About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Is the Tea Party an Art Project?

Performance Art

I’ve always wondered if the Tea Party and some of the members of the far right were actually creating a piece of performance art.  Are they like Spinal Tap where the verisimilitude of their performance so blurs the lines of reality that people begin to believe that it isn’t parody, but reality.

I find that attitude actually exists on the right.  I have had conversations with some conservatives who believe that Stephan Colbert is actually a Republican.  Their argument goes something like this: “He’s a conservative playing a liberal playing a conservative, because if he just came out and told jokes about liberals directly he wouldn’t be able to be on television.  The only way that he can have a TV show is to play like he’s a liberal.  He’s actually a Republican, but can’t let people know.”

So now we have Victor/Victoria as political theatre?  An actual conservative acting like a liberal so that he can get a conservative view out to young people without censorship.  And the frightening thing is, a lot of the people I’ve talked to believe this statement.

On a side note, when will the right realize that Fox news controls all the political discussion in this country?  Even the “Liberal Media” talks about what Fox wants them to discuss, because they feel that they have to cover the lunacy.  When you control the dialog, you cannot also claim to be the oppressed minority.  Also, when you claim, as they do, that most of the country agrees with you, you cannot claim to be a subjugated people.  You cannot have it both ways.

But back to my main point, is the Tea Party movement art?

I just read a quote by Martin Heidegger that seems to prove my point.  He stated “a work of art is that which not only creates something new, but creates the new world in which that thing can exist.”

By this definition, I would state that the Tea Party is art.  They are creating something new, a different version of the constitution than the founding fathers intended or that I read in school, and they have created the world where that new version of the constitution can exist, a far right America where sick people dying is cheered and a gay soldier is booed.

The Tea Party is creating a new version of this country, where their extreme right ideals can live.  They are creating a place where the center has moved so far to the right that what used to be the center is now far left, and what was authentically liberal thought is now communistic and evil.

In Heidegger’s definition of art, to be art it has to be original, which the Tea Party certainly is, and it has to create a place for that new work to exist, which is also happening.  By this definition, the Tea Party is art.

The only question left is: is the artist Pawel Kuczynski or Gustave Doré?

Maybe it’s time to buy a new painting.

 For more paintings by Pawel Kuczynski go to this website.  The work is incredible.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Plague of Festivals


New York City, the last bastion of uniqueness, is falling victim to the blandness of Generica.  Go to Times Square and try to find something not corporately branded.  If Giuliani had allowed the hookers to remain, I’m sure that nowadays they would have corporate sponsorship and credit card readers.  (I can imagine Sephoria and Chloe investing in a line of perfectly groomed, elegantly dressed escorts walking 42nd Street.)

But that isn’t what concerns me.  Times Square sold out a decade ago, and most New Yorkers avoid the place unless they have out of town guests who insist on seeing it, and are too afraid to go unescorted. 

What concerns me is a new phenomenon that I have not noticed in my previous visits or when I lived there.  Generic street festivals have sprung up all over Manhattan.  Last weekend, Madison Avenue was shut literally from Madison Square to 83rd St.  (It may have been closed further, but that was the distance I experienced.)  Also, Broadway was shut throughout  NoHo and Mulberry Street in Little Italy was almost impassible from the booths set up on both sides of the street.

I say the street fairs were generic because they had the same collection of funnel cake vendors, hot dog stands, bead and scarf booths, and crappy art.  There was no soul and no character to them.  All of them were virtually identical.  At the time I wondered why.

Unfortunately, now I know.

I found this information on Quora today.  This was posted by Jay Gurewitsch the owner of Arcadia (www.arcadianyc.com):

“These pestilential plagues that are visited upon our streets far too often are almost entirely run by one company; Clearview Festivals. They contract with various "non-profit groups" who officially get the permits from the city in exchange for a tiny percentage of the take from the vendors.

These vendors, by the way, are overwhelmingly based outside of NY for tax purposes - so they charge and collect no sales tax, pay no real estate tax, no NY corporate tax, no payroll tax, no commuter tax, nothing that could possibly reimburse the city for all the lost revenue the businesses on those streets suffer whenever the fairs are set up.

My tens of thousands of taxes paid as a business owner in Chelsea ($50K+ in real estate tax alone) go to subsidize a street fair and street vendors who steal thousands of dollars PER FAIR from me and all my neighbors - and there is seemingly NOTHING we can do about it.”

In our lust to corporatize everything, we erase all character and individuality.  Everything is a brand, or more frighteningly, a uniform identity.  The City is becoming a copy of a copy of a copy, blurred to indistinguishiblilty and lacking any semblance of originality.

Is there any hope for authenticity?  When will we as a nation again demand it?  When will we stop giving our souls away for profit?
Setting up for the "Street Festival" on Sunday Morning.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Ecology of Fear, New York Edition


I just returned from a trip to New York City.  I spent the weekend there, showing a group of my architecture students the city.  We saw some of the greatest architecture in the world.

We also saw a city gripped by paranoia.

I lived in New York in the months immediately following 9/11, and while the city was far from normal at that time, people were moving forward with the indomitable strength of character that only a New Yorker can have.  While the rest of America was still convulsing, New Yorkers were quietly going about rebuilding their lives.  They were looking at rebuilding what was literally a smoking hole in the ground.  (I remember it still smoking as late as February.)  They did not cower in a corner; they faced the nightmare head on.

The one thing I will always remember from my time in New York was that strength, that refusal to be bowed by horror.  Strangely, I did not see that on this weekend, a bare week after the 10th anniversary.  I saw police everywhere, barricades, and ultimately an intimation of fear that I never saw in 2001.

