Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Grease III

Things are looking a little better today.

The Dow has jumped up 80 pts. already this morning, on news that Kindaloser Ricepuffs put out a peace feeler toward Iran.

The price of crude oil dropped over a dollar immediately, which caused the market to spike. Simple cause and effect.

OK, panel, what's the one crucial factor in today's economy? You know, the one analysts try to avoid talking about.

Do you suppose Bushco has figured out that we'd be better off if there was peace in the Middle East?

Do you think they're smart enough to make peace with Hugo Chavez? (Probably not.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More Roar

A recent Beliefnet thread exulted in the American economy, which was said to be "roaring." It's roaring all right -- in agony.

Today's stock market news from the Associated Press: "Higher oil prices and sliding consumer confidence sent stocks plunging Tuesday as a weak sales report from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. raised concerns about discretionary spending. The Dow Jones industrial skidded almost 185 points."

Just how high are those persistently elevated oil prices? Today's close was 72 bucks a barrel, which means the price of gas will remain about where it is for the forseeable future, exerting inflationary pressure on all other goods and services across the economic spectrum. The oil market is nervous: "Some of the top international concerns keeping prices elevated include diplomatic tensions between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear goals, violence in Nigeria and rising energy demand in China."

The drop in consumer confidence in May was "the steepest since hurricanes pummeled the Gulf Coast last year."

However there is hope. As Atrios puts it so well, "Republicans are apparently pushing the 'economy is great and voters are too stupid to know it' line. That's a great strategy.

"Look, wages have been flat for years and we're reaching what is hopefully the tail end of a decades-long systematic undermining of various elements of our society/economy which provided the middle class with a bit of economic security. All politicians needs (sic) to begin to understand that simple fact."

Atrios is referring, of course, to the systemic legal massacre of unions, the neocons' favor-the-rich tax code, and the exporting of decent jobs. I hope he's right, that this deliberate economic strangulation of the middle class will soon come to an end.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's socialist caudillo Sr. Chavez took another step toward becoming the U.S.'s absentee landlord.

Cactus Garden

It's heating up in Desert Hot Springs, but the mornings are still clear, calm, cool, and beautful. Between six and eight I try to get out and work a little bit in the tin shack's cactus garden, which is this place's main attraction and chief delight. A little bit of work tends to produce great results.

I've spent the last couple of days cutting back some of the desert foxtails, because they tend to take over and crowd out everything else. I'd dig them out, but they're too well rooted, and digging out just one of them messed up my back for half a week. I understand they're a non-native, and it's always those interlopers that seem to thrive obnoxiously.

Other than the unwanted or barely tolerated foxtails, the garden is mostly populated by beautiful beavertail cacti, which are blooming right now and grow very tall (up to ten feet), and the handsome but hazardous Mojave yucca, appropriately nicknamed the Spanish dagger. Freeing the latter from the overgrowth of the ubiquitous foxtail is a dangerous job. Also, I have to work close to the dagger to release my garden from the nefarious grip of a tubular weed whose name I don't know, and which grows large enough to become a tree in which birds nest. It produces a nasty, viscous, milky sap when cut.

Also today, I pulled out the dopey looking artificial sunflowers from an oak tub in the driveway, and transplanted two droopy-looking aloe vera cacti into it. These poor souls were languishing in a shady spot, and getting overwatered by the automatic sprinkler. I shoveled a little sand into the dark dirt already in the tub, and left it in full sunlight, where it will heat up to 120 in the afternoon. I'll never water those aloes; they'll get 14 hours of direct sunlight a day, and they'll love it, and thrive.

Now it's two in the afternoon, and I've communed with the plants, so it's time to walk out in the desert and talk to the animals. The Mojave is bursting with the infant life of newborns right now. Dozens of tiny cottontail bunnies dodge in front of your car whenever you drive down the dirt road, so you have to go slow, and the strings of newborn quail, smaller than ping-pong balls with feet, single file across, following one parent while the other brings up the rear. I suspect this is also the coyotes' whelping time, but I'm not sure. I have a pair of doves nesting in the one of the garden's trees.

You wouldn't think a place like the Mojave could be so full of life. If I can ever figure out how to post pictures on this stupid blog, I'll have plenty to put up.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Remembering Don Nelson

In order to more fully understand Don's contribution to the Palm Springs Alano Club and the community, I interviewed Tom T., one of the 22 people Don was sponsoring at the time he passed away.

DAVE B: Was Don your first sponsor?

TOM T: Yes, my first and only, from September of '85.

DAVE B: Did he know who you were when you first hooked up with him?

TOM T: Oh yeah. He and I used to drink together. One time we rode our Harley-Davidsons through the Riviera Hotel with the cops chasing us.

But once we sobered up it was different, and if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here. He had that way about him, that he could sit somebody down and talk to him the way I do when I respect somebody. And he told me, "You've got to listen, or you're gonna die." So thanks to him, I'm still here, and I consider myself a walking miracle.

DAVE B: What kind of sponsor was he, the compassionate type or a disciplinarian?

TOM T: He was whatever he needed to be. He was compassionate with people who needed compassion, he was soft when a person needed somebody to be soft with them, or he could be absolutely ruthless.

Once I told him, "Sometimes I hurt people's feelings, and I don't want to."

He said, "No, you don't. The thing you have to understand is that God works through people. When a cop stops you and throws you in jail, that's God's doing, and the cop may not enjoy doing that, but it's necessary. You may feel like you hurt people's feelings, but what you don't realize at the same time is how many people you've helped.

DAVE B: So you learned the techniques of sponsorship from Don.

TOM T: Oh, sure. And my big thing was always, "How come they don't listen?" Because I always listened. But he told me, "If you keep repeating they'll eventually listen, but only if you've got something to say."

DAVE B: Do you still consider him your sponsor?

TOM T: Oh yes, and he always will be.

Not long ago, just before he died, I called him on a Monday evening, about four or five o' clock, like I did all the time, and he said "I'm eating," and hung up the phone. And he had never done that to me in the 18 or 19 years we'd been together, and it really upset me, because by that time I didn't call him every day, just when I had a problem. So I went over to his house and asked him why he hung up on me.

And he said, "What was your problem? Did you solve it?"

"Yeah, I took care of it," I told him, "but I needed your help." So then he asked me, "What would you do if I wasn't here? Did you know you're the most inconsiderate son of a bitch who ever lived? In all these years, have you ever once asked me who my sponsor is?"

I said, "Well, no Don, I guess I haven't. Who is it?"

He said, "I'm going to go see him in a little while. That's who it is."

That was the last one-on-one, extended conversation I had with him.

DAVE B: Was that the last time you saw him?

TOM T: No. The morning before he died I was down here, and he was standing in the club room door with a cane looking out over the place, and he said, "Remember when there wasn't a parking lot here?" At that point Mark had just finished putting the new tile on the floor, and he was looking at that and said, "You know, we've come a long way."

He had always said he wasn't going to die until this place was finished. And that morning he says to me, "Well, Tom, it's done," just like that, and then he turned to me and said, "and you'd better keep it this way."

DAVE B: If he was still here and he had one thing to say to the people who are keeping this place alive, what would it be?

TOM T: "It's your job."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Al Gore -- Candidate

With the release of his global warming book and now the movie "An Inconvenient Truth," Gore has become the Democratic candidate for president in 2008.

Makes no difference whether he wants it or not.

Gore takes no prisoners in proving that the silly notion that global warming is "not a serious problem," eagerly promoted by right-wing greedheads, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, concocted by sellout scientists who are also whores for the energy industry, particularly Exxon-Mobil.

