Sunday, August 28, 2011

I’m Disappointed with the Outcome of Hurricane Irene

Here’s a question. Republicans don’t believe climatologists when explanations are forthcoming about the scientific fact of global warming, but do they believe meteorologists when a warning is given to stay inside during a hurricane? After all, meteorologists are scientists, and every good Republican knows that scientists are just elitists doing the work of liberal Democrats. So how did Republicans respond to warnings about Hurricane Irene?

And speaking of Hurricane Irene, I need to say that I’m disappointed with the outcome. Not the lower than predicted winds in NYC, or the downgrade of Irene from a category 2 to a mere tropical storm. No… I’m exceedingly happy with everything that made Irene less destructive than what was predicted. But the name, Irene, starts with the letter, I, so I knew that the next “big one” would start with the letter, J, and I was really hoping to see Hurricane Jesus. It would be galactically satisfying (for me, at least) to see a hurricane named after the guy who causes hurricanes. Jesus is Lord and has dominion over everything— right? So by definition, that includes hurricanes.

But alas, the newest tropical depression is called, Jose. Maybe next year.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Civil War Won’t Last That Long

This is personal, so I’ll just say it flat out. “I don’t love this country enough to try and save it from the new angry and resentful breed of Republicans”. I haven’t been what you’d call, “a patriot” since the 1950s, and seeing as how the American public has some input into the fate of the country, I feel that The United States pretty much deserves what it gets. And what America will probably get in 2012 is an all-Republican government with a Republican president, but this is better than the alternative.

The alternative isn’t Obama. He wouldn’t last that long if he was re-elected. The alternative to Republicanism is civil war. No president in United States history has been as aggressively hated as Obama, and it started the day after his inauguration when conservatives across America went out and stocked-up on hand guns and assault rifles and ammunition. To their credit, they haven’t opened fire just yet.... outside of Arizona, but if they can’t get their way at the polls next year— if Obama beats their guy or gal in the election, then In Rick Perry’s popular shit-kicker vernacular, “they’ll get ugly on him”. No way in hell would they peacefully tolerate another four years.

I could actually vote Republican in 2012, if I could vote for Chris Christie or Jon Huntsman, but Christie is too intelligent to even want the job of president, and Huntsman is too intelligent to get the nomination from the party of Perry, Palin, and Bachmann. Most Republicans now seem to value only angry fundamentalism and extreme conservatism, which means that their candidate will be an extreme conservative fundamentalist, and almost certainly angry and ignorant as well. So I won’t be voting Republican. I will vote again for Obama as I did three years ago, but this time I really don’t want him to win. I don’t want the street riots to start. Not that the civil war would last that long. It would be over in a day or two. The Republicans have all the guns. And I wouldn’t be anywhere in sight. I don’t love this country enough to resist angry Republicans when they have guns in their hands.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Was So Different About the 1930s?

Throughout The Great Depression of the 1930s, the national unemployment rate never rose above 30%, and I wondered what was on the mind of the 70% who still had jobs. With very little research, it was easy to find the answer— optimism for the future. An unbounded and ubiquitous optimism pervaded America, and there was a kind of inner confidence that America would soon lead the world to prosperity. This world of tomorrow that everyone imagined even had a name— The March of Progress.

The March of Progress was a collection of anticipated marvels, prophesied in 1939, that were realistically expected to exist in the year 1964: buildings taller than the Empire State Building constructed with lavish use of aluminum and glass, a multi-lane highway system that would allow a driver to travel coast-to-coast without stopping for anything but food and gasoline, the cautious but feasible use of atomic energy for power production, ubiquitous plastics, television sets in every home supported by a broadcast infrastructure, nylon stockings for women, rockets capable of orbiting above earth's atmosphere, radio telephones for occasional use in automobiles, aircraft capable of carrying 200 passengers at 400 mph, antibiotics, warships an eighth of a mile long, prefabricated low-cost houses, and fresh fruits and vegetables available at any time of year. And when 1964 came to pass, every one of these wonders had become reality. Even in 1939, for those in the depths of poverty, technology and innovation promised a better future.

In 2011, there’s a new March of Progress that’s become reality: transcontinental bullet trains capable of speeds in excess of 250 mph, skyscrapers approaching heights of a quarter mile, and supercomputers capable of a trillion computations per second. The thing is, these technological wonders all exist in China and Japan. The U.S.A. is behind Asia in this new, modern-day March of Progress, and as if to put an exclamation point behind that reality, the United States just ended… ENDED its manned space launch capability. We do, however, still have the world’s biggest and best military, although we can no longer win a war.

