Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Decree of Obstinacy

Let’s suppose there’s a God in heaven. And let’s suppose he has a well-stocked arsenal – nasty plagues, thunderbolts he picked up at a garage sale when Zeus retired, and that most terrible weapon, The Decree of Obstinacy. That’s the one he used against Pharoah, enabling Moses and company to scramble out of Egypt.

Word from on high, not yet confirmed, is that God is making the dreaded Decree again operational. He’s had it “up to here” with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, although the political obscenities of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz contributed to the tipping point.

The Decree is a terrifying weapon. It put Moses in the history books. It works like this: Moses had gone to Pharoah and demanded that he allow the Israelites leave the land of Egypt. “Let my people go.” At first,  Pharoah agreed but then “hardened his heart,” betraying his promise. So God sent a plague, which got Pharoah’s attention. “Take your people and leave!” he told Moses. However, when it came time for the Israelites to get the hell out, Pharoah hardened his heart again.  “Nope, you and your tribe stays!” – again betraying his promise. So God sent another plague. Same story – “Stop the plague, and I’ll let your people go,” Pharoah promised, and then he hardened his heart. Happened a total of nine times, and that’s when God fired the Decree of Obstinacy straight at Pharoah’s heart:

This time, Pharoah didn’t harden his heart – God did!

“Enough already!” thundered the Almighty. Yes, indeed. Stick a fork in Pharoah – he’s done. One miserable betrayal too many. When God hardened Pharoah’s heart, a great cry went up in Egypt. The 10th plague killed every firstborn, young and old, in Egypt land. Finished! The End! Even a mighty Pharoah can’t bring the dead back to life.

The Decree of Obstinacy marks the moment of damnation – All ye who enter here abandon hope –  the moment of irreversibility.

How many times can Mitch McConnell filibuster? How many bills can John Boehner not bring to the floor of the House? How many qualified appointees can the Senate not confirm? How long before the Decree Of Obstinacy hardens the heart of the Republican betrayers?

“How long?”

“Not long.”

The Comfort of Greatness

What is one to do with the 1930s, when evil went global? Bolshevik Russia, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, militaristic Japan.  Invasion of Manchuria, of Ethiopia. Civil War in Spain. Democracy headed for the ash heap of history.The world economy in ruins.

So much for the human race. But wait, in 1933 along came FDR, then in 1936 John Maynard Keynes. At least as regards economics, Roosevelt and Keynes stopped the slide into the abyss – the new President with his heart, Keynes with his head.

Recently I bought the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes’ masterpiece. From Amazon. Four bucks. The greatest contribution to economic theory since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. I am no economist, and 90% of Keynes’ thinking is over my head. But even I get goosebumps when he captures lightning in a bottle: “Consumption to repeat the obvious is the sole end and object of all economic activity.” I keep his book under my pillow.

FDR recognized the obvious and, intuitively, set up the New Deal according to the liberating gospel of John Maynard Keynes, but years before the English economist announced his discoveries to the world. FDR’s common sense which enabled him to grasp the obvious in economics radiates a great light. To this very day, 80 years later, Europe does not see what is obvious. She punishes herself with an economics based on austerity, blind to the obvious. And of course the Republicans are as blind as bats with their deficit nonsense.

As for war raging across the globe in the 1930s – is it possible the world, with the exception of North Korea, has beaten its swords into plowshares? Can you imagine Germany invading France, or Russia or the Low Countries? Or Italy invading Ethiopia? Is the slaughter in Syria, however terrible, the beginnings of a Gulag or Dachau? Unthinkable. Is the use of an atomic bomb thinkable? Every day, during World War II, on average 23,000 people were killed. Is such global madness possible?

It’s an oxymoron, but thinking about the 1930s from the perspective of 2013 can make it the best of times.

Just a Label

When Chief Justice Roberts suggested the issue regarding Proposition 8 amounted to “Just a label,” he revealed a mind that has no sense of language.There it was, in obscene display, the mind that cursed our Republic with Citizens United. That mind equated money with speech, each protected by the First Amendment! A  5-4 majority of the Roberts Court made this abomination the law of the land.

So it was a great comfort that the very next day, pondering arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Ginsburg demonstrated the limitless power of language. She did it with a simple metaphor, contrasting the full milk of ordinary marriage with the skim milk of a same-sex union under DoMa.

Rachel Maddow claimed this “label” would forever be associated with the case. That’s what happens when a human being wields the infinite power of language.. Chief Justice Roberts will be forever associated with Citizens United, his concrete thinking putting every election of our democracy at risk.

Thoughts on Homosexuality

Freud thought Inversion, his term for homosexuality, a dynamic problem, that is, a pathologic outcome of disturbed family relationships. It was a mind problem, not a brain problem and fair game for psychoanalytic therapy. Freud’s assessment went largely unchallenged.

