Sunday, July 17, 2011

No Dearth of Foolishness

     In a nineteen ninety-nine two letter to Senator George Mitchell, Daniel Patrick  Moynihan wrote that health care costs suffered from “Baumol’s cost disease.”  “Baumol’s cost disease” refers to William Baumol’s description of how labor costs and public services always increase in costs even though they never increase in productivity, since they cannot be measured quantitatively.  Moynihan paraphrased Baumol’s point: health care costs are “a class of services plagued by cumulative and persistent rises in costs at a rate which normally exceeds to a significant degree the corresponding rate of increase for commodities generally.”    
       In his essay “Death and Budgets,” (July 15, 2011) David Brooks argues that the fiscal crisis and fight over raising the debt ceiling “is driven largely by health care costs.”  In his piece he takes a narrow and strange turn when he identifies the cause of the current fiscal crisis as a consequence of the expensive costs of providing care for people who are sick and approaching death.
     Of course, health care costs overall contribute to our financial ill health.  But the blame for the fiscal crisis (“debt ceiling mess”) we are in can be placed on both the Democrats and the Republicans and their unwillingness to deny some of the demands of their constituencies.  The Democrats support health care for those who cannot afford their own insurance or care through medicare and medicaid. They pursue this worthy goal, but ignore the reality of how costly it is.  And they seem ignorant of Moynihan’s point that no matter what health care costs will always rise and that some cuts in medicare and medicaid are inescapable.  
         Against the wishes of many liberal Democrats, President Obama, fortunately, has had the courage to confront the obvious and has offered to cut the growth of both plans.  However, the obstacle to any reasonable changes in the way health care is delivered in the U. S. are the Republicans.  All the Republicans want to do to hold down cost is enact tort reform, and push all Americans into the private insurance market, which would only further enrich big insurance companies while overwhelming the middle class with insurance premiums that they could not afford to pay.  
     It is clear that our system of free market health care that is driven by corporate interest has little to do with patients’ well being and nothing to do with slowing down the rate of medical costs.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  
      The answer is a single payer system.  Yet so far, Obama has done enough to push for such a system and the Republicans have succeeded in scaring too many Americans into believing that they would lose control over all their health care decisions if a single payer system were put in place.  Of course, the real motive behind the Republicans' opposition to a government system of health care is it would undermine the existing for profit system that benefits the Republicans.  Their corporate backers (pharmaceutical and insurance companies) and wealthy supporters, continue to flood Republican coffers with money to fight against practical and humane changes in the way health care is paid for.  
     Eliminating the insurance model of paying for health care by switching to a single payer system would not be enough to resolve the growing debt and deficit problems, even if such a system provided for significant savings in medical costs.  More revenue from a variety of sources is also needed, something the Republicans refuse to consider.
     Given the monomaniacal hatred of all taxes that possesses the minds of politicians such as Michele Bachman and Eric Cantor, who have terrified Republicans such as John Boehner into acceding to their deranged demands, the possibility of compromising on sensible ways to increase revenues as a part of any plan to reduce the deficit and debt has become next to impossible.  
     President Obama has proposed deep cuts in programs (Medicare, etc) to begin to lower the U. S. debt.  He also proposed to close loopholes for corporations that are swimming in profits.  Yet, the right has howled against these sensible ways to bring down the debt.  They continue to attack Obama’s revenue ideas as “job killing” tax increases.  
     But this is exactly what needs to be done.  In addition, Corporations, businesses, and public employers need to be relieved of the expense of paying for health care insurance for their workers, which is what a single payer system of health care would do.  The money saved could be collected as taxes toward the single payer system and could amount to less than what is paid in insurance premiums, since the for profit middle men (insurance companies) would be eliminated.  
     Individuals could also pay a health tax as part of the payroll tax.  Moreover, the ceiling after which income is not taxed as part of the payroll tax should be abolished.  Then all would be assessed to the full extent of their income, making this tax progressive and fair. Finally, the uninsured, who mostly work in jobs that don’t provide health benefits and therefore don’t pay insurance premiums, could be covered, since their payroll taxes would be used to help pay for medical coverage.
     Sadly, none of this can come to pass, because too many politicians are beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and too many politicians are blinded by the myth that unregulated capitalism is the morally pure savior of economic liberty and happiness.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

