Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Persiennes (Version GOP)

Ronald Reagans
Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
ronald reagan ronald reagan ronald reagan ronald reagan
ronald reagan ronald reagan ronald reagan ronald reagan
ronald reagan ronald reagan
Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Marrying the Corporation Next Door

The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are essentially people (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), with the same First Amendment rights as those of us who acquired our personhood by spending 9 months in a stuffy womb rather than by filing articles of incorporation in a state Office of Financial Institutions.

This means that corporations have the right to free speech and therefore the ancillary right to spend obscene amounts of corporate money on so-called super PACs--Political Action Committees--which, in turn, have the right to freely use these monies to support the campaigns (and thus buy the votes) of politicians running for office.

At the moment, this aspect of recently-revealed corporate personhood is provoking a great deal of fractious hullabaloo--since clearly the extravagant donations of "people" such as Exxon Mobil or Wellpoint or Wal-Mart can (and likely will) profoundly shape the political landscape--consolidating and perpetuating the dominion of the plutarchs (individual or corporate) in 21st Century America.  Farewell representative democracy.

Well, so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was wont to say whenever something or someone died.

But I, gold digger that I am, find myself vastly more interested in a second possible advantage of corporate personhood:  now that corporations are people, why couldn't I render my future more secure by marrying a corporation--preferably one of the Fortune 500?

You will object, of course, that in most states at least, marriage has been defined as between one man and one woman.  But since corporations are now people, and since people are necessarily either men or women (well, mas o menos), it seems perfectly logical to assume that at least SOME corporations would be suitably equipped to make me a happy family man.

It is a bit of a conundrum, though, this business of determining the gender of a specific corporation.  How is that to be done?  Can one turn a corporation upside down and examine its private parts?  Probably not.

My hunch is that registrars at marriage bureaus, when confronted with corporation/people seeking marriage licenses, will simply have to make an educated, sight-based, judgment.  And if it appears to the registrar--in his or her best estimation--that two persons of opposite gender are applying, the requisite document will have to be delivered.

Of course, in a handful of states, marriage equality laws have rendered the actual gender of applicants irrelevant--males can marry females OR males; females can marry males OR females.  One of these progressive person-friendly states would certainly be the ideal locale for my prospective marriage.  (Anything-goes-Iowa--woo-hoo--is just 60 miles away, so no sweat!)

Whew.  Well, that takes care of the gender issue.  But now the truly BIG problem presents itself:  which corporation should I set my cap for?  Wal-Mart?  GM?  Exxon?  Best Buy? Zappos?

Like everyone, I suppose, I am initially attracted to Apple.  What a person that Apple is!  Cool, sexy, articulate, witty, sophisticated.  Apple has everything and I love him/her deliriously.

Upon reflection, though, I know that my Apple-passion can never be consummated.  Unquestionably, super-cool Apple would simply overwhelm and exhaust me. I know that I could never keep up with his/her witty banter--and I could never master all the cutting edge sex moves, either.  In short, marriage to Apple would inevitably wind up making me feel inadequate and inferior. So no, alas, not Apple.

And not Wal-Mart, for heaven's sake:  he/she would make me feel cheap and vulgar.  Imagine what that sex would be like!

Exxon?  Too unctuous.  Boeing?  Too flighty.  GM? Too high-maintenance.

So, after long consideration, I think I would do best to stick to the boy/girl next door--someone familiar but occasionally inventive, an ordinary person but with a slight flair for the unconventional, a solid citizen who will happily support me in the manner to which I intend to become accustomed and who will always perform nicely in bed without demanding anything too kinky. Who is he/she, you ask.  Now don't laugh or criticize. For my corporate help-mate, I've chosen (trumpet flourish) another nice Minnesotan:  3M.

OK.  I know that 3M is no Apple. Sandpaper and glue and painting accessories have little glamour.  But Post-Its are pretty cool--and so is Scotch Tape--practical, too.  Best of all, though, is the near certainty that I'll have very little competition for stolid 3M's affections.  In fact, if I get cracking, I should be able to wrap up the entire seduction process before Valentine's Day.

One possible hitch:  3M resides in a suburb of Minneapolis, so that means we'll have to present our application to a marriage registrar  in Hennepin County, ordinarily a pretty tolerant place.  Still, if the official is having a bad day and determines that 3M and I are of the "same sex," I'll just have to persuade my sweetheart to take a short trip to Mason City or Des Moines--where no one will give a damn.

Cross your fingers. I'll keep you posted.  (Post-Its, remember.)

The Gospel According to Fox

My friend Carole reminds me nearly every day that, in the interests of preserving my sanity and humanity, I should stop watching cable news shows.

