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The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.

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Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?

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Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

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Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

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Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

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Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

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As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]

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American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.

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When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.

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How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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It has been 50 years since the Stonewall riots which launched the modern gay rights movement.  Though there have been some setbacks during that time, it has really been a half-century of meteoric social progress.   When I was a child, the brutalization and dehumanization of LGBTQ people was an unremarkable and accepted aspect of society.  Although sexual discrimination is still widespread today, it is anything but acceptable to the majority of people.  There is constant hard work ahead for all of us, but enlightened people realistically look forward to another 50 years of upwards progress.

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To celebrate, here is a little gallery of rainbow crowns and tiaras.  Here in New York it is raining and yet there is bright sun.  I am going to go out and walk around and see if I can spot some rainbows in the real world.  Happy Pride!

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Are you afraid of Lyme disease?  The tick-borne illness has become a major health concern in the Northeastern part of America and in Western Europe.  As many as 365,000 people are infected every year, and the number is growing (as is the habitat of the ticks which spread the disease).

There was a perfectly safe and effective vaccine against Lyme disease which was available in the 1990s.  It was marketed as “LYMErix” by the pharmaceutical company which is now known as Glaxosmithkline, but which was then called something else (has anyone noticed how the names of pharma companies themselves mutate and get weirder and weirder? it must be a side effect of the industry, but it perplexes me as to what the exact mechanism is).  Three $50.00 shots were needed, but they protected against Lyme disease to a high degree of efficacy (by allowing the immune system to immediately target the proteins on the cell coating of the Borrelia bacteria).

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Unfortunately, just as the nineties contained the seeds of today’s political stalemate, it was also a time when the misbegotten anti-vaxxer hoaxes, lies, and misinformation were starting to go mainstream.  The sad fate of LYMErix was an early harbinger of the bad things to come.  The vaccine was properly tested, vetted, and approved through the FDA’s lengthy and comprehensive approval process, yet some immune specialists at the FDA voiced a concern that Lymerix could cause autoimmune problems.  Extensive research found that it did indeed cause such problems…in a small percentage of hamsters.

This news (which was breathlessly reported by the media) came at the same time as the Lancet’s infamous & discredited false articles about important vaccines.  Some LYMErix users came forward with claims of agonizing super arthritis which they believed was caused by the vaccine (although the FDA’s tests and surveys found the same rate of such symptoms in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations).

Nevertheless the damage was done.  The pharma company pulled the product from the shelves over the bad publicity and it is has not been available since 2002…despite extensive evidence that it was safe and effective (albeit expensive).  By now the vaccine could be made generically for a fraction of the price…but phara executives are disinterested since they would have to fight an expensive PR campaign for low profits.  In the mean time high profits and free publicity are available to pseudoscientific quacks who gets rich preying on the fears of poorly educated or credulous people who do not know what to believe.

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To say nothing of goddamn lawyers…

Like the story of the world’s best and most life-saving antivenin, I find this story infuriating.  The market is touted as godlike and infallible by (highly paid) economists, but here is yet another abject market failure (although I am happy to share out the blame to scientific illiteracy of anti-vaxxers and to scary and not-very-good journalism).   I do not necessarily have a solution, but it seems to me that if drug companies are not addressing actual problems like antibiotic resistant superbugs, deadly snakebites, and Lyme disease while at the same time they are actively promoting and profiting from the opioid crisis, perhaps their cozy relationship with government funded research, government regulators, and with lucrative patents needs to be rethought.  We are seeing more and more market failures in every business sector (because of regulatory capture, monopolization, and, lately, good-old fashioned graft), but the biomedical ones are particularly chilling.  It’s time to smash some of these companies up, nationalize others in the name of public health, and to pour a great deal more money into public research which has public benefits.  As things stand now, the government, universities, and philanthropists pay for research and pharmaceutical companies come along and benefit from it with duopoly/cartel practices.