So what’s on the mind of Americans today, the 90% who still have jobs, and who aren’t yet brain dead from incessant ideologically-biased political happy talk? What do we have to match the optimism of the 1930s? What future can we predict with confidence? Here’s a partial list: the emerging power of radical fundamentalism in both Islam and Christianity, diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics, identity theft, man-made climate changes and rising sea levels, extermination of the world’s supply of edible fish, a series of global economic meltdowns, depletion of natural resources (especially fresh water), escalating and unstoppable rates of Internet crime with pervasive hacking, and corruption in seats of power… all problems with their origins in the growth of population and the disparity of living conditions across the planet. And then there’s a secondary but related set of problems: most countries including the United States are now becoming ungovernable, and most large corporations are unmanageable, and most religions are unreasonable. The optimism of The Great Depression is something we’ll never see again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Doomsday Feedback Loop

The men who signed the Declaration of Independence initially reserved the vote for white male property owners, and while some of them might have harbored their own sexism or racism, the majority of the Founding Fathers were simply acting on the assumption that only white male property owners could inform themselves sufficiently to vote intelligently. Slaves and women (for the most part) didn’t read newspapers. A slave master was in the position to tell a slave how to think politically, and the same was true for husbands and wives, and only property owners were deemed to have the kind of stake in the governmental system that would motivate them to stay abreast of national affairs. The intent was always to have our democracy guided by an educated, well-informed electorate.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and a focus-tested world where opinions about pretty much everything— including politics— are shaped by what appears on electronic screens of every conceivable shape and size. When it’s time to vote, the 50% of the eligible voters who choose to cast their ballot will do so based on what they’ve been told by the heads that appear on their screens. For the most part, this means that their vote will mirror the opinion of someone else (probably a politician), and will most likely have little to do with their own understanding of the issues. The system has worked this way for at least half a century, ever since the advent of television, and it wasn’t previously much of a deal breaker because the elected politicians, once in office, had access to the kind of information necessary to govern intelligently. Quite simply, a public vote cast in ignorance didn’t guarantee ignorant governance.

Now that’s changed. The politicians, especially Republicans, and especially Michele Bachmann in particular, are perfectly candid in saying that they shape their opinions and voting positions based on what “the voters” tell them. And, of course, the voters tell the politicians only what the politicians have told the voters. In the sciences of chemistry and physics and biology, this is known as a feedback loop, and it doesn’t allow for much, if any, variance based on new input.

The current economic deterioration of America is the biggest single problem we’ve ever faced. Our fate is now being guided by “the people” who know nothing about the staggering complexities of tweaking the largest economy on earth, and this guidance is channeled through elected representatives who know little more than “the people” they claim to listen to. These forces are reinforcing each other in a feedback loop with almost no input from economists or any kind of outside experts who might actually know something about money and finance and business and international banking.

The thing about feedback loops is that they always magnify any imperfection, and— lacking a correction mechanism— when left alone for sufficient time, each and every component of the loop will eventually self destruct.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Perfect Icon for Our Times

Hats off to Newsweek Magazine for its cover photograph of the wide-eyed, looney-looking Michele Bachmann. More than any other single visual image in the last few years, this Pulitzer-worthy photo captures every nuance of America’s flirtation with true collective mental illness. Whether or not it was Newsweek’s intention, the magazine has given us the perfect icon for our times. We're so messed up now that we can't even do rebellion in a rational way.

Looking back to the early years of Vietnam, governmental failures at that time coincided with the Civil Rights movement, and the summer of love in San Francisco, followed by Woodstock two years later. Back then, we knew how to rebel against a constrictive and dysfunctional Federal government by celebrating our own version of freedom. Our icon then was Bob Dylan who wasn’t electrically mesmerizing in any wide-eyed way. He was just simply brilliant in a thoughtful way. Fast forward 40 years. After ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan and Democrats and Republicans, our newest version of rebellion takes the form of the Tea Party, with Michele Bachmann as their standard bearer. They gravitated to her because they thought Sarah Palin was too intellectual. You know that a nation is crazy when the rebellion against the national insanity is crazier than the national insanity itself.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Getting a Little Sick of Seal Team Six

As a quick follow-up to my previous post about the Pentagon, and about last weekend’s loss of 30 American servicemen in the helicopter shoot down, I just need to say that I’m getting sick of hearing about Seal Team Six. I feel sad for the families that have lost a son or daughter who joined the National Guard and died later in Iraq or Afghanistan, and then watched as the nation pretty much ignored the sacrifice because it wasn’t sufficiently “spectacular.” I guess that if you’re in the National Guard, you’re not “bad ass” enough to impress the media. The Seal Team Six members might be the best warriors in our military, but their lives are not the most important lives. One of the things that made America great during World War II was that our nation honored every single sacrifice as though it were equal to every other sacrifice.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dirty Little Truths About Pentagon Funding

When the twelve-member super committee fails to cut another 1.5 trillion later this year, then presumably automatic cuts in Medicare and Defense will kick in. To preempt the Defense part of that, Secretary Leon Panetta warned us two days ago that cuts in Defense would threaten our national security. Now, it’s universally known that the U.S. spends more on its military than all the rest of the world combined spends on their respective armies and navies and such. No other nation on the planet spends even a fifth of what we spend militarily. So here’s my na├»ve question for today. How come all these other nations— clearly underfunded by Panetta’s standards— are not being overtaken by aggressors intent on stripping away their security and freedom? How do other countries manage to protect themselves on the cheap? And if they can do it, why can’t we do it?