She is undoubtedly right--and yet some inner core of masochism seems to draw me irresistibly to the media's ceaseless reports of human greed, cowardice, cruelty, stupidity.  Why am I so fascinated by these stories that demean and denigrate the species into which I was born and from which, like it or not, I cannot escape alive?

In truth, we humans must all possess a deep need to cause or experience pain--vicariously, if possible--but sometimes (if our lives have grown too quotidian), in actual flesh and blood.

God, we love scary movies, don't we?  And, though we protest piously, we would probably cream our jeans if we could witness a hanging or a beheading--perhaps even wield the ax.  How excruciatingly, orgasmically awful!

When I was younger, I used to believe that this sado-masochism--this passion for inflicting and/or receiving pain--was a necessary corollary of our sentience--our unique intelligence and brain-power:  we could not fully "know" and appreciate the meaning of our humanity unless either our own life or the life of an observable "other" was in some way compromised, threatened or tormented.

Now, though, I think that idea is mostly bullshit.

Because all the cable news evidence suggests that we are NOT a brainy and intelligent species.  On the contrary, the daily reportage on CNN and Fox demonstrates that we are quite simply NUTS!  We are barbarous and bloodthirsty and, above all, resolutely and unabashedly stupid.

No, it now seems to me that we do not want to know the truth or appreciate the "meaning of life."  I can no longer maintain that a yearning for expanded consciousness is why we kick the shit out of other guys. Nor is it the reason that we repeatedly sabotage our own happiness.

I've come to believe instead that we want to NOT KNOW, that we fear our consciousness, that we reject our humanity. And so, in order to avoid greater sentience, we deliberately short-circuit our brains by behaving like primitives--by overriding reason with irrational, emotional, mindless mystification and willful insanity.

The proof is on the news channels daily. After all, if we really wanted to expand our consciousness and thus become more fully human, why in the world would we persist (for example) in engaging in the following humanity-destroying behaviors:

--espousing religions that rely on emotion, fear and fantasy to justify intolerance, power-mongering and hatred of unbelievers;
--advocating legal oppression or suppression of freely-chosen behaviors that harm no one (other, perhaps, than the person choosing this behavior);
--persecuting or exploiting rather than cooperating with other human beings who "differ" from us in some way that they have not chosen.

Etc., etc., etc.

At the risk of sounding like a modern-day Voltaire, I condemn, above all, religions, which--even more than  tyrannical political ideologies or regimes--so often serve to justify and SANCTIFY the very mystification and willful insanity I denounced earlier.  Such religions are most especially heinous because, from time immemorial, they have stultified and demeaned that characteristic which alone makes us truly human:  conscious intelligence.  More often than not, alas, religions make us feel good about conducting ourselves like stupid, savage assholes.  Jesus!

Accordingly, it's probably fair to say that we deserve the loathsomeness of Fox News.  Carole wins, though:  for tonight, at least, I'm turning the damned stuff off.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

La mort du loup

A voir ce que l'on fut sur terre et ce qu'on laisse,
Seul le silence est grand, tout le reste est faiblesse...

Gémir, pleurer, prier est également lâche,
Fais énergiquement ta longue et lourde tâche
Dans la voie où le Sort a voulu t'appeler,
Puis après, comme moi, souffre et meurs, sans parler.

--Alfred de Vigny, "La mort du loup"

Avec la vieillesse vient soit l'amertume, soit la résignation, peut-être même les deux (mais alternativement).  J'avoue que je passe pas mal de temps à attendre la mort, tout en la craignant et en voulant la repousser, la refouler loin de moi et des miens.

Mais rien n'y fait.  La mort se tient toujours au rendez-vous--nous guettant et nous poursuivant.  Inutile de fuir--il n'y a pas de sanctuaire.

J'ai souvent envie, face à cette vérité, de râler, de pleurer--ou, des fois, de me saouler pour ne plus y penser.  Tout cela est également con.

Et elle nous aura, la mort, bêtement, sans émotion de sa part, car "c'est comme ça."  Puis, nous disparaîtrons (la plupart de nous) sans laisser aucune trace dans les neiges de l'histoire, effacés et dissous, réabsorbés dans l'univers.

Je peste amèrement contre l'évidente injustice d'un monde sans directeur, mais à la fin, je dois me résigner à l'absurdité que personne ne peut changer.  Quelle blague--mais quelle belle blague--que la vie!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Novus Ordo Seclorum (Yankee Go Home)

An article in the January 7, 2012 issue of The Economist predicts that China will overtake the U.S. in GDP sometime between 2016 and 2020 and that, furthermore, by 2025,  the Middle Kingdom will have surpassed the U.S. in almost every category (except GDP per person). Though the author of the article attempts to maintain journalistic objectivity, I think I detect a slight note of Schadenfreude in his tone:  he can't quite hide his British satisfaction that American hegemony won't last even half as long as did the Pax Britannica.

