Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Economies

The thought occurs that fabled beasts, “economies,” appeared in history just the other day. They date from a time when, for the first time in history, the majority of humans earned their living doing something other than tilling the soil, herding animals, fishing, or harvesting forests.

Cycles existed in those times as well, but they depended on climate or disease. Drought brought famine. So did excessive rain or short growing seasons. That the latter also occurred is documented. Ever inclined to be a contrarian, I read with interest a while back a book entitled The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan (2000, Basic Books). This period extended from 1300 to 1850; during this time the sun had an extraordinarily quiet period; sunspot activity was at a minimum; the cause-effect relation between the two phenomena (no spots up there, cold weather down here) is speculative, but there you are. The Little Ice Age is not my subject; I point to it by way of saying that the old days had their recessions and Great Depressions too, but these came as a consequence of weather—and sometimes they really lasted. They also came because plagues abruptly decimated populations (or, worse, took more like 4 in 10), and shortages of labor caused drastic decline in what were then not yet called economies. That term apparently dates from the 1650s as applied to nations; it was applied to households before that time and comes from the Greek for manager, steward (oikonomos).

In this little reverie I’ll neglect—but point out that I do—that wars are another major source of collective misery.

All this comes to mind because drums have been beating for a while—leading up to the G20 summit in Canada and continuing still—for and against Keynesian solutions to managing the economy. To draw a quick caricature, the Keynesian approach is to replace faltering consumer demand by stimulative government expenditures. Assuming that tax revenues and government spending are more or less in equilibrium, this translates into deficit spending—but that’s Okay because the recovering economy will eventually erase the deficit. Bookish sort that I am, I first encountered this Keynesian notion in Goethe’s Faust (Part II), presented more or less tongue in cheek as notes to be printed based on gold not yet discovered but sure to be buried somewhere in the earth. For Goethe this was a Mephistophelian solution because Mephistopheles introduced the notion. Ah, yes. I know…

Now I pondered this on my walk yesterday. The weather is wonderful; walking is a pleasure now, not something undertaken as penance for my many long-forgotten sins. The situation—namely the very notion that we can manage our economy—arises only because more of it, much more than half, is now, as it were, optional. We must have food, clothing, and fuel. And those portions of the economy don’t really flag. What flags is the optional part. And it flags not because something hard and real out there is denying us resources. It flags because our confidence has failed. The Keynesian approach, therefore, intends to build confidence. If you won’t spend money, the collective will. And so, gradually, the old habit of consumption, consumption of all those things we do not need, will once more return—and the balls thrown in the air will stay up there as the juggler gets busy again.

Now this game of ours—and it is at least two-thirds game and only one third necessity—ought to be so arranged that the necessary part is always hale. That would mean that all people will have adequate income for the necessities, no matter where confidence goes. We have more than enough wealth to set aside in times of roaring confidence to weather these periods with very little pain, except for that pouty feeling that we can’t play with our toys. We should have a real economy and protect it. It would be possible to arrange things that way. It really would. Humanity is capable of the most arcane and fantastic arrangements—and taking them as seriously as if they were the equivalent of breathing. The first step in that direction would be, for instance, to extend unemployment benefits to people—something that, even as the G20 drums were beating, we lacked the votes to achieve.

We’re supposedly so creative, innovative, etc., etc. This transformation requires some kind of new myth, put into forms everyone will understand. A movie, maybe? Let’s call it The Two Economies. We’ll concentrate on one, and let the other float—as we let currencies float. When confidence wanes, and the other one turns into vapor, we can sober up from our orgy of consumption but still remain humbly able to pay our rent, insurance, and our grocery bills. Two economies, stupid. Not one. And a big wall between them. Let the fabled beast have a little offspring. And let's protect it from being eaten by its mother.
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The image is an edited portion of the Chinese Nine Dragon image visible on Wikipedia here.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Another Update of My Afghan "Memories"

First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842. The British got involved in Afghanistan because the Russian Empire was expanding south and east and the British Empire was extending its domination of India to the north and west. Russia had already made some arrangements with Persia; Persia had claims on Afghan territory. The British saw Afghanistan as a highly desirable buffer state blocking Russian incursions from the north. This episode can be seen as one of the confrontations between expansive imperial states attempting to control Central Asian territories. The Afghans managed to defeat the British and expelled the British-imposed Shuja Shah Durrani. Britain withdrew most of the 21,000 troops it had used in the invasion but occupied Afghanistan for a spell with a remnant of 4,500 men, but internal rebellion eventually forced it to withdraw these as well. All members of the military remnant were killed during the retreat from Kabul—but one, a Dr. William Broydon. The British also had what were called 12,000 camp followers—a category we now, I think, call contractors.

Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880. This conflict had exactly the same cause, Russian-British rivalry. Independent Afghanistan’s ruler then was Emir Sher Ali. The Russians sent a diplomatic mission to Kabul despite Ali’s protests. In response the British attempted to send a mission too, but it was stopped in the Khyber pass and could not continue. Whereupon Britain launched a force of 40,000 to try again, as it were. This time the British were more successful. Afghanistan retained internal rule of its people, but Britain controlled its foreign affairs. The cartoon, from Wikipedia here, drawn in the time of the conflict, summarizes it nicely: there is Emir Sher Ali squeezed between the rivals—and the caption tells it all. Nothing’s changed except the shape of the hat.