For a good example of this, see the notoriously corrupted Idso brothers.

Gore's refusal to soft-pedal the truth puts him at odds with most of the Democratic "mainstream," and that's a good thing. The progressive wing of the party may not have the power to dictate a candidate, but we do have enough clout to veto anyone who's unacceptable.

A perfect example of unacceptable is Hillary Clinton, currently busy triangulating her silly ass off, attempting to accommodate the halfwit wing of the conservative movement by taking a courageous stand against flag burning.

Flag burning is the original non-issue, a "hot-button" mindless grunt, designed to distract ordinary people from reflecting on the fact that they're getting screwed by the war, the tax code, and environmental degradation brought on them by big money, i.e., the corporate monster.

Gore called the Iraq War right six months before it started. He'll brush aside the stupid "wedge issues" such as gay marriage and prayer in the schools and concentrate on addressing what's really wrong: who's getting screwed and who's doing the screwing.

Most important, he'll have a plan. He always does.

In the end the Democrats will turn to him, because there is nobody else.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"The Passion" Redux

Now that "Da Vinci" has been released the debate over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is pretty passe. Problem is I never saw "The Passion." I refused to see it when it came out because of what I'd heard about it.

Being one Jesus movie behind and not up on the current debate, I decided to catch up, so yesterday I rented and watched "The Passion."

It's a very, very good film. Mel Gibson is an intelligent, film-wise, hard-working director, and his attention to detail -- costuming, architecture, the gruesome and intimate physical special effects, and especially his decision to script in Aramaic and Latin, give the production an atmosphere of authenticity, and convey the impression of witnessing the actual events that's lacking in all previous Jesus movies.

Creating the illusion of reality is what drama and film are all about. Why are critics so upset then, when Mel Gibson has succeeded so admirably in his purpose?

They're upset, of course, because the story and the message are the straight Christian Gospel version of the history of these events, which is to say propaganda and speculation instead of real history. But that's another debate and another issue, and has nothing to do with the quality and integrity of the film itself -- of the medium by which the propaganda is delivered.

Film buffs don't knock Leni Riefenstahl because she was a Nazi. So why should they attack Gibson for being a devoted and passionate Christian?

Criticism of "The Passion" has tended to confuse the two issues, with people saying, "Oh, that's a lousy movie" because they don't like the ideology. I'm with them in disagreeing with the ideology, but I think this is a terrific movie.

It's not for the faint-hearted. This is a splatter flick, and the emphasis is on the torture and sadism inflicted on Yeshua, the physical details of his death, and the effect these things had on both his tormenters and those who loved him.

It's an emotional film. The viewer can't help but come away saddened and upset from seeing this kind of physical and psychological torture, but that's necessary to Gibson's and Christianity's message: Jesus's suffering is by extension the suffering of every innocent person who has ever been physically abused, mocked, spat upon, and killed by an enraged and frightened authority, terrified by the very innocence of its victims.

And that's appropriate, because Christianity's appeal, at bottom, is emotional, not intellectual. The Christ cult is based on mystery, and not intelligible by rational analysis.

I recommend "The Passion," but only if you've got a strong stomach and only if you're willing to accept it on its own, and Gibson's terms, rather than criticizing Gibson for not making the movie you would have preferred to see.

Gibson, naturally, will tell you that he has presented the proven facts, but that's the same old debate we've been having about the Gospel "truth" for two hundred years, and it has nothing to do with the integrity of this film. The problem with Christianity is it can't be authenticated by neutral sources, and therefore remains an assertion, not an argument. "The Passion of the Christ" is the latest and most skilfully designed version of this assertion.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Absentee Landlord

In yesterday's post I mentioned the huge Alberta tar sands and the role Canadian heavy oil will certainly play in our future.

However, Canadian heavy oil would cost a little more to extract and refine than the Venezuelan stuff -- $28/bbl versus $22/bbl, according to reporter Greg Palast.

I also don't know if the Canadians have a long-term exploitation plan. But El Presidente Hugo Chavez has plans galore, you bet.

When Palast interviewed him last month, Chavez said he plans to make the U.S. and other big oil importers an offer they can't refuse: a locked-in price of $50/bbl. This would tempt the oil companies into investing the 40 billion required for extracting and refining the heavy stuff. It would also cause Venezuela's oil profits to shoot up to 91 billion a year.

And Hugo has plans for all that money. Already he's loaning more money to Latin American countries than the U.S. -- 2.4 billion versus 1.7 billion last year. He also bought 2-1/2 billion in Argentine bonds last year, so that government could dodge the "austerity measures" the U.S.'s pet pit bull, the International Monetary Fund, wanted to lay on it.

Chavez wants to kill the IMF and replace it with something called the International Humanitarian Fund. Sounds nice anyway.

And he's also plotting to influence the U.S. economy in another way. Up until now, the House of Saud has sunk most of the oil money they've got from us back into the U.S., by buying T-bills and such and floating our debt. Chavez won't do that. He'll take his profits elsewhere. Last year besides showering other Latin countries with money, he withdrew 30 billions that Venezuela had invested in Federal Reserve banks.

If he's able to control the ebb and flow of America's economic destiny in the powerful and fundamental manner he has in mind, the socialist caudillo of Venezuela might well become the de facto head of our government. At the very least he'd be an absentee landlord.

On the one hand he'd be the U.S.'s primary supplier of the life's blood of the automobile economy because he'd be giving us a huge discount, 50-dollar oil equals two-dollar gas to keep the wheels of the retail and construction industries moving. On the other hand he'd refuse to underwrite our reckless and prodigal national credit-card habit, forcing Congress to live within its means at the same time it pays down the ruinous debts racked up by the Bush II regime.

George Bush and whatever unfortunate follows him into the White House might shit little bricks at Chavez's impertinent bid to dictate U.S. policy, but a war of wits between Bush and Chavez would be like pitting the Akron University Zips football team against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Zips -- and Bush -- would be well advised not to show up.

And the same goes for any kind of policy confrontation between the socialist Chavez, who'd be using all that oil money he gets from us to invest in public sector schemes throughout Latin America, and the U.S.'s high priests and shamans of the Blessed Free Market and their Prophet (blessed be his name) Adam Smith. No contest.

As for the neocon war morons, who think the U.S. is the "New Rome" and possesses some sort of inherent right to global domination, they'll need to just fuck off and die, as we should have caused to happen when they first popped out of John Hurt's chest and reared their alien heads. We won't have the money for such foolishness when Chavez is dicating our economy. At least that's his plan.

As Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out in "The Decline of American Power" and his other books, empires a) sap the vitality and resources of the societies who attempt to establish and maintain them, and b) are a sign of weakness rather than strength. Those in the know are smart enough to realize that you don't need to conquer a territory to dominate it, and you can save yourself the trouble and expense of invading by just economically dominating the target society, as the British did in Latin America in the 19th century, and as Hugo Chavez plans to do to us now.

He'd be doing us a favor. No more would we be able to act like global mafioso, sending our enforcers into those parts of the world who refused to knuckle under to our childish and ignorant dream of global domination. There'd be no more chasing of mideast oil, and Israel would have to fend for herself, meaning she'd finally have to cut a deal with the Arabs and stop demonizing them.

We'd be forced to pay our bills and play that game adults play called give-and-take. The big, bad U.S.A. would have to become just another one of the little Indians.

That's Hugo Chavez's long-term plan for us. And he'll know when he's accomplished it, because Hugo knows an Indio when he sees one. He's one himself.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Heavy Duty

What country has the world's largest oil reserves? Saudi? Iraq? Russia? Nope, nope, and nope.