It took a while, probably the last 40 years, for the scientific community to recognize that homosexuality is a normal biological variant and to get the word out to the good citizens. Truth be told, the news has spread like wild fire, given the enormous inertia when civil rights are at issue. Climactically, today and tomorrow the Supreme Court of the United States is being asked to make the law reflect the  science.

If it is now obvious, scientifically established through countless studies, that homosexuality is not a product of unconscious conflict, that it is a normal and irreversible biologic and sexual adaptation, why does half the population insist it is a matter of choice and a bad one?

Because homosexuality presents an unthinkable problem.

Freud may have been wrong on Inversion, but he got right the fact human beings are obsessed with sexual life and, more likely than not, overwhelmed by its complexity. That’s under ordinary circumstances. Along comes homosexuality, a march of aliens striking at the very heart of sexual identity, and, predictably, what doesn’t make sense must be bad. Homosexuality becomes a moral problem.

Freud observed, “The ego is first and foremost a body ego.” No part of the body is more loaded with emotion than the genitals. For the heterosexual, the physical act of sex is carried out in a  different partnership from a homosexual partnership, reflecting a difference in their relationship to the body. It is not easy to think through to the fact that this difference is not defining, given the fact that sexual life is thought about endlessly by both and in the most vivid fantasies. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the ego is first and foremost a genital ego. Once one recognizes that homosexuals and heterosexuals live in the same body and inhabit the same genital neighborhood, the rest is easy.

Remarkably, the American people have followed Obama’s evolving understanding of homosexuality. 58% now support same-sex marriage, the last barrier to full citizenship. Both the Prez and the people have put on their thinking caps.

Belly-to-Belly/Back-to-Back

Last week, Pres. Obama gave a speech to Israeli students. It was a competent speech, predictable in its content, appropriate in style and crafted for the rhetorical skills of the President. Except for a single heckler, who was quickly hustled from the proceedings, the audience ho-hummed along with Obama’s panegeric to their country.

And then, suddenly, out of the blue, Obama made a turn that turned into greatness.It began with telling his audience that he was going off script. In the twinkling of an eye he went from lofty rhetoric to a conversation. He transformed a group of thousands into an intimate one-on-one. His face became wonderfully expressive. He talked in herky-jerky fragments, as one does when each word is made heavy with emotions.

He had met with Palestinian youth that morning. Average kids. 15 to 22 years old. “Talking with them. Like talking with you. Same hopes, ambition, entitled to a sense of future.” And so forth. And then he unleashed the lightning.

“I’m not going to look at these Palestinians through my eyes. Or through yours. I’m going to have your parents look at these kids. You know what I believe? I believe your parents would look at them the same way they look at you. I believe that.”

We humans are forever projecting. Hell, we’ll project a way of life into Mickey Mouse. Parents, however, are not a Disney invention. They’re the sun and the moon and the stars. No relation is more powerful than that between parent and child.

“Your parents want the best for you. That’s why you’re at this University. I believe your parents would want the best for these Palestinian kids. I believe that.”

Belly-to-Belly/ Back-to-Back! The Israeli kids gave him a standing ovation.

Obama and Shakespeare

In a letter to his brother, John Keats said that what made Shakespeare Shakespeare was “negative capability,” the power to see the world from others point of view, to walk in their shoes and see through their eyes. For example, Brutus gives a speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar. Antony then follows with his, completely and stunningly opposite from that of Brutus’s. What Keats finds so remarkable is that there is no hint of Shakespeare in these orations.He takes no sides. He makes no judgment. What he does is enter the mind of Brutus and the mind of Antony, leaving no trace of the break-in – the power of negative capability in action.

Yesterday, Pres. Obama urged the Israeli youth to “put themselves into the shoes” of the Palestinians, to “see the world through their eyes.” He asked them to exercise the power of negative capability. No small feat. None more necessary, not just for the Israeli and Palestinians, but for a planet staggeringly diverse.

One might think Obama’s pleading is absurd. To think like Shakespeare? How can ordinary folks pull that off! It’s possible. Obama is not a starry-eyed dreamer. The task, he pointed out in great detail, is not to sort through differences but to recognize that we are much more human than otherwise.

It’s the similarities, stupid!

Republican Hyperbole

The deficit, Krugman computed, is an ordinary, economic problem. It is manageable. It does not portend the end of the world.

The Republican’s deficit is a bizarre object, manufactured by the Moral Sense. It threatens the survival of our Republic. It is a catastrophe moving right along. Dealing with it requires all hands on deck, that is, the “takers” who behave like drunken sailors must end their profligacy. It’s time for them to suffer a few lashes.

And so we have Paul Ryan’s budget, flim-flam that not only  balances the books in ten years, but addresses the moral deficiencies plaguing our country. After all, moral turpitude is what created the crisis in the first place.

