Friday, October 30, 2009

All Hallows' E'en

Tomorrow is Halloween, just about the most fun and interesting holiday of the year. Halloween is sheer craziness, with people dropping their usual self-absorption and letting their inner child run free.

Derived from an ancient Celtic/pagan holiday, Halloween doesn't seem to have as much baggage as other holidays. It doesn't quite have the uncontrollable, crass commercialism and vulgar greediness of Christmas (although the trick-or-treat candy marketing does get to be a bit much), nor the food-and-football obsession of Thanksgiving. There is not the overwhelming guilt that seems to strangle Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, nor the obligatory, knee-jerk patriotism of Independence Day, nor the schizophrenic, multiple-personality vibe of Easter. Halloween is all about letting go and having fun, and if you're willing to ignore the hordes of grubby children parading up your driveway and demanding protection money in the form of stale candy corn, rock-hard popcorn balls and little tiny Snickers bars, it can be a very liberating experience.

I have some great childhood memories of Halloween, but one in particular stands out. I don't remember how old I was, but I'm thinking maybe 5 or 6 years old, and it might not have been on the actual Halloween night, but very close to it. One evening just at sunset my mother and I left the house to go on some errand. The wind was swirling all around making the fallen leaves spin and twirl in a fanciful little danse macabre. The orange light of sunset flooded everything and made the autumn leaves on the trees glow with a fiery light that seemed to come from within. But there was some kind of major electricity in the atmosphere, some kind of palpable spirit in the air that I picked up on and just made me run and dance and jump around like I was possessed. I have never figured out exactly what was going on, but I will never forget the irresistible, breath-taking feeling that evening, of the wind and the golden-orange light of sunset gilding everything with fire, and the unmistakable impression that for this one night, spirits of the dead were truly walking the earth.

So even though Halloween is all about letting go and releasing your inhibitions, there are still plenty of priggish old wet blankets who will try to put a damper on everybody's party. A couple of days ago at lunch I was looking through the local newspaper, the Arizona Republic (yeah, I know, just work with me on this), and someone had written a letter to the editor decrying the pagan, anti-Christian tenor of Halloween. They recommended to parents instead of dressing their little hooligans up as ghouls, ghosts and goblins and letting them run amok in the neighborhood shaking down senior citizens for overpriced treats, they should just throw a party at home and have the kids dress up as biblical characters. I kid you not, this was actually in the newspaper, and the only thing more blatantly idiotic than someone writing such tripe is the AZ Republic printing it. Hoo boy, what a fun party THAT would be! I mean, could that writer BE any more prudish or more of a stick-in-the-mud? They sound like the pathetic twit in Catholic school who would remind the nun just before dismissal on Friday afternoon that she forgot to give the homework assignments for the weekend. I guess that's the kind of adult you become after getting beat up every single school day for twelve years. Jeez, get a freaking grip already, it's only Halloween.

If I wasn't so lazy and boring, I would get dressed up as Sarah Palin or Sister Mary Flatulence the Nun From Hell or Spock from Star Trek and go out and have some fun. But since every day to me is a costume drama filled with freaks, scary people and creepy, mentally-ill Republicans, it tends to dull the unique aspect of Halloween. But I will be celebrating the night in my own way, looking up at the nearly-full moon in the sky and in the back of my mind will be feeling the electric wind swirl around me and sense the spirits of the dead visiting our world again.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Media Circus, Alaska Style

Has anyone gotten more media mileage from knocking up their girlfriend than Levi Johnston? Ever since he was barfed up on the national stage by the cynical media-meisters of the Republican party in an ill-advised and ultimately disastrous ploy for cultural relevancy (how they could even think about cultural relevancy with an obsolete dinosaur like John McCain was their first mistake), Johnston has been brilliant in somehow maintaining his place on the pop-culture radar. An astonishing feat for a dimwitted redneck from a white-trash backwater garbage dump - a.k.a. Wasilla, Alaska - Johnston has managed to keep the media's attention with a veneer of aw-shucks country-boy dopiness which covers up an almost unnatural ease in dealing with national news outlets.