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There is an upside to all of this though. You can get a safe effective and harmless Lyme disease vaccine for your dog.  A lot of the people I talk to desperately wish that the health services available for their pets were available to them for the same prices.  Here is another example where our furry friends have cheaper and better care…because of market successes! Why is everything so complicated?

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My uncle and my mother have a long-standing (and enormously frustrating) argument which is useful to revisit because it reflects a circle which the rest of the nation is trapped in. My uncle always says “The government is corrupt and wishes to control the market in unfair ways! We need to diminish the role of government so that people are free to pursue business opportunities and live a life of super-awesome freedom!” My mother says, “business concerns subaltern the government in ways which individuals are ill-equipped to understand or to counter.”  Then there is eristic back-and-forth about the market versus the state. Sometimes this is followed by interesting talk of K-Street lobbyists, environmental regulations, defense contracts, monopolies, and what have you. However, in the current political age it is more usually devolves completely (indeed, I am not even sure they are talking to each other in the era of Trump).

The argument frustrates me because I am not sure it should be an argument.  My uncle is narrowly right: the government is indeed unresponsive to obvious and pressing societal needs…but only because it has been captured by special moneyed interests with deeeeeeeeeeeeeep pockets.  The forces of monopoly and market capture are equipped with an infinite ocean of dark money, a bunch of anonymous Caimen Island LLCs (or is it supposed to be Cayman?), and armies of Ivy League lobbyists & attorneys.  They can easily spend all day, every day writing complicated legislation and explaining it to their favorite legislators (who also take campaign money and aid from the same anonymous backers).

I suppose another way to say this is: I agree with my mother. The government has been subject to regulatory capture at just about every level. Small businesses or individuals look to it for succor against the depredations or excesses of big business. Yet when the regulations come out, they are revealed to favor large corporations or influential insiders. This is often accomplished with rules which sound outwardly appealing but are actually fiendishly designed to destroy small competitors or diminish the common good.

I can already feel some of the audience getting bored or frustrated with this abstruse language so let me provide a couple of examples.  Back when I was a toymaker (circa 2007), the world’s largest toy companies were making unsafe toys in China.  Mattel and Learning Curve were particularly at fault.  These giants pressured their Chinese suppliers to make toys ever more cheaply and then turned a blind eye as to how this was accomplished (with lots of lead paint, as it turns out).  When the big companies were caught selling lead toys, my business partner and I thought the scandal would help smaller companies like us.

How wrong we were! The large toy companies blamed the Chinese manufacturers (who were doing what they were told to do) and then came forward with their own proposed consumer protection legislation.  Not only did the new rules mandate that each factory-run of toys would be extensively tested for lead and other hazardous materials, but the legislation also immediately phased out certain plasticizing chemicals.  This “industry-supported” legislation became the backbone of the consumer product safety act of 2008 and it was ruinous to small companies.   Fully testing a factory-run of toys cost about $15,000.00.  For Mattel a factory run is millions of units and $15k was negligible.  For small companies, a factory run was much smaller and $15k was most of the profit margin.  Additionally, the legislation allowed no time to sell through existing toys made with the old plasticizing compound.  The big companies knew the legislation was coming (having written it) and they used a different (although equally problematic) chemical.  Small companies were prohibited from selling their products.  Child safety advocates were delighted with the new rules.  The big toy companies used a scandal they created through unsafe acts to drive small companies under and to claim the (undeserved) moral high ground.

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My mother worked for the Department of Defense doing environmental clean-up and restoration and she saw different sorts of tactics.   The DOD used to have vast tracts of land under its control.  Often this was desirable land.

Real estate developers (or their dupes) would show up and say “The Defense Department is polluting such-and-such beautiful coastal rain forest!  They need to clean it up at full taxpayer expense!” As soon as this was done (at enormous cost), the base would be decommissioned.  The land would be turned over to cronies and crooked developers who would cut down the forest and sell the timber.  Then they would build shoddy (yet expensive) subdivisions and a tacky resort.  There would thereafter be no rainforest, polluted or otherwise.