That Silent Certainty

          For those of us dwelling on the side of reason, biblical prophesies of eschatology stir no fear of armies of angels descending to destroy the human race and cast into hell all nonbelievers, though those same prophesies used to provide potent imagery for reasonable men and women who once rallied against the U. S. and the Soviet arms race as it escalated during the Reagan years.  Jonathan Schell, in The Fate of The Earth, exhibited for readers some of the ghastly apocalyptic horrors nuclear war would inflict on those who survived the initial blasts.  His depiction of tormented “souls” milling about and waiting for nothing but radiation poisoning to finish them off imagines a Dantesque realm of destruction and suffering that should convince even the most militaristic hawks to eliminate nuclear weapons before they one day exterminate the human race.
        However, this Saturday, May 21, we can all look forward to the beginning of the end of the world, courtesy of California preacher Harold Camping who has been broadcasting that date as the day the “rapture” will whisk heavenward those sufficiently faithful and consigned to eternal flames those undeserving and wicked.  It’s not clear what time of day the event will kick off, but the date is signed, sealed, and all but delivered according to Camping and his followers.  Their certainty of belief has driven many of them to forsake their own well being and their children’s.   For instance, National Public Radio reported that Adrienne Martinez, a Camping faithful, gave up her plans to attend medical school, and with her husband travelled to New York to hand out fliers urging sinners and lost souls to repent.  In New York, another Camping follower, Robert Fitzgerald, has used his entire life savings of 140,000 dollars to fund campaign advertising on subway and train station placards the approaching Biblical event.
       It’s bad enough when grown-ups believe such lunacy; but when they teach it to their children, or worse indoctrinate them with the creed that argues non-believers can only look forward to eternity spent roasting in hell, someone should rescue the young from the stupidly wicked notions of their parents.  Some kids might be able to shrug off their parents’” end of the world” fanaticism, but the burden put on them by their parents must be overwhelming.  A case in point is the Haddad Carson family.   As reported in the New York Times, Abby Haddad and her husband, Robert, stopped saving money for their kids’ college and visited New York last weekend to spread the word about the end of the world.  Grace Haddad, their sixteen year old daughter, told a Times’ reporter that her mother had informed her that she would not be going to heaven when the rapture began on Saturday.  Grace admitted that it was “upsetting at first,” but also suggested that what her mother “honestly believes” is legitimate and acceptable concept for a parent to teach to her children.  Grace’s fourteen year old brother, Joseph, has been affected by his parents’ behavior.  He expressed his mortification about them and noted that he does whatever he can to keep his friends “as far away from them as possible.”  It is bleak to see him wither in the desert of his parents’ obsession with “no motivation to figure out what he wants to do anymore,” since his parents care about nothing except the approaching rapture.
          The need to believe in a deity that envelops the faithful in a “rapturous” afterlife no doubt springs from the yearning to escape the painful and quite terrifying prospect of our inevitable death and subsequent decay once we are swallowed by the earth.  But where does the desire to see others tormented for eternity by the most gruesome, and infinite tortures come from?  Certainly, everyone wants justice to dispose of anyone whose crimes have warranted a just punishment.  But the biblical literalists who aver that people who never heard of Jesus and others who question his divinity will experience unfathomable and infinite suffering betray simultaneously a sadistic and obsequious mentality that worships a totalitarian authority whose omnipotence and omniscience perpetually menace the faithful with threats of eternal torture.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When Strategy, Vengeance and Justice Converge
May 7, 2011
          This week the news reports and commentaries filled the papers and web sites dissecting into the thinnest slices the killing of Bin Laden.  To some, the shots that pierced his head constituted an “extra-judicial” execution in violation of his human rights and international law. (See “Obama’s fickle European fans,” by Charles Lane, “Bin Laden, Extra Judicial killing-And The Shining Example That Was Nuremberg” by Mark Seddon, and Noam Chomsky’s remarks.)  Some critics have even opined that those well placed bullets make the U. S. no better than Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda murderers who, in their orgiastic worship of death, have shredded innocent human lives with hijacked jets or suicide bombs hidden beneath their clothes.
          The difficulty some are having is that the U. S. Navy Seals killed Bin Laden instead of capturing him so he could be tried for his “crimes of mass murder.”  It needs to be remembered that the plan carried out by the seal team was one of three options offered to President Obama.  Another option Obama could have chosen was to have stealth bombers obliterate the Bin Laden compound with 2,000 pound bombs.  Ironically, had this method been used, critics complaining about violations of international law or justice would have to find something else to carp about.  But they would not claim that international law or Bin Laden’s rights to a trial had been denied.
          Perhaps the problem some are having with how Bin Laden was killed amounts to the problem of defining what he was.  How do we categorize him?  As enemy combatant?  As criminal?  As terrorist?   He is these and more: a hate filled man obsessed with planning the murder of as many innocent human beings as possible in the name of an ideology that claims divine justification for its actions.  In the end, the killing of Bin Laden is a triumph of reason over the fanaticism of benighted men (and women) who want to murder any who resist their desire to oppress all with their totalitarian theology. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pope John Paul II: The Halo and the Cover Up

        In the movie “True Confessions,” Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack) tells Father Des Spellacy (Robert De Niro) to transfer Msgr. Seamus Fargo (Burgess Meredith) to a distant desert parish against Fargo’s wishes.  To justify the transfer, Cardinal Danaher states that Fargo must be moved “For the good of Holy Mother Church.”  “For the Good of Holy Mother Church”; how often, I wonder, was that phrase was uttered by bishops as they protected pederast priests by transferring them to different churches once potential publicity of their crimes against children made their continued presence in a parish an “inconvenience” for church officials?
        This Sunday, May 1, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate a mass of beatification for Pope John Paul II.  Yet, blighting the halo that is forming around John Paul’s head is a terrible sin of neglect. (See James 4:17: “Therefore to that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”)  As Maureen Dowd pointed out in her Sunday, April 25, New York Times’ column, John Paul chose ignore the lamentations of the vulnerable as mounting evidence of almost ubiquitous sex abuse infected the entire Catholic Church.  For him, the plight of the victims must have mattered less than “the good of Holy Mother Church,” which meant protecting priests who had serially abused and, in many cases, raped children.
        There are apologists who defend John Paul, claiming he did not know the magnitude of child abuse.  And there are those so determined to see him canonized that they argue that “beatification isn’t a ‘score card’ on how John Paul administered the church but rather recognition that he led a saintly life.”  (Associated Press, January 14, 2011.)   The Associated Press also noted in the same January 14 report that “while John Paul himself was never accused of improprieties, he has long been accused of responding slowly when the sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002. Many of the thousands of cases that emerged last year involved crimes and cover-ups during his 26-year papacy.”
        If his general hesitation to punish priests who abused children isn’t enough to convince Catholics that John Paul’s beatification is a mistake, then his specific conduct regarding Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, most certainly should.  By 1989 or 1990 the latest, the Vatican had been alerted to this priest’s crimes of rape and abuse brought against him by seminarians under his authority.  Yet, even when compelling evidence demanded action and justice, no inquiry was initiated; instead, orders were issued that no investigation or trial be conducted, orders which most certainly came from John Paul himself.
        Of course, it is quite impossible to alter the near idolatrous adulation many Catholics feel for Pope John Paul II or persuade them that his beatification will evoke for thousands nightmares of the torture they suffered year after year as the Church ignored their cries for help and systematically obstructed justice.  In fact, relentless stories of sex abuse by priests have made faithful Catholics yearn for something spectacular to relieve their anxiety, disgust, and loss of faith in their church leaders.  The beatification of John Paul offers a specious distraction from the depravity that has soiled the Catholic leadership even as it attempts to create a preternatural hero who might levitate the Church above the sordid complicity involving its multiple attempts to cover up sex crimes.  It won’t, however, sweep the dirt of its shamefully criminal behavior under a shroud of saintliness proposed for a pope who was a good man in many ways and an abject failure by far in the way that mattered most.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Is The Tea Party Morally Myopic?