Here is a difficult mountainous terrain blocking, if linked to Iran’s northern mountain ranges, the North’s access to the sea and to the fertile Indian subcontinent, and (these days) the access from the South to the oil deposits in the North. Worth noting is that once upon a time the Silk Road passed through Afghanistan, running East to West, making the same region a point of conflict for another reason.

A quote from an earlier survivor of the first Anglo-Afghan War, the Reverend G.R. Gleig, suggests the same-old, same-old quality of that earlier conflict and the current. Gleig wrote that this was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has Britain acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” The quote is from this article by William Dalrymple (a favorite around here).

So, remind me again—this subject is as difficult as picturing a four-dimensional crucifix—what is our motivation for being there?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Graveyard of Empires?

The term is applied to Afghanistan because western powers—the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans—have found it difficult to overcome. By a rather convoluted route that began with thinking of “Alph the sacred river” of Coleridge fame, I came across an empire that evidently had had no problem mastering the region. The empire? The Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan. Here is a fascinating map of the region as of 1280 (courtesy of Wikipedia). I note that at its greatest extent, circa 1241, it covered the place of Brigitte's birth in Poland and my birth in Budapest and extended eastward all the way to the Korean peninsula. This was the extension of Ghengis Khan’s realm by his grandchild the Kublai Khan (1215-1294), founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. It was a simpler world then, one supposes. Here was a man who managed to rule over Russia and China at the same time, the tip of his boot well inside Europe, with ports that could simultaneously access the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The image of the Mongols as wild men riding horses and staying briefly before retiring to ferment mare’s milk in yurts needs a corrective it seems to me. Coleridge tried: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree: where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea…”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Noted...

Herewith some things I’ve noted as McChrystal’s dismissal unfolded in slow motion over the last two days. I noted with a certain bemusement that two retired general, selected by PBS’ NewsHour as commentators, on Tuesday night, praised the general effusively. One called McChrystal “a warrior,” with emphasis, and several times. I wondered what he meant by this word. Did he mean that in the conduct of war grandstanding before a reporter—in fact apparently trying to impress the reporter by saying naughty things about a number of different leading figures, not least Vice President Biden—is the quality of a warrior? Is that what he meant? Did he mean that a warrior is a person out of control? That to lead American troops we should select berserkers? Is “warrior” in military circles equivalent to “hard-drinking womanizer” in literary circles? — a phrase sure to sanctify the “genuine artist,” or the “deep thinker”? I see the phrase all the time, most recently self-applied to himself by that notable God-debunker, Christopher Hitchens.

I noted my own anxiety that McChrystal might be retained in command, something that, these days, is actually thinkable. And noted next my satisfaction that he was not. And noted the paradoxical aspects of that. Yes, appropriate forms should be maintained, but the war in Afghanistan is still a kind of madness without rational grounding, so my satisfaction had a kind of empty feel.

I noted the pretense, at least I hope it was pretense, that a “decision process” was unfolding. These matters are straight-forward and need no discussion at all. The generals in the media were all wringing their hands—although I did note one lonely retired colonel on CNN who had the right view and bravely stuck to it. A genuine warrior, perhaps.

Last I noted that McChrystal got appointed to his command by people who must have known the pattern of his entire career—which was pockmarked, as it were, by inappropriate behavior. It looks like Petraeus (whose protégé McChrystal was, and whom he is replacing), Gates, McChrystal’s strong supporter, and others on Obama’s staff were touched and charmed by the “bad boy” image all along but thought themselves magically immune to its reckless consequences.

I discern beneath this that if reason fails and flailing takes over as the chief strategy, choosing a bad boy is the appropriate profile for the man in charge. The thought might be that in a crazy world perhaps the mad commander will succeed by sheer accident. In an insurgency, use an insurgent?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

1-0! Bravo!

It happened in the 91st minute of a very hard-fought and tense game, thus in the extra three minutes of play added after the obligatory 90 minutes to make up for interruptions during the 0-0 game itself. It seemed like a miracle! The U.S. team moves on. Good show! This was the most sudden, the most surprising, and the most stunningly satisfying experience I’ve had watching sports in at least a decade.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Worship of Man

I return today to two of my early teachers, two cyclic historians, Toynbee and Sorokin. They observed astutely that when humanity abandons its transcendental focus (God, the universe, and everything) the object of human worship becomes humanity itself. Both of these men would have emphasized the word collective, as in “collective humanity.” Collective humanity needs a focus, as it were. Great secular ages sooner or later become imperial, and figures like pharaohs and emperors then emerge as handy symbols of secular worship. Hence, of course, conflicts flared up in late Roman times when Christians chose not to toss a bit of incense on the glowing coals in gestures of submission to the prevailing ideology.

What neither of these sages noted is the highly innovative character of American culture, and here, therefore, I hasten to provide a footnote to their wisdom. Our culture has discovered a wonderful new way of worshipping man. It arises from the insight that humanity may be worshipped in either of two ways: as a collective, which turns our transcendental longing into the worship of the state—or as an individual.

