Sunday, December 28, 2014

Filistine Foneticks and Other Frustrating Fenomena.

A friend recently posted a clever remark on Facebook:  "Why isn't 'phonetically' spelled with an 'f'?"

My answer was that "foneticklee" just looks silly.  In other words, habit matters more than logic or common sense or practicality.  We don't want to spell logically because, well, we are accustomed to spelling illogically and so there.

Besides the imbecilic orthography of English, there are numerous other "silly," backward, or unproductive habits that we cling to, even though a change based on reason or efficiency would probably improve our lives. Consacré par l'usage, say the French. Sanctified by use (but certainly not by usefulness). Here's a short list:

1)  The old imperial system of weights and measures, which even the British no longer employ. But dang, we just don't want to give up our pounds and miles and BTUs.

2)  Coins and paper money that no longer make much sense:  pennies get lost in dryers and a dollar won't buy even a doughnut.  Dollar coins and bills in different colors and different sizes would help us avoid errors in counting and accounting. there.

3)  Our outmoded and inefficient credit cards. Chip and PIN cards would put Americans on a par with other technologically-advanced countries.  These cards would also be more secure.  But...well...the cost...and wouldn't people forget their PINs?

4)  Our rotten transportation infrastructure.  High-speed trains would provide an invaluable alternative to planes and automobiles; clean and comprehensive rapid transit would revitalize our cities. But we can't seem to think beyond Amtrak and subways like L.A.'s that go nowhere.

5)  Our ossified and dysfunctional 18th Century political structure. State boundaries should be redrawn; metropolitan areas should be consolidated; the Constitution should be dramatically amended or replaced (to get rid of blatant inequalities, such as two senators for each state, regardless of population; to truly "ensure justice" by clarifying the Second Amendment and by banning gerrymandering and filibustering; to make inviolable the government's responsibility to honor its debts, etc., etc., etc...).  But, oh, dear, the "sacred" Constitution...what "God" hath wrought, let no man put asunder...

6)  Our practice of "judicial review."  There's nothing really wrong with the courts (including the Supreme Court) having the authority to determine whether or not a law is "constitutional."  But the whole process is incredibly time-consuming and expensive (and thus more or less inaccessible to people of modest means).  Something like France's "Conseil Constitutionnel" would be a definite plus:  proposed laws would need to be scrutinized for constitutionality by a judicial body before being enacted.  The Supreme Court would be responsible for cases involving the actual implementation of laws.

7)  Our genuinely stupid notion that education is not a national concern--and that decisions about a child's education should be the exclusive province of the parents.

8)  Our equally silly notion that children are the "possessions" of their parents.

9)  Our lack of a national identification card;  what possible "harm" can there be in uniformizing the ridiculously overlapping and conflicting state laws? A driver's license is not an efficient or even safe way of providing ID.

10)  Our reluctance to publicly fund culture and the arts.  We have little problem with providing public funding and/or subsidies for stadiums and arenas to be used by privately-owned sports teams; yet we are decidedly parsimonious about other providers of pleasure, entertainment, or intellectual stimulation.  Artists, writers, museums, orchestras, theaters, public TV--all are scorned and neglected. Why?

11) The notion that separation of church and state means that churches have no obligation to pay for the services that they receive from government.  Churches benefit just like any private organization from local, state and federal protections/services.  They should be taxed accordingly and receive deductions for their legitimate charitable contributions, just as others do (very few churches would qualify as true "nonprofit/purely charitable" organizations).  As it is, the state is actually "subsidizing" religions--and that is not separation; that is favoritism.  But, but...we've always been good to the churches...because they do so much "good."

12)  Stop lights/signs at rural and suburban intersections.  Why don't we use roundabouts/traffic circles?  So much more sensible...

Oh, I could go on, but...all this progressive, logical thinking has quite worn me out. Perhaps I, too, am a bit of a "filistine," too anachronistically attached to an ancient, hopelessly rickety but richly evocative "Streetcar Named Desire," even though that iconic line was abandoned years ago, survived only by more prosaic sisters--like this decidedly uninspiring Rattletrap Named St. Charles.