April 18, 2011
       The guiding principle of the Tea Party is to reduce the burden of taxes and regulations on the American people and, thereby, reduce the seize of the debt and deficit.  Human beings have baulked about paying “too much” in taxes in every society as far back as history can record.   Everyone always wants to pay less in taxes. 
       Last week, the Tea Party saw those principles embodied in Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which passed the House or Representatives with full Republican support.  The Republicans support the plan because it cuts taxes for the wealthy and for corporations and also scales back government regulations on business.  Sadly, Republicans refuse to acknowledge that the debt and deficits can only come down through a combination of cuts in programs and across the board tax increases.  
       Thankfully, there is little chance of a Ryan’s tax and spending cuts being enacted, since its tax cuts would in fact increase the deficit and debt and its spending cuts would destroy some of the last century’s most humane social programs.   Perhaps in its place, the Congress will adopt a sensible plan that trims all spending (including military) and raises revenues--but given the influence of special interest money that pours into politics, something “sensible” remains doubtful.  
       What is not in doubt regarding the Tea Party’s philosophy is its morally myopic anti-regulatory positions.  It is true that local, state, and the federal governments have some rather cumbersome and even stupid regulatory laws that infringe on personal liberty and property rights.  Why, in my own village, the building code prevents me from installing a fence in my backyard above the height of five feet.  If you saw my neighbor’s yard, you would agree that a ten-foot fence wouldn’t be too high.  No doubt, the regulation is senseless.  The village has also other prohibitions, such as I can’t bury in my yard toxic materials or anything that might pose a hazard to human beings.  No doubt, that regulation is sensible.  
       Some of the government regulations the Tea Party opposes should  be re-examined and even eliminated.  But according to a report by Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times:  G.O.P. Push in States to Deregulate Environment April 12, 2011, the Tea Party  and Republican allies are fighting to eliminate and dismantle regulations that protect the water people drink and the air they breath all in their effort to ease the way for businesses to profit without being responsible for the air the pollute and the water they poison.  
       Perhaps many Tea Party disciples don’t fully grasp the  consequences of supporting the anti-regulatory zealots among them who view profits as the only measure of an honest, good and productive life.  Perhaps they should read “Chemicals Were Injected Into Wells, Reports Says,” Ian Urbina, New York Times, April 15, 2011 and discover how oil and gas companies have been employing a process called hydraulic fracturing that injects hundreds of toxic chemicals into the ground as a way to extract natural gas more effectively and economically.  Or even better, discover how the  companies using this method have been unwilling to “publicly disclose” the chemicals they use and how Congress cannot compel them to do so if the “chemical identity of products” are “proprietary” (although among the chemicals is benzene).  No doubt, in the future we will be reading about cancer clusters and sundry other diseases linked to locations where these drilling operations took place.
If any company uses dangerous chemicals in the process of manufacturing or, in this case, obtaining, their product, then that company has moral obligations to take whatever steps are needed to protect anyone who could possibly be harmed by that product or process.  It is simple: the responsibility is theirs.  But since so many in this and other industries refuse to accept responsibility for the risk or dangers their activities might pose, it then becomes the moral obligation of the government to regulate (police in effect) businesses and impose standards and regulations to protect the public’s health and safety.  If the Tea Party cannot see the moral imperative of such regulations, then they suffer from moral myopia or worse.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Economic Woes

                                            Economic Woes

      Class warfare has been declared in America, though the usual suspect is not the one we have come to expect - the Democrats.  Democrats have used class conflict effectively to influence the working and middle classes to vote for democratic candidates in the past.  That strategy began to backfire during the Reagan eighties as more and more Americans entered the middle class.  During the same economic expansion, government programs grew and debt and deficits ballooned.

     The government began to run surpluses in the late nineteen-nineties and some economists predicted that the modern economy had vanquished recessions for ever.  This myopic notion was used to justify George W. Bush’s refusal to raise revenue to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Disregarding the financial strain from two wars and his tax cuts, Bush increased spending even further with his Medicare prescription drug plan. Just as his term of president ended, Republicans began prophesying the downfall of America if the federal government was not purged of its profligate spending addiction.

        For the republicans and their Tea Party allies, the solution to the debt and deficit crisis is to “defund” discretionary spending programs.  Of course, their goal is to destroy not only economic programs they hate, but also the social ones that offend their hypocritical sense of morals. These cost too little to have any effect on reducing deficits and debts, but that does not keep Republicans from being obsessed with cutting money for Planned Parenthood and funding for Public Broadcasting.

     Of all the Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) has been praised most lavishly by conservative pundits (David Brooks, NY Times, April 7,2011) for offering a bold and courageous approach to deficit and debt reduction.  It is impossible to believe Ryan’s sincerity when he puts forth a plan that decimates social programs for the poor and middle class while at the same time cuts taxes for the wealthiest Americans.  Thus, the political party, who serves at the behest of the wealthy, has interpreted the results of last year’s mid-term elections as the vindication of their political and economic philosophies and have decided they no longer have to hide from middle class Americans the true allegiance to the wealthy and their contempt for the rest of Americans.

     If one needs confirmation for the Republicans’ contempt for all but the wealthy, then consult a few important facts.  Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed a ten year budget plan that would cut taxes for the wealthiest down to twenty-five percent while cutting from Medicaid hundreds of billions of dollars and by turning Medicare into a voucher system in which Americans can purchase private insurance that in effect will not be enough to cover their medical costs.  This plan also cuts money for veterans benefits, education, and transportation, all programs that help the poor and middle class.