Now it turns out that capitalism is wonderfully suited as an all-purpose institutional structure for the worship of man as an individual. Back in the God-fearing days capitalism was condemned—to be sure under another name, usury. But functionally that label was correct. Later, as we began to hear only the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith, capitalism was reluctantly accepted as a device and instrument for social benefit, as in creating jobs, railroads, pipelines, trickle-down wealth, and the like. Now, finally, as the Individual starts to be capitalized, we are beginning to raise Capitalism itself to the status of a religion—as earlier we raised Communism to the same exalted status. But Communism was a foreign god, and we now praise Us for having managed to conquer it.

What tea leaves am I reading to reach these conclusions? Well, those left over after each gathering of the Tea Party. Those marked by the elevation of figures like Rand Paul. And by news, such as today’s, about “for-profit colleges.” For-profit prisons, for-profit hospitals, for-profit politicians. “I wonder,” Brigitte asked as we were chuckling over these matters over coffee. “Are there for-profit churches yet?” — “Yes,” I said. “The great mega churches with TV channels of their own. But they are legally not-for-profit. And rightly so. It would be sinful for them to pay taxes to the great evil one, the Collective Human of the State.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Public Art

A comment by Brandon on public art in the context of a library—see the post on “Libraries” below—reminded me of the delights I once experienced reading a book by Thomas Wolfe entitled From Bauhaus to Our House. The book is about architecture—and Thomas Wolfe at his best. It was published in 1981. I saw excerpts of it in Harper’s magazine and then, delighted, rushed to buy my own copy.

To become an architect had been my earliest childhood ambition. I used to have to take naps in my Grandmother’s formal living room. It was virtually unused and had a lot of books. Left to myself I used to sneak books from the shelf. One of these was an architectural tome filled with floor plans and drawings. It became a great favorite of mine, a book I consulted daily—and this before I'd even learned to read… As for my calling in life, things worked out differently, but my interest in architecture has remained. It was Tom Wolf who labeled public art the “turd in the plaza.” But reading that phrase, to be sure, was but an incidental pleasure to finding my own views of modern architecture acidly echoed by Wolfe’s theme, which was a critique of modernism in its architectural expression. I loved every word of it… The book is available from Amazon here.

Longest Day and Shortest Night

This year I greet the longest day well-prepared and without frustration thanks to a splendid illustration I managed to find on the website of the Yohkoh Outreach Project, an organization jointly sponsored by Montana State University and Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Lab. The site of the source is here. My frustrations arise (as earlier noted here) because my viscera really believe that the earth stands still and the sun moves. With this temperament, the usual explanation of an earth tilted on its axis tracing an elliptical path around a sun—and thus producing the seasons and the longs and shorts of days and nights—causes me bewilderment, vexation, and a sort of dizziness. I look at all the diagrams and can’t make heads or tails of them, because I’m looking at it all as from a spaceship, but actually I’m down here on the surface of the globe, right by the shores of Lake St. Claire. Yohko Outreach Project to the rescue. They’ve produced this simple, straightforward chart.



They’ve even put me in the center of it—see? And this chart, which shows the position of the sun as I would see it, from my own backyard, makes the solstices and the equinoxes crystal clear. The sun never dips lower to the south than at the Winter Solstice. After that day it rises daily to a slightly higher point in the sky. Thus the sun seems to be in motion, not only side to side, as from dawn to dusk, but also from the Winter Solstice up to the Summer Solstice. And it never goes higher than it does today. Tomorrow it reverses its course.

The name of this day, solstice, comes from the Latin for sun, sol, and sistere, to stand still. Its upward movement stands still today and reverses direction tomorrow. And it shall stand still again on December 21 and begin to rise again. Exactly in the middle of that process we have the equinoxes, coming and going. At the Winter Solstice we have the longest night, today the shortest, and in the middle night and day have the same length: equi nox.

Deep sigh of relief. Thank you Yohkoh Outreach Project. If only more of humanity would follow your example and do good things for the needy and the ignorant. It would be a better world. Now there must be at least a dozen people like me out there who’ll get something out of this post. So enroll me, too, on the side of the angels.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Libraries

The smallest public library I ever used was also, curiously, the best. It was located on perhaps the largest U.S. military base in Germany then (late 1950s) and now. Baumholder is and was one of two gigantic artillery and armored firing ranges. The post housed (still does) 10,000 troops and about a thousand dependents, so-called, the spouses and children of officers and non-coms. The library had about 5,000 titles but these of the highest quality. I’ve often wondered since how that had come about. I could and did sample the best of literature, history, philosophy, and science there. It was astonishing. A mere handful of us used the place—honestly, really. The place had the strange aura of a branch office, but of Mount Olympus, descended to the great wastes of organized destruction. Compact yet complete; empty like an Anglican church; staffed by diffident and lonely DOD civil servants starved for bookish conversation which, despite or because of the emptiness, we held in hushed and reverent tones. Yes, yes. Baumholder library. It surprised me to discover that it’s still there—but updated. It has its own website now; it still welcomes the nostalgic browser with its on-line catalogue; and in that catalogue I could still find the old mile-stones of my personal development—in the old editions yet.