Actually, it kind of depends on what you mean by "oil." Up until now, that noun referred primarily to the light, sweet crude that comes bubbling up out of the ground with very little effort when you tap into it. The really heavy, ugly, tarry stuff didn't count. Who wanted it?

Now all that has changed. The last great hoard of untapped light sweet is Iraq, and Iraqi oil production is kind of, umm...out of comission right now. Saudi Arabia is running out of the stuff, and although the super-secret Saudi government has kept the lid on information about its real reserves, it's known to be pumping huge amounts of sea water into the Ghawar field, the largest ever, to extract what's left.

Iran, Russia, the U.S., Nigeria, the British North Sea, all are well past their production peaks.

That means the future belongs to heavy oil, which has to be forced out of the ground via an expensive process that involves injecting steam into the wells. What comes out isn't oil, but a dirty goo -- you could almost call it oil "ore" -- which then must be pressure cooked. More expense, but at the end you finally do get oil, which can be refined into gasoline and pumped into American vehicles, so American drivers can continue commuting from Park View Lake or Lake View Park or View Park Lake or Lake Park View to downtown Shitapolis or wherever, and drive to Wal-Mart to buy more Chinese tchotkes or taxi the kids to soccer practice on the weekend. But at a much higher price. But we knew that.

So don't panic. The news is we can continue with our prodigal, ugly, wasteful way of life, based on automobiles and oil and the construction of new, beige subdivisions and strip malls, which is, incidentally, monkeywrenching the global climate and poisoning our dear mother earth. But why dwell on it? Let's have a party.

So, from the top, what country has the world's largest oil reserves? Canada has really big ones in the Alberta tar sands, but by far the biggest are in Venezuela.

The winner is...Hugo Chavez!

And he knows it. And on June 1 when he hosts the opening of this year's OPEC conference, he plans to demand that the cartel officially recognize a quadrupling of Venezuela's reserve capacity, from 77 billion to 312 billion barrels, which would make Venezuela the lead OPEC country, and make Chavez the most powerful head of government in the world.

"Nonsense" says Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi national security adviser. "Harumph harumph," say American oil company executives. But Chavez's contention is backed up by documentation from the the Bush administration's own Energy Information Agency (EIA).

I guess there is some justice in the world. How ironic that American foreign policy, which for the last 60 years has been driven by obsession with the middle east and middle eastern oil, and has come to grief in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, should now find itself blind-sided by a guy who wants to do away with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and replace them with his own kinder, gentler, more socialistic lending agency.

I don't want to get into an appraisal of Chavez here. I have mixed feelings about him, and I think it's always dangerous when one person gains as much power as he has, even if that person is St. Francis.

If you want to find out more about Chavez, I'd suggest Alma Guillermoprieto's two-part profile of him that ran in the New York Review of Books in October of last year. It's available on line, but no, I'm not going to look up the link for you. Look it up yourself. I guarantee you, if you read all of both those articles, you'll end up knowing more about Chavez than you wanted to know. Wouldn't hurt, though, since he's going to be the most powerful person on earth before too long.

But will the world be better off when the most powerful person in it is Hugo Chavez rather than George W. Bush? No doubt about it.

Resources: "Heavy Hitter: The End of Cheap Oil and the Rise of the House of Chavez," by Greg Palast in Harper's magazine, June, 2006, pages 66 and 67.

"Don't Cry for Me, Venezuela," by Alma Guillermoprieto in the New York Review of Books, October 6, 2005 (Part 1 of a 2-part profile of Chavez, available on line).

"The Gambler," by Alma Guillermoprieto in the the New York Review of Books, October 20, 2005 (Part 2 of a 2-part profile of Chavez, available on line).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Rice Puffs

A few minutes ago on "Press the Meet" with Tim "Echolalia" Russert, Kindaloser Ricepuffs said:

"In 2003 everybody thought Iraq had WMD's."

She also puffed strenuously when Russert disagreed, and contradicted her.

If "everybody thought such-and-such," then there would be no indisputible evidence to the contrary.

The evidence is from 3/18/03. It proves beyond doubt that what some of us everybodies knew was that Saddam had a missile with a range of several hundred miles and some balsa wood reconnaissance drones.

Maybe we were scared of his aluminum tubes.

Tom Tomorrow is great, and he also speaks to the subject of revising the old lies with new ones in a vain attempt to appear less of a liar.

What Ricepuffs said this morning was actually the revised revised revised story.

The story was Saddam has WMD.

The revised story was he has WMD, we just haven't found them yet (or as the Reichskoanmeister, the mad Dr. Rumsfeld put it, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence").

The revised revised story was he doesn't have WMD; he did have them, but shipped them to Syria for safekeeping.

The revised revised revised story is he didn't have them, but "everybody thought" he did.

Hey, nobody's perfect. I mean, everybody makes, like, mistakes y'know.

Our fascist overlords have already got the two-way telescreens working. They really need to fire up the memory hole or they'll never get the Fuhrer's popularity ratings back up.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Breaking Codes

Earlier this year the New York Times published a critique of "The Da Vinci Code" by art critic and Renaissance expert Bruce Boucher, who observed that author Dan Brown's "shaky" understanding of his topic is revealed by his apparent ignorance of the fact that "Da Vinci" was not the artist's name. "Vinci" is simply where Leonardo was from.

Boucher mockingly suggested that "The Da Vinci Code" would make a better opera than a film. "If it's too silly to be said," he concluded, "it can always be sung." (Quoted in Peter J. Boyer, "Hollywood Heresy," in the New Yorker, 5/22/06.)

Because Brown's work is so transparently without factual foundation that it can be impeached just on the basis of surface analysis, we can safely dismiss his entire boatload of idle speculation, that Christianity is history's greatest con job, that "everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false," as one of the main characters says, that Jesus was a women's liberationist wed to Mary of Magdala, that he preached a message harmonious with goddess worship, that all this knowledge was deliberately hidden by an evil and counterfeit Church, using the secret order Opus Dei as its instrument of repression, and that the truth was handed down through the generations by a few illuminati only to be encoded centuries later in the work of the Renaissance artist Leonardo (from Vinci).

What debaters on both sides of "Da Vinci Code" frequently miss is that there is no evidence for any of this, except hypothesized and very questionable conclusions drawn from cryptic and vague symbols in a few five-century-old paintings. Lacking any evidence whatsoever, the only one of Brown's contentions that withstands scrutiny is the one that condemns Christianity as history's greatest con job, but no thanks to him.

Like Dan Brown, Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) decided that Jesus's followers didn't understand the rabbi's true significance, which he saw as the redeeming and symbolic meaning of of his life and death, as a divine sacrifice "for us." God, said Paul, had sent Jesus to earth to save us (thereby founding Christianity). But what evidence did Paul have for such a claim? Jesus's disciples, the ones who knew him while he was alive, seem to have thought nothing of the sort.

Author and Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby observes that "We must remember that Jesus never knew Paul; the two men never once met...Paul claimed that his interpretations were not just his own invention, but had come to him by personal inspiration; he claimed that he had personal acquaintance with the resurrected Jesus, even though he had never met him during his lifetime. Such acquaintance, he claimed, gained through visions and transports, was actually superior to acquaintance with Jesus during his lifetime, when Jesus was much more reticent about his purposes." (Maccoby, "The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity," HarperSanFrancisco, 1986, pps. 3-4.)