Of course, it's human nature to applaud when the Big Boy gets knocked out (especially if the Big Boy has been a bit of a bully). Unsurprisingly, then, several more outspoken foreign journals (Libération, The Guardian) make little attempt to disguise their glee over America's imminent decline--eventually to third place after both China and India. Everyone seems to be rejoicing that, at long last, the villainous Yankees will simply have to go home.

Though, like most Americans, I chafe a bit at yet another outburst of sniggering anti-Americanism, I find that I harbor very few regrets about America's impending downgrade in "power rank."

Because has it been worth it, this half-century of being Number One economically and militarily?  What price have we paid for that gloire?  In my estimation, our stint as Big Boy on the Playground (however exhilarating and, occasionally, order-restoring it was) has led us, in the long run, to neglect certain ultimately more important elements of our development as a society.  Thus, as we've run about bossing the other kids and keeping them "in their place," we've acquired a mean and greedy streak, we've ignored our own education, we've abandoned our aging parents and our sick friends, we've lost our love for beauty and art, we've grown fat, complacent and unhealthy.  In short, focusing almost exclusively on economic and military expansion has fostered a corresponding contraction of our spiritual and moral integrity.  We've failed to achieve that "exceptionalism" our founders envisioned.

Before you dismiss me as hopelessly naive and idealistic, let me clarify a bit.  I am well aware that economic strength is a vital prerequisite for the kind of spiritual and moral self-actualization which western cultures have aspired to since Periclean times.  And I further understand that the exercise of military might is sometimes necessary in order to ensure a political climate conducive to such positive economic activity.

And yet--to return to our schoolboy analogy--I'm also persuaded that the most successful young people are usually those who, blessed from the outset with a stable economic foundation, choose to invest their resources wisely in order to build and maintain advantages that transcend mere bigness. They maintain friendly, mutually beneficial relations with other students; they involve themselves in creative and intellectual activities which make life more enjoyable; and--finally, but not primarily or exclusively--they keep themselves sufficiently fit-- physically and emotionally--to counter any potential bullying by hostile students.

Thus, the young person most likely to achieve objective and genuine success is probably NOT the Big Boy on the Playground who pushes others around.  And the happiest, best-adjusted kid is almost certainly NOT the self-important braggart who devotes a disproportionate amount of time or resources to controlling the behaviors of other students for the sheer pleasure of being Number One.

Currently, the U.S. is spending about $700 billion per year (about 4.8% of GDP) on defense--almost 7 times as much as China is spending ($120 billion or 2.1% of its GDP).  However, as The Economist points out, China's overall defense budget is likely to surpass that of the U.S. by 2025, even if the percentages of GDP remain largely unchanged--since China's GDP is growing at such an astounding rate.

Clearly, then, another Big Boy--growing three or four times faster than the U.S.-- is moving in to claim kingship of the Playground.  Is the U.S. going to fight an almost futile battle to preserve a turf that was always of somewhat dubious value?  Against such odds, it seems to me that a big slug-fest would be pretty stupid.  Therefore, now may be the time for America to look around and observe how the other, less power-driven--but perhaps more objectively successful-- "kids" have been doing.  Though everyone has troubles, many of them seem to have plenty of room to play, don't they?-- they are strong enough to escape being harmed and usually savvy enough to avoid unwinnable confrontations.  Britain and France and Japan and Germany and Russia each spend between 50-70 billion yearly on defense (usually no more than 2.5% of GDP).  That certainly seems reasonable (at least as long as the Big Boy doesn't stupidly try to annihilate all the other players--and thereby put an end to the game itself).

More importantly, though--with the notable exception of Russia--these respected but less aggressive students have been doing better than the U.S. in shaping themselves into well-rounded individuals capable of achieving enduring success and of living healthy, fulfilling lives.

Ultimately, then, there can be little point in denying demographic and economic realities or in struggling childishly to change what cannot be changed.  Tantrums will not preserve our Biggest Power status.  But a positive reordering of our priorities and a refocusing of our energies might, in fact, allow us to become a leader in an entirely different (and more admirable) category of human endeavor--a category in which distinction is measured in terms of individual self-fulfillment and happiness, not national economic or military might.  Let us designate this order by the term our founders used on the Great Seal of the United States:  "Novus Ordo Seclorum" (A New Order of the Ages).