The military has a culture of its own; it extends beyond the merely martial; the military knows much about values and is impervious to markets. Back in those days, with a universal draft drawing all males, it served as a kind of national educational system in which the teaching of values was not only permitted but expected. And the odd corollary of that culture were tiny libraries dense in cultural and intellectual riches.

We lived in many places and drew on the holdings of vast public urban libraries. I’ve used academic libraries going to school as well—and midsized facilities in historic places like Fairfax, Va. Fairfax had a rich Civil War collection; not surprising. The big publics were good libraries, but there is something about a library you can actually get to know intimately. Here in Grosse Pointe the library ought to be rich, dense, and satisfying: this is a very upscale area. It isn’t. The wealth of inhabitants has gone into display. Our poor library struggles, means well, tries very hard. But it cannot be compared to that strange chapel of culture in Baumholder.

The library in Overland Park, Kansas, was (probably still is) the other shining beacon in our own limited exposure. It was much bigger, to be sure, way out there on the edges of the suburbs (these days enfolded by suburbs that stretch into the dim distance beyond it, shopping center after shopping center—until at last the grain elevators take over). Loved the Overland Park Library. A stellar achievement—probably of one energetic and yet enlightened personality, no doubt well known in his or her own circle, not much beyond, one of those people little seen, never feted in the media, who uphold the real culture here in America as also everywhere.

These thoughts to mark the occasion that school has ended—and in consequence of it, our library hours are changing. Nota bene: you’ve got to get in there before 5 p.m. on Fridays or Katie will have barred the door.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fading in Glory





Spring's last days are here, but this year the season intends to exit in all glory. Herewith a before and after shot of lillies of some kind I'm not in the mood this lazy morning to research and to name...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fifty Years: GDP and Healthcare


A picture worth a thousand words. A post on LaMarotte (here) today led me to play with graphical depictions. Here is one such image. It shows, in scale, Gross Domestic Product for 1960 and for 2009, with health care expenditures shown in red at the center of each. In 1960 health care amounted to 5.3 percent of the much smaller economy, in 2009 for 17.6 percent of the much greater. The population has grown 1.7-fold, the economy 27-fold, the health care expenditures 89-fold. And the target has gotten a lot more visible, hasn’t it?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Good and Bad of Bad News

It benefits creatures to become aware of dangers as these arise. The presumption is that they will flee or shelter themselves in ways proper to each. But animals have no access to media of mass communications. They will perceive dangers that genuinely threaten them, but they don’t have to agonize over disasters even a hundred miles away, never mind those taking place on other continents. It was during the Crimean War, midway through the nineteenth century, fought by Russia on one side and assorted other powers (France, Britain, Ottomans) on the other that the telegraph brought instant news of the dreadful slaughter to London and Paris—and hence gave rise to the profession of nursing when Florence Nightingale and others were horrified by reading current, almost instant news. Now, of course, that was a good thing. Not much later (1859) another dreadful butchery, the Battle of Soliferno in Lombardy, gave rise to the Red Cross. Another good thing. Institutional reactions to human-caused disasters continued at a grander scale yet; there is the formation of the League of Nations which the Great War stimulated, and the UN, its successor, arising from World War II.

In the Civil War, the telegraph had the same aura and importance as the Internet still has. Soldiers took every opportunity to communicate home using it. Since then communications have surpassed anything known before: TV, satellites—I wave a hand. It is now possible to warn us of dangers arising in places we shall never see (except on television) and never visit (unless we happen to be soldiers). A veritable downpour of bad news greets us at any time we choose to turn the faucet. The very density of this messaging—and the frequency of our realization that we can’t do a damn thing about this mayhem, except, perhaps send money—leads to a numbing. The scale is too vast, the actors are beyond the human scale. Media-based all-purpose soothing issues as promptly as each upheaval of danger—from the Oval Office, from learned professors speaking of Nigeria, but from Harvard, of Kurdistan, but from California. The rising impulses of today’s Florence Nightingales flicker and then die as fast—unless they morph into an urge to join some meaningless protest or other sure to have absolutely no effect at all.

In Kyrgyzstan the Kyrgyz Turkic majority is killing Uzbeks. Lordy, lord. We can’t even spell these words. And that’s just one story of some evil boil erupting thousands of miles from us...while hundreds of miles away the Supreme Court contemplates whether to review the case of a man from Canada we sent to Syria to be tortured...

If my trees had communications of this sort—never mind my squirrels or my flocks of sparrows—would we be safe in our homes? Or would the whole environment begin to writhe in horrid agonies and the sidewalks buckle as the roots revolt?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fishfly Days and Fishfly Nights

This is the season when fishflies swarm up and out of Lake St. Claire in Michigan and fly west by in their millions with no other aim than to die in peace clinging to innumerable screens and window panes. By night they darken the streetlights in vast clouds of frantic, joyous dance.

The fishfly is actually the mayfly, an aquatic insect in the tantalizingly named Order of Ephemeroptera. The Michigan variety is the Hexagenia limbata, a somewhat obscure name put together from a word meaning “six generations” and another meaning “margined,” the last because the edges of the mayfly nymph’s body are brightly colored.