     The argument that cutting taxes for the wealthiest will stimulate the economy in such a way that prosperity will trickle down to the ninety-nine percent of Americans who occupy the middle and lower classes does not stand up to scrutiny.  Over the past decade when taxes were lowered by George W. Bush, the middle class watch its wages and income stagnate.  In fact, the top one percent continues to see their wealth and income grow at rates far faster as middle class purchasing power diminishes.  A quarter of a century ago, the top one percent of Americans took in about twelve percent of the nation’s income and control about thirty-three of its wealth.  Today that one percent captures close to twenty-percent of the country’s income and possesses forty percent of the country’s wealth.  According to Joseph Stiglitz, over the past ten years the top one percent of Americans have enjoyed an eighteen percent increase in income while the middle class  incomes have declined.

     In his essay in Vanity Fair, (May 2011) Stiglitz identifies a few facts that should make Tea Party members reconsider the logic of some of their positions.  Almost all U.S. senators and the majority of house members have incomes that are in that top one percent.  Moreover, when they leave congress, many of these elected officials will be rewarded with lucrative jobs by corporations whose agendas they have promoted.  Congress has steadily become an institution of the wealthy for the wealthy.

     A feasible way to pay down the debt and deficit would be to cut spending and increase revenues.  Congress has read the report of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, which has devised a formula of spending cuts and tax increases that could reduce deficits by an estimated four trillion by 2020 and “stabilize the debt by 2014.”  But rather than implement a sensible combination of cuts and taxes, which would spread more fairly among us all the burden of our economic woes, the Republicans would prefer to shield the wealthiest Americans from even the slightest inconvenience, since by serving them they can, in turn, serve themselves.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chemical Cheating

       “Nothing is enough to the man for whom enough is too little.”    Epicurus

        “Envy is the adversary of the fortunate.”  Epictetus

     The Barry Bonds’ trial for perjury began this week with the prosecution saying to the media, that it was “an utterly ridiculous and unbelievable story” that Bonds did not know he was taking performance-enhancing drugs during the years he broke home run records.  There is little doubt that Bonds used PEDs, but he could have avoided the serious trouble he finds himself presently in.

     In 2003, Bonds was called to testify before a federal grand jury and was granted immunity to encourage him to tell the truth.  No doubt his lawyers at the time informed him of the perils of lying to a federal grand jury.  Yet, when questioned about using PEDs, Bonds claimed that he thought the substance he was applying to his skin was only a mixture of flaxseed oil and arthritis cream.

     Bonds’ lawyers might manage to convince the jury that he is innocent of lying because he believed naively, despite the measurable, physical evidence (his head size grew from 7 1/8 to 7 1/4 and shoe size from 10 1/2 to 13) that his astonishing surge of power after the age of thirty-five was engendered by this miraculous elixir of flaxseed and not by PEDs.  But why did he need to lie?  And why did he lie when no harm could have come to him for telling the truth in the first place?

     As reported by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker, Bonds felt envy’s sting when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were dominating baseball headlines in the summer of 1998 as they blasted their way through Roger Maris’s 1961 home run record of 61 home runs in a season.  Already considered baseball’s best player, Bonds revealed himself to be also the man “for whom enough [recognition] is too little.”  Ego and envy driven, he plunged himself into a regiment of maniacal weight lifting while spreading steroid laced cream over his body to chemically transform his natural talent into a muscle bulging home run recording breaking machine.

     Too bad Bonds didn’t experience the kind of envy William Hazlitt once described:

       “Envy, among other ingredients, has a mixture of the love of justice in it.  We are more angry at undeserved than deserved good-fortune”

This variety of envy might have led him to state publicly what most in baseball already knew: that both McGwire and Sosa had fraudulently achieved their records through steroid fueled power.  By telling this first truth, Bonds could have exposed these cheats and punctured the praise being lavished on them by the media.  Perhaps at the time he felt that such action would have been disloyal and dishonorable for him to do to fellow ballplayers.  But they would have gotten a justice they deserved; instead, Bonds, whose fortune it was to possess without steroids a talent the whole league envied, succumbed to an “Envy [that] is the adversary of the fortunate.”   His envy induced him to cheat, compelled him to lie in 2003 and now has branded him as no less a fraud than those whose shabby conduct he imitated to garner a recognition synthetically won and a disgrace naturally deserved.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Trouble with the Truth

The Trouble with the Truth

     These days the art of lying seems more brazenly practiced than it was in the past.  Of course, that’s not true, but we tend to see the past more idealistically than the present and believe that the people who lived then had an innocence they really didn't.  A rebroadcast of "Nixon" on Channel 13 cleared away my naive nostalgia.  I watched Nixon addressed the nation about his innocence regarding Watergate thought how his deceptions soured the air with the words that dripped from those sweaty jowls.  How easily he lied.  When behind closed doors with his advisors, he was crudely frank about how to use lies against adversaries.  Lying for him was never a question of right or wrong, but one of practical and political utility.

    Like Nixon, many politicians will lie liberally as they try to manipulate the media and deceive the public.  They fool few, yet resist unrelentingly telling the truth. Other politicians tinker with facts in order to mischaracterize an opponent or promote an agenda.  Habitually and naturally mendacious, politicians lie as a matter of course.  However, I shouldn’t castigate politicians without admitting that everyone feels occasionally the irresistible urge to lie.   It’s easy to think of examples when my conscience surrendered custody of the will and a lie or two suited better (I thought) the situation I faced.  Who hasn’t tried to lie, mislead or obfuscate his way out of trouble? Who hasn’t stretched the “truth” to serve some purpose hidden from family, friends, and acquaintances?

     Two insouciant liars came to my attention this week when I read Stanley Fish’s blog post, “So’ Your Old Man,” and in Bob Herbert’s op-ed column, “The Sports Needs to Change,” (New York Times online: March 14.)

     Fish’s blog considers the logical flaws in Leonard Pitt’s recent column in The Miami Herald, in which Pitt excoriates Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for not “denouncing” a proposal to honor “Nathan Bedford Forrest by issuing vanity license plates bearing his name.”  When asked by the NAACP to “denounce” the proposal, Barbour stated, “I don’t go around denouncing people.”