* Smart people know that they don't know much.  Stupid people know that they know that they know--I mean really know. There can be no arguing with stupid people because they are like that idiotic politician's rape victim--their bodies automatically expel unwanted seminal material.

* Trolls on internet threads are fun to read, but their cyber sniping is clearly just divertissement--it can have no purpose other than to pass/waste time and reinforce one's pre-existing opinions.  I read comment threads like I listen to debates:  to be amused by the idiocy of those I disagree with (makes me feel superior) and to be impressed by the wit/reason of those I agree with (makes me feel superior).  I also like to note mistakes in English usage and spelling (makes me feel superior).

* Both Paul Ryan and Prince Harry are rather handsome men, but they have horribly deformed noses. This may be the result of being born with a silver spoon in the wrong orifice.

* People seem to need, indeed, cannot survive without, a certain amount of pure escapism--fantasy--relief from reason.  Reason--that quality that humans cherish above all others as the characteristic that makes us human and distinguishes us from other animals--is also a burden, a prison, a pain in the ass, something that we sometimes MUST escape into the irrational.

* Depending on how much of our being we give over to escapism we are either Republicans (lots of escapism) or Democrats (less escapism). People who have involuntarily lost their reason are known as lunatics. People who have voluntarily renounced their reason are known as Tea Partiers. (This isn't really a paradox, is it? Just a fact. The paradox is that the Tea Partiers--who have so clearly lost their minds--so often denounce their adversaries as lunatics who have lost their minds.)

* Slot machines are like right-wing politicians: the more noise they make about big payouts, the less they actually pay out. But the more likely they are to attract suckers.

* My 39-year-old nephew, unwilling to assume adult responsibility in any domain (holding a job, maintaining a relationship, living independently), is clearly a sociopathic parasite for whom my entire enabling, bailing-out family functions as a host (he lives, intentionally unemployed and blithely uncaring, with his parents). Some of us have at last understood that he is unlikely ever to change (especially given the familial cocoon in which he lives) and that we can do nothing beyond trying to protect ourselves from being used, trying to isolate ourselves from him, endeavoring to shake him off (or "up") without actually destroying either him or our family unit. But others (like my sister, his aunt) seem to derive actual satisfaction from being exploited and emotionally mistreated on a fairly regular basis. What accounts for this? What makes a host "need" its parasite? Is this some sort of "co-parasitism"? Would my sister be unhappier long-term if our nephew stopped making her unhappy short-term? Are we all nuts?

Bad Taste Leads to Crime

Bad taste leads to crime (le mauvais goût mène au crime) wrote the famous French critic Sainte-Beuve. The remark was probably intended as a mere boutade--a quip that amuses by its unexpected juxtaposition of concepts--but there is a very real sense in which bad taste does (or at least can) lead to crime. This is so because people who lack discernment about what is appropriate in given situations (i.e., who do not have good taste) might very well, in careless abandon, fail to judge good from bad not just in art and fashion, but also in moral/ethical matters. It is not difficult to see that, given power or authority, such individuals might, as Sainte-Beuve predicted, blunder heedlessly into criminal behavior. Consequently, I suspect that America's cavalier attitude toward esthetics might be at least a partial cause for our usually makeshift and frequently disastrous foreign and military policies. Please, America! Civilized, discerning people must exercise judgment and restraint; they can't just don't do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, however they want. Behavior unchecked by common sense is mere license, not liberty.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Alienable" Rights

A "right" is a legal and/or cultural privilege which you have won or which others have won for you and which you may continue to exercise as long as there remains a social and cultural consensus (enshrined in law) in its favor. Jefferson was wrong; no rights exist "in nature"; nothing has been endowed upon you by a "Creator"; nothing is inalienable; nothing, nothing, nothing! You want your rights? You may have to fight for them. Your mere status as a human being does not entitle you to anything. Didn't you learn anything from the "Game of Thrones"?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Globalization, Democracy, and Empire

The world's fierce battles over whether to expand or limit the global movement of people, goods, money, ideas, cultural artifacts, etc., have prompted me to reflect a lot about the issue usually termed, sometimes approvingly, sometimes disparagingly, as "globalization." Globalization, it seems to me, is in its broadest sense an imperial impulse--expanding outward, eliminating barriers (or protective fences), subordinating everyone and everything equally to a common order (a standardization which may imperil individuality and singularity even as it fosters universal values and overall tolerance). Opposed to globalization are all forms of tribalism/nationalism/fundamentalism--those dispositions which esteem, above all else, the freedom of individuals or groups to pursue the limited interests of their own self-identified "demos," without regard for the interests of other peoples or of the larger global community.  In short, the opposite of globalization would appear to be our much vaunted but oh-so-loosely-defined democracy.