After September 11, there were barricades all around Lower Manhattan, but the barricades served the purpose of keeping people from falling into the holes in the torn up streets or out of the buildings that hadn’t been checked for structural integrity.  They were there to keep people safe in the most literal sense of the word.

Now the barricades are back, but not to keep people from falling into gaping wounds in the earth, they now keep people from the statue of the Bull on the north end of Bowling Green, keep them from the steps of Federal Hall, keep them from walking freely, instead of like cattle on the way to the slaughter.

I know there were protesters all over Lower Manhattan, and the U.N. Opening Session in Midtown, but those are normal September events.  I have been taking students to New York City during September for the last several years, and I’ve never seen this before.

The police are beating people in the streets, there are guards on every floor of the hotel, black motorcades moving through the city, security forces with guns visibly at the ready. 

Are we so afraid of protest and dissent in this city that we block all expression of it?  Are the Masters of the Universe so frightened that they cannot allow anyone to express their American right of protest?

The fear that I saw was not a fear in the general population, it was a fear OF the general population.  As citizens we are de Facto terrorists, guilty until proven innocent.  The very ideals which are the birthright of every one of us is under threat. 

I saw the protesters first hand, and if they are an existential threat to America, then so is the Tea Party.  I say this, not out of any snarkiness, but as an actual point of fact.  The signs I saw the protesters carrying could have been carried by either end of the political spectrum.  In fact, the ends have bent discourse in this country so far around that the far left and the far right have become indistinguishable.

I saw a sign saying, “End the Fed.”  Very left, very right.  Since I have not been watching the news lately, the only way that I could even determine the end of the spectrum protesting was from their appearance.  I assume from the amount of dreadlocks, Rasta hats and Patchouli that the protesters were advocating from the left.  Swap them out for a group of old white men, and you’d have a Tea Party Rally, you wouldn’t even have to change the signs.  Apparently, on the ends, the only reference you have is context.

That said, there was nothing frightening about the protesters, unless you are a billionaire oil tycoon, then perhaps visions of Paris circa 1793 or Moscow of 1918 might be running though your head.  If you don’t believe in the freedom of speech, in the right to assemble, to ability to petition the government for redress, then what occurred this weekend in New York was a Fuselian scene of deepest nightmare.  The flag no longer hangs from the New York Stock Exchange, and barricades don’t allow you to get within a couple of hundred feet of the place.  In that one act, the financial barons that run the city showed their rejection of all that makes this country great.

The fear that gripped the city this weekend was fear by the powerful of the powerless, which is a recipe for actual revolution.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I took this photograph in September 2008.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Is This the Best He Can Do?


Glen Beck has declared a boycott on Levi’s.  Why?  Because they apparently “glorify revolution” in a “shocking” new commercial.  He said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, I love Levi’s. Never again, Levi’s, never again will you get a dime from me. I know you’re not disappointed. Never again. I won’t wear your stupid red tab."

Let’s deconstruct this.  We live in a country, for which Beck loudly screams his love for, that began with a violent revolution.  There was no Velvet Revolution or Freedom Revolution here.  We took our freedom in a war, a war to good end, and one which I as an American thoroughly support having happened, but still, let’s be honest, it was a violent insurrection against at least semi-legitimate overlords.  (By this I mean that all citizens of the colonies were British Citizens who immigrated here.  We were not a conquered vassal state, as were the Middle Eastern and Asian Colonies.

Let’s also look at world events.  All across the world, people are throwing off the yoke of oppression, demanding freedom, and rights, and liberties that we as Americans take for granted.  (and seem to be willing to discard, but that’s another story.)  They are rising up with one voice and saying, NO MORE.  They are NOT fighting FOR intolerance, they are NOT fighting FOR bigotry, they are NOT fighting FOR evil, they are fighting AGAINST them.  They are willing to lay down their lives for the very things that America is supposed to stand for.

Let’s look at the text of the commercial:
          Your life is your life.
          Don’t let it be clubbed into submission, be on the watch.
          There are ways out.
          There is a light somewhere
          It may not be much light, but it beats the darkness.
          Be on the watch, the gods will offer you chances.
          Know them, take them.
          You can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life sometimes.
          The more often you learn to do it, the more light there will be.
          Your life is your life.
          Know it while you have it.
          You are marvelous, the gods wait to delight in you.
             (I know the last sentence seems a bit of Tyler Durden's "beautiful or unique snowflake,"  but the rest is powerful.)

I don’t often stand up for corporations, especially one with a checkered past like Levi’s, but the message here is amazing.  It is a call to stand up for your rights, to stand against the darkness.  To shine what little light of good and right you possibly can.  To spread that light as much as you can.

And Glen Beck is outraged at as commercial that seems to him to stand for revolution??!!

How dare he be?

The change coming to the world will make us safer, freer, and more unified as a planet.  It is our last best hope that the human race will finally throw off the shackles that bind us and stand together, shoulder to shoulder, saying what you do to my brother, you do to me.  I am not free unless you are free; I am not whole unless you are whole.  We will no longer allow petty tyrants or the chains of fear bind us.

If we lose now, we lose for all time.  Moments like these come once in a generation, if then.  We cannot afford to cower.  And we can no longer afford the Glen Becks of the world, who would have us turn our face from the light and live in fear. 

This is the video that offended Glen Beck so much:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Texting is Not Going to Destroy Society


In the last few months, I have been conducting a small experiment with myself as the test subject.  In the first half of this year, my architectural design studio explored the concept of the Office of the Elsewhere Class.  This group of people were studied in Dalton Conley’s book “Elsewhere USA,” and the term describes people for whom there are no separations between work and the other aspects of their lives.