   Pitt’s logic might need shoring up, but his conclusion is no less valid.  Barbour has claimed not to be a racist (especially as he now runs for president), but when he tried to burnish his bona fides as a good old boy of the south and sidestep the racist implication of supporting the Forrest license plate by feigning to be a man who eschews denouncing others, he betrayed instantly his propensity for deceit.  To no avail, Barbour tried twist his way around being labeled a racist while simultaneously scoring points with those in Mississippi possessed even today by an inexorable racism.  Subsequently, Barbour learned that it was better politically to oppose the Forrest license plate proposal, and announced his plan to not sign the legislation honoring the K.K.K. leader if it reached his desk.  Is Barbour a racist?   When he refused to take a stand in the first place, was he lying to the racists who proposed the plate?  Is he lying now that he has taken a stance against it and, in fact, is really for it?  Racist or not (I think he is), at least we can count on him to lie regardless of his beliefs; though I’d think with so much practice he could become more adept at it.

   In a different story, Bob Herbert looks at the effect of the destructive violence in professional football.  Herbert tells the story of Dave Duerson who shot himself to death in February this year.  At the time of his suicide Duerson was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (he thought he was, but did not know for certain) which symptoms include memory loss, dementia, and depression.

   More and more retired football players have been reporting symptoms of dementia, memory loss, and depression, but the NFL, until recently, did what it could to hide from the public the irreparable brain injuries caused by the physical collisions unavoidable in football.  In October, 2009, NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, testified before the House Judiciary Committee and would not admit a connection between “football and cognitive decline among retired N.F.L. players. (“N.F.L Scolded Over Injuries to Its Players” Alan Schwarz New York Time October 29, 2009)

    Goodell’s testimony is another illuminating spectacle of lying.  Of his testimony, committee member Linda Sanchez noted that Goodell reminded her of the tobacco companies when they used to argue that there was no connection between smoking and lung disease. (Schwarz, New York Times, October 29, 2009)

    Since that hearing in 2009, Goodell and the N.F.L. have begun to admit a connection between football and brain damage. They have even urged states to pass legislation protecting young football players from concussions.  How many fans will view this admission and their efforts to help youth avoid damage from head injuries as sincere?  How many will forget all the years they intentionally obstructed the truth about brain damage incurred from playing football?

   The lies told by the pro football establishment about the dangers of head injuries shouldn’t be forgotten.  But even if they aren’t, the fans will continue to fill the stadiums and stare at their oversized television screens while lovely autumn days recede into winter.  Millions of dollars will flow into the coffers of advertisers and corporate sponsors.  And commentators will incessantly yap on about the game that’s greater than all the rest—a lie too many will believe or deceive themselves into believing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

College Made Easy

“Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but — more troubling still — they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.”
          The quotation, which comes from Bob Herbert’s column (, would make one suspect that those who fit this description either have great difficulty getting a degree or graduate with very low grade point averages.  However, his column reveals a different trend: students who are ill prepared and poorly motivated, and who advance little or not at all in the critical skills their education is meant to impart, not only get their degrees, but also leave college with averages between B and B-plus.  
That many colleges make it easy for many sub-par students to attend their schools and complete a degree is quite well known these days. That they set absurdly low standards, and offer vapid courses within intellectually vacant degree programs so students can navigate four years of learning without learning anything might make some parents upset.  Yet, if colleges were to uphold standards or impose rigor, they would be forced to turn away or flunk out too many students necessary to their revenue and existence.
The “attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors…at odds with academic commitment” that define college students have been planted and cultivated by the American public school system.  By the time kids reach college, this system has fully conditioned them to value leisure, fun, games, and just about anything else other than academic work.
When kids begin school as elementary students, they enter a system that pressures them with excessive homework and yearly tests.  Piling homework on elementary kids predates the Bush era’s “No Child Left Behind” policy, which has driven the testing mania for the past decade.  Although “No Child Left Behind” was badly conceived and implemented, its goal of challenging students by testing what they had specifically learned in each subject in the elementary grades was laudable.  Unfortunately, too many states hastily developed exams and reduced too many classroom lessons to mind numbing drill work that ended up replacing intelligent educational practices.
After the stress of elementary grade testing, students reach middle school, and are prepared to face more academic rigor.  Ironically, it is at this point that school begins its slide toward academic and intellectual anemia. In middle schools, the philosophy, and thus primary objective, is to nurture the emotional growth of kids rather than propel their intellectual progress.  In line with this approach is a policy of social promotion.  Students quickly discover that they can never study, fail five or more subjects and still proceed to the next grade.  By the end of two years, the middle school experience has eroded the academic commitment and work ethic initiated in the earlier grades and necessary to foster further academic and intellectual growth.
In high school academic discipline loses even more ground.  Students enter an environment that is obsessed with sports, clubs, bake sales; they are forced to attend assemblies, countless meetings with guidance counselors, appointments with social workers or and psychologists.  These, and endless other distractions, dominate a school’s tone and reduce class work, homework and studying to secondary importance.
Herbert’s thesis that colleges permit (maybe even encourage, I would think) students to skate through fours years of school without exerting themselves, and then reward them with respectable B-plus or B GPA’s only exposes the tip of the problem.  For six years prior, schools provide a smooth and easy way to flow toward college with little effort or concern.  To expect colleges to buck this momentum of academic sloth and negligence, especially at great financial cost to themselves, is wildly naive. So, things will remain as they are, as the few who labor and learn continue to leave behind those too foolish and indolent to know what they will have lost.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Church and Its Abuse

        “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but he whoso confesseth and forshaketh them shall have mercy.”  Proverbs 28:113

        “The sins of the common, untutored people are nothing in comparison with the sins that are committed by great and high persons that are in spiritual and temporal offices.”
                                           Luther, Table Talk