Here in America, our professedly "democratic" elites (both political and industrial/financial) will, of course, deny this and posit the contrary notion: that globalization--by which, in truth, they mean the expansion of American practices--will actually and necessarily not only spread democracy but universalize it.

This, alas, is a major fallacy in American (and Western) thinking and a profound misunderstanding of the true meaning of democracy (self-rule by a particular people in accordance with principles which that people finds "self-evident" and which suit that people). Globalization merely spreads the values and life-style of the dominant culture and the dominant demos. It does not ensure that other peoples, those who proudly self-identify as "exceptional" or "divinely chosen" or "ethnically superior" will experience this universalization as in any way "democratic." On the contrary, they are likely to regard American "democracy" (i.e., free-trade capitalism/Jeffersonian assumptions about "self-evident truths") as oppressive and threatening to their very identity as a demos.

Myriad examples illustrate this truth: the Islamic fundamentalism that regards the U.S. as the Great Satan; the xenophobic right-wing parties of Europe and America (who want, above all, to prevent alien migrants from crossing their frontier fences and thus defiling or impoverishing their hitherto happy demos); the angry economic protectionists and political isolationists on both the left and right; the unionists and left-wingers who decry outsourcing, etc. Gosh, the list is long--and as you see, the traditional divisions of left and right do not really apply to this discussion. There are both left- and right-wing globalists; there are both left- and right-wing democrats.

So who will be the winner of these battles--the outward-looking, expansionist globalists or the inward-looking, protectionist democrats? Obviously, the two temperaments are always in play, but at any given time in the history of civilization, one temperament is likely to dominate and thus exercise greater influence, while the other languishes in fretful disfavor. At the moment, it would appear--and this despite all the frenzied Sturm und Drang emanating from numerous hotspots around the planet--the imperialist/globalists have the upper hand. Indeed, the very derangement and hysterical desperation of, dare I say it?, "democratic" tribalism now lashing out so violently at the West, serve only to underscore the degree to which globalization and imperial values have implanted themselves and are perceived as threats by the besieged democrats who feel neither empowered nor liberated by the prospect of an American (or Chinese or Russian)-inspired "global village."

Which is not to say that the current imperium (multinational capitalism, American military force, English-speaking media, Chinese financing) will necessarily endure. The pendulum may again swing, as it has in the past, toward fragmentation and little, self-centered tribal groups. Triumphant globalism may indeed grow overconfident, arrogant, atrophied and eventually of diminished service to the populations whose lives its universalism purported to make more comfortable. In such a scenario, the long-smoldering tribalism may once again burst into flame, incinerate the empire and re-establish a medieval Westeros of enclaves, bailiwicks and principalities, each the domain of a single self-identified demos--a sort of democracy (though perhaps governed by a single ruler in the "name of" the people). Some such break-apart campaigns have recently surfaced in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, Tibet, Texas, even northern California. But so far, little fragmentation has come of all the hubbub.

Still, if the world does once again split up into disparate navel-gazing states, true (and, for many of us, quite undesirable) democracy may see a fierce resurgence--rule of, by, or at least for some sort of "majority mob" (or a mob-supported elite). Then, licking their wounds and motivated by the inevitable excesses and cruelty of the now prevailing tribalists, the discredited globalists will have to take their turn in the dusky shadows, plotting and pursuing (for centuries) their return at last to dominance. So that the cycle can begin all over again. The empire is dead; long live the empire!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Perpetual Wargasm

I have been incredibly naive. All of my life, I have thought of war as a kind of perversion of the human spirit, a sort of aberration which prevents human beings from being fully human, from realizing their potentials in peace and happiness. I now see that this notion is utter foolishness: war, not peace, is humanity's default setting. WAR is normal. Peace is an aberration, a peculiarly "inhuman" state which quickly makes people uncomfortable and, yes, unhappy. We need war/struggle/conflict/danger in order to feel alive and purposeful. Sitting around under our fig tree sipping lemonade and dandling children on our knees cannot satisfy us for long.