This is a subject that I will probably write about extensively in the coming weeks as I continue to process the data and conclusions derived in that studio, but at this point I am going to discuss one small aspect of what I have found.  At the beginning of the studio, I challenged myself to live more like the Elsewhere Intravidual.  I purchased a Xoom, synced all of my accounts to it, put my music up in the cloud, loaded my pictures to Picasa, and ultimately got Google+ and this blog.  In other words, I jumped feet first into the digital swimming pool.  In the process, I found two things that I did not expect.

The first thing I discovered was that the addition of technology was far less intrusive into my life than I had expected, and surprisingly, made the digital aspects of my life easier to deal with.  The biggest surprise was that having constant connection to e-mail made those e-mails less annoying. 

Strangely, having my e-mail constantly streaming into my consciousness made it simpler to deal with.  I did not expect this going in, but I found that if I was able to respond instantly to an e-mail, doing so became a quick and unobtrusive aspect of my life.  I found that I was actually spending less time with e-mail when I wasn’t dealing with it in a huge block.  Somehow firing off a quick response that takes only a minute to write on the fly has far less impact on my life than sitting for a long time working my way through a full inbox.

The second thing I discovered was how my communication became multi-modal.  I know this is not a revelation to most people reading this, but I will make a point about it shortly.  First I will describe how I’ve changed my communication methods.  In the past, I used my cell phone as my primary communication tool, with e-mail following distantly behind; I didn’t text, blog, skype or post things.  Now I find that I used different modes of communication depending on the content and situation.

Now I use the phone as a way to have deep conversations, but many other things that I would make a phone call to take care of, I do other ways.  If I need to send a quick question to my roommate, or want to give him a message when I’m not sure if he’s in a situation where a phone ringing would be a disturbance, I text him.  Similarly, if I’m on my way to meet someone somewhere, I will text that I’m leaving, rather than call.  But texting is only for short communications, if there will be more than two exchanges, I’ll call.

When I need to contact more than one person, I’m resorting to e-mail, and I also use it for an extensive message that's too long for a text, but never for an urgent one.  If the message is urgent, I will text, even if it is a long text.  Occasionally, I will call in an urgent situation, but only if I don’t fear disturbing the person at the other end.  This is very different, because a phone call used to my my primary communication in an urgent situation.  If I want to see them, because they live in another city or something, I will Skype and use video chat.  I use my Google+ and blog to get wider messages out, sort of like virtual lectures (I am a Professor after all.)

Now to the point of all of this, many people complain about how these new modes of communication are ruining the old ones, the art of letter writing is all but lost, we don’t talk to each other anymore, et cetera.  Some of these complaints have merit when viewed in isolation, and I do believe we are more disconnected from each other today, but I think communication itself is actually getting better.  The disconnections in our society cannot be blamed on electronic methods of communication.

As humans, we have always adapted our communication methods to technology.  The phone greatly reduced the custom of “calling” on friends or neighbors.  Rather than go to someone’s house to talk to them, you could call them on the telephone.  (Which is why we term it a phone call; the term calling a friend existed long before the phone.)  E-mail changed letter writing, but neither e-mail or texting or any other communication method eliminated other methods.  Those other methods still exist, but are used in more narrow applications. 

What is occurring is an increase in the specialization of our communication, with certain forms of communication becoming appropriate in specific situations.  In a way, this diversity is actually streamlining communication, as we are eliminating the extraneous pieces that are time consuming, and therefore we increase our efficiency. 

There are costs to the increased efficiency, and I’m not claiming that it is perfect, but it is another stage in the evolution of society.  Every new communication method, the printing press, the telephone, pagers, e-mail, IM’s, Skype, have all been accused of ending time honored traditions, but those traditions survive, just in an altered form.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Three Dimensions of Power


The application of power by the stronger on the weaker has been a prevailing condition throughout history.  Its application was very thoroughly documented by John Gaventa in his book “Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley.”  In that book he discussed why Appalachian coal miners were so unwilling to complain about their horrific working environments.
He detailed what he termed the “Three Dimensions of Power,” and explained that the application of these dimensions was what kept the miners from rebellion.  Briefly, the three dimensions are as follows:

The First Dimension is the direct application of Power on another, the powerful forcing the powerless to do something against their will, with threat or implied threat backing up the exercise of power.  For the purpose of this discussion, I will term this “elimination of choice.”  Refusal to comply brings significant consequences.

The Second Dimension is the creation of a situation where it looks like the powerless are willingly complying, but in actuality, the powerful have eliminated all other options except compliance, and limited the discussion in such a way the other options cannot be even discussed.  I will call this “illusion of choice.”  In this scenario, it may seem that there is a choice, to someone on the outside, but in actuality, there are no more options than presented in the First Dimension.

The Third Dimension is far more insidious.  When this dimension is applied, the powerful create an internal regulation system in the powerless that makes them think they are doing what they are doing because they want to do it.  In other words, the powerless are imbued with what Foucault terms an “Internalized Sense of Discipline.”  In its most extreme expressions are found brainwashing and the Stockholm Syndrome.  I can define this as the “realignment of choice.”  Properly applied, the Third Dimension of Power makes someone do something, all the while thinking it is their own idea and free will driving their decision.

Now that I have outlined the Three Dimensions of Power, I would like to examine how the Republican Party is applying them upon their supporters and on the United States.  To be fair, the Democrats do use these techniques as well, but given the fact that that party attracts fewer megalomaniacs, it isn’t as pervasive on that side of the spectrum.  But it does exist, for example in P.E.T.A., which is an expert in the use of the three dimensions.