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Vieques Island Resort, Puerto Rico

These private sector tricks can be understood and explained, but it takes time, resources and clever people.  Additionally the monopolists and insiders are running their own splashy PR campaigns which are perfectly tailored to appeal to voters and non-specialists who don’t necessarily have the time, bandwidth, or inclination to understand all of the complicated details of what is going on.

The current presidential administration is such a naked smash-and-grab by private interests that some of these tactics aren’t even necessary anymore. Yet regulatory capture is always out there–it is a form of corruption which we all need to guard against.  I suppose what frustrates me about my uncle’s argument is that it rewards the real malefactors (the vested interests) by blaming the government.  The government should represent all of us, but it is made into a sad puppet by clever oligarchs.  They are the true malefactors!

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A sculpture of the Yellow Emperor in the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi

The Han people claim to be descended from a mythological cultural hero known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow Emperor, or as “Huangdi.”  Chinese history is long and complicated and so is the history of Huangdi!  At times the Yellow Emperor was regarded as a real person–the first emperor of China. In other eras he was regarded as a matchless Daoist sorceror or as a great shaman or even as a god of the Earth itself.  Modern scholars argue endlessly about how the myth came into being. The Communists tried to ban the cult during the cultural revolution, but quickly realized that it was a dreadful mistake.  Different eras imagine him differently, but he is always there at the beginning. Imagine if Moses, Aeneas, George Washington, and Merlin the Magician lived five thousand years ago and were somehow one person–that would be the Yellow Emperor.

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Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise (Dai Jin, ca. mid 15th century AD) ink on silk

From time to time Ferrebeekeeper refers to the Chinese calendar (this is year 4716, the year of the Earth Pig).  That calendar was putatively started by the Yellow Emperor (which sort of puts a date stamp on him, come to think of it).  An incomplete list of the other accomplishments/inventions/innovations which have been attributed to Huangdi includes:

  • invention of houses
  • domestication of animals
  • first cultivation of grains
  • invention of carts/the wheel
  • invention and successful use of the war chariot
  • invention and popularization of clothing
  • the invention of boats and watercraft
  • discovery of astronomy
  • invention of archery
  • creation of numbers and mathematics
  • the creation of the first diadem
  • the invention of monarchy
  • The invention of writing and the creation of the oracle bone script
  • the invention of the guquin zither

Huangdi did not invent sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms): that was accomplished by his main wife, Leizu.  Yet, as you can see above, he still has a fairly impressive CV.  I haven’t even gotten into his military accomplishments or his physical prowess.  Suffice to say they were very great–like the time he defeated the bronze-headed monster, Chi You, and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers…or the time he defeated the nightmare sorcerers from the mirror dimension and imprisoned them forever in mirrors (although it is a bit disturbing to think that that figure in the bathroom every morning is a dark magician who is forced to dress like you and act like you and LOOK like you because of the Yellow Emperor’s magic).

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Because Chinese history is so long and so vast it encompasses different cosmologies and pantheons.  Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have somewhat pushed out the ancient religions of the Han Dynasty (although figures like Nüwa linger on in the background).  Huangdi sort of transcends change itself though and so he is in myths with great primordial Daoists like Guangchengzi and in stories with the now moribund goddess Xuannü, “the mystery lady” who was goddess of war, sex, magic, and longevity (we should maybe look into her backstory at some point).  Also he was maybe a yellow dragon.

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Although there are many stories about the Yellow Emperor’s life and accomplishments (and about his birth, which I will write about some other time), the stories about his death are somewhat exiguous. He met a quilin and a phoenix and moved on from this world. He has two tomb in Shaanxi (including the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, which is pictured up there at the top of the post), in addition to other tombs in in Henan, Hebei, Gansu, and other places.  Perhaps these stories are unsatisfying by design.  Like King Arthur or Durin, the Yellow Emperor might not be entirely dead, but might be lying low somewhere, waiting for a moment of crisis which requires him.

