Seasonal Assortment 

Your Minor Heretic has been busy lately with various projects intended to make him a living. Simultaneously, the inspiration to write a 1200 word essay on something has been generally absent. Here are a few short takes on topical subjects, in no particular order.

There has been much ado in the media, especially the right wing media, about a crime called “The Knockout Game.” The idea is that gangs of black teenagers pick out a white victim and one of them walks up and sucker punches the person. You can imagine, if you haven’t actually witnessed it, the media hype. This is now apparently a huge epidemic of black-on-white violence, except that apparently it isn’t when a reporter actually does some investigating.

What it reminds me of is something told to me by a guy about my age at a party I was at about 35 years ago. I had just met him and out of nowhere he started telling me about a pastime he and his friends enjoyed called “broomsticking n----rs.” It involved a group of white teenagers riding around in the back of a pickup truck with a broomstick, picking out a black victim, and hitting that person with a broomstick as they drove by. If the guy with the broomstick dropped it he was thrown out of the truck and had to go retrieve it, facing the wrath of the injured party. Aside from the use of a weapon and the added cowardice of doing it from a moving truck, it was much the same as the knockout game. At the time I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that the guy was serious. I think the look on my face told him what he needed to know because he found other people to talk to. I guess stupid, angry, bored young men are, and always have been, stupid, angry, bored young men.

I was pleased to see that Federal Judge Richard Leon found that there was actually a constitutional amendment in between the one about quartering troops in people’s houses and the one about not incriminating oneself, and that going on a fishing expedition is only constitutional if it involves a rod, a hook, and bait. He ruled that the NSA’s mass collection of data was unconstitutional and noted that the government had failed to prove that this method of collection was actually effective. He called the program “almost Orwellian”, winning him the Minor Heretic’s Understatement of the Year Award.

I would also like to note that the author of the so-called USA Patriot Act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., stated publicly that James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, should be fired and prosecuted for lying to congress about the extent of NSA surveillance. I seem to remember recommending that myself a few posts back.

Perhaps the lumbering beast of public opinion is raising its head, blinking, and saying, “Everything? You mean, like everything I do on my phone and the internet? As in ‘everything’? Wait a sec….”

On the seasonal front, I must point out that Paul Bibeau at Goblinbooks nails the “black Santa” issue. Saint Nick and Jesus would both get the squinty eye from the TSA. Be sure to check out the link in his article from the Saint Nicholas Center. Some forensic scientists x-rayed the actual skull of St. Nicholas and did a reconstruction of what he probably looked like. It’s the jolly old elf as you have never considered him.

A thought about the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia: Given the homophobic tendencies and oppressive laws of that nation, I’m hoping for a touch of 1936 and 1968. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics, a kick in the teeth for racists all over the world, but especially for Herr Schickelgruber. In 1968, at the Mexico summer Olympics, medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the podium while our national anthem was played. Along with Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, they all wore symbolic items to make statements about racism, poverty, and solidarity. They were sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, but the gesture had impact.

Any success by homosexual athletes would be a smack upside the head of Russian bigots. I’d like to see athletes from all nations make gestures of solidarity with those on the sharp side of Russian law. Perhaps they could go Godwin on the Russians and all wear pink triangles during the opening parade. Rainbow emblems on the podium would also be appropriate. The IOC would have a tough time sanctioning every last athlete in the games.

Happy Saturnalia from your Minor Heretic. Celebrate Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun") and party like a Roman.


A Room in Philadelphia 

My memory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is understandably foggy. I was a couple of days short of two years old when he died. What I remember is my mother crying, my father grim and silent, and the funeral on television. We watched it on our black and white console TV. The one clear image in my mind is the coffin on the horse drawn caisson; the wagon wheels and the dark box. I didn’t know what it was, that the body of a man was in there, but in my infantile way I understood that it was a Big Thing and a Sad Thing. Only much later did I realize that the hopes of millions of people rolled away in that box. Years after that came the understanding of the mixed and nuanced legacy of that man.