Back to the how the Republicans are asserting the three dimension in America.  You can see the elimination of choice applied in the post 9/11 world of “you’re either with us or against us.”  This is the power structure of the Dick Cheney’s of the world, who ram draconian measures down our collective throats, with the potential of water boarding for those who disagree.  (And that is the implied threat of Guantanamo and “enhanced interrogation,” that anyone who disagrees could fall victim to them.  Remember the man arrested in Aspen for telling Cheney off.)  The Cheney wing of the Republican party is addicted to the use of the First Dimension of Power, possibly because it is the easiest to employ.

The Second Dimension of Power is being overtly applied to the Republican candidates themselves, which implies that they have masters higher than themselves, and has implications for a puppet presidency.  The candidates who refuse to comply with the party’s litmus test on various issues have no chance of being elected.  Grover Norquist is the master of the Illusion of Choice.  He presents Republicans with his tax pledge, and they seem to chose to sign it, but the reality is, in the current environment, if they don’t sign it, they don’t get elected.  They have no actual choice in that matter, or in many others, such as abortion, gay marriage, etc.  Anyone who does not toe the line is finished in the party, but there is still the illusion that they have chosen these beliefs.  And in this case, that illusion is critical because you cannot see the man behind the curtain, or even know that there is a curtain there.

The Third Dimension can be seen in the Tea Party, and in the millions of people who voted Republican in the last election.  The power brokers funding the Right Wing in America have gotten a significant portion of the population to believe that universal health care is evil, that we shouldn’t take care of the unemployed, and that the best way to stimulate the economy is to cut taxes for the wealthy.  The Republicans have gotten Americans to vote against their own self interest; they vote for people who’s policies will actually harm them.  George Lakoff details this in his book “The Political Mind.”  It seems a large segment of America has Stockholm Syndrome, and have fallen in love with their tormentors.

So how do we fight the three dimensions take back the power for ourselves? 

First, refuse to be bullied.  Understand there may be consequences for this, but stand your ground, just like you would on the playground when you were nine.  When bullies realize they can’t force you to do something, they may beat you up once or twice, but they will move on to a new target when they realize that you won’t bow to them.

Second, take back the discussion.  The second dimension loses its power when people realize there are other viable options.  Don’t let the power brokers limit the talk to what they want it to be.  Most importantly, shift the conversation back to the left.  By today’s standard, Regan would be a centrist at best, and possibly a liberal.  That is how far the Republicans have shifted the center.  Stop allowing this to happen; show that there are other options.

Third, and this is the most difficult, expose them to the truth, get them to turn off Fox, or at least listen to other news sources.  Talk to them about what is going on.  Show them that they are voting against their own interests.  It’s hard to do, and must be done slowly and delicately, but it can be done.  Inspire them to believe again in the values that made this country great.

Finally, recognize the application of the Three Dimensions of Power, and be aware how they are being used.

Knowledge is the beast weapon against tyranny. 

 As a first test, see how many Dimensions you can identify in the above cartoon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Other Failing of Pure Systems


One of the two main failings of modern economic theory is its failure to account for the seven deadly sins.  I wrote about this a few days ago, and then touched on it again a couple of days later.  As I said, human nature will defeat any pure economic system from without.

But contained within economic theories are the seeds of their own destruction, a failing that is so hidden in plain sight, most people do not even recognize its existence.  The two primary economic models of the last century, Capitalism and Communism, seek to replace government with an economic system.

Let me repeat that, both Marx and Smith advocate anarchy.  Both economic systems state that followed in their purest form, government will no longer be necessary.

The reasoning is different for them, but the end result is the same.

Communism states that in a pure egalitarian society, there is no need for governance, because all citizens will work equally toward the common good.  “Each to each according to need.”

Obviously, this will not work at any social scale beyond a band level society.  It works well at that scale because there are social controls, such as shunning that work very effectively in a group of twenty.  Those social controls do not work with advanced, modern society.  If your group of friends won’t talk to you, there’s always Facebook.  We lack the sanctions in a large scale society to make egalitarianism work.  We only need to look at the Soviet Union to know how this story ends.

The anarchy in Capitalism is more obscured, but it is still obvious if you know where to find it.  The Invisible Hand of the Free Market cannot function with any form of regulation.  No safety laws, taxes, tariffs, inspections or regulations.  Any government interference cripples the Invisible Hand, and that hand can only function in a completely free environment.  Again, pure anarchy, although not as overt.

Some of you might say, well what about police and such.  The free market cannot work without security.  The free market answer is you pay for it.  Private security, for those who can afford it, will take care of crime, at least, again, for those who can afford it.  Military, fire protection, roads, all of these can be paid for by the users, maybe as a subscription, but all bought and sold on the free market.

You can see this anarchy appearing in Tea Party purists.  Ron Paul, Grover Norquist, and their ilk would be just as happy with this scenario as they could be.  The real aim of the Tea Party is not to get government out of your life, it’s to get government out of government, kill it and bury it in an unmarked grave.

This is the Capitalist Utopia, a world where there is only the Free Market, and that is the world that they wish to make for the rest of us.

I would like to point out here, by the way, a scary corollary to this.  The minute you outlaw slavery and prostitution, you have destroyed the Free Market.  I want to make absolutely clear that I am not talking about the institutionalized race based slavery of the Antebellum South, which is also destructive to the Free Market, although for different reasons.