Life would be a lot easier if Dan Brown would admit, and if St. Paul had admitted in his own time, that we really hardly know anything at all about Jesus. Speculation about his marital status and his own view of his mission are just that -- speculation. We have no idea whether he was married or not (although some evidence in the Gospel Mark suggests his contemporaries thought of him as a party animal). At one time he probably asked some of his disciples who they thought he was, but there is no reliable record of who he thought he was, or what he did for a living, or what his life was like before he began preaching. We have only a few sayings of his, the certainty that he lived and preached for a brief time in Judea, and the vague record of his death by execution in Jerusalem, under the provincial governor Pilate.

Through all this we miss the most important thing about him: that he told us to be kind to each other, and love the neighbor as we do our own selves, to avoid being judgmental. He took this philosophy to an extreme, and advised us that if someone breaks into your house and steals all your stuff, not to ask for it back.

If we wholeheartedly practiced that simple message (and I don't, nor do I know anyone who does) rather than looking for the secret code that will reveal the real meaning of something that really should be as obvious as a garbage can, we wouldn't have time for idle speculation.

Five hundred years before Jesus and considerably east of Judea, there was another preacher who lived, died, left only a few sayings, and gave rise to a great body of mythology concerning his life. Some of his sayings are so similar to what Jesus preached that, as inevitably happens, a gaggle of silly speculators has concluded that Jesus must have traveled to India and learned his philosophy there, from the spiritual heirs of the Buddha. Talk about missing the point.

The Buddha said: "Let us, then, abandon the heresy of worshiping (the gods) and of praying to (them); let us no longer lose ourselves in vain speculations of profitless subtleties; let us surrender self and all selfishness, and as all things are fixed by causation, let us practice good so that good may result from our actions."

What a concept! We can be good by doing good. Could this be the big secret "The Da Vinci Code" was looking for?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Dueling Delusions

Most of us enjoy fantasizing. Some take it to extremes. A few are completely overtaken by their rich fantasy lives, and their imaginations begin to elbow aside the mundane, monotonous, harsh, and endless petty realities of daily life, rendering the obsessive daydreamer delusional.

On rare occasions, such a deluded soul, if competent enough to have mastered the rudiments of written language, lays out his or her hallucination in a book. The delusion by this time is evolved into a grand system which solves all philosophical questions and is the balm for all the troubled world's problems. And once in a great while such a book takes the world by storm.

Such was the case with Ignatius Donnelly, a progressive politician who nonetheless reflected the racism and cultural chauvinism of his day when he concocted his grand theory of the caucasian origin of all civilization in Atlantis: the Antediluvian World. Based on an optimistic interpretation of a vague passage by Plato and supported by no tangible evidence, Donnelly's tissue of overheated fantasies is still seriously debated even today (see the Amazon reviews), showing the degree to which rubes and naifs are willing to believe anything they wish was true.

Donnelly's hallucination appeared three decades after the perpetration of the greatest fantasy/hoax in American history, when an impoverished teen-ager, Joseph Smith, discovered a stack of cryptic golden plates in a secret cave in Cumorah Hill in upstate New York. The discovery, of course, was only in his mind, but a visit to that fertile ground by an angel named (suitably) Moroni enabled Smith to "translate" the plates, and resulted in the Book of Mormon, the state of Utah, and the Amana appliances line.

But I don't have the time or space to talk about the ridiculous Mormon religion, because the fantasy du jour, is "The Da Vinci Code," a silly book by one Dan Brown which has now undergone that most crucial transformation and become a "Hollywood blockbuster." From the looks of the early reviews, however, the only blocks this turkey is going to bust are the heads of gullible readers and cinema enthusiasts ignorant enough to have credited Brown's ludicrous fantasy, which is made even more preposterous by its projection of present-day social and political styles, fads, and concerns onto the ancient landscape of first-century Palestine and Judea, medieval Europe, and Renaissance Italy.

What makes "Da Vinci" interesting is not the fact that it's an attack on Christianity generally, for there have been many of those, or on the Catholic Church specifically, since there is an American tradition of anti-Catholicism as well. The essential and highly ironic feature of "Da Vinci" I find most interesting is that it's a fantasy attacking a fantasy. Apparently we're so stressed and emotionally incapacitated by the wretched state of the world we live in, by the horrors of modern-day American civic life, and by our frightening prospects for the future, that we have to distract ourselves with dueling hallucinations.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee decided to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee had spoiled his nice new rattle.

That Christianity is based on fantasy and fabrication has been known for some time to anyone who has researched the history of the Christ cult and has any capacity for moral and intellectual honesty. The Jesus of Christianity is a product hallucinated by a hellenized Jew, Saul of Tarsus, whom we know as St. Paul, and first preached at Antioch in Syria, some twenty years after the death of the the itinerant and unorthodox rabbi Saul took as his "savior," Yeshu bin Yusuf.

Saul apparently was incapacitated by an ecstatic vision in which he saw a god who combined the person of Yeshu with the traits of the Greek resurrection god, Dionysius. (Nobody has yet written the monograph, "Jesus and Dionysius," but someone should.) He also had the chutzpah to refer to himself as one of Jesus's disciples, despite the fact that he never met the man except in his hallucinations.

As we all know, it was Saul of Tarsus's version of Jesus that won out over all the other competing philosophies that the charismatic rabbi left in his wake.

Yeshu and his original followers would have been horrified by the blasphemous notion that the rabbi, unorthodox as he was, might be proclaimed a divinity, even the divinity. For a Jew, such megalomanical pretense -- claiming to be God -- was the kind of stupid and deluded thing their enemies, the Roman emperors did.

Paul, though perhaps more sincere and certainly more justified (due to his very real epiphany) in his belief than Dan Brown is in his, was guilty of the same sort of mischief. I'll have more to say on this topic tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Best Laid Plans of Rodents and Primates

For years I worked toward retirement, and laid the plans out very carefully. I would finally be rewrded with a life of leisure, contemplation, and cooking. A modest but comfortable retirement would be the crown and capstone of everything I'd done, or so I thought.

But the trouble is things never go as we anticipate they will. Problems and contradictions we carry with us and ignore, sometimes for years, eventually bear fruit (we might be able to see these things coming were it not for the human capacity for denial), and new problems arise.

As a certain Very Large book says, "Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever rying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery, and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. Life would be wonderful...

"What usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well..."

I certainly do wish people would act the way I expect them to.

So here I sit, on the verge of turning 62. The present is turbulent, the future uncertain, my finances fragile, inadequate and worrisome. And somehow I can't help feeling that this uncomfortable situation is the best thing that could have happened.

It just won't do to get too comfortable. It saps the creative juices. And what this jung man needs is a yob.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Borderline Personality Disorder

Bush has been speaking in public more often lately, causing his approval ratings to drop like lead farts. He's going to give himself another kick in the shorts tonight by going on national teevee, opening his mouth, and attempting to explain his new approach to immigration, mostly of the Mexican persuasion.

The wire service previews make it sound like his goal is to tickle Vicente Fox with one hand and smack him with the other. At the same time he proposes that Congress pass an expanded guest worker program (not much chance of that), the president will executive order several thousand national guard troops to the Rio Grande to augment the Border Patrol, lovingly known by migrants legal and otherwise as the Migra.

This is assuming, of course, that there are several thousand national guard troops not presently deployed in Iraq. But let's suppose for the sake of argument that there are. Closing my eyes and going to sleep, I hear the following conversation taking place a few miles north of Mexicali, between a couple of nineteen-year-old California Guardspersons, Lance Cpl. Sean from Redondo Beach, and Lance Cpl. Arturo from Santa Ana, as they disourse on the favorite topics of young men everywhere:

ARTURO: Hey, Sean, where was the weirdest place you ever did it, man?