The fishfly spends most of its life as a wingless nymph living under water in mud burrows; after about a year’s life feeding unseen in water and in mud, the nymph (sometimes dubbed the dun, based on its color) undergoes two moultings, one to a teenaged winged insect still sexually inactive, next to a winged adult in the mood for love up in the air. Fertilized females descend to deposit their eggs on the waters of St. Claire (and many other places in this Great Lakes Region). After the orgy is over, it is time to say goodbye—forever. Within a day the fishflies are dead but still clinging to surfaces where they have settled to dream of recent love in their last brief stage of life. In their two last stages these creatures have mouths that do not feed and stomachs destined to hold nothing but air—which reminds me of the “many difficulties inherent in a teleological view of creation,” as Dorothy Sayers has Inspector Parker remark in her novel Clouds of Witness. (Now that’s the kind of detective I want investigating my demise if it should happen violently.)



In this view the short-timers have found solace on the stone of our study’s window sill where, in nice contrast to the stone’s light surface, the camera can capture them more easily.

Nostalgia...

I’m reading an interesting detective novel by Qui Xiaolong, The Mao Case. The novel is set in Shanghai in the current day, and its author knows that world at first hand; he was born and lived there before settling in St. Louis, Mo. Nothing like eye-witness reports. The ordinary people in China are evidently looking at commie-capitalism with unsure eyes and many of them, if they are old enough, looking back with nostalgia to the days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Fascinating material. I’d always suspected—based on what I know about East Germany and Hungary—that ideological cultures imposed from above don't erase  the status quo ante or totally transform a society. Xiaolong documents that sort of thing. China is exactly—well, just look around. It’s just humanity. Modernity is now exploding there like a vast chain reaction, and it can’t be captured by looking at GDP, foreign exchange reserves, or a few pictures captured by Western journalists showing middle-aged middle-class people doing Tai Chi in the morning in a park. I have a feeling I understand the strange nostalgia many Chinese now feel as another order—which was not exactly loved in its own time but had a certain quality difficult to capture—is now passing away in a glitter, a comfort, and the reek of corruption—soon to be institutionalized into something respectable. If we want to see that something else—again, we just need to look around. I understand the nostalgia because East Germans experienced it in spades after reunification. The facades have been painted, the cardboard cars replaced by shiny new vehicles, the stores have filled with goods, shabby has yielded to up-to-date smart, the bars are full, the music rocks, the media are free. And yet, and yet… I don’t find the words to express it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A New Sound

The first African World Cup is off and running—and with it a new sound. Hearing it over the television thousands of miles away, it has an eerily pleasant bee-hive sound for us, for Brigitte and me, although Dawn.Com, a local media company there, ran a story (here with the picture shown on the left) a week ago titled “World Cup horn risks permanent damage to hearing.” No doubt close proximity to the plastic horn isn’t good for you, but my limited experience of stadia of all kinds, watching baseball and football, tells me that we need not be ashamed of the noise we’re capable of making on this subcontinent. Brigitte and I hail from the place where the Homer Hanky saw its original flutter. We were in the Minneapolis Metrodome at one of the crucial games played by the Twins in the hanky’s early days, and I hereby testify that the Minnesota human voice, waving the hanky, produced at least the same 127 decibels that issue from Africa’s vuvuzela.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Principles, Realism...or What? Ooze?

One of the peculiar features of life in modern society—in which appeal to rationality and principles is but one of multiple options—is that processes that may have begun rationally enough, thus based on principle, can go on indefinitely for no good reason whatsoever. The war in Afghanistan is an example. Principles derived from game theory suggest that it’s rational to meet an attack with an equivalent counter-punch. Natural law permits self-defense. The corollary of this initial reaction is that if the other party then subsides, we should do the same. Escalation is bad strategy.

In modern times, however, where power appears to depend on the emotional state of large collectives, symbols used to rally the public take on an ever greater role. The 9/11 attack on three buildings was linked to a single person, Osama bin Laden, and an elusive movement called Al-Qaeda. We attacked both but did not achieve what we call “closure” today. But we did destroy bin Laden’s camp and drove Al-Qaeda underground. That should have satisfied us. After achieving that, we should have subsided. We did not.

We did not because symbols we raised and caused to become much larger than life persist. Our leadership raised those symbols to shape and manage public expectations, thus to maintain itself in power. And this process continued even after the leadership changed. Notice the evolution of the symbolism. It began with the names of one leader and one group. It became a “war on terror” (however one is to define that) or “Islamic terrorism,” which suddenly had us fighting all of Islam. We’ve also worshipped—ever since it escaped our grasp in Vietnam—something we’ve called Victory, and for the same reason. But this concept is sufficiently vague under current circumstances so that we cannot claim it. What is wrong?

Al-Qaeda had no borders. It just happened to have its camps in Afghanistan. We expanded the conflict to Afghanistan as a whole—and specifically to the Pashtun group that then controlled it, the Taliban—in search of a “closure” that had been expanded in definition to what? The eradication of a whole civilization or, at least, its way of life? A rational and principled response to an attack on one of our centers with an attack on the centers of those who presumably caused the attack on us has evolved into a war against Afghanistan and, because of very permeable borders, with parts of Pakistan. No end in sight. We’re now at war everywhere in a small way at least. In this process we’ve also engineered a war with Iraq for which no rational grounds existed at all.