I’m talking about a person’s right to sell themselves, or possibly their children, as most common law in this country deems children as the property of their parents.  At its root, on the books, Statutory Rape used to be classified a hundred years ago as a property crime.  (I was sickened when I learned that.)  As soon as you cannot sell yourself, for money, the there is no Free Market.  I know that sounds harsh, but a free market must be absolutely free.  Ask a die hard capitalist economist and they will point out that a truly free market has never been achieved.  That's because people wouldn't stand for it if it was.

Those of you who worship at the Altar of Free Markets need to remember that.

It is unacceptable to allow a human to sell themselves.  Not everything is a commodity to be sold on the open market, and that is something most people, from all aspects of the political spectrum, would agree with.

Once you accept that premise, all that is left is to accept that the Free Market is an illusion, we need government and economic systems are NO substitute for that government.  Unless the Tea Party really wants to cause the United States to cease to exist for all intents and purposes, they need to accept that there will be laws, taxes and regulations.

If you still want to live in Anarchy, move to Haiti.  I'm sure you'll find it lovely.  The rest of us will stay here and try to make this impure system work.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Horror... The Horror


I no longer have television at my house.  Before you think this is some sort of cultural statement, or some hipster gesture, I will explain.  (And then I will get to the point, because I actually have one, this isn’t just a bitch session.)

I have no television because I got pissed at Shomcast. (libel protection here, and credit to Slacker and Steve for this end run around names.)  My credit card that was my auto bill pay expired, and unlike every other company that rolled it over to the new expiration, the aforementioned cable provider did not.  (Interestingly, the Denver branch did roll it over without incident.  I have dual residency between Georgia and Denver.)   Nor did this provider contact me that the auto-bill pay had expired.

Instead, they let the bill rack up for three months.  I didn’t notice because I failed to count the number of times the company hit my account for payment.  (My only mistake that I can see)  My only hint something was wrong was when I was literally 100 miles from Savannah, on my way down for my fall teaching.  They called me asking when they could pick up their equipment.

After several meltdowns (on my part) with various Shomcast personnel, who got progressively dumber, I wound up canceling my service, I can’t say disconnected, because they already did that because of their breakdown in communications, and I refused to pay a reconnection fee. Sorry, but the Peter Principle is in full bloom at that organization, and became more apparent as I went further up the chain.  Anyway, this event has left me without cable.  (And as I rent down in Savannah, I am not at liberty to put up a dish.  It’s cable or nothing.)

Now to the point of the blog entry. (Although it felt good to get the other off my chest.)   People have had basically two reactions to my decision to live without Cable TV.  The first reaction was shear horror, with people asking, “How will you live?”  This reaction made me sad, as if life had no quality without television.  Life has plenty of quality; it’s not like I lost the use of my limbs, or went into a coma.  (It could be argued that I have just emerged from one, but I’m not that “White.”)

The second reaction was to congratulate me.  This reaction left me confused.  It was like I had passed some test or passed something out of my body, like a baby, but they act like I have made a great achievement.

Living without television is neither frightening nor meritorious.  It isn’t like TV is the only game in town.  I can still watch shows on Hulu, watch my news on the MSNBC website, and if I miss the experience of actually watching them on my television, I can connect it with my HDMI cable.  I have not cut myself off from media; I have just altered my methods of consuming it.

Which leads to my confusion about the second reaction.  I am consuming the same media that I have always consumed, just through different channels (pardon the pun.)  Why is that more virtuous?  I know people who are “Whiter,” than I am, who wear their lack of TV like some sort of Merit Badge. (See the book “Stuff White People Like,” to understand this concept)

What bugs me is that some of them have televisions, even big screen ones, but they only have them connected to a DVD or Blu-Ray player.  How is watching a DVD different from television?  And to add to the hypocrisy, I know people who don’t have cable, but watch DVD’s of a bunch of television series.  Does the lack of commercials make “Survivor” suddenly highbrow entertainment?

Consuming media three hours, three months or three years late is still consuming the same media.  It does not improve over time like a fine vintage.

As for the people who react in horror that I have no television, I have plenty to do.  I’m writing these blog posts for one.  (Something I didn’t do in my earlier incarnation.)  I’ve rediscovered music that I had forgotten I loved.  (And not jazz or classical either, again I’m not that “White.”  My tastes tend to run to Punk, Metal and Industrial.)   I’d say I’m reading more, but I have always averaged one to two books a week, so that hasn’t really changed. 

In the end, it seems like living without cable is like belonging to some sort of fringe group, where the people on the inside welcome me with open arms to join their creepy society, and the ones on the outside look at me with horror for who I’ve turned into.

I wonder what the reaction would be if I joined an actual cult?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Have We Really Come To This?


In the last blog post I posed the question “is the survival of mankind not an acceptable option if it cuts into profit margins?”  I hoped I was wrong about the supposition that it might be the case.

I was not.

Last night at the Republican debate, the line that brought out the most enthusiastic cheering was when the question was asked by Wolf Blitzer: What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a hospital and doesn't have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? "Are you saying society should just let him die?"  The response from the crowd was to scream “Yes, yes.”  Ron Paul clarified it by saying that "We have given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves, assume responsibility for ourselves ... that's the reason the cost is so high."  He explained that this was a root choice for a free society.


It is a root choice for a free society to allow someone to die because they are not able to afford health insurance?  And understand here, it is not just a “choice” to not have health insurance.  My friends who are uninsured are not in that situation by choice.  They have no other options. 