In short, I propose that we stop trying to imitate imperial Rome or Britain and strive instead to achieve goals espoused by the Scandinavians, the Swiss, the Dutch--yes, even the French and the Germans:  civilized commonwealths in which all (or at least the vast majority) of citizens can live decent, comfortable lives--with guaranteed equality of opportunity, universal health care, accessible and first-rate education, security and compassion for the elderly.  Is it too bold to assert that Thomas Jefferson, himself, would have advocated such a course?


Well, that loud shriek you just heard was the reaction of  fearful right-wingers, desperately clutching their wallets and screaming that such ideals are unattainable or undesirable (because they are too expensive or too unfair or too socialistic or too atheistic or just too too).  Bullpucky!  If we choose these ideals, we can achieve them--though yes, of course:  there is a cost.  First of all, we will have to require the wealthy to pay their fair share. (Screech!)  That means increased taxes, particularly on the super-rich. (Yelp!)  And second, we will have to stop spending so much money on the military--redirecting those resources to quality-of-life projects:  health care, education, transportation infrastructure, social security, environmental protection, scientific research, etc. (Moan!)

It's a sea change, of course--especially since our current economy is so oriented toward "vulture" capitalism (on the one hand) and "pork for profit" subsidies to the military-industrial complex (on the other).
But let's pursue the idea anyway. Probably, the poor little billionaire piggies would survive a tax hike with no difficulty, though their ceaseless squealing might tax the sanity of ordinary citizens.  I'm less sure, though, about the consequences of reducing funds to the manufacturers of weapons and military equipment.  I don't have any statistics--just a hunch--that such equipment (airplanes, tanks, guns, armored vehicles, warships, ammunition, etc.) may constitute a disproportionate amount of our industrial output.  (We don't seem to make much of anything else, except for some automobiles, chemicals, small tools and movies).  So I suppose any large-scale attempt to  beat our swords into plowshares (i.e., convert tank factories into refrigerator plants) might have a significantly negative impact on the American economy, at least temporarily.

Still, I'm betting that it would be worth it in the long run.  How liberating, how humanizing, to become once again what we were before World War II-- an economy primarily geared toward the production of ordinary, domestic goods and services.  (Let us keep SOME military production, of course; it would be absolutely foolhardy to abandon a respectable military establishment, capable of defending the country in the case of attack.  I'm merely suggesting that it is no longer necessary--or even possible--for America to police the world.)

Essentially, then, we would be relinquishing our current playground dominance to China--but  in the hopes of actually improving our lot thereby.  The Chinese, with their superior population and GDP--their quantitative preponderance--could take over as the policemen and occasional bullies (unless they, too, wanted to pursue more humane goals). Whereas we, should we so choose, would now be free to concentrate on achieving qualitative supremacy (or at least, excellence), free to focus our energies on building the kind of society that once, long ago, constituted the American Dream--and that the Founders so optimistically labeled "Novus Ordo Seclorum."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bead Rooms

Neither my sister nor I care much for reality TV--except a number of programs on HGTV--and most especially (because we are both incorrigible escapists and dreamers) a series on that network entitled "House Hunters International"--the real (albeit carefully edited) tales of absurdly wealthy Americans, Canadians and Brits seeking second homes (fully equipped with air-conditioning and garbage-disposals) in foreign locales.

We have nicknamed this series "The Bead Room Show."  

Please allow me to explain--since that, after all, is the whole point of this frivolous blog.  One of the earlier episodes in the series involved an American (I think) couple who were intending to relocate to Melbourne, Australia.  Consequently (and quite logically) they engaged a Melburnian realtor--a charming fellow with a broad Aussie accent--to show them suitable properties.  As he chattered happily away about House Number One, describing the stunning this and that in the kitchen (its "benchtops" and "cupboards"), we began to smile--realizing that Australian terminology was amusingly different from our own.  But when beaming Mr. Oz began to rattle on about the soon-to-be-visited  "bead" room, both Linda and I were genuinely puzzled.  Do antipodal houses have rooms especially designed and/or designated for "beading" or "jewelry making"?  Perhaps, we speculated, a "bead room" was the Aussie equivalent of our American "craft room" or "sewing room." 

Fortunately, as the camera followed the house hunters into the eagerly-anticipated "bead room," the actual meaning of this term became, well,  stunningly clear.  How so?  Because right there in the middle of the bead room was a most imposing king-sized "bead."  And obviously, given the size of the space, we were visiting the MASTER bead room.  "Fair dinkum," chirped smiling Mr. Oz.

And weren't these lovely, really stunning walk-in "wardrobes"?  And what a stunningly breathtaking view of the "paddock-sized" lawn which, by the way, was a "beaut," perfect for "ripper" parties!