I ponder this now that the definition of “victory” is once more complexifying. Evidently it means that Afghanistan must be turned into a republic recognizably like our own, with regular elections, a consumption culture, competing parties, a real economy, and people who look reasonably like our own so that we can finally relax. But this isn’t in the cards.

I wonder if humanity has ever encountered this particular problem before—namely one in which vast masses of voters, manipulated by symbols, call the shots without wishing to do so and cause the leaders to behave in entirely irrational ways that the public, although it does wish to do so, cannot stop.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Science Friday Tells Me So

Science Friday tells me so on NPR, therefore it must be true: multi-tasking isn’t good for you. The brain appears to be constructed to attend to one thing at a time. M-T causes brains to switch rapidly between their tasks with losses in efficiency. Those who multi-task a lot invariably perform at lower levels of competence. No exceptions. Do we need science to tell us so? No. This knowledge is as old as homo sapiens.

On the same program I learned—amazing what a trip to Kroger can produce—that as brains age they get more efficient. They reason better. The old doctrine that we shed grey cells as the years advance is now said to lack evidence. The old brain is also capable of a deeper happiness than youth. Not news to the ancients.

I like science that happens to confirm what I know from life itself. Someday science will also tell me why it’s wrong to alter crops genetically. And more, much more. I’ll keep listening to Science Friday…as I alertly navigate through heavy traffic with laudable patience.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Community, its Markers, and Wealth

When my family arrived in the United States, you could go to college at your state university without paying tuition; you had to pay for lodging; you had to pay for books; the education was free. We got here in 1951. In 1954 National Educational Television beg we. As its support from the Ford Foundation faded, Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (1967); from this initiative arose the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1970. Public TV had no advertising. Its fare was not at first very compelling but became ever better. When we arrived in Kansas City and my parents rapidly found work, they went to work using a streetcar system; it served the whole city efficiently; most people could catch a streetcar by walking a few blocks east or west. We lived right in the city, in a humble but tidy neighborhood. We could walk to grocery stores; one was a Safeway. Other typical services were also within walking distance (pharmacies, restaurants, barber shops, movies, doctors’ offices). One of our regular weekend trips was to the downtown library—by streetcar. In our neighborhood many people belonged to unions; the labor movement was alive, well, growing, much in the news. The working class had a kind of consciousness, unity.

Yesterday another fundraiser began on PBS. “Again?” I said—but not with any kind of heat. Mine was a sort of sigh well beyond resignation. I’d discovered the phone banks and the all-too-familiar fundraising faces after watching three ads, two screens recognizing supporting foundation, and CPB’s plug for itself. This being the kick-off yet another cycle, our station showed a well-made documentary on the Polish Heritage of Detroit; that community was and continues to be highly communitarian, ritualistic, Catholic, cohesive, lasting. This made me think of “community” more generally—and the disappearance of its markers as our life in these states unfolded.

Streetcars had died first. By the time we left Kansas City, only the tracks remained; a decade later even the tracks had disappeared. By the time our children were of college age, every state university charged a tuition. By that time central cities had undergone white flight to the suburbs. Years later, revisiting our first U.S. neighborhood, I found, count them, three burned out houses their sooty hulks still there. Our own house was now a weed-covered vacant lot. I don’t know about Kansas City, but I do know the situation in Detroit. In Detroit retail trade has also left the central city so that the inner-city population has virtually nowhere to shop; the few stores that remain sell chips, liquor, and minimal groceries at high prices. In my professional life I’ve had frequent occasions to study the evolution of the working class—and not least the ever-downward pointing curves of union membership.

People present such catalogues of change to blame some group, class, or ideology for failure to “do the right thing.” But changes on so great a scale have deeper—one might say environmental—causes. Community? It is adaptable, natural, valuable. How then to explain the progressive erosion of its markers? They should not be eroding unless something better can be discovered as the cause of the decay.

That something better turns out to have been wealth. It’s better—from the personal view point, but it carries a hidden cost. In the 50-year period from 1951 to 2001 (to pick a round number) wealth has increased three-fold. Per capita disposable income in constant dollars was $8,408 in 1951 and $25,704 in 2001. If we take the measure of constant dollars seriously, thus equivalent purchasing power in the two years, the population was much richer in 2001 than in 1951 when we set foot on U.S. soil. The distribution of wealth has been uneven, but most people did experience the pleasure of affluence enough so that, well, communal loyalties (which extract a cost) have weakened without appearing to erode the “good life.” To the contrary. Some of the disciplines demanded by communal life could be abandoned too with gains in pleasure and no tangible loss of value except, perhaps, nostalgia.

Not visible in this process, of course, is that the structures of human cohesiveness have weakened; now, more and more visibly, the institutional and even the physical structures are also showing signs of heading south. No single group, class, or ideology can be singled out for blame (not that blame isn’t being issued left and right). The environment changed—but not the constant of human nature. I’m not an economic determinist but I am a student of humanity. Paradoxically, wealth is more erosive of values than want. Community will come back again when things have decayed enough. And it might be built around the still existing nodes of it—like, for instance, the Polish community in Detroit and many other such seemingly backward but still healthy human structures that remain.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Marginalia...