What crisis,  you ask? I will tell you: THE DEFICIT! No, not  Krugman’s. This one’s a bizarre object invented by hyperbole, a specialty of the Moral Sense. It’s bread and butter for Republicans.

Moral Mania

At the recent CPAC convention, mere mention of hated Obamacare brought Republicans to their feet, a roaring army of moral maniacs. The fact thirty to fifty million uninsured Americans would receive medical coverage doesn’t register. Remember during the interminable debate on the Affordable Care Act Dems told story after story of individual suffering due to lack of medical coverage, all of which fell on Republican deaf ears? The roar of moral maniacs makes inaudible the voice of the individual. The juggernaut rolls. It brooks no dissent. It takes no prisoners. Republicans vote unanimously on almost every issue. They swear eternal allegiance to Grover Norquist.

It gets worse. Moral mania demonizes the individual. The “takers” threaten the survival of the group. They think they’re entitled “even to food,” as Romney pointed out, his voice rising. Only a few centuries ago, moral maniacs burned or drowned thousands of women – they had turned into witches. The group authorities were protecting the public with these ghastly murders. How was this possible? How could they bring off such unthinkable business, over and over again hearing the agonizing shrieks and seeing the engulfing flames?

Loss of objectivity is invariant under moral mania, which signals a group has lost its capacity for attending to reality. Moral mania stops the ears, blinds the eyes. Moral maniacs don’t feel the searing fire or the strangling horror of drowning. Reality is no more than an indistinct dream, righteousness filling every nook and cranny of their moral universe. History reels off endless instances of the unthinkable. If one recognizes the mindlessness which drives moral mania, one doesn’t need to stand benumbed and uncomprehending before the atrocities of history.

Ira Katznelson reports, “The United States witnessed 28 lynchings in 1933, the first year of the New Deal. In November, one year after FDR’s election, Lloyd Warner was burnt alive before a cheering crowd of 10,000 in Princess  Anne, Maryland, after the attempt to hang him had failed.”

Protecting the Weekend

The British artist, David Hockett, makes the stunning observation,

“The Now is forever.”

Almost as long is Deep Time. Geophysicist  Robert Hazen proposes a thought experiment.:

“Imagine walking back in time, 100 years per step. A mile takes you 175,000 years into the past. 20 days of effort at 20 miles a day and 100 years per step would take you back 70 million years, just before the mass death of the dinosaurs. At 100 years per footstep, you have to walk for almost THREE YEARS to reach the dawn of life, and almost FOUR YEARS to arrive at Earth’s beginnings.”

That should spare us from thinking about Paul Ryan and his genocidal budget over the weekend.

Genocide with Good Conscience

The Moral Sense is the father of genocide. It shaped the politics the race practiced for a million years, and it worked. It played an indispensable role in a hunter-gatherer tribe’s survival, on a scale of importance with sex. The Moral Sense acquired its power not by setting up political life as a work to be done, but as a problem of good and evil. The in-tribe was good, the out-tribes evil.

A devastating consequence of splitting the world in two, one good, the other bad, is that objectivity goes out the window. An enemy tribe transmogrifies into monsters. Or lice that should be exterminated.  The commonsense world, the one registering on the five senses, disappears. A manufactured moral system eclipses reality. It is the centerpiece of tribalism. Like an ancient plague, the Moral Sense casts the human story under a great darkness. The real world disappears in a Stygian blackout. Facts vanish. It disregards experience. The Moral Sense unleashes gangs of moral maniacs bound together by the power of moral certitude. They have had no problem in carrying out genocide throughout recorded history.

Do we have evidence that genocide, albeit on the scale of tribalcide, characterized the relationship between hunter-gatherer groups? Indeed we do, despite the fact behavior doesn’t fossilize. Steven Pinker reports the findings of two economists who looked at the data from 900 skeletons divided into hunter-gatherers and city dwellers. Over 13% of hunter-gatherers showed signs of violent trauma, city dwellers 2.7%. Living in a civilization reduces one’s chances of being a victim of violence by five-fold, a finding borne out by many studies.

More Pinker. Europe at the turn of the 21st century, the safest place in human history, had a homicide rate of one in a 100,000. America in the 20th century, with two world wars and in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, with an epidemic of gun violence, had 3.7 homicides per 100,000. The annual rate of death in tribal warfare was 524 per 100,000! 524! Surely Pinker must be joking.

During the last presidential campaign, Romney dismissed the 47%. Not worth bothering about. Mere creatures from some morally corrupt, lazy and irresponsible tribe. Corporations are people,not people under moral condemnation like the 47%  Willard was and still is all gung-ho for Paul Ryan’s budget, which among other deprivations throws 30 to 50 million of the 47% off any medical insurance.

Lots of ways to skin a cat. How ’bout genocide by omission? Not hideous executions by guns. Massive deaths sacrificed for the tribe’s survival, you know, the deficit.