        Stories about members of the Catholic clergy abusing children continue to appear in the press.  A Sunday’s New York Time Magazine article (February 13, 2011) featured a report by Russell Shorto, “The Irish Affliction,” detailing the sexual abuse (I believe more accurate terms are “sexual assault” and “rape.”) of children perpetrated by priests throughout Ireland
       Besides the thousands of cases in Ireland, which makes that country only second to the US in the number of cases, Shorto cites reports of clergy sexual abuse in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Malta, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, Kenya, the Philippines, and Australia.  Though this list might seem shockingly long, it does not report all the countries that have experienced abuse by Catholic clergy. 
        More tales of horror will, no doubt, surface in the future (See Washington Post, L.A. Cardinal’s legacy tainted by priest abuse.” Saturday, February 26, 2011).  But how many victims have remained silent over the years and how many victims from centuries past took the abuse they suffered silently to their graves?
        One particularly disturbing story that has made its way into the news is that of Marie Collins.  Collins told the curate of her parish about a priest who sexually abused her when she was thirteen.  The curate listened to her ordeal and then informed her that she “may have tempted” the priest into “digitally raping” her. 
Other depositions and news stories have revealed that the church would sometimes pay off victims and then convince them to sign nondisclosure agreements, prohibiting them from speaking about what they suffered.  In other cases, church authorities transferred abusive priests to different parishes when complaints against them became too clamorous to contain. 
Worst of all, the Vatican frequently asserted it had legal jurisdiction over priests accused of abusing children in order to shield them from criminal prosecution. These tactics were part of a ubiquitous pattern of concealing the crimes being perpetrated by their priests. 
        Through its history, the church had been more interested in protecting its reputation and wealth than the lives of the young.  But now that the church is buried in an avalanche of public evidence, one would expect at least a trickle of mea culpa to emanate from the Vatican.  Nevertheless, Rome rejects responsibility for these crimes and dismisses the fact that it covered them up.  One wonders, what makes this self-proclaimed guardian of morals blind to its own culpability?
        The mendacity of the Vatican has persuaded all but the most docile and dogmatic supporters (The Catholic League for one) to see the church for what it is: an accessory to numberless counts of sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape. Though it might attempt more subterfuge, it can no longer disguise its history of obstructing justice and helping perpetrators evade punishment.
        To anyone with the most rudimentary moral sense, it’s astounding that an institution guilty of covering up thousands of sex crimes continues to censure society’s “immoral” culture and behavior.  Yet, as its own crimes pour out for everyone to see, the Vatican still tries to deceive the world about the rot circulating through its clergy body.  Rome’s duplicity reflects a controlling hierarchy trapped in an archaic system of beliefs, beliefs of an insular male culture that sees issues involving women, marriage, celibacy, sexuality and the contemporary world through a warped lens of a medieval theology and philosophy.
        If the church is to purge itself of their foul crimes, it would first have to launch itself into the twenty-first century by modernizing all of its positions on the issues above.  But that is more than unlikely, since it would require jettisoning an all male hierarchy that will never surrender its control and power.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Psychic Hoax

Sunday February 5, 2011
Psychic Hoax
“The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”
      Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks.  (New York) W. W. Norton. 97
    Throughout his life William Butler Yeats believed in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology.  His interest in these fueled his imagination with ideas and images that he employed in his poetry.  Even though W. H. Auden admired Yeats’s poetry, he found his idiosyncratic beliefs in Yeats’s poetry troubling.  He said that Yeats’s willingness to accept the occult as a means to know the future or a way to divine life’s mysteries was the “deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic.”  Of course, Auden is correct in this assessment.  Any grown man who believes the occult has fallen under some illusion of magic and mysticism. Nevertheless, Auden was spellbound by the beauty of Yeats’s poems.
   When writing poetry a poet steeps external reality in the world of the imagination and for Yeats that reality included the occult which he used to beguile the boundaries of the quotidian with mystical beliefs. The genius of his poetry and the need to satisfy his ravenous imagination make it forgivable that Yeats believed in the occult or worse, that he consulted astrologists to learn whether Maud Gonne would ever return his love.  In the twenty-first century, I would expect that all but the most credulous would dismiss such ignis fatuus for what it is.  Yet, even today many people read daily horoscopes and consult psychics with the hope that they might find answers to their problems and might communicate with dead relatives, friends.  In fact, many credit psychic readings with literally transporting from the grave the spirit of a parent, brother, sister, or friend into their presence during the course of a “reading.”
   Recently, a friend consulted a psychic and told me about the reading the psychic offered her.  At first, I thought her visit was for her amusement and the money she spent no more a loss than what one might slip into an Atlantic City slot machine.  To my shock, she credited the psychic with touching upon some personal matters in her life with an uncanny accuracy.  But more distressing was her willingness to believe this charlatan’s success at summoning deceased members of her family to join them at that reading.  Clearly, he manipulated her through her grief over the recent death of her brother.  Though I tried to wrest her from the grip of this sham artist’s illusions, she remained convinced that he had tapped into some special psychic energy that graced him with the power of clairvoyance.
   Anyone who believes a psychic’s ability to summon their dead relatives and foretell future events has failed to consult the most rudimentary research that exposes how these swindlers scam unfortunately willing victims.  Psychics gull victims by using a series of techniques which include cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, “shot-gunning,” the Forer effect, and the rainbow ruse to name a few.   One source that can quickly disabuse one of the psychic’s “power” is The Skeptic’s Dictionary ( which provides reasonable and logical explanations of how these methods work.  If you are tempted to visit a psychic, read this website first.
   It can be safely stated that many, like my friend, who consult psychics feel confident that they possess a strong faculty of reason.  Yet they accept answers to questions that categorically exceed human knowledge from someone who claims to have supernatural powers. Surely the imagination, as was true in Yeats’s case, conjures possibilities that don’t exist.  And surely the grief over someone’s death or the anxiety over what awaits us in the future can spawn in the imagination the idea that spirits exist in an afterlife from which they can visit us and to which we will travel once we die.  Perhaps these basic human feelings explain why so many fall for the obvious psychic hoax.  Or perhaps it is too painful and frightening to confront the simple fact that we know exactly where the dead are and the only other knowledge we have for certain is one day we will join them.  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


January 27 2011
     A recent piece in The Economist ("You Choose": December 18, 2010) considers the question, "Does the modern world offer too much choice?"  It alludes to an episode of” The Simpsons," in which "Marge takes Apu shopping in a new supermarket, Monstromart, whose cheery advertising slogan is 'where shopping is a baffling ordeal.'"  The article's cites social science research evidence, and here are three that illustrate shortfalls of having too much choice:

          "Choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.  It might even be said to tyrannise."