SEAN: I dunno...when I was like, still in high school, my girlfriend and me did it one time under those, like bleacher things they have at the football game. We were, you know, drunk and all, but I don't think nobody like, saw us or nothin'. Their feet were in the way and there was a lot of, like, noise from the game and stuff.

So where was the weirdest place you ever did it?

ARTURO: One time I was hitting it with this mamasita in the front of this little tiny Nissan truck -- it belongs to my cousin Manuelito. He gots one of them big sound systems in it, so there wasn't hardly room to move, ay.

Then my other cousin Juanito comes along and looks in the window, man. It was embar...Hey! What's that?

SEAN: What? I don't hear...Hey! I think it's a coupla wetbacks. What're we gonna do?

ARTURO: What you mean "we," menso? Anyway who you calling mojados, hijo de la gran puta? That's my cousin Rudy from Jalisco. Hey, Rudy, over here man. Don't pay no attention to this puta chingana cabron. Donde va tu?

RUDY: Beverly Hills, por el dinero grande, primo. Hey, Arturo, que paso? Quien es el gavacho?

SEAN: I don't know what you guys are sayin' but it doesn't sound, like, very nice.

OK, you get the picture. If the right National Guard personnel are selected for this border assignment, Bush will be able to combine beefing up the Border Patrol and establishing an ersatz guest worker program all at the same time. It's not a bad idea; it might work out to be a twofer.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Old Fantasies Never Die, They Just Get Junked for Parts

GM announced this past week that it is discontinuing its Hummer H1 line of pimped-out faux-combat vehicles, which were all the rage a few years back when Arnold Schwarzenegger owned a whole fleet of them. Now he's down to just three, and he rarely drives them.

The last of the H1's will roll off the line next month. They haven't been selling well, probably because they get about ten miles to the gallon, can't squeeze into standard city parking spaces, and are too wide to fit on most car ramps.

But some of us cherish one destination above all others in our heart of hearts, and the H1 was the ultimate ride to Fantasy Land.

It breaks my heart to have to abandon my fantasy of owning one. I'll never be able to dress up in my camouflage gear, jump into my full-size Hummer, and pretend I'm on patrol somewhere between Baghdad and Anbar Province as I drive up the suitably desert-landscaped Long Canyon Hill at twilight, on the way to 7-11 to get a slurpee, all the while blasting corrido tunes through the H1's open windows with my in-board eight track, and thereby procuring the loud applause and admiring glances of all the cute Mexican girls who populate this corner of my fantasized mideast combat zone.

Too bad I don't have the money to realize this dream. But of course, I am planning to win the lottery one day.

As a sort of compensating, softer, gentler fantasy, GM will continue to produce the slightly smaller H2 and "midsize" H3, but those are only scale models, not the genuine article. The wanna-be's who buy them don't know how to display their pretensions with the requisite degree of arrogance and vulgarity. They're like the pseudo-collectors who are satisfied with having cheap Philadelphia Mint knock-offs of crossed Samurai swords over their fireplaces rather than the real thing.

The general manager of GM's Hummer Division noted that "H1 buyers typically have been less sensitive about gas prices than most other drivers," which is another way of saying that America is still a great place to live if you're a rich, white idiot. But he forgot to mention that there aren't many of those left, at least not enough baby plutocrats sufficiently committed to wretched excess to fork over the 130 to 140 thousand dollar H1 asking price, up from about $106,000 in 2004. GM sold 374 H1's this year, versus 447 in '04, a far cry from the glory days of 1992 when the line was introduced and Schwarzenegger decided to buy a bunch of them.

The H1's declining popularity also might be connected in some way with the public's diminished enthusiasm for the empire's policy of perpetual war.

It's a sad milestone, of sorts, and for the first time I feel a certain kinship with the Crawford brush-cutter-in chief. Our rich fantasy lives ain't what they used to be.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

End of the Republic, Part XLVII

Gen. Michael Hayden’s confirmation hearing to determine whether he will be the next director of the CIA has not yet begun in the Senate. When it finally gets under way on Thursday, May 18, there are several tough questions the members of the Intelligence Committee are sure to ask concerning Hayden’s role in the current NSA spying scandal and his tenure as head of the National Security Agency.

A four-star Air Force general, Hayden would be the first active-duty officer to head a civilian intelligence agency, raising constitutional questions regarding military control of executive governmental functions. Beginning as a product of a scholastic ROTC program, he achieved his present rank while running the National Security Agency, and was its longest-tenured director, serving from 1999 until 2005.

It was Hayden as NSA chief and on his own initiative who first proposed, then implemented the warrantless domestic spying program currently causing a furor among the press and public. According to a January 4, 2006 story in the Washington Post, “Even before the White House formally authorized a secret program to spy on U.S. citizens without obtaining warrants, such eavesdropping was occurring and some of the information was being shared” by NSA with other intelligence agencies.

Electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens without a warrant is illegal and forbidden by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which established a special court to issue warrants to government agencies wishing to perform such surveillance, if probable cause of wrongdoing could be shown.

Proof of the Post’s assertion and the exact time the program went into effect was established only this past month by the release of a letter sent to Hayden by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on October 11, 2001. “I am concerned whether and to what extent the National Security Agency has received specific presidential authorization for the operations you are conducting,” Pelosi wrote Hayden after he had briefed the House Intelligence Committee in closed session on October 1, three weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

Details of the workings of the surveillance program began coming to light only recently. A May 11 USA Today article revealed that Hayden’s NSA used the contracted services of phone giants AT&T, Bell South, and Verizon to compile the immense data base of phone activity which one anonymous government source described as “the largest database ever assembled in the world.”

Among the telecommunications giants, only Qwest refused to participate in the program, citing its questionable legality due to the absence of FISA court approval or oversight.

Besides having been the architect of this administration’s domestic spying program, Hayden is known to have a constricted and less than honest view of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens’ privacy and states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”

At a speech and question-and-answer session at the National Press Club on January 23 of this year, Hayden was asked by one reporter whether the Bush administration and the NSA were specifically targeting the administration’s political enemies. When Hayden dodged the question, the questioner repeated, "No, I asked, are you targeting us and people who politically oppose the Bush government, the Bush administration? Not a fishing net, but are you targeting specifically political opponents of the Bush administration?" Hayden gave the reporter a long, thousand-yard stare, and after an uncomfortable silence called on a different questioner.

The final question of the day came from Jonathan Landay of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, who observed that Hayden habitually referred to the Fourth Amendment's search standard of reasonableness without mentioning that it also demands probable cause. Hayden seemed to be unaware or willfully ignorant that the amendment included such a provision. At one point he directly said "no" the Fourth Amendment did not include "probable cause."

This caused Landay to reply, "The legal standard is probable cause, General," and he went on to say “You used the terms just a few minutes ago, ‘We reasonably believe.’ And a FISA court, my understanding is, would not give you a warrant if you went before them and say ‘we reasonably believe.’ You have to go to the FISA court, or the attorney general has to go to the FISA court and say, ‘we have probable cause.’

And so what many people believe -- and I'd like you to respond to this -- is that what you've actually done is crafted a detour around the FISA court by creating a new standard of ‘reasonably believe’ in place of probable cause because the FISA court will not give you a warrant based on reasonable belief, you have to show probable cause. Could you respond to that, please?”

Hayden replied, “Sure. I didn't craft the authorization. I am responding to a lawful order. All right? The attorney general has averred to the lawfulness of the order.