Johnston's trip through the underbelly of the American psyche continues, this time with a two-pronged approach. Seeking to appeal to both highbrow and lowbrow culture, he has managed to titillate a segment of the population by threatening to pose naked in Playgirl magazine, a very risky gambit at best because if he doesn't deliver the goods to the level of expectation being generated, he will find himself knocked off his high-level perch. But like every pop-culture media whore, he has a Plan B. He is threatening to write a book and drop all manner of dirt on his baby's gramma, Sarah Palin. Having been nearly submerged in the dysfunctional morass of the Palin clan, Johnston certainly had a ring-side seat to the icky, sticky-sweet facade of Sarah Palin, whose Republican handlers constantly try to portray her as an all-American, girl-next-door type, something that a lot of ignorant, uneducated Americans willingly fall for.

It was hugely hilarious recently on CBS' The Early Show when Johnston was on mumbling about some embarrassing information he has about the former Alaska governor. Palin herself jumped in front of the nearest microphone and hissed out this astonishingly self-referential response:

"CBS should be ashamed for continually providing a forum to propagate lies. Consider the source of the most recent attention-getting lies - those who would sell their body for money reflect a desperate need for attention and are likely to say and do anything for even more attention."

HAHAHA! WHAT??? Pot, meet Kettle. The funniest thing is that her statement applies to her own self even more than it applies to Johnston. Except for maybe the "sell their body" part (and I really wouldn't put that past her if it meant getting more publicity), if there is anyone who has a "desperate need for attention" and is "likely to say and do anything for even more attention," it has to be Palin, and she's been doing it for a hell of a lot longer than Johnston. That quote could not be funnier.

Now, anyone who knows me or has read my blog knows that I am very much in favor of anything and everything that causes embarrassment to the Republican party or to Sarah Palin in particular. To me, everything about the Palins reeks of insincerity and phoniness. Her attempt to portray herself as just a "regular person" who wants to be president resonates with millions of Americans who somehow think it is a good idea to have an idiot in the White House, as if eight years of George W. Bush didn't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what a horrible idea that is. But also beyond a shadow of a doubt is the fact that every single thing she does, says or writes is scripted down to the last comma and supplied to her by the Republican puppet-masters, who are the undisputed experts when it comes to appealing to the fears, bigotry and prejudices of the American voter.

So what are we to make of this Johnston kid, who got caught up in a wave of teenage lust and somehow has managed to ride it to the heights of notoriety? I have written in a previous blog entry about "schadenfreude," which is taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. I heartily endorse and support anything that makes Sarah Palin and the Republican party uncomfortable or puts them on the defensive. I don't include anything that would make the GOP feel ashamed, because they continue to prove over and over again that they have no shame. No tactic or strategy is too underhanded, pathetic or divisive for them, and they show themselves to be morality- and integrity-free at every opportunity. So I will put up with Levi Johnston's imbecilic blathering and posturing if it means he will continue being a thorn in Sarah Palin's side, and I will be very interested in reading anything that points out what a phony media whore she really is.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The More Things Change....

My 50th blog post! WOOHOO!

Everyone's heard the old phrase, "the more things change the more they stay the same." That seems to be the case with the financial disaster out of which this country is still trying to find its way.

Last week "Bill Moyer's Journal" on PBS had an eye-opening discussion on this topic. Bill's guests were Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Simon Johnston, former Chief Economist with the IMF and currently at MIT Sloan School. They gave a very reasoned, intelligent assessment on the state of this country's economy. There was no screaming or jumping up and down, and no one tried to shout the other down. They didn't carry around misspelled, incomprehensible or outrageously stupid signs. It was just two thoughtful, articulate people stating some obvious and not-so-obvious facts about the economy, and what they had to say was chilling. Some of the salient points:

>> There is a massive revolving door between Washington and Wall Street that allows financial executives to rise to the highest levels of government and enjoy unprecedented access to the centers of power. Henry Paulson, formerly of Goldman Sachs and Timothy Geither, former head of the NY Federal Reserve, are the former and current Treasury Secretaries.

>> Lack of meaningful regulation left Wall Street with virtual free reign when it came to concocting exotic, high-risk financial instruments. The lure of extreme profits enticed them to take extreme risks. When the mortgage crisis brought many of them tumbling down, the taxpayers had to step in and bail them out. This resulted in the privatization of profits and the socialization of loss; that is, Wall Street kept the immense profits but unloaded the immense debt on us.

>> Bankruptcies and consolidations have reduced the number of huge powerful banks from 12 down to 4 super-banks, all of whom are lined up against any kind of financial reform.