... or thoughts that occur reading or watching the news.
  • Karzai fires two cabinet officers U.S. authorities happen to like. It occurs to me that the Afghanistanis are fed up with the USA and have been for quite a while, not least those who profit by our presence in some way. The most sincere among them engage us in arms.
  • NYT headline today: “Turkey Goes From Pliable Ally to Thorn for U.S.” The subhead elaborates, saying: “Policies on Israel and Iran Show a New Assertiveness.” Three things occur to me. One is that “Iran,” in that subhead, really also means Israel. Iran is not a threat to the U.S. Our most recent direct contact with Iran was our imposition of an emperor to rule that nation. Iran has proved itself one of the most peaceful powers in, say, the last century—defending itself when attacked by Iraq. In that one we were helping Saddam Hussein on the sly. The second is that Turkey-bashing is now permissible because we no longer need Turkey as a stalwart ally against the Soviet Menace. Third is the interesting assumption that “assertiveness” is inappropriate, no matter what, and that Turkey ought quietly to swallow the death of its nationals at the hands of Israeli commandos to retain its highly desirable status as a pliable ally.

Imperial Nudity

In recent days we’ve had a very public re-enactment of the story about the boy who saw that the emperor wore no clothes and innocently dared to say it out loud. In our own time, however, in which sexism and ageism are both hate crimes, we’ve been careful to observe the etiquette so that the Crier of Nudity in our case was an old woman.

Monday, June 7, 2010

At the American Pavilion

We watched a televised report some days ago about Expo 2010 now underway in Shanghai. The lines leading up to the American Pavilion seemed very crowded and long. They suggested even to people like us looking at the scene through TV-eyes that the Chinese population is fascinated with America. Part of this reportage was a brief interview with a Chinese lady. She was asked about her impression of America. She gave a curious answer. In so many words she said that she'd been pleasantly surprised. Americans seemed friendly and human and nice. What about her impression before she came to this exhibit? How did she view America before she came? She said that her impression had been that America is harsh and bullying.

Old memories suddenly surfaced. We too had once been drawn to these shores by American charm—which still flowed in large and fragrant waves back sixty years ago with World War II a very recent memory. We learned of the other side of this culture when, at the first or second introductory lecture about America—attending which was compulsory during a pre-embarkation period—our leader held forth for an hour about the importance of shining our shoes as if such an activity were not only neglected in Europe but totally unknown.

I recall—and this is off the subject, or is it?—an amusing story I once came across in a Japanese travel guide from the nineteenth century. The Japanese story-teller was attempting to tutor his audience about American behavior. Two men meet in America, he said. Each will reach into his pocket and urge the other to accept a cigar. An energetic exchange will follow, a lot of waving of cigars in the other person’s face. Finally the inferior of the two will yield and accept the proffered object.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Compost

Late each spring, as Brigitte girds herself for about the fifth round of serious garden work, I have to fetch her a wheel-barrow-full of fresh black dirt from that shaded, dark strip of land from behind our garage. We have a compost heap although “heap” isn’t the right word. It is a rectangular frame of wood I’d covered with wire mesh when first I made it, oh, a decade or so ago. Here we dump our vegetable wastes and empty the mower’s grass bag. The rack has a great capacity to digest such waste. Its level rises and then slowly sinks again as rot and decay turn lower layers grayish-yellow and then black with rain and time. Once every year or so, this time of year, I dig a big hole in the back to fill the barrow. The new dirt then serves to fill the pots and to enrich our flower-beds. I fill the hole again from the compost heap, lifting oddly shaped pitch-forks full of stuff from its upper layer and burying them again out back. I mark the spot with a brick. The stuff will lay there for three years and, in the process, turn into black dirt again.

Three years ago we had a fun surprise. Some pumpkins seeds we had discarded in the wake of Halloween had managed to sprout deep inside the compost, looked through the wire mesh and then proliferated from that spot out- and downward so that a gigantic pumpkin vine eventually grew right on the concrete and produced two lovely pumpkins once again. This happened again the following year and—this spring—we wondered: would the pumpkin be back? Well it is back—but just beginning. The picture shows its green hopes sticking out, past the wire. Those of you who’re interested in the deepest levels of civilization may rest assured. I shall report on the Pumpkin’s Progress in the future with words and pictures.

Meanwhile, for the third year in a row, I’ve left the bottom layer of the compost heap entirely undisturbed lest I interfere with the life of one splendid specimen of Cucurbita pepo. Long live the pumpkin!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Cemetery Iron




In her search for decorative iron Michelle took some quite wondrous photos of
The ghettoes of the dead, where we, survivors still, if temporarily, built tombs
Of square stone blocks we decorated with wrought iron bent by preference to show
The shape of hearts.

A closer look also reveals the living plants the mourners placed, in memory
Of those who’d died, in pots of stone and iron urns or planted in what open ground
The throngs of those now gone still leave for growth in this vast city of the dead beneath
The open skies.