”Just to be very clear -- and believe me, if there's any amendment to the Constitution that employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it's the Fourth. And it is a reasonableness standard in the Fourth Amendment. And so what you've raised to me -- and I'm not a lawyer, and don't want to become one -- what you've raised to me is, in terms of quoting the Fourth Amendment, is an issue of the Constitution. The constitutional standard is ‘reasonable.’ And we believe -- I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we're doing is reasonable.”

In short, the Senate Intelligence Committee is being asked to recommend to the full Senate the confirmation as CIA Director of an active-duty four-star general who designed and executed a vast program of warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and who believes that the program violates neither the FISA Act of 1978 nor the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, because the Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzales, says it doesn’t.

However, this story is still unwinding, and the most important revelations about the NSA’s surveillance program may be yet to come. CongressDaily reports that a former National Security Agency employee, Russell Tice, scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee the third week in May, will tell the committee that agency staff generally believe the activities they are performing in connection with the surveillance program are illegal. Tice has been telling people that what has been disclosed so far is “only the tip of the iceberg,” and that Gen. Hayden oversaw and implemented more illegal activity that has yet to be exposed. He hinted that such activity might have involved the illegal use of space-based satellites and systems to spy on U.S. citizens

Friday, May 12, 2006

It Sucks

When I first moved into my tin shack a month ago I went to K-Mart, where discriminating and sophisticated people like myself are wont to shop (hey, it ain't Wal-Mart), and picked up a little vacuum cleaner. I chose the cheapest, most basic one they had, because my little shelter is very small, there's not any storage space to speak of, and I didn't think I needed anything heavy duty.

But that was a mistake. It was a pseudo-vacuum cleaner. It did not suck. And the first time I tried to empty it, the clip holding the dirt cup onto the fuselage broke and that was the end of it.

So I took it back, and for thirty bucks more got something that looks like an electric dragster and sounds like a Boeing 737 taxiing onto the tarmac. It picks up everything except the floor itself. The only problem with it is I don't know where I'll put it.

I can't believe how much better I feel now the floor is clean. Sometimes things can bother people without their being aware of what the trouble is, and it was just that way -- I didn't know why I was feeling so lousy. The fact is, when I have crunchy floors and rugs full of scruff, it just bothers the hell out of me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Reichstag Fire and 9/11

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag Building in Berlin which housed the German parliament burned to the ground. Hitler had been Germany’s chancellor for less than a month.

Looking for clues to what was obviously an arson fire, police arriving at the scene found an unemployed Dutch bricklayer and self-professed communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, in the rubble. That was all Hitler and Goering needed to declare the blaze the work of German communists and the international Bolshevik organization Comintern. The Hitler government wasted no time in declaring a state of emergency and suspending the basic rights provisions of the constitution.

While debate over the origins of the Reichstag fire is still ongoing, historians today generally believe that it was the work of the upper echelons of the Nazi Party, particularly Goering, who used the mentally unstable and publicity-infatuated van der Lubbe as a tool. Three Comintern members tried for the crime later proved their innocence in court and were acquitted, and there is no doubt that the Nazis used the fire as a pretext to suspend constitutional protections and attack their enemies without restraint.

Turning to the events of 9/11/01 in New York and Washington D.C., we are now forced to ask whether there are similarities between that disaster and the Reichstag fire. During the past three years, and with increasing frequency as time has gone by, Americans have asked openly whether the Bush administration may have played a part in the events of that day, either by refusing to take steps to ward off an attack they knew was coming, or even, as some suggest, playing an active part in those attacks.

The debate on both sides of these issues has been characterized by hyperbole, wild speculation, and emotionalism. However, there are three things we know for certain, and it's now time to raise this issue putting those three certainties in the forefront of the discussion.

First, we know that the Bush administration has used the events of 9/11 as a lever and enabling device to attack its enemies and political opponents, foreign and domestic, real and imagined, in totally unrestrained ways. This government has cast aside constitutional protections of citizens’ rights and treaty obligations protecting the rights of foreigners, citing 9/11 as the justification, and Bush never makes a foreign policy speech without recalling the carnage of that day more than once.

Secondly, we know the administration was aware by the summer of 2001 that some kind of attack was coming, but did nothing to stop it. Documents such as the Daily Presidential Briefing of August 6, 2001 and numerous internal FBI memos render this point undebatable. Furthermore, once the attack was under way, no defensive measures such as the scrambling of Air Force fighters were undertaken.

Finally, no one has been able to satisfactorily explain the collapse of Building 7, a 47-story skyscraper which stood one block north of the main structures of the World Trade Center, and was separated from the complex by Building 6 and Vesey Street. This structure was not hit by a plane, and was seen and photographed with a few small debris-related fires before it fell at 5:20 p.m.

So we're now obliged to take up the question of whether the Bush administration was complicit in and needs to be held accountable for the events of 9/11, either by engaging in planned, deliberate negligence which enabled those events, or by more active crimes of commission.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Morris Berman's "Dark Ages America"

When former C.I.A. analyst Ray McGovern confronted Donald Rumsfeld with lies the Secretary of Defense told during the runup to the Iraq War at a public presentation at the Southern Center for International Policy in Atlanta on May 4, the crowd reacted with extreme hostility -- toward McGovern, not Rumsfeld.

"I did not lie then..." Rumsfeld insisted, and McGovern tells how "This was immediately greeted with what Pravda used to describe as 'stormy applause,' followed immediately by rather unseemly shouts by this otherwise well-disciplined and well-heeled group to have me summarily thrown out," in spite of the fact that McGovern, at that very moment, had the newspaper clippings in his hand which proved that Rumsfeld had lied.

Punishing the whistle blower seems to have become the norm in America, and God help the person inconsiderate enough to suggest that his or her fellow citizens are out of touch with reality. For that reason alone, I doubt that Morris Berman's "Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire" (Norton, 2006) will make it to the New York Times best-seller list.

Best seller or not, Berman is in excellent company. "Dark Ages," which was released in mid-April, is part of what is rapidly becoming a consensus of informed opinion positing the rapid decline of the U.S. as a world power, and represented by such earlier works as Chalmers Johnson's "The Sorrows of Empire" (Holt, 2004) and Immanuel Wallerstein's "The Decline of American Power" (New Press, 2003). The thesis of all three is that the United States is a world empire in eclipse, industrially weak, economically vulnerable due to escalating debt, and committed to unsustainable regimes of petroleum dependency and mass consumption. And now, in addition, the U.S. is betraying and almost advertising its weaknesses through the belligerence and aggressiveness of the Bush regime, which paradoxically sees itself as projecting power.

Berman's special contribution to this conversation lies in his concentration on the political and social environment and the daily lives of ordinary people, which he believes has spawned and is the ultimate source our political and economic decline. In charging the American people with social idiocy founded on a "What's in it for me?" mentality, Berman commits the greatest possible heresy; he argues that democracy will avail us nothing, and that there is no way out of the mess we're in. The dark ages have arrived again, as they did at the time of ancient Rome's collapse.

"The greatest obstacle to progressive change in the United States," he says in the opening to his chapter called "The State of the Union," "is probably the people themselves. It would be nice to think we could somehow 'go in' and 'fix' things, and set the United States on an upward trajectory once again. But...the sad fact is that daily American life contains a great amount of violence and ignorance and is pervaded by a lot of (repressed) alienation and spiritual emptiness. How, then, could we go in and fix things? Who is the 'we' who would do this...?" (pps. 281-2)

Berman is not the first to place the blame for America's current sour malaise on the corruption and cluelessness of the mass of ordinary people, and he quotes Nicholas von Hoffman's book "Hoax," which calls Americans a collection of "asses, dolts, and blockheads," living in a glass bubble, cut off from both reality and the rest of the world, moving from their gated communities to bubbled malls "breathing their own, private air in the bubble-mobiles known as SUV's." However, Berman's argument appears the most comprehensive and exhaustive to date, and draws on thousands of sources and anecdotal examples.