Still, it is my ur-memory of sadness and loss. Given my preoccupation with politics, it is a good one to have. The outrage of that murder goes beyond the death of an individual. It was a vicious blow to the core of the nation.

A couple of years ago I visited Philadelphia. I went to some of the usual tourist stops, including Independence Hall. I went into a room on the end of the building, the old Senate chamber. The National Park ranger there told us of some of the history that occurred in that room. The most striking thing for me was this: In 1796, George Washington and John Adams were in that room for Adams to be sworn in as the second president of the United States. The ranger pointed out that when Adams took the oath, it was the first time in recorded history that the executive power in a nation state was transferred without violence or inheritance. No invasion, no assassination, no coercion, no king, queen or prince. Just a Virginia farmer handing over power to a Massachusetts lawyer. And so it has gone, despite Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.

This is why the politically charged gun brandishing we witness these days makes me mad as hell. A certain group of conservatives refers darkly to “Second Amendment solutions.” Fuck those guys. They are idiots, in the original Greek sense of the term – those who don’t pay attention to politics. The peaceful transition of power, as corrupt as it has become, is as important to our well-being as water and food.

Ask the average Libyan about the use of firearms in politics, or a Somali or Yemeni. Ask anywhere in the world where a group of armed men has decided that the election results weren’t to their liking. The results are predictably chaotic, terrifying, and lethal. The armed are ultimately as vulnerable as the unarmed. Hobbes had the perfect words for it:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is what we now call a failed state.

I disliked Ronald Reagan. He was a spiteful, small minded, delusional ignoramus with an aw-shucks persona so polished he fooled even himself. His sole advantage was that he was a second rate actor in the political world of fourth rate actors. His brand of emotional fantasy politics, undergirded with the coded racism that now informs the Tea Party, was the beginning of the post Buckley v Valeo ruination of American politics. Nevertheless, when he was shot I was mightily pissed off. I don’t like it when anyone is shot, but the shooting of an elected official is a denial of rights of the entire nation. It was a shooting of the basic civil rights of each of us. I didn’t like Reagan or his policies, but the fact that he gained and occupied the office through the flawed, yet peaceful methodology of election linked us all to him.

There are any number of theories about who shot Kennedy and why. We’ll probably never know. Those facts are less important to me than the legacy of his death. After JFK (and RFK and MLK) everyone in public life looks over their shoulders. The October Surprise of 1980 and the judicial coup of 2000 were technically effective, but they lacked the edge of fear. Despite all the surveillance and protection afforded the President, he, like the rest of us, depends on the good will of his fellow citizens. At the very least, he depends on the unwillingness of angry men to take that last step.

Maybe that’s the root of it, the thing that makes the Oklahoma City bombing loom larger in my mind than the attacks of September 11th. Timothy McVeigh was supposed to be one of us. We can sustain an attack from outside. We can face that together. An attack from the inside makes us doubt the good will of our neighbors. Disappointed losers pollute our politics with violent symbolism and the dehumanization of the other. A lunatic fringe denies the legitimacy of the President. Certain factions refuse the possibility of political compromise. The legacy of a handshake in a room in Philadelphia is under threat.


Caught up in the personality war 

My last couple of posts have gained some currency online. Sadly, they have been taken up by a few right wing blogs as a stick with which to beat Rachel Maddow. She had done a piece on the obvious plagiarism of Rand Paul, and his defenders had pointed to my piece (A Remarkable Coincidence) as evidence of hypocrisy.

First, my piece about Maddow was not an accusation of plagiarism, despite the deadly serious quotation from Tom Lehrer. Second, or perhaps first, I really do not give a damn either way. I like the activities of Rachel Maddow and dislike the activities of Rand Paul, but I do not know either of them personally and do not consider their footnoting practices important in the least.

Both of these people, as public figures, and in his case as a legislator, are symptoms of something greater. They are not prime causes. They are products of a corporatized society, playing out their assigned roles within defined boundaries. Attacking either of them is like attacking a piece of a jigsaw puzzle for fitting into that puzzle.