Transience and permanence, the presence of an absence that we cannot really
Grasp lies here in stately, indeed in architectural display, an elegant, an
Urban crowding not, of course, in modern form—that wouldn’t be so photogenic—
But in splendor.
--------------------
Photos by Michelle Darnay-Paret, taken in France.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Siris is Six

About two years ago I happened across Siris. It came up as a Google answer on some search I’d made regarding St. Thomas Aquinas. The site intrigued me. I began to page around and, in that process found Brandon’s poetry. The coincidence of philosophical vigor, calm sanity, and genuine poetic gifts on the same pages caused me to bookmark the site at once. The site, mind you, not the blog—because in those innocent days I didn’t as yet realize that Siris was a blog. I thought that blogs were things of the sort David Horowitz produced. Soon Brigitte and daughter Monique were also enthusiastic readers of Brandon’s poetry and other posts—and not just Brandon’s but his selection of quotes from the English-language literature stretching back in time. After I started a blog of my own, one day, with a little inward laugh at my own naïveté, I realized at last that Siris was a blog. It is more. But in the spirit of that site, I’ll avoid over-large gestures here and simply say that Siris, for us, is a cultural value and a treasure house. It stands all by itself: interesting, difficult, sometimes obscure, many-faceted, enlightening, indeed often strikingly novel, beautiful, sage, and inspiring. Such things don’t simply happen. And Siris is not the work of a leisured, retired sage but of an active man whose day job is to teach the next generation.

Siris turned six on June 2. Happy birthday!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Dog’s Life? Not Quite

Medical days powerfully reconnect me to earthly realities; they produce stress. I note here that stress, at any rate, is a pretty constant accompaniment throughout adult life, but it is then mild enough so that we become accustomed to it except in times of transition, thus on awakening and, getting ready to go to work, on resuming the burdens of the day. In retirement most of that stress is removed, but medical days bring it back into focus. And it’s not just people who live in stress. I observe the same thing when I watch birds or squirrels or dogs, too, for that matter. Always alert, always awaiting the next damned thing—or powerfully drawn to the next something desirable. And, when stress disappears, going to sleep. Dogs are very good at that. They belong to the leisure class...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Slogans

We saw one of those series (on library rental CDs), series that I suspect arise within one of the regrettably advanced cabals of the BBC aimed at the “education” of the lower classes. In one of the episodes the crime to be solved by our politically correct Chief Superintendent involves heinous behavior by one of BBC’s favorite targets, the C of E. In one scene we are outdoors at a church, having been inside to glimpse both soaring architecture and sinking degradation, when the camera “significantly” pans over a stone column inscribed upon which are the words GOD IS LOVE. The context is not, as it were, to assert the truth of that phrase but, rather, to point to the hypocrisy of clergy and believers—because, by listening to the dialogue between the PC CSI and his laudably lower class DI (that’s a detective inspector for laughably naïve Americans) we already know how we are supposed to view religion generally—thus as something below the salt, but that phrase, in turn, would not be seriously used because another favorite target of such shows is the nobility or anything even resembling it. And a third one, of course, is anybody engaged in trade. But, alas, we wouldn’t use that phrase either because that’s another dismissive slogan used by upper classes of yore. Therefore “trade” today means big business with showy wealth on display.

Now, mind you, in fairness to the BBC, it is more like the civilization itself and not uniform in its ideology. Advanced cabals are opposed to others that frequently succeed in bringing us better entertainment. In addition to CSI WhatsHisName, we are also treated to Miss Marple. Indeed she has been brought us by faceless BBC folk I heartily approve of (BBC-sage, let’s say) and, later also by the cabal I’ll gladly do without. In the first series Miss Marple, who has a very dark view of humanity indeed, is shown as she was written (manner of speaking). In the second and later version, she is made to seem younger, lighter, and always seemingly with her tongue in her cheek. Her dark side has vanished. The cabal must have shuddered at the first Miss Marple; lordy; Marple might actually teach the lower classes something that might be called “morals.” Double-shudder. This would not do, would not do.

BBC-sage has also brought us Ruth Rendell—and done in the clear. And Ruth Rendell, while a woman of our time, wears a very serious expression on her face; she has an unfailing eye for the fallen state of humanity—any class—under, lower, middle, higher, or the highest. We none of us escapes that dark vision, one that speaks of other and these days rarely publicized aspects of God we’d best keep in mind as we slurp our life with all the gusto that we can.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Locomotion

My little baby sister can do it with ease
It’s easier than learning your ABC’s
So come on, come on do the locomotion with me
          [Gerry Goffin and Carole King]
For an earlier comment on pop music, I refer you to this post. Herewith the follow-up I promised there, a link to the song itself, the version rendered by Kylie Minogue. You’ll find it here.

Queen Anne's Lace


Our ground cover is Queen Anne’s Lace. It’s a very vigorous and persistent plant the name of which I only learned this morning. In England it is known as wild carrot or bishop’s lace. That royal name, Queen Anne's Lace, is used here in the democratic United States. In Latin, formally, Daucus carota.

This is the time of the plant’s glory—late May to early June. The collage shows ours in the yard, then in the sunroom from close up, finally as Brigitte has arranged it to give our sunroom table one of its ever-changing aspects this time of year. Unfailing, serene, and royally disdainful of the human horrors that disfigure the public sphere of mind, Queen Anne’s Lace reminds me to rise above it all.

A note. When it comes time to identifying plants—and I have to start with an image—I became aware of the limitations of the digital world. I can’t just give Google a picture and ask for its name. A human intermediary is unavoidable.