My health insurance runs $815.00 a month.  I am 40, and if my mother was not willing to sacrifice in her life to pay for that, I would be un-insured.  I have a well paying job, but unless I want to live in poverty, with a good job, I can’t afford it.  I am healthy, at least relatively, I don’t smoke, I am not obese, I don’t have high blood-pressure, depression or any other condition that would make me a bad risk.  My only health problem at this point is that I’m getting older.  And 40, in today’s society, is not that old.  I worry what it will be when I’m 50.

To further hammer home the point, I have a friend who is staying in a disastrous marriage simply because she would not get insurance any other way.  Her employer does not provide it, and she has enough health problems that, if she could even find a company willing to insure her, the cost would be around $1,500.00 a month.  She is lucky to clear $2,000 a month.  That means, to have health insurance, she would have to live on $500.00 a month.

And, again, in this economy, she's lucky to have that.  She has a job, after having looked for over a year.  She may be underemployed, but she is employed.  She cannot look for a new job to be able to get insurance, so she stays in a toxic situation in order to be able to have insurance.

This is an unsustainable situation in America.

Where is the social compact?  Where is the glue that binds our society together?  Where is the thought of the greater good?

The Seven Deadlies rear their ugly head again.  Greed and envy are driving our society and fuck anyone who doesn’t want to play along, they can just die.  And good riddance, they are leaches.  At least that is the way we seem to think at this point.  If you can’t afford insurance, or housing, or food, it’s your own damn fault and you should have made better choices in life.

Right, I get it.  We don’t care about each other anymore.  The social compact that binds society together is broken.

There is no virtue in denying others the right to live.  Wait, I forgot, the right to life begins at conception and ends at birth.  Once you are out of the womb, you can take care of yourself.  And if you happen to be born into a family that can’t afford to keep you alive after you come into this world, that was apparently a poor decision on your part and you need to be held accountable for that bad judgment.

I do want to be clear here, I am not talking about medical care to prolong a person’s life by a week, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, when the outcome will still be death.  I’m not talking about heart transplants for octogenarians.  I’m not talking about sticking feeding tubes and ventilators in a brain dead person.  I’m talking about basic, or even extraordinary, medical care for a person who has a reasonable possibility of recovering and leading a decent life.

As a society, we need to work together.  We must rely on each other, help each other.  We’re all in this together, and further, all of your money will mean nothing when you are stuck in the ground.  There we are all equal, the rich and the poor.

It is a shame that we don’t feel that way while we are still alive.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Playing the Odds

Russian Roulette

How much of a chance would you take with your life?  50/50?  75/25? 99/1?  What is the threshold of an acceptable risk?  Is any risk acceptable?

With terrorism it seems the acceptable risk is almost non-existent.  We will give up everything, liberty, privacy, identity, just to protect ourselves from the possibility of a death that statistically has less probability than being hit by lightning while bungee jumping.  In other words, we are willing to give up almost everything that makes us American to protect ourselves from something that has almost no chance of happening to us personally. 

I do want to point that I’m not talking about the statistical probability of a terrorist attack, which is a higher probability, maybe even a much higher possibility.  I’m merely referring to the likelihood of an individual person perishing in a terrorist attack; that is a very low chance for any individual.

Now on to Global Warming; this is an event, according to scientific consensus, that is actually occurring.  It is not a statistical probability, it is occurring, and it is likely caused, or at least partially caused, by humans. 

I understand that science has been wrong in the past, sometimes catastrophically wrong, but usually errors in science have been the result of an unwillingness to accept data because it didn’t fit their preconceptions.  Climate scientists will be the first ones to tell you there is some data that doesn’t fit into the climate change theory, and that this is a complex system that is hard to simulate or model because of the number of variables involved.  Like evolution, Global Warming is the theoretical construct that best fits the available data.  There is a chance, although small, that the theory is wrong, but science must move forward with the best theory until proven incorrect.  You do not eliminate a good working theory until a superior one is presented.

I should point out, a theory in science does not equate to myth, nor does it say we don’t know if this is true.  The definition of a scientific theory is well described on Wikipedia, which is as follows: “A scientific theory comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with rules (called scientific laws) that express relationships between observations of such concepts.” 

So why do Americans seem to be so willing, or at least resigned, to trash the constitution to prevent terrorism, but seem to have little inclination to alter their way of life to even slightly mitigate Global Warming?

For a long time I thought it was the drama of the event.  Terrorist attacks have high drama, and place eternal scars on our psyches.  The events of September 11 will be a bleeding wound on the American soul for a generation.  (And that is an understandable thing, read my last blog post; there are many things I still can’t talk about relating to that event)  Global warming is not overtly as dramatic; it is a slow, creeping change.

But is it really?  Katrina, Ike, Irene, Lee, all of these hurricanes have been intensified or influenced by global warming.  Rising sea levels threaten to displace maybe as many as one billion people. (That is billion with a B)  Entire species, including man, face the possibility of being wiped out.  That’s pretty dramatic.

And our response, if we even have one, is to demand drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.  Like little children, we stick our fingers in our ears and scream no.. no.. no.  We throw tantrums of denial. 

We have to satisfy our carbon addiction.  Gasoline is our heroin and our SUV’s are the syringe.

So, again, why are we willing to give up so much in the face of terrorism, but not willing to do so to slow Global Warming?  Even if Global Warming has only a 10% chance of being caused by people, isn’t it imperative that we act?  What level of risk is no longer acceptable?

The answer that I have come up with disturbs me.  If I am right, it shows a cynicism bordering on evil.  I hope this is not the real answer, but this answer fits the available data, and that scares me.