Human beings are obsessed with status. By status I mean both placement in a hierarchy and membership in a group. (Read Professor Collins on this) We are also focused on personalities and stories. We love heroes and villains and satisfying plot lines. We love to have our expectations met. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do us any good in politics.

Casting politics as Maddow versus Paul, or Mitch McConnell versus Harry Reid, or any pairing you’d like, is just a tribal sideshow. Likewise the demonizing or deifying of any political figure.

It is structures that we are up against. It is law and the creatures of law. Law and the social constructs it creates do not satisfy us emotionally the way a rip-snorting tribal battle might, but again, that personality pissing contest is a sideshow. By creatures of law I mean corporations. They were created as a means to concentrate the power of individuals into one focused effort. They evolved into a means to focus the wealth of a number of individuals in order to extract more value from the physical and social environment. They further evolved into a kind of reverse parasite, where the parasite is bigger than the hosts.

An effective parasite alters the behavior of its hosts. Consider the bacteria Toxoplasmia Gondii, which lives in the guts of cats and mice. Infected mice become less frightened by the smell of cats, thus hastening their progress into the digestive systems of their fellow host. There is a tiny fluke that infects ants, and also lives in the digestive tracts of cows. When it infects an ant, that ant compulsively climbs to the top of a grass stem and waits, making it more likely to become food for bovines. We get infected with corporate memes such as “free markets,” “free trade,” and the myth of meritocracy. Fossil fuel companies sow doubt about climate change and health insurance companies propagandize against European style health care systems. Corporate media focuses on horse race coverage of elections, celebrity trivia, and personality politics. Most of America climbs to the top of the grass stalk and waits.

 Corporations have become genetically recursive. That is, they have gained the enviable superhuman capability of altering their own DNA in real time. Law is their DNA. Law gives birth to corporations, defines their shape, and regulates their functions. They have a much simpler time of it than actual genetic researchers because the meaning of each segment is explicit and the method for changing it is straightforward.

Their basic methodology has two interlocking parts with reinforcing feedback. One is making sure that mostly corporation-minded candidates get into office. I’ve written about this before: The candidate in a congressional primary who spends the most money wins, about 97% of the time. Most of the money comes in big chunks from millionaires and billionaires, the privileged remoras clinging to the corporate sharks. Ergo, any candidate with opinions offensive to corporations has a very small chance of making it to the general election. We, the voters, get an imaginary choice between two prescreened candidates.

The second technique is what Noam Chomsky called the manufacture of consent. The corporate media allow a vigorous debate within carefully defined limits. Again, we get an imaginary choice. An example that comes to mind is the debate in Congress about the proper interest rate for student loans. 6.8%? 3.4%? Or, thinking oh so radically, the prime rate that banks get? Nobody was allowed to mainstream the idea that we’d be more prosperous in the long run if we copied some European countries: simply pay for the higher education of any young person with enough brains and drive to do it. (Hint: Debt ridden graduates are a corporate two-fer. They pay interest to banks and make docile employees.)

So, Toxoplasmia Corporatii creates a cohort of people who accept corporate policy and fear anti-corporate policy, and then selects among them via campaign finance law to promote the most parasite friendly individuals. Those politicians make the law even friendlier to corporations and give them greater power to filter the electoral process. Those politicians also change the law to make media consolidation easier and dissent more dangerous. The electorate gets bombarded with even more corporate memes, candidates become more slavish, and the cycle spirals downward.

So I do not give a flip about what Rachel Maddow said about Rand Paul or vice versa. Rand Paul got elected by the same system that produced Barack Obama, which also spat out G. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. The same electoral methods gave us Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Bachmann. We are encouraged to debate the differences between them, but never the similarities. There are a host of assumptions that underlie all their rhetoric, so much in the background, so submerged that they are never questioned in the mainstream of debate. Questioning them puts someone out on the fringe, makes them not serious. I’m not talking about ding dong conspiracy theories. There are fundamental questions about our economy, our budgeting priorities, our military, and our place in the world that never get airplay.

The work pressure is slacking off on your Minor Heretic. I’ll try to post more regularly this winter. More on this subject soon.