>> Both of the guests on "Journal" agreed that the window of opportunity for meaningful financial reform in this country has passed. Nothing will be done at this point to change how Wall Street does business. In fact, they have become more entrenched in their ways. So what is going to prevent another financial melt-down from occurring in the future? Absolutely nothing.

>> The financial crisis for big banks is over. Their profits are huge again, and growing bigger all the time. They are getting ready to dole out their usual outrageous array of bonuses. It's the taxpayers, the people that gave the banks a way to save themselves and get out of near-total ruin, who are suffering in a bleak, tepid and jobless recovery, and will continue to do so for a very long time.

>> Banks have no respect for the President, and their lackeys in Congress preoccupy themselves with trivial, arcane and meaningless matters, instead of tackling the real problems behind the financial crisis. Congress should be holding hearings on the new architecture of the financial system, prudent lending, increasing savings and limited debt. They are not, nor will they anytime soon.

>> The same bankers who precipitated this financial mess on everyone, amazingly are the ones in charge of fixing it! That's like if you own a building and you hire someone to be fire marshall, and through their stupidity they burn the building down. So what do you do? You hire the same person to be fire marshall in your new building and give them a huge raise! How much sense does that make? None? Well that is exactly what is going on right now.

>> You can bet your next mortgage payment that the people who caused the mess and are now charged with cleaning it up, are covering up their own tracks and making sure they are not held responsible for anything. The FBI has only a very small number of agents investigating financial fraud and are for the most part disinterested in bringing anyone to justice.

>> There was a much smaller, but very similar situation in the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s. We, that taxpayers, are STILL making payments on the debt we assumed in that mess, and will continue to do so until the year 2013. How long are we going to be paying for this recent, much larger catastrophe? I'm guessing long after all of us are gone.

This episode of "Bill Moyer's Journal" was one of the most sobering and disheartening half-hours of television reporting I've seen in a long time. I think everyone in this country should have to watch it. The American people need to wake up to what is going on in their own country. Otherwise, their ruination will be assured.

Monday, October 5, 2009

7 Things We Did Wrong

As threatened earlier, here is my list of some things mankind has done in his unending quest to reshape the world to his liking, which did not turn out quite as well as intended. Along with some possible silver-lining upsides that resulted:

1) Organized Religion. Probably the biggest and most spectacular failure of all, organized religion is likely the most destructive and crippling pestilence mankind ever inflicted on itself. An incalculable amount of damage, misery and suffering has been wreaked in its name. How many billions of people have been enslaved by it, how many lives ruined, how many bright promising futures stifled because of it? How many native cultures were exterminated by missionaries imposing their beliefs? Organized religion's lust for money and power have supplanted any good intentions it might have had in the beginning, and nowadays it appears to be more of a political force than a spiritual force.
UPSIDE: As much as I hate to admit it, during the Dark Ages most of the world's knowledge and intellectual activity were preserved by monks and clerics in abbeys and monasteries.

2) Democracy. Probably the best form of government we've ever come up with, democracy as a concept sure has a lot going for it. Imagine a system where the people being governed are actually in charge and making decisions that affect them. Jeffersonian democracy - a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" - is stunning in its simplicity and its genius. Too bad it didn't turn out that way. In order for democracy to work as intended, a critically important component is an informed, engaged population. Those being governed need to be intelligent enough to understand the problems they face and willing to participate in the solutions, even if personally uncomfortable sacrifices are needed. Unfortunately being a responsible citizen takes time and effort and far too many people are just too lazy to do the work.
UPSIDE: Makes it easy to see how ridiculous communism and Marxism are.

3) Capitalism. Again, like democracy, great on paper but not so easy to implement in real time. It seems like a good thing - the success you have in life should depend on the market for your goods or services and how hard you are willing to work. Somewhere along the way things go off the rails and market inequities take over. Then you get really valuable, worthwhile occupations like teachers, nurses, firefighters and police being extremely undervalued and under-compensated, and worthless scumbag entertainers, politicians and sports figures being paid astronomical salaries far out of proportion to their societal worth, to the point of obscenity. Capitalism invariably generates a have/have-not society distributed through an upper/middle/lower class system, with subclasses and extremes on both ends. The result is a world where extreme wealth and extreme poverty co-exist side by side.
UPSIDE: Motivates people to reach higher, if only to get more money.