Fighting terrorism asks the people to sacrifice their freedoms; they have to accept drastic impositions on their way of life.  Fighting Global Warming asks the Masters of the Universe to sacrifice their profit margins; they have to accept regulations and impositions on the way they run their businesses.

The first, I fear, is quite acceptable to the existing power structure, in fact, it might even enhance it, the second, totally unacceptable.  As a proof of this fact, look at Europe, where corporations have far less power and influence in the halls of government.  Europeans, on the whole, tend to accept global warming and have enacted legislation to start to mitigate it.  There are global warming skeptics there, but typically they have less voice, or will admit that maybe we should do something just in case.

In America, the Tea Party is demanding rollbacks of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.  They scream the regulation of industry is killing jobs.  Apparently breathable air and drinkable water are luxuries we cannot afford, anymore than we can afford the luxury of being able to keep our shoes on in airport security lines.  Survival as a species is not acceptable if it cuts into profit margins.

Really?  Is this where we are as a people?  If it actually is, maybe we deserve what we are doing to ourselves.  We can’t kill nature, it will survive us, despite our best efforts.  We are only killing ourselves.

Crying as the earth cries out
Weeping as the land decays
Wonder if I could have helped
Maybe I'd have found a way
Poison lies too close to us
Reach across the salt and sand
Moving deeper into the land

Cling to the branch of a tree
That was waiting for
Something to preach
Someone to teach
The Word was the first
And the last to be heard
From the branch of the tree
It was praying for me to fall down

          Arena – The Hanging Tree from the Album “The Visitor”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9/11

A photo of the makeshift memorial at St. Paul's Church.  I took this photo in January 2002

I wrote this short piece in September of 2009.  Now a full ten years after the horror of 9/11, I would like to share it.  The Cordlandt street station was on the east side of the World Trade Center, and unlike the station directly under Ground Zero, suffered relatively little damage, especially considering the devastation that existed just feet away. 

There are many things I saw, and stories I heard, in the days after 9/11 that I can’t share, not yet at least.  But this fragment I can share.  It remains one of the most haunting scenes I remember from that time.

Riding through Cordlandt Street Station in the days after 9/11 was a surreal experience.  There was no overt damage, no blood, no scorch marks, no smoke blackening, nothing but plain white subway tiles.  The only indication of the devastation that lay just beyond the cool white tiles and the harsh fluorescent light was the bracing, simple wooden beams that supported the weight of a collapsing world.  The only memorial was a single American flag.  The only remembrances of death were the spray painted notes left by rescue workers.

The passageway on the west side of the platform was boarded up, sealing out the horror, or maybe sealing it in.  In truth, the station now looks more like you would expect it to have looked on September 12, since they have started the renovation of the platforms.

The actual damage then was psychological more than physical.  In January of 2002, just after the N-R line reopened, I rode through the station in the middle of the night.  I was the only one in my car, maybe the only living soul on the entire train.  As the train rounded the curve into the station, the squeal of the wheels echoed the screams of the dead and dying.  In the cold light of the platform, the emptiness haunted me, as surely as the ghosts of the thousands who once stood on that platform, and never would again. 

As we came into the station, the train paused, as if it remembered that it should stop there, and for a moment, forgetting what had happened.  In a way it was a fitting moment of silence, honoring lives lost, lives changed, pausing as the nation paused on that terrible day.  And then the train, and the city, moved on into the dark, and into the light of the next stop.

The Sins of Sins


Failure to account for the Seven Deadly’s will defeat all pure economic systems.  (And to avoid an accusation of religious bias, these concepts exist in most of the world’s major religions.)  No model system is invulnerable to these pressures.  Feudalism failed due to cruelty, communism fell to sloth and capitalism is being sacrificed upon the altar of greed. 

The medieval serf lived under the knout, and even relatively recent psychological experiments have shown that modern human is still more than willing to inflict cruelty, which is an aspect of wrath, on their fellows when ordered.  (For an example of this phenomenon, refer to the Milgram Experiment.)  The Soviet worker, without incentive became unproductive, and an elaborate, and again vicious, totalitarian system was required to keep the country functioning.  Both systems were unsustainable and collapsed because of human nature.

Capitalism is currently destabilizing because of greed and envy.  Greed has taken the brakes off of the system, envy has created a consumer economy built on keeping up with, or surpassing, the Jonses.  Income disparity in America is at its highest level in a century, and the middle class is being forced out of existence.

The wealthy are repeating the pattern that occurs at the end of every empire, where the self styled “Masters of the Universe,” are finished with the current superpower, and proceed to rape out all of the assets from the fading nation, to take and invest in the new place of interest.  This process is detailed in Morris Berman’s book “Dark Ages America.” 

This can be seen in the drive to outsource jobs, relocate companies, and sell off assets.  When the economic powers are done with a place, they will not come back.  This happened in Rome, Spain, Holland and England.  The Empire is still respected to a certain extent, as a doddery old country, but they never again stride on the world stage.  Greed drives this migration.  When the capitalist interests realize there are more profits to be made elsewhere, they move on like a swarm of locusts.  It is natural.

Envy also is destabilizing capitalism.  It is one thing to consume; almost all economic systems are based on this.  (I’m sure that a non-consumer system could be envisioned, but I’m not sure that it would be an economic system in the strictest sense of the word.)  Envy is the sin that drives people to desire the best, newest, fanciest thing out there, even to the point of disposing of something just because a newer version came out.  (You can find first generation iPads on e-bay for under $200.00)  This pure consumer, envy driven, model is not sustainable.  If nothing else, resources will run out.