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Like a currency crisis?

To my point of view, there is no afterlife or magic, but the dead aren’t really gone–they live on in their descendants. This is a satisfying conclusion to me because it means that the Yellow Emperor IS the people of the Han.  He is China the way Uncle Sam is the US (except 4500 years longer). He never really existed yet the Yellow Emperor is 1/6 of humankind…or at least their mascot.

 

 

 

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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Maha Vajiralongkorn

April is poetry month! Poetry allows us to say afresh things which need to be said (but which are not being heard properly because of popular conventions or dark political malfeasance).  Yet once these truths are framed in sacred beautiful language and hung up in the great library of human endeavor, they take on an enduring character which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the past can no longer suppress (and which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the present do not understand).

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Portrait of Swinburne (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861) Watercolor, chalk, pencil on paper

For example, here is a short poem by Alernon Charles Swinburne, a sort of half-forgotten poet who was so exceedingly popular during the Victorian era that his work was set aside during the subsequent anti-Victorian backlash (which seems like a pity, since his poetry is lyrical and beautiful…and has a haunting & desolate sadness beneath all of its rich, fulsome opulence).

Swinburne was fascinated by Christianity and by the great Christian art and literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Yet a comprehensive reading of his poems makes it fairly clear that he himself was not devout.  He harbored particular reservations about the afterlife and his sophisticated contemporaries saw him as a sort of “poet laureate of atheism.”  Despite this (or…because of it?) Swinburne wrote a poem about Christian persecution as anathema to Jesus.  The poem was not about persecution of Christians, but persecution by Christians.  Here it is:

On the Russian Persecution of the Jews

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

O SON of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
in carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant’s horde,
Brute worshipers or wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even that ever called thee Lord;
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine,
Run ravening as the Gadarene swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?

Written in 1882, the poem is addressed to the “Son of Man,” which is Christ’s appellation in the gospels.  Swinburne describes the savagery of contemporary Christians and poignantly asks whether the cruelty of Jesus’ followers towards Jews, foreigners, and outsiders would hurt Christ more than the physical agony of the passion.  Since the apotheosis of compassion was the exact point of Christ’s ministry and his death, the answer is clearly a resounding yes. However, the poet (and, implicitly, his sophisticated reader) both recognize that contemporary Christians often overlook the meaning of Christ’s words and actions in their zeal to attain a piece of some imaginary paradise.

The poem is aimed directly at Russian Orthodox Christians, who were indeed guilty of terrible pogroms against the great Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement. Since Russia was the hated national adversary of late Victorian England, the message would be roundly appreciated by Swinburne’s readers. Yet the poet perhaps casts a wider net upon the lord’s flock than it initially seems. The poem’s title aside, these lying tongues, slaughterous hands, and profane precants could almost be found anywhere in Christendom.  Perhaps the eagerness of the reader to attribute such sins to other Christians is its own clue. Did not Christ ask his followers “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

And like all great poetry, the message is hardly trapped within its time.  A clear-sighted observer might be able to look at any Christian period or any puffed-up sanctimoniously “Christian” nation and find terrible cruelty to Jews and foreigners enacted by zealots incapable of grasping the fundamental message of the gospels.  Such acts could even be encouraged by self-interested czars who not-very-convincingly pretend to be Christian!  Great art lives in timeless modernity after all.

At any rate, I will leave you, dear reader, to contemplate Swinburne’s real meaning on your own (maybe after you peruse the news of the day).  Oh, also the Gadarene swine were the herd of pigs which Christ cast the demons into as recounted in Matthew 8:28-34. It is worth remembering that the Gadarenes begged Jesus to leave after the incident…as though they preferred money and security to the actual Son of God! Shocking!

jesus-demon-possessed-man-pigs

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