeah, I figured that's what a 'radical' would be at Miami University.
            Mort Sahl was a comedian and social satirist who is relevant here for a routine in 1967 on US mainstream TV giving a comic introduction to the US political system, labeling the middle with the handy term from European politics, "social democrats." I will repeat that: as just a handy label for the politics of the middle of the US political spectrum — from Communists on the Left to the John Birch Society on the Right — Mort Sahl in 1967 used for US moderates, "social democrats."
            Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination for president on policies of a social democrat, and if he is elected President with a miraculously progressive Democratic Congress and a quick series of appointments to the Supreme Court, the political "revolution" we will get is social democracy and not a more literal by-God revolution!! that will yield US socialism more Leftist than that.

            I'm writing in February 2016, right after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and there is still a good possibility that the 2016 US Presidential race could be Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or John Kasich — and there are possibilities of "and/or," with more exotic combinations involving third or fourth parties and a Hillary Clinton candidacy in the bargain. Kasich is a member of a socially conservative Anglican splinter sect who personally takes seriously Jesus's teaching on aiding the wretched of the Earth and has governed in Ohio mostly as an old-style, Ohio staunch conservative.
            And Kasich would be the most conventional Republican candidate against Bernie Sanders.
            More interesting would be Rubio against Sanders and most interesting — as in the curse, "May you live in interesting times" — would be Ted Cruz or, for other reasons, Donald Trump against Sanders.
            Rubio has had a complex spiritual journey — Roman "Catholicism to Mormonism back to Catholicism to a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated evangelical megachurch and finally back to Catholicism" — but now asserts firmly, "I’m fully, theologically, doctrinally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church," although the Pope may have some objections on economic doctrine.
            And Ted Cruz is a Southern Baptist son of a born-again convert from Catholicism, the candidate favored by religious-Right Evangelicals, and beautifully typified in a section heading in an article that handles his use of religion with, "Forget 'dog whistle' politics: Cruz has a trumpet."
            Trump is something else.
            Okay, Trump is something else in many ways, but relevantly here Trump isn't directly offering religion — or a coherent program — but the Leadership Principle, which is the translation of the German Führerprinzip but should not be limited to Germans of the Third Reich. Get enough human beings together, and a significant number will want strong leadership: a head-man, caudillo, the guy on the white horse who'll ride in and by sheer force of personality get things done. And sometimes that's not a bad idea, as with Cincinnatus, the Roman dictator. Some of Trump's ideas though, put into practice, would be fascistic: rounding up and deporting millions of refugees, a religious test for asylum in the US, repealing the 14th Amendment citizenship birthright by "soil" — being born on US territory — and replacing it with citizenship by "blood," and recently claiming enough toughness to order the torture of prisoners, or maybe do it himself.
            Any of these guys, but emphatically Trump or Cruz, running against Sanders would make for a defining election in US and perhaps world history. Not quite up there with the election of 1860, let us hope — a US Civil War with nukes around would not be a good thing — but really defining.

            It's not so much that Sanders is Jewish, but that he's not Joe Lieberman's brand of Jewish: Lieberman is religious, Right-ish, and eventually became a fellow-traveller with Republicans. Sanders is a secular Jew, which is not a contradiction in terms in large swaths of the US Jewish tradition, but will make him even more alien to the Christian religious Right — and to parts of the Likudnik Jewish religious Right — than if he were religious. Against Trump's strongman populist appeal, Sanders offers a democratic social-populism; against the Christian religious Right, Sanders comes up empty: for sure Sanders does not accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his personal savior. If America is a Christian nation, Sanders may've been born on US territory, but he is by definition outside the American nation, and his election would mean for many on the Religious Right a seal on their loss of America as theirs.
            (I'm old enough to remember formulas of the US as an "Anglo-Saxon Christian nation" — with "Christian" in the sense of a student of mine who said, "I used to be Catholic, but now I'm Christian" — and then "White Christian nation" to bring in assimilated Catholics and Scots-Irish Protestants. The election of Barack Obama undercut the White part of the old formulas; Sanders threatens the "Christian" part of formulas still current.)

            There wasn't "a vast, Right-wing conspiracy" against Bill and Hillary Clinton, but there was a relatively small group of rich people, notably Richard Mellon Scaife, who worked to get dirt dug up and flung at the Clintons. Such people will go after Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee, and she's been around long enough to have made legitimate enemies and get some people to just not like her.
            A Sanders candidacy, though, has the potential against Trump or Cruz to bring out some real nastiness, with accused of being a godless commie, obviously outside the community of the Saved. And however long Sanders lived in Vermont, he is guilty of being born and raised in Brooklyn, learning enough Hebrew to be bar mitzvah-ed, and getting most of his higher education at the University of Chicago, where he was an antiwar and civil rights activist. Cruz may accuse Trump of New York values, but if there was ever a Big City product living the stereotype of the secular Jewish Prophetic troublemaker, it's Bernie Sanders.

            In 1964, Barry Goldwater offered Americans "A Choice, Not an Echo" and lost went on to lose the Presidential election to Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater's defeat, though, laid the groundwork for a Right-wing backlash and resurgence that has gone so far that Mort Sahl's 1967 analysis of the American political spectrum seems downright weird. The American middle as "social democrats"? No way! Except broken down by issues, "Yes way," or, more exactly, issue-by-issue a lot of Americans hold social-democratic views.
             And a lot of Americans don't, as John Kasich is learning when he cites Matthew 25.31-45, and that Jewish Prophetic troublemaker Jesus's injunction to aid the sick deprived and even the imprisoned ("You can at least pay a visit!" to paraphrase the last point).

            So: We are getting down to basic conflicts in the 2016 election, and that will be clarifying and fascinating … and very, very dangerous.