These are not mass-readership books, and I'm sure most Americans would be deeply insulted, hearing themselves described by a bunch of snooty academics and arrogant journalists like Hoffman as self-centered, shallow, and delusional.

But the argument has merit, backed as it is by the overwhelming evidence available in America's shopping meccas, on 24-hour-a-day wingnut talk radio, and on the vulgar and offensive programming known oxomoronically as "reality television." "The shadows on the wall of Plato's Cave," says an Amazon book reviewer from California, Fred Strohm, "are not any more real when displayed on a 62-inch flat screen TV."

"It is, in any case," Berman adds, "not easy to find an analysis of our national decline in terms of individual behavior..." (p.282). And this is probably Berman's main contribution to the current discussion of where we went wrong; he just made finding such an analysis much easier.

Furthermore, while Berman adds a sociological emphasis to this discussion, it's worth noting that he, Chalmers Johnson, and Wallerstein are in absolute agreement on the main thread of their common thesis; all three argue that the U.S. is now and has been for some time an Empire, that it's in irrevocable decline, and there's nothing anyone can possibly do about it ("short of revolution," Johnson adds). This is not a line of reasoning you're likely to hear followed on the network news, however, since all three authors are academics: Johnson, a foreign relations professor at U.C. San Diego, Wallerstein a sociologist and research fellow at Yale, and Berman a visiting professor of sociology at the Catholic University in D.C.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Prophet

...and I don't mean Kahlil Gibran.

In 1920 H.L. Mencken wrote, "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

(From "Bayard vs. Lionheart" in the Baltimore Sun, July 26, '20)

And thanks to Morris Berman for running this quote in his "Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire" (p. 281).

Saturday, May 06, 2006

And the Lord Said: "They Shall Have Cheap Gas"

...and permanently shiny, undented Toyotas, no doubt about it.

A Christian group has decided that the best way to get the price of gas down is a direct appeal to God. With that in mind they convened at a D.C. gas station a few days back and implored the creator to send us cheap gas.

Maybe he could lower the prices of cars while he's at it. And, oh yeah, my wife and I would both like to look like we did 20 years ago, rather than the way we look now.

The whole story is here.

Surely God will hear our prayers, so we can afford to keep driving to our jobs in the cities and then home again 30 miles to Parkview Wood, or Woodview Park, or Parkwood View.

Bush's plan to lower gas prices wasn't worth a turd. Let's see if God's plan is any better.


I spoze this was overdue: the blending of a good politics with bad Bible readin'. Fortunately, we don't have far to look for the culprit; just round up the usual suspect. That would be John, the exile of Patmos, whose Revelation is the downward-slanted terminal of the Good Book all the nuts roll into.

It's undebatable that John, who wrote his prophecy in about 95 C.E., was addressing the situation of Christians living through the first-century persecutions inflicted on them by the Roman Empire. Rome, the whore who sits on seven hills, has given birth to a beast, initially Nero, under whom the first persecution occurred at the time of the great fire, and in John's time Domitian, in whom Nero becomes the head (of the beast) which "lives again."

Even fundamentalists usually concede that John was addressing current events, but they don't stop there. They go on to ascribe superhuman abilities and divinely-inspired prescience to this modestly talented scribe who expanded his own experience of the corruption and degradation of the larger society to accurately predict its ruin. But that ruin was not as imminent as he thought. Over a century elapsed after the writing of Revelation before Rome began to show serious outward signs of weakness, and the final collapse was still nearly 400 years away.

You don't have to be an atheist or agnostic to reject the notion that John was given a unique, comprehensive knowledge of the divine plan, or that history's unwinding is scripted and beyond our understanding. All that's required for a person to reject this superstitious fatalism is a belief that there is such a thing as free will, and faith in the observable truism that human agency has consequences.

I suppose a lot of Revelation's appeal lies in its mystery. We don't know whether John was writing a grand metaphor or expected the special effects sequences he described as Rome's fate and the Christians' reward to be enacted literally. I suspect the former. The other prophet who incorporated the tetramorph (those four-headed creatures) in his own vision, Ezekiel, was certainly speaking metaphorically, and had no intention of anyone taking his vision of Jehovah's chariot literally.

The Revelation has proved itself infinitely elastic over time. When I was a kid I heard people saying that the end-time disease John describes, in which people's meat falls off their bones, was radiation sickness. Twenty years later people were saying it was AIDS. That's just one of the problems with interpreting a metaphor in literal ways the author never intended. The prophecy itself changes in order to meet changing conditions, sort of like a roulette player who claims he bet the winning number no matter what number comes up.

You don't have to be a prophet or have access to the divine website to know that the United States is going to go the way of the Roman Empire, and, it would seem, do so a damn site quicker than those old pagans did. Even just a light skimming of world history shows that empires suck the life out of the parent societies, and that the bigger they come and the higher they rise, the harder and more disastrously they fall. We don't need a revelation from God to know these things. Leave God out of it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Barking Pupfish

Boy, talk about finding the Holy Grail late in life. Better late than never I suppose.

I know now I was born to play drums in an acoustic band. The only amplified instrument is Kerry's acoustic/electric bass, and he keeps it at just the right level.

The Pupfish is an elastic outfit that expands and contracts week by week and season by season. There's a lead singer and a backup singer, two acoustic guitarists, and an accordian/squeezebox player. That makes seven that are always present, and other than that at least one of the three mandolin players is always there, and sometimes a violinist and sometimes a conga player/percussionist.

It takes a delicate touch to play drums with an unamplified string band. You have to know when to crescendo and decrescendo, when and how to use (very lightweight) sticks and when to go to brushes, and when to drop back completely and just barely be there. It takes the right person, but that right person can add a great deal of depth to such a group, and that right person is me.

God, I love it. I can finally hear the bass drum, which for me is actually a 14 x 16 converted floor tom which anchor a tiny little set -- a 4 x 12 Pork Pie snare, a miniature tom tom, hat cymbals and two other cymbals, one of which (the accenter) is a little ten-inch.

Sooner or later this group is going to hit paydirt. The sound is just too appealing and infectious for that not to happen. But even if there was no chance of that, even if I knew I'd never make a dime with the Pupfish, I'd still play with 'em all I could. It's like being in heaven.

From Civics to History

I cross-posted my recent review of Morris Berman's book "Dark Ages America" (see below) at Beliefnet, and got the following response:

all who pledge fealty to me now will be protected when the Empire falls and the Dark Ages come

Ridicule of Berman's contention that the U.S. has now entered a new dark age is typical, but since refutation is a little more difficult, I asked this poster what process of inverted logic or ingrained habit might cause him to think the dark ages aren't already here?

Sometimes I'm amazed by the conversations at B-Net/U.S. Politics and on the blogs (even the liberal ones), and by what appear to be people's assumptions that political life in the U.S. today is just a normal, if somewhat warped continuation of the past. Many seem to assume that the current regime is only a temporary aberration, and that we can get back to the way things should be, the way they used to be, if we just elect the right people.

There seems to be little awareness that since Y2K we really have become a different country.

Present policies, as Berman points out, may have grown out of past practices, but since the new millenium arrived we've turned a very ominous corner, and our government today is not the same kind of animal it was during the administration of, say, Harry Truman. The republic is gone, and it ain't comin' back.