          "How is it, that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customise our lives and make them perfect, leads not to more satisfaction but to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt."

          "A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to resolve problems."

      The last quotation does not made explicit the connection between life being "more confusing" today and the multitude of choices consumers face when shopping, but it safe to assume that is the effect and cause the writer is suggesting.   It is true that too much choice, especially when buying expensive products - automobiles, homes, or complicated investment plans — 401k pension plans, makes it tough to decide what to purchase, but does variety really induce anxiety, inadequacy and guilt? Or is something else at work?   It seems to me the fault lies not in our economic variety but in ourselves that we are anxious and confused.
     The modern world can exhaust one with its deluge of products.  Which of the hundreds of soaps, shampoos, deodorants, breads, pastas, shoes, coats, trousers, computers, televisions, should we buy?  A more essential question, perhaps, is why are there multitudes of products that exceeds by far what people want or need?  Cheap manufacturing costs explain in part the mushrooming of those super-sized stores teeming with merchandise.  The frenetic production of goods, however, also reflects the calculated attempt of business to stimulate more consumer demand by creating an endless bounty of products consumers can select from the moment the novelty of what they have recently purchased wears off.  This has been a successful scheme of business for a very long time and with advertising’s help has enticed or induced almost all of us to buy things that were neither wanted nor needed.
          Considering the vast number of choices shoppers are given and the seductive power of advertising, one might think that people would be delighted rather than distressed (as reported in The Economist) by the cornucopia of products laid before them.  Perhaps many are delighted by all the choices available, considering less than half (47%) found “modern life more confusing than it was ten years ago.”  Still, there is something to be said about being sometimes unsettled by too many choices; however, it seems to me that there is something deeper in our psychology that unleashes the disquiet in mind The Economist is alluding to.  That disquiet in the mind is reflected in the way we live our lives: Each day we travel to work, and then back home to a hurried dinner before an hour or two of flipping channels or searching websites.  Then it's off to bed for too little sleep to gather a proper rest for the next day.  When the next day arrives, we rise to only repeat the day before.  Like the mass production of goods, we too seem to live in a flurry of activities each day. Such a life puts me in mind of George Herbert’s "The Pulley."  In the poem's mythology and metaphor Herbert envisions what we know too well:

           THE PULLEY.

WHEN God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by ;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can :
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
            Contract into a span.

            So strength first made a way ;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure :
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,
            Rest in the bottome lay.

            For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature :
            So both should losers be.

            Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse :
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
            May tosse him to my breast.

          In the poem, Herbert ascribes human anxiety ("Repining restlesnesse") to the one treasure withheld from the human race – “Rest.”  Like his God, this world of ours provides us with every conceivable material product.  And we are told over and over through all manner of advertising that all these goods and products will fashion a fulfilling life for us. Like the process of choosing what to buy from the variety of what we are sold, we bustle to each activity of the day.  It is neither the number of choices nor the events of the days that “ greater anxiety and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt” but the control we permit these to have over us. We falsely believe we choose to buy the countless redundant products, and we then accept the illusion that these products will somehow make life “perfect.” Meanwhile, the days get lost in multiple little events that accentuate how we have no control over the transitory reality of life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snow Buddha

     The photo below was taken of a  Buddha sitting in my backyard. Right now I can turn and see him from where I sit. The snow from last Tuesday still covers most of him.





As a counter to the horrific shooting in Arizona and all the media frenzy that followed, we might do well to read four of The Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha: right view, right intention, right speech, right action.  Aside from this crime, let's consider also the odious attacks by conservatives and Republicans on Democrats over the past two years.  It is the kind of despicable behavior that should infuriate all who respect the rights of those with whom they disagree politically.  
     Even though the sick murderer in Arizona has been shown to have no ties to the political right, the Tea Party, or Sara Palin, Frank Rich demonstrates in his Op-Ed essay "Listened to Gabrielle Giffords," (New York Times, Sunday, January 16, 2011) that too few on the right have had the courage to rebuke their fellow pundits and politicians who continue to debase political discourse by portraying Democrats as anti-American and even enemies of the country.  Moreover, he cites examples of leading Republicans and conservatives who have downplayed the increasing "vitriol" ("Second amendment remedies"; "armed and dangerous") that has been spreading during the past two years (See Rich's essay noted above.)  Fortunately, there is John McCain who continues to reject the vile calumny circulated by some of his colleagues on the right. (See Washing Post Op-ed, Sunday, January 16 2011)
     What should anger us too are the insanely permissive gun laws in this country.  One would think that Americans could find a common ground on which to base sensible gun control laws.  Yet in spite of the astounding number of gun related deaths, pro-gun politicians and citizens remain unpersuaded that the sale of guns needs to be tightly regulated and restricted. So thick is the intransigence of pro-gun advocates and the N.R.A. that any law regulating guns is unacceptable to them.  One might think that the bloodshed in Arizona would open gun supporters' mind to reasonable gun control, but the response from gun advocates has been universally hardhearted.   What hope is there for civilized progress if it is opposed by such a remorseless mentality?
     Some have hoped that the crime in Arizona would be the inspiration for reasonable gun control.  But the brutality of how they died in Arizona will fade from the American psyche and the inspiration for gun control will dissipate as the ravenous media fill the coming days with "up to the minute" news, sports, and entertainment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Winter Lament