The answer to that question is in another dirty little secret (America is filled with dirty little secrets). The United States military is NOT primarily about protecting our security or maintaining our freedom. That’s just patriotic feel-good nonsense. It’s all about jobs. The Pentagon is our nation’s biggest jobs program. Manufacturing all those bullets and bombs, as well as the fancy equipment to deliver those commodities to a target— all of this keeps people employed. A lot of people. And here’s the fascinating subtlety. It doesn’t matter whether the U.S. wins its wars or loses them because the consumption of bullets and bombs stays the same in either scenario, just as long as the war doesn’t end. Actually, either an outright victory or defeat is negative for jobs because then the consumption slows down or ends, and there’s a limit to how much you can stockpile. This is why the U.S. is always at war in at least one foreign country, and why the wars go on so long. C’mon, does anyone in their right mind believe the United States wages a war for ten years because it lacks the firepower necessary to take down an enemy in less than a decade?

And here’s another subtlety. A war can come to a stop (a big job killer) if our enemy runs out of their bullets or bombs, so over the years an ingenious system has evolved that allows our own bullets and bombs to find their way into channels that supply the people we are fighting. This effectively doubles the consumption. Did anyone out there think that al Qaeda or the Taliban had their own munitions plants? Of course not.

The only drawback to the entire operation is the death and injury of the troops we hire to do the fighting. But it’s surprising how little most Americans care about this. We never see the protests that were so common in the Vietnam era. Yesterday, 30 Americans were killed in a single incident, but next week people will forget it. The 30 who died were in a helicopter brought down by an RPG in Taliban hands. We’ll never know if that RPG was “made in America,” because the Pentagon will lie about it if they learn the truth.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

“The Rose Tattoo,” The Legion of Decency, and Divine Retribution

This week, Denver is hosting The Supreme International Convention of the Knights of Columbus, and during my morning walk while waiting for the light to change at a downtown street corner, I found myself surrounded by a dozen or more “knights.” And in their conversation I heard three words which I hadn’t heard for 40 years, “Legion of Decency.” If you’re not Catholic, or if you are Catholic but are younger than 30, you might not know about the Legion of Decency. A quick search on Wikipedia can pretty much fill you in, so this blog isn’t so much a factual explanation of the Legion as it is a personal kind of diary entry about my own brush with the Legion of Decency.

It was 1955. I was 13 and I was living with my grandmother (a staunchly compliant old-time Catholic) who raised me during my teenage years. A new film opened at the movie theater, “The Rose Tattoo,” starring my favorite swashbuckler, Burt Lancaster. I figured, given the title and the lead actor, that it was just another adventuresome pirate movie about a buccaneer with a tattoo, so I made plans to go see the film. And I told my grandmother. Big mistake. She sat me down and began to explain that “The Rose Tattoo” had been condemned by the Legion of Decency (actually it wasn’t), and it was too “suggestive” for me to see it. In another minute or so, when I failed to understand all the implications of the word, “suggestive,” she had to break down and tell me it was a “dirty” movie. One thing led to another, and finally she had to tell me that it was “dirty” in a sexual way. She said that the Legion of Decency had determined that this movie would put filthy ideas in the head of anyone who watched it. So I asked the key question, “How did they know this?” She said they just knew it. Then I asked the key follow-up question, “Had they watched it?” She said that most likely they had. Then I asked the question that almost got me banished from her house. “If the guys in the Legion of Decency had watched it, how come it didn’t put filthy ideas in THEIR heads?”

In later years I came to know the answer to that question. The Legion of Decency was made up mostly of priests and bishops, so the only fictional character in literature or film who was likely to fill them with lustful sexual craving was Oliver Twist. In their own dysfunctional way, they were immune to the normal heterosexual allure of women, so they could view films like “The Rose Tattoo” with a certain amount of detachment.

That’s not quite the end of the story. The Knights of Columbus got me to thinking. I never got to see “The Rose Tattoo” when I was 13, and then I forgot about it until day before yesterday. So Monday night I downloaded it on Netflix and gave it a view. Good movie. I think it won three Oscars. I thought I had escaped the “filthy ideas” curse of the Legion of Decency, but then last night the sky over Denver lit up with a tremendous lightening storm. A strong bolt of electricity struck the earth about a block away, and I was sure that it was divine retribution for what I had done, especially since the thunderbolt missed me by a good 600 yards which looked to me like just another sign of incompetence from Jesus.