At that point, both my sister and I burst into laughter--as we sometimes laugh when we hear Irish accents or expressions.  Not arrogantly or condescendingly (as the British often laugh at Americans), but giddily--as if we had just been tickled with a Kookaburra feather.  Aussie talk simply seems  as playful and as unaffectedly high-spirited as Mr. Oz himself--not "funny"--but just plain fun.  

So now Linda and I both eagerly tune in to any HGTV broadcast involving Australians--as either buyers or sellers.  Seems we can't get enough of those bloody bead rooms.  And it tickles us to be learning to speak "Strine."

Monday, January 2, 2012

Free Gifts

As a (retired) English teacher, I've long been irritated by the advertisements promising consumers a "free gift."  By definition, of course, a gift is free--something received without payment.  So what are we to make of the superfluous adjective "free" describing something that is supposedly already free by its very nature?

I guess the key word here is "supposedly."  Because the Madison Avenue wonks--whose job it is to out-psych the buyer, and thereby sell more goods--have clearly grasped that humans almost universally do not believe in "free" gifts, that we routinely distrust ordinary, adjectivally unqualified "gifts."  Though we know that such gifts are not supposed to entail any cost, we also know that, in the majority of cases, the giver is motivated by a hidden agenda (sometimes hidden even to him/herself)--i.e., we know that gifts are rarely freely given.  Instead, they are offered "with strings attached"--for a variety of reasons that in some way obligate the receiver to the giver.

Even those most charitable of gifts--those offered by "anonymous" donors to people they do not know--bear a psychological price tag:  the receiver feels dependent upon others (rather than autonomous and free), while, in his generosity (even though only he knows of it), the philanthropist feels superior to the poor bloke who, alas, cannot support himself on his own.

Oh, you will object:  "sometimes a gift is merely a heartfelt expression of love."  Of course.  But is it not given with at least the hope that, in making the receiver happy, it will further bind him/her to the giver?  That, too, is a "string."  Sigh.

It would seem, then, that we are a bit uncomfortable with our gut suspicion of gift-giving.

Personally, though, I see little wrong with either the giving or the strings attached thereto:  obligations and bonds, whether financial or affective, sustain and nourish civilization, keep us connected.  What pisses me off is the hypocrisy and the goody-goodyism so often affected by donors.  Why can't we simply acknowledge that gift-giving is generally NOT free--but rather motivated by (enlightened?) self-interest?  Such an honest attitude, it seems, would be much healthier, since it would serve to unite us in our common need for human connections.  The philanthropist should acknowledge that his charitable giving is as much about helping himself as it is about helping others.  The lover giving a necklace to his beloved should admit that he yearns to have his love reciprocated.  And even the child giving a homemade valentine to his mom should realize (he probably does, actually) that making her happy is also a good thing for himself.

Now, back to that term "free gift."  Obviously, Madison Avenue, in its marketing wisdom, understands the truth I've just discussed:  most gifts are not really "free."  And the advertisers also understand that many of us are uncomfortable with this less-than-altruistic truth about ourselves. Therefore, as is their wont, these high-powered hucksters set out to reassure the public that the truth that we intuitively "know (but dislike)," is, in fact, false (as we would like it to be).  They endeavor, as always and for their own profit, to lie to us. "No, say the adverts, "you're wrong.  There really IS such a thing as a free gift.  No strings attached at all, honest.  No obligation of any kind, honest.  All you have to do is purchase a single box of Chienlit Kitty Litter and we'll send you--as a FREE gift (unlike conventional UNfree gifts)--a 10 ounce bottle of PeeBeeGone deodorizer--absolutely free of charge. Free. Of. Charge.  But hurry!  Only 10 orders per customer will be allowed.

It's a double whammy, of course, since a) you pay up front in money for the PeeBeeGone when you buy the Chienlit and b) you pay later in product loyalty because you now believe in the overwhelming generosity and virtuousness of the Chienlit Company, to the detriment of all competing products.  You'll buy this brand again (even if it's inferior to its rivals) because Chienlit is the guy with the big heart and the free gifts, "your completely altruistic friend."

Dang. All of this is reminiscent of Fox News and its blatant propagandizing for the Republican Party, isn't it? Vote for GOP Candidate X.  He/she really IS your true altruistic friend.  And if you vote for him/her, you will automatically receive a "free gift" (lower taxes, fewer pesky regulations, bans on conduct you don't condone, the right to pay for your own medical and old age care)--no strings attached, honest!

Unless the military needs more money in, er, "Orak" (sic., see picture).