Envy also has a more subversive side, one that is not overtly recognized as an aspect of the sin, but when you look at St. Thomas Aquinas’ description of the sin, it becomes very clear.  Invidia also causes people to block other people’s access to the things they have.  With envy, it is not enough for you to have something, you need to make sure that no one else has it either.  In the United States, this has created a perfect storm, where the right blocks access to resources, like education, that would help the poor better their situation, and the left then gives them welfare, which makes striving to improve a zero sum game.  (in other words, it encourages Sloth.  The Seven Deadly’s just keep cropping up everywhere.)

Now back to the original point about economic systems.  They are pure systems, not practical blueprints to build a country, or a world.  The problem with a pure system is that it is a pure system, unadulterated by human failings and unwilling to accept that people typically act in their own self interest, and that self interest is rarely even enlightened.  People act in ways that are best for them at the moment, aspects of lust, gluttony and pride, more Deadly’s, seem to show up everywhere we turn.

Is there a solution to this?  Possibly.

First, people need to recognize that an ideologically pure system is not practical for the real world.  (This litmus test of purity will be further addressed in a future blog post.)  No system can exist in a vacuum.

Second, people need to stop conflating economic systems with political systems.  Communism was not a description of the governmental system of the Soviet Union, it was there economic system.  Their governmental system was Totalitarian.  (Although on paper, it was technically a democracy, even though the Soviets never actually had free elections)  Capitalism does not require a democracy or a republic, just look at Central America, or the New China.  The only economic system that conflates political power with economics is Fascism.  (And then only in some definitions.  Pure Fascism is the control of the economy by corporations.)  Detaching economic theory from governmental theory would free both of them.

Third, people need to fight against the Seven Deadly’s.  This is not advocating a specific religion, or even the necessity of religion, Aristotle created a very significant ethical framework separate from morality.  That said, people need to strive to overcome the demons of their lesser natures, and try to be better than they are, to transcend the petty emotions and impulses that limit them.

It starts with each of us.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Free Will in Anti-Abortion Alley


Today, driving through Kansas, I drove through what I term Anti-Abortion Alley.  For somewhere around 300 miles of I-70, anti-abortion, pro-life, billboards or road signs appear on average every quarter of a mile.  Given the shear number of signs, they tend to be very repetitive, with the most common three being: “Adoption, Not Abortion;” “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart;” and “Be Glad Your Mom Chose Life.”  There are other signs, but these three dominate.  Some signs are not overtly Anti-Abortion, except when viewed in the context of the other signs.  An example of this would be “Know Jesus, Know Peace.  John 3:16”

Kansas is the Har Meggiddo of the Abortion War, ground zero in the battle for reproductive rights.  It is the home of the assassination of George Tiller, the Westboro Baptist Church and some of the most restrictive legislation enacted since the decision in Roe V Wade should have rendered the point moot.

In this battle, people focus on these questions: “Is abortion murder, is a fetus (or embryo) morally the same as a baby, when does life begin?”

There are no answers to these questions.  The world is not black and white, it isn’t even shades of gray, it is brilliant polychromatic Technicolor.  It is not Kansas, it is OZ.

And Humans have free will.

They have Free Will to find a solution to a dilemma, not from questionable interpretation of a two thousand year old book, but from the circumstances of the issue at hand.  Humans have the gift, or maybe curse, of being able to analyze a situation, weigh the pros and cons, assess the impacts of various solutions, chart a course based on available information,and then follow through with the best option, even if it is the best of a bad lot.

And Free Will is the core of this, and many other, conflicts.

I have had arguments with some Fundamentalists who say, “You have Free Will to make only one choice, and that is to give your will over to God.”

Really?  God gave us free will only to rush out and give it up as soon as possible?  (Like something else we seem to be in such a hurry to get rid of?)

The problem with that is that it is too easy, to pat of an answer, and one not worthy of an Entity dubbed a supreme being.  If God only wanted humans to give up free will, why give it to them in the first place?  I know, the Fundamentalist answer is, “to tempt them,” but to me that is only one small step removed from pre-destination.  If God is omniscient, He already knows the answer to your choice, so He is allowing a large segment of the population to Damn themselves.  At least He is, if that is the limit of choices of Free Will.

I do not think any Deity, especially one that is supposed to be loving, would create such a stark choice.

Free Will is not an easy choice.  It is a choice rooted in contextualism.  What is acceptable in a certain situation is not in another.  In war, it is OK to commit murder, in fact, it may even be worthy of a Medal of Honor.  It is not OK to murder a doctor in the middle of a church, no matter how much you may disagree with the doctor’s actions.  That’s context.

Free will is the ultimate understanding of actions in context.  This is not to be confused with its close cousin, moral relativism.  Context is an understanding that something that may be acceptable in certain, clearly defined, circumstances, may be utterly wrong in a different situation. 

We have free will to make those choices.  Sometimes we make the right one, sometimes we make the wrong one, but unless you are in the situation and understand the complete context, you cannot make a blanket statement about the morality of a choice.

And to further the argument, when you take the choice and the free will away, through legislation or intimidation, you remove the very decisions and judgments that, perhaps, God wants us to make. 

Sometimes, abortion is probably not the ethical or moral choice, sometimes, it probably is.  Its morality is purely dependent on context.  God does not create simple problems.  There are no easy answers, and often there is not a truly right answer, just a best option.  That is life, ethics and morality in a complex and dynamic world.

Remember we live in OZ, the world has color, even if it is sometimes jarring.

There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance
A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance

A planet of play things
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
'The stars aren't aligned
Or the gods are malign...'
Blame is better to give than receive

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill

            - Rush: Freewill