A Remarkable Coincidence 


Let no one else's work evade your eyes,

Remember why the good lord made your eyes,

So don't shade your eyes,

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -

Only be sure always to call it please 'research'.”

From the song Lobachevsky by Tom Lehrer


A friend of mine emailed me a link to a short video from the Rachel Maddow Show. He had just read my previous piece on the debt crisis, entitled “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” Several days after I posted, Maddow and Co. had created a little skit about the debt crisis using an obscure metaphor from the days of whaling: the so-called “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”

I have to admit that they took the metaphor somewhere I did not, focusing on the axe available to cut the line between the boat and the whale. It’s all about the judgment of the captain and the crew. I focused on the whale as a combination of the wounded insurance industry and the wounded conservative worldview.

Still, a remarkable coincidence.


Nantucket Sleigh Ride 

Back in the days when whale oil filled the lamps of Americans, men went out in ships to hunt the leviathan. From those ships they set out in small boats to harpoon their quarry, which sometimes did not go quietly into that good night. A dying whale might expend its last strength in a burst of speed, taking the men in the small boat on what was known as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride.

We are in such a position now, as a nation, experiencing this partial, strategically minimized government shutdown. I say strategically minimized because the air traffic controllers and the border patrol are still on the job. A real, complete shutdown wouldn’t last a day. The metaphorical whale in question is not the government itself. It is partly the health insurance industry and partly the whole corpus of thought that identifies government as “the problem.”

It’s not surprising that the health insurance industry and its minions in congress would want to cause chaos and exert anarchic leverage on the day that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) opens its doors. Despite the fact that we are being funneled into the toothy maw of the industry itself, the rules of mastication and digestion have been significantly altered. Insurance companies must pay out at least 80% of premiums for actual medical care. Compare that to pre-ACA payout rates as low as 50%. Insurance companies can no longer cherry pick their customers for health. Their offerings have to be standardized, which reduces their ability to bamboozle, hornswoggle, or to put it less picturesquely, cheat their customers. And so on. It changes their position from one of near monopsony (monopoly of the few) to a regulated monopsony.

Aside from the obvious financial benefits to us and deficits to them, it opens a conceptual door. That is that health care works better with more government intervention. It is but a short step from that to some kind of national health care plan, eliminating the need for private health insurance entirely. We could emulate our Canadian and European friends, cutting our expenses in half and improving our outcomes. No profit in that.

That open conceptual door leads to another, namely that government is good. A corollary of this is that bad government is not a result of some inherent flaw in the very concept of government, but a result of corrupt private influence. There is a cadre of politicians, journalists, pundits, and political activists who have made lucrative careers out of bashing the very concept of an active government. A passive and cooperative government is an appealing prospect for their corporate sponsors.

A successful implementation of the ACA is a major harpoon into the corporate blubber. Hence the panicked thrashing about.

The corporate forces have missed something, though. They sponsored and promoted a group of magically thinking ideologues called the Tea Party. The Tea Partiers exhibit a worldview that can be contained in a Dixie-cup; xenophobic, selfish, short-sighted, unscientific, and misinformed. These anti-government fundamentalists have faithfully pounded away at our government’s ability to raise money and provide services. Therein lies the problem for their corporate sponsors. Corporations are creatures of law. They are created by government fiat, protected by government courts and law enforcement, and subsidized by government. They rely on government services, governmentally administered markets, and government contracts. When the anti-government ideologues get their way, the corporate world starts falling apart. Freedom from regulation is only pleasant when those around you are still constrained.

It’s blowback, much the same as what our government got from backing the Afghani mujihadeen. Once you train them and equip them they don’t stop when they have finished off your enemies. The investment/business wing of the GOP is realizing that the crazy wing, doing the bidding of the health insurance industry, won’t stop blowing things up when they are supposed to. It’s a little late for that realization.

The thing that the corporate elite can’t and won’t allow themselves to realize is that they need an effective, active government as much as ordinary people do. They need someone to save them from themselves. That fundamental contradiction is being brought to the forefront of politics, and that is one jagged and rusty harpoon.

Hang on tight!