Such peaceful relaxation of tension inevitably leads us to contemplation, and contemplation distresses us painfully: we reflect upon all that is lacking in our lives and we compare ourselves with others who are apparently living "better." We grow agitated, envious, bitter, angry. We complain, we fall into depression, we drink too much, eat too much, take refuge in drugs or cults. And then, when we can no longer endure this oppressive peace, we seize upon an excuse--almost any excuse will do--to take up arms against a neighbor or a neighboring people, blaming him/them for our misery and marching feverishly, ecstatically, toward the ultimate realization of what it means to be human: the taking or losing of human life in the bloody, consciousness-altering orgasm of WAR.

Emperors and Democracy

"Democracy" is really a misnomer, isn't it? There is always an "emperor," no matter what the political system is called. Two questions seem valid, though: a) to what extent does the system help the emperor do "good"? and b) is the system able to discourage him/her from doing "harm"? A system that does not do BOTH is ineffective/dysfunctional and needs reform. A system that does NEITHER is tyrannical and should probably be dumped (since its "goodness" depends entirely on the character of the emperor himself/herself).

Even a cursory analysis of the current US system suggests that it is incapable of doing "a" precisely because it is so obsessed with "b." Moreover, in our present context, the perennial tare of racism exacerbates our paralysis: the already clunky "separation of powers" nicely facilitates those in the legislative branch who wish to sabotage the hated black executive (President Obama) and ensure that he will be rendered incapable of any action whatsoever, regardless of the objective goodness or badness of such action. We thus find ourselves most egregiously cast into the category of ineffective/dysfunctional systems.  (The haters and zealots of the right wing would like us to believe that Obama is a "tyrant," when, in actual fact, he is merely the lamest of lame ducks, crippled by a constitutional framework set up in the 18th century when limiting the power of "emperors" was a more vital concern than empowering them to act for the good of the "demos").

Consequently, I conclude, if any progress is to be made by our demos, if any genuine "democratic" good is to be advanced in the US in the 21st century, we must resolve ourselves to inaugurate substantial changes in the basic legal framework governing our land: i.e., the Constitution must be profoundly altered, so as to unfetter the "emperor" (because there is always an emperor) and enable him/her--finally--to take positive action in the interests of the commonweal. In short, we need more, not less, imperial authority.

Is that a risk? Well, yes, certainly. Useful constitutional checks and balances must remain in place; Congress (but a streamlined, fairly-elected, unicameral Congress) must continue to initiate or at least approve legislation. And it is indispensable that the courts retain their autonomy and the right to judicial review. Civil rights must be guaranteed by the new Constitution, and a means for removing an emperor (if he/she behaves unconstitutionally) is of course a sine qua non. All very hairy, all very scary.

But our current order is so obsolete and so grievously incapacitated by self-imposed impediments that there seems no other solution. Our so-called "democracy" has degenerated into an eternal gladiatorial combat in which sword-fighters bearing names like Louie Gohmert, Steve King, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann fight to a bloody draw with net-fighters called Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren--and, as witness to which, the "emperor" (Obama) can give neither a thumbs up nor a thumbs down, since his hands have been constitutionally bound to his chair. So it goes on and on, not much bread, really less-than-diverting circuses.

Well, enough! "We, the people" are growing rather weary of being treated as dupes and suckers by the Washington ancien régime. Perhaps, if our foppish leaders fail to institute some genuine constitutional changes, we may opt to skip the circuses entirely--and in lieu of gagging on the stale bread offered, mix our historical metaphors and bake ourselves some revolutionary cake.

P.S. And don't tell me that revolutions are about the demos getting RID of emperors: historically, revolutions have merely gotten rid of ineffectual emperors and replaced them with other newly-empowered, more people-focused emperors. Louis XVI and Nicolas II gave way to Napoleon and Lenin. There is always an emperor.