4) The Art of Medicine. Medicine and the healing arts are one of man's greatest triumphs, to be sure. The number of lives that have been saved by the accumulated medical knowledge over the millennia has to be in the billions. All but a very few of us are alive today, I believe, because of some sort of medical intervention in the past, and that includes me. But in modern times, greed has taken over the nobler ambitions and when making a profit depends on a steady supply of sick people, then more sick people mean more profit, right? Health insurance companies, drug manufacturers and for-profit medicine have come together in a huge medical-industrial complex. If drug companies in particular would take a fraction of the money they spend developing and marketing drugs and use it to educate people in making sensible, healthy choices in their lives then maybe we wouldn't need all those expensive drugs. But that's not where the money is, is it? When sick people are no longer profitable and healthy people are, then we will get medicine back to being the best it can be.
UPSIDE: People are living longer! Unfortunately some of them are Republicans.

5) Nuclear Energy. Boy, did this sound like a great thing or what? Harnessing one of nature's basic forces and turning it into a nearly limitless amount of energy, to inexpensively supply the world's ever-growing power demands. And didn't it turn into a really bad idea when the military got a hold of it and changed it into the most destructive force ever unleashed on this planet? Today, enough nuclear weapons exist to destroy the earth something like 30 times over, and a small but worrisome number of these weapons are either unaccounted for or not-too-closely guarded. Why, some crazy bunch of religious fundamentalists could conceivably get a hold of a couple of them and ... well, that's kind of too scary to consider. We should have known the idea of extremely cheap, unlimited energy would be too good to be true, and it is.
UPSIDE: Really cool but really scary atomic explosions.

6) Freedom of Speech. Being able to say whatever you want is a relatively new concept in human history, with totalitarianism having been the rule rather than the exception in the past, and tyrants and despots have always taken a dim view of the enslaved masses getting uppity. But once people started backing away from monarchies and dictatorships and education became more widespread, the idea of speaking your mind without fear of dire consequences began to take favor. This of course has achieved its highest expression in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it also has its drawbacks. Hate speech and bigotry which really need to be controlled are in fact protected, and many people are unable to recognize them when they are all gussied up with patriotism and nationalism. Modern-day blights such as telemarketing and pornography are also considered protected forms of speech, although it's pretty difficult to see any benefit coming from their continued existence. So, we take the good with the bad, even if sometimes the bad gets pretty bad.
UPSIDE: Funny truth-tellers like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Joan Rivers. HA! I made that last one up.

7) Internet. Yes indeed I did list the Internet in my previous post about things mankind has done right. But the Internet is such a vast and powerful entity that we need to look at the other side of the coin. I believe the Internet critically needs to be open and free and pretty much unregulated - that is perhaps its greatest strength. But when we open the doors to the world like that, bad things can sneak in, just like if I left my patio doors open and hordes of repulsive vermin like scorpions and spiders would stampede each other to get in. With just a couple of mouse clicks you can, if you are so inclined, wallow in huge amounts of extremely graphic pornography, learn how to build bombs and engage in terrorist activities, be exposed to the most virulent, loathsome hate-speech and bigotry, and fall victim to a whole galaxy of identity-theft schemes. Spam is a vile, cancerous plague that threatens to bring the Internet to a grinding halt. Does all the good that comes from the Internet outweigh the bad? I think it does, but just barely.
UPSIDE: Online bill-paying, emails from good friends, belch videos on YouTube.

Well, that's all I got. I'm getting depressed thinking about this stuff. It's been such a beautiful, cool autumn morning as I sit on my back patio, with a happy little rabbit playing in the outdoor playpen and another lounging contentedly behind a bougainvillea bush. The world can be a beautiful place, it is too bad humans always have to screw it up.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

7 Things We Did Right

I have been informed recently that some of my blog posts have been kind of negative. It seems I am prone to focus too much on the bad things that are happening in the world, and I am always more than willing to accuse the human race of being a bunch of evil, dim-witted, mean-spirited malcontents. They say that "stupid" appears to be my favorite word, and if that is their charge then I am guilty. It's just that I have found more to be worried about in the world and less to be cheerful for. But, never let it be said that I am not open to the criticisms of others, however misinformed and unenlightened they might be. In an attempt to bring a more positive, uplifting mood to this blog, I am going to mention some things that human beings have in fact done correctly and well during their tenure on this fair planet. And, because I just can't resist mentioning them, some of the not-so-good things that have evolved from these strokes of genius:

1) Agriculture. The domestication of plants and later animals permitted early man to stop being nomadic tribes, constantly moving from one source of food to the other, and to stay in one place for an extended period of time. This allowed settlements, villages, towns and later cities and nations to form. Also, it allowed man to manage his crops and increase yield and production.
DOWNSIDE: Fast-food restaurants, diets, Chinese food in a can.