* The coup which ended the old republic and established this regime and the new, dark age was a judicial autogolpe. It installed a dynastic absolute ruler, the guy Chalmers Johnson calls "the boy emperor."

* The new regime has pursued an unprecedented policy of fiscal recklessness, resulting in an eight-and-a-half trillion dollar national debt.

* The wealth and power gap between the rich and the rest of us has accelerated tenfold with the regime's blessing.

* The U.S. is now a country which has declared its right to unilaterally make war on any country it deems a threat, to use medieval forms of torture, open-ended detention of uncharged detainees in secret dungeons, and weapons of mass destruction to achieve its aims, and is answerable to no one.

* The Constitution has been scrapped and replaced by executive fiat.

Considering all this, I'm very skeptical when I see posters here clinging to the weak and feeble protests of the Democratic Party to try to gain some measure of hope.

"We the People" lost our country some time ago when we allowed corporate CFO's to buy the political process out from under us. Now that the kind of government they worked to achieve is in place, they're not about to surrender the machinery of the process back to us, Russ Feingold notwithstanding.

Still, Congress sits and debates, and the Supreme Court follows the time-honored procedures. Like the Roman Empire of the early dark ages, the forms of the old government remain, but their substance has been hollowed out and discarded. The proper study of the American Republic is now in history class, not civics.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


The post called "Geographooey" (see below) drew quite a lot of comment on the "U.S. Politics" board at Beliefnet. Most of the respondents blamed students' lack of geographical and historical acuity on the current mania for standardized testing, and a number of them mentioned the No Child Left Behind Act, which vigorously promotes (but does not fund) such testing. They tended to claim that the constant anxiety over tests, and the habit of teaching to those tests, stifles creativity and inhibits rather than expands students' minds.

I don't disagree, but the main problem I saw in my own classrooms, both in my student days and my teaching days, was lack of curiosity. Incurious people won't learn geography or history or much of anything else, and you can't force it into them.

You can lead a fool to knowledge but you can't make him think.

A person has to be singularly dull, listless, intellectually flat, and boring not to be interested in the world in which he or she lives. The livelier students are initially fascinated by names -- Himalaya, Rajasthan, Ougoudougou, Mississippi, Walla Walla, New York, New Jersey, New Orleans (why new?), and then want to learn everything they can about those places -- who lives there, what the place looks like, etc.

What makes a person an intellectual flatliner? Lots of things can, and I'm sure some are born that way. But I really believe parking kids in front of the t.v. and feeding them junk food is probably the biggest culprit in our time.

By the time their little marshmallows turn 16 people are asking themselves why their kids are fat and stupid. This as a six-foot 250-pound adolescent emerges from the bedroom to microwave a couple more cheese pockets, then retreats to the barricaded inner sanctum for another exciting round of Grand Theft Auto.

I'm not sure whether this is a political topic or not, but it damn well should be.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Every once in awhile some edumacational organization or other surveys young Americans' geographical knowledge or lack of it, then moans about the results. I don't know why they pick on young people because I doubt that older Americans would do any better.

The results of the latest Roper Poll conducted for National Geographic show that:

A third of 18 to 24 year-olds can't locate Louisiana on a U.S. map, and 48 percent can't find Mississippi;

Sixty percent can't locate Iraq on a map of the middle east, and three out of four couldn't find Israel;

Fewer than 30 percent think it's important to know the locations of countries in the news.

Personally, I don't think this is anything new, nor particularly shocking. After all, a significant number of Americans still think that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and twelve percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

Morris Berman quotes travel agents who joke among themselves about people who call and say, "My wife and I are thinking about going to Hawaii, and we want to know whether it would be cheaper to fly or take the train."

I used to give a test consisting of a blank map of the states as part of my U.S. history class, and some of the names I got were priceless, such as Utha, New Hamster, and (no kidding) West Vagina.

I've long thought geography and history the most important subjects for anyone who wants to be informed about the world he or she lives in, but what do I know?

The Dark Ages

A couple days ago I started reading Morris Berman's "Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire." I'm about halfway through it.

The most interesting chapter so far, called "Pax Americana," explodes a lot of the assumptions most Americans, including those of us holding more liberal persuasions, have held onto over the years. Chief among these has been the notion that the advent of the Bush regime and its policy of pre-emptive warfare is a radical and alarming departure from the benevolent American foreign policy approaches of the past.

Berman argues that developments under the Cheney government (fronted by Bush) are a continuation and extension of the policies of the last 55-plus years, starting in 1950 with the appearance of the secret National Security Council document known as NSC-68, authored by Paul Nitze, which stated that "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere."

This statement and others like it underlay the Cold War foreign policies which followed, and led us directly into conflicts in peripheral, remote and unimportant places such as Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. As General MacArthur said, the objectives of such a policy were as much domestic as foreign, designed to keep the American people in "a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor" and fear of the enemy.

The policy of continuous warfare, of always being at war or preparing for war, as described by George Orwell, did not begin with Bush versus "the terrorists."

Berman concludes that "(T)he pax americana is not an accidental empire; indeed, I doubt if there is such a thing, historically speaking. We have arived at this point in our history as a result of an inexorable momentum..." He goes on to say that at this point, there is no possibility that the Republic can be restored, that we actually lost the Republic with the establishment of the national security state in its place in 1949-50, that there's too much water under the bridge, and at this point the only way America can and will go is down.

Monday, May 01, 2006

They Never Die

When I was about four years old my dad's favorite joke was about the man who ran over himself. It went like this:

There was a guy who said to his wife, "Hey honey, run across the street and get me a pack of cigarettes, wouldja?" And she said, "No, do it yourself."

So he ran over himself.

I was surprised (but I shouldn't have been) to find that this one is still around. No matter how bad they are, they never die.

I just moved my French fries and there it was.


Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Press Corps dinner two nights ago, with its surprising, savage, and immensely clever attack on the president, could potentially have been ten times more effective than any previous indictment of Bush and his regime, because it employed sarcasm rather than a frontal assault. What Helen Thomas did at the White House press conference a couple weeks ago was courageous, but Bush was able to counter her "Why did you invade Iraq?" one-woman inquisition with his usual lame talking points. Anti-Bush rants (and I've done my share of them) don't really accomplish anything and are easily neutralized by noise pollution and smokescreens.

But what Colbert did wasn't ten times more effective than a rant, it was a thousand times more effective, because it was oblique flank attack rather than a frontal assault, and because Bush was there and he had to listen.

Speaking to Bush but using the third person, Colbert started with He's not so different, he and I. We get it. We're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book.

Brilliant. Bush, the anti-intellectual, has always said in so many words that he's proud of his own ignorance. He thinks it's cool. Colbert's message? No, it ain't cool. It's just stupid.

Or how about Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Uh-huh. The short version of that is, "You're delusional." And another part of the speech, the "Rocky" metaphor delivered that part of the message even more emphatically. It said in effect that Bush is constantly getting bitch-slapped by reality.

Bush was not the only victim impaled on Colbert's pitchfork. Judge Scalia was there, and was treated to Colbert's flinging his honor's favorite obscene Sicilian hand gesture back at him numerous times. However, He saved his most severe condemnation for the assembled members of the establishment press.

Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

With a little sarcasm and irony, Colbert came closer to overturning the Bush regime in fifteen minutes than all the anti-Bush columnists and bloggers put together have done in the last four years. If the little dictator didn't leave the event shaken, humiliated, and knowing that anybody who knows more than he does (which is about three-quarters of us now) has his number, I'll move to Cleveland.

If you have not yet read Colbert's entire masterpiece, the link to which I posted here yesterday, you really should.