        At work today, I walked by two colleagues who, like so many, were discussing the forecasted snowstorm.  Already sick of winter myself I expected them to complain about the cold and snow.  Instead, both men descried the timidity of those lamenting the onslaught of snow.  I shouldn’t have been surprised; when nasty winter weather seizes our attention, we can predict at least two reactions.  One is how intolerable the conditions are.  The second, mentioned above, features stoicism, real or posed, acknowledging and accepting the obdurate facts of winter. There is a third, infrequently observed possibility, that comes from those who love the snow and cold; for now, I’ll leave that inexplicable group for another time.
        As for myself, I find it harder each winter to muster the stoicism I thought innate to my character and difficult not to bemoan winter weather the way I do (loudly) summer mugginess and heat.  I venture outside each frigid morning and tighten my jaw and stomach as the freezing air stings my nose and cheeks.  No one could believe such an early blast could be bracing and energizing, but there are some who actually claim this. In the afternoons I like to walk for exercise; a brisk twenty-five minutes in the cold, fresh air arouses me from the torpor that fills the mind and eyes in those initial post-meridian hours.  Despite being refreshed, I am relieved always to get back inside the warm house. 
        When I was young, I loved to watch snow falling through the dark night blanketing the tree boughs in white shrouds.  Something mystical or sublime seem to gesture to me with each lilting flake; something mellifluous like the rhythm and rhyme of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Though a beauty still descends with each night snowfall, the numinous is absent.  To illustrate my point, here’s Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man”:


         One must have a mind of winter       
         To regard the frost and the boughs            
         Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
         And have been cold a long time
         To behold the junipers shagged with ice,           
        The spruces rough in the distant glitter
         Of the January sun; and not to think          
         Of any misery in the sound of the wind,       
         In the sound of a few leaves,
         Which is the sound of the land         
         Full of the same wind          
         That is blowing in the same bare place
         For the listener, who listens in the snow,         
         And, nothing himself, beholds          
         Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

          The “misery” evoked by the sound of wind chaffs any who expect to find the comfort or certainty of an Emersonian sublime in the poem.  Stevens offers is a state of “mind” that might ignore (“not to think”) the “misery” that sweeps with the wind across the landscape.  But however stoically one withstands winter, nothing can negate the ubiquitous cruelty of this season.  That would require some transcendent power the twenty-first century imagination can no longer conjure.  The best we can do is collect whatever peace can be found in the dark and cold.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nihilism: Not in America

           At the end of the nineteenth century, there were intellectuals who, in concert with Nietzsche, wanted religion to dissipate as modern concepts from science spread; meanwhile, theologians and the religious railed against the scientific and secular ideas that threatened Christianity’s dominance over life and society.
          A hundred years later, those who believe in God can observe much that has changed.  Today, there are public atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who work tirelessly through their books and lectures to depict the world’s religions as persistent myths that have perpetrated far too many crimes against humanity to permit them to go unchallenged publicly.  Hitchens, in particular, has crisscrossed the United States debating ministers and people of faith as he strives to advance the legitimacy of atheism and dispel the “fantasy” of religion.
          There are a few undeniable points that can be made about Americans and their religious beliefs: first, religious belief in God thrives as much as ever in America.  A two-thousand and eight Pew Poll revealed that ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God or some universal spirit and seventy percent of Americans believe that religions other than their own can lead to God and salvation.  Second, atheism, though increasing, poses little threat to religion or belief in God.  In light of these facts, it is exasperating to read Harvard Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly’s blog purporting that a state of nihilism permeates American society, and, at the same time, a silent dogmatism infects Americans’ religious beliefs.  (“Navigating Past Nihilism,”
          According to Kelly, nihilism has come about because religious tolerance has had the effect of nullifying meaning for people. Now, one might think that religious tolerance would foster religious diversity and enable different faiths to grow stronger.  Instead, Kelly argues that tolerance has denied God “his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live,” and created a “state” where the “ longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground.”  Thus, Kelly concludes, “God is dead,” (again; Nietzsche’s pronouncement didn’t take.) and nihilism has spread beyond the subject of university seminars in philosophy.
          If tolerance can really engender nihilism in the way Kelly indicates, then how can he account for the rejection of atheism denoted by the remarkably high percentage of Americans who believe in God?  After all, atheism is the necessary precursor for nihilism.  But never mind the burden of overcoming facts.  A little later in his blog, Kelly suggests that for a person to experience faith as valid, he has to believe his faith is “universal and absolute.”  It is necessary, in other words, for a person to believe that only his specific faith can lead him and the rest of humanity to God.
         As Prof. Kelly’s argument unfolds, his reasoning becomes more distorted by his unsupported conjectures.  He offers no evidence (to counter the overwhelming data indicating otherwise) to show that Americans do indeed suffer in a state of nihilism because they are tolerant of different religions or that they are in fact dogmatic regarding their religious beliefs.  He does postulate that Americans deceive themselves into thinking that their religious beliefs are held universally by one and all (Where does this leave nihilism?), but again provides no evidence to support his perception of this mass self-deception.  On this point, his strategy is simply to season his perception with the philosopher's bromide: the philosopher (he) can see their self-deception, but they, of course, cannot.  Convenient and clever though this point may be, it is not at all convincing.
         Prof. Kelly’s final section claims to have discovered in Melville’s Moby Dick a text that can inspire the spirituality he sees missing in America.  He imagines an America in which “there are nevertheless many different lives of worth, and there is no single principle or source or meaning in virtue of which one properly admires them all.”   The problem with Kelly’s point is it describes American attitudes as they already exist (See the Pew Poll cited above).
        In part, Kelly’s essay could be read as another attempt to engraft onto American society and culture the pronouncements of a nineteenth-century's philosophical giant (Nietzsche) whose status outside the academy continues its slide into irrelevance.  At best, his analysis of religion and nihilism offers merely conjecture about rather than a realistic assessment of religious belief in American today.  But then the conclusions of philosophy have always been much more imaginary than real.