2) Language. The creation of language was a great leap forward in the evolution of humanity. It is quite significant because it indicated an ability to develop abstract concepts, and objects as well as ideas could be quantified and represented by words, which other mammals probably can't do. It also allowed for a means for knowledge to be passed from person to person and was a step forward in man's unceasing quest to bring order to a very chaotic world.
DOWNSIDE: Political speeches, people who won't ever shut up, Valley Girl talk.

3) Writing. After the creation of language the next logical step is to find a way to capture and preserve it. Writing codifies language and makes it more uniform. It also allows learning to be stored and passed intact to other colleagues and also to future generations of people, without relying on fuzzy recollections. Writing is the process that takes thoughts out of our heads and makes them available to everyone else, and that is a big deal.
DOWNSIDE: Penmanship classes in Catholic school, graffiti, plastic pocket protectors.

4) Printing Press. Having a language and a way to write it down turns out to be a good thing, so it stands to reason that being able to do it on a massive scale would be a really great thing. The printing press allowed the written word to be shared inexpensively and efficiently with many, many people who had had no previous access. A long time ago reading and writing were the sole purview of wealthy aristocrats or monks squirreled away in monasteries. With the printing press, learning and knowledge were put in the reach of the general population, which encouraged more reading and learning and the world suddenly expanded for everyone. All this on the day Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable-type press. Also, pornography was invented two days later.
DOWNSIDE: Junk mail, the Arizona Republic, Harlequin romance novels.

5) Media and Mass Communications. After the invention of the printing press, newspapers were not far behind. Newspapers appeared everywhere, and for the first hundred years after the formation of this country were the main way that people learned about their new nation and the world. When radio was invented it created a much more widespread and immediate way to disseminate news and information. The telephone brought wide-area communication into everyone's home, and the invention of television meant that words and pictures from halfway around the world could come beaming into your living room. Now, the whole world and even parts of outer space can be enjoyed in the comfort and privacy of your own boudoir, along with tasty snacks like candy and popcorn.
DOWNSIDE: Telemarketing, conservative talk radio, Fox News Channel

6) Space Exploration. Everyone's eyes turned skyward in the late 1950s when the-then Soviet Union propelled a little, round, antenna-studded metal ball into orbit around the Earth. Sputnik, Russian for "traveling companion", was the first artificial satellite of our world. The space race was on, and it captivated the imagination of everyone as few things ever had before. Discoveries and amazing pictures came fast and thick, all culminating on the stifling July night forty years ago when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. It was impossible to watch the stunning drama unfold on television and not have an overwhelming sense that a mightily important piece of history was being made. Today, robotic spacecraft have taken us strolling on the surface of Mars, gliding through the rings of Saturn, and out to dip our toes in the frigid edge of interstellar space. I can't wait to see what the next couple of decades will bring, and we are only taking our first baby steps out of our planetary cradle.
DOWNSIDE: Conspiracy dimwits who think the Moon landing was faked, short-sighted morons in Congress who are constantly slashing NASA's budget.

7) The Internet. Not many things have changed our culture and our world as radically, quickly and thoroughly as the Internet. It unites the entire world in an interconnected web of knowledge and communication, and brings incomprehensible amounts of information to everyone's fingertips. The Internet has changed everything, from entertainment to commerce to our daily lives (certainly mine), and has quickly positioned itself as an indispensable part of everything we do.
DOWNSIDE: Spam, computer viruses, Twitter, hackers, long-winded blogs by self-important people with too much time on their... hey WAIT!

These are just some of the things that mankind appears to have done fairly well. There certainly are other things, but I'll end my list with these. Next, I'll take a look at things that mankind has done with all great and good intentions, and somehow (but unsurprisingly) managed to screw up royally.