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So it is the end of another year, and it is time to write the post which I always put off again and again…right up until the last day of the year–which is to say I still need to write the year-end obituaries. Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall that the obituaries here are obituaries for those departed who meant a lot to me–so if you want to know about queens, popes, soccer guys, rappers, or whatever, you will probably have to look elsewhere. For example, last year, I only wrote about my grandfather, an international master operative who battled against Soviet and Chinese dirty tricks in Africa and Southeast Asia throughout the middle of the 20th century. These days, everyone rolls their eyes about the worldwide cloak-and-dagger proxy wars by means of which the Cold War was fought, but, please note that as soon as grandpa was dead (and his ilk out of power), Russia formed an alliance with China and attacked Europe, so I tend to think it all WAS pretty necessary, no matter what the anti-American apologists say.

Grandpa taught me how to take stock of the world and look at art (which he avidly collected), but for more specific lessons in world history and painting, I turned to a generation of teachers and masters who are now also passing away. And so it is with great sadness that I write about two of my illustrious teachers who died in 2022.

Walter Kaegi Abroad (a professor unafraid of travel)

Walter Emil Kaegi, (1937 – 2022) was one of my favorite history professors from college (along with the late, great Emmet Larkin). Kaegi was a professor of Byzantine history, a broad subject which he approached with polymath intensity from all sides. In some respects, Byzantine history is regarded as the story of one thousand years of precipitous and ineluctable decline. Kaegi, however, remembered that history does not seem inevitable to those leading it. His multi-faceted view of the Byzantines was indeed filled with trademark battles, religious controversies, and palace intrigue, but he also added the trade, farming, technology, music, poetry, and ecology missing from the work of great Byzantinists of yore. Kaegi was a scholar’s scholar who knew Latin, Greek, and Aramaic just as well as English, but also learned French, German, and Russian so he could read the works of other scholars. Speaking of Russian, the professor always wore a hilarious heavy Russian hat which we bare-headed undergrads laughed at in the bitter Chicago winters (which illustrates that comedy, like history affords multiple vantage points on what is actually the truth).

Although history scholars like to speak of him like he was Gibbon, Kaegi was definitely not Gibbon. He instead synthesized some insights into the long fall of the Roman Empire from new resources–particularly archaeological/geological ones. Whereas most historians fixate solely on the doings of emperors, courtiers, bishops, and generals, Kaegi came to the conclusion that a combination of climate change, agricultural collapse, and religious change was driving events to a heretofore unappreciated extent (an insight worth remembering when eyeing the events of the present).

Of course he didn’t paint a self portrait, so here is a photograph of Ron Sherr

My other teacher who passed away last year will probably not be remembered foremost as a teacher–since he was actually an artist first. Ronald Sherr (1952-2022) was a brilliant portrait-painter who studied with Daniel E. Greene, Harvey Dinnerstein, and Burton Silverman before going on to paint America’s leading politicians, soldiers, and business leaders (and win all sorts or awards and accolades chronicled elsewhere). Since he rubbed shoulders with the mighty (or at least painted those mighty shoulders) he is liable to be incorporated as part of this era’s political zeitgeist. Indeed, in the recent headlines about former house-speaker Boehner crying when Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait was unveiled, CNN and the NYTimes neglected to dwell on the fact that Ron had painted the official portrait of both speakers!

Portrait of General Colin Powell (Ronald Sherr, 2012) Oil on canvas

Yet world-renowned clients was not what made Ron important as an artist. Ron was an artistic anachronism of sorts–he painted beautiful realistic portraits which looked like they had some piece of the living subject inside of them. His real method for obtaining these incredible results was not some trick or secret tool, but constant practice and stringent self-criticism. Ron’s artistic hero was Jon Singer Sargent who combined the unparalleled draftmanship of the Old Masters with the realistic color and focus of the impressionists. Ron likewise used this combination and it is what he tried to teach his students. We all remember that during our first year painting he would mostly ask seemingly obvious questions like “Is the head you have painted bigger or smaller than the model’s actual head? Is the torso you have painted more yellow or less yellow than the model’s actual torso?”

Our utter inability to answer these questions (at first) reveals part of why it is hard to teach painting. A great teacher must teach looking and comparing first….and then second and then last. Unless you can look at a subject with fresh eyes and regard your own efforts honestly, true realism will forever remain out of your reach.

Speaking of which I have not been painting realistically! Nor have I been applying the lessons of Byzantine history to the Byzantine circus factions of today. I worry that I have dishonored my amazing teachers by not making use of what they worked so hard to teach me. Now, thanks to time’s one way arrow and the nature of mortal existence, we no longer have the real masters. All that is left is the hazy memory of their teachings…although, come to think of it, here I am on a Saturday night (on New Year’s Eve no less) trying still to understand their teachings and make use of such learning to explain the world to others. Keep asking questions! Keep comparing. Keep striving for greater honesty. This is what I hear in my head as I set down the obituarist’s pen and reach again for the artist’s brush.

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Longtime reader recall Ferrebeekeeper’s strange obsession with the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (which we have blogged about numerous times). When last we checked in with the National Ignition Facility (which is ostensibly designed to model the behavior of nuclear weapons, but which is really used to research useful mechanisms for generating power from nuclear fusion), the laboratory had successfully obtained a burning plasma by changing up the size and shape of the tiny gold pellet in which they enclosed the nuclear fuel. Great things seemed imminent!

And indeed, this week, the National Ignition Facility has finally made headlines around the world by obtaining more energy from a moment of nuclear fusion than the (enormous amounts of) energy which was used to power the reaction. The facility pointed its 192 super lasers at a tiny gold capsule filled with deuterium and tritium nuclear fuel. Then, for 20 billionths of a second, the lasers concentrated 500 trillion watts of energy on the nuclear fuel and presto! a moment of truly stellar energy output ensued (I wonder what sort of esoteric energy was released during this infinitesimal second). To quote the United States Energy Secretary, “Ignition allows us to replicate, for the first time, certain conditions that are only found in the stars and sun. This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon, abundant fusion energy powering our society.”

So far the newspapers and blathering heads on TV have all been stressing that the process is not yet ready for commercial use and emphasizing how long it takes to develop commercial procedures of any sort. MBA types call this phenomenon “the valley of doom” which describes a scenario wherein the government discovers something worthwhile and amazing, but trained MBA-economist types think that it will take longer than 10 years to develop commercial technology and therefor do not bother. Anything which takes more than 10 years is effectively non-existent to MBA people because (A) that is how financing works and (B) that is how they are indoctrinated by their shitty schools.

“The more we hurt the world, the happier we are!”

This case may prove an exception since the government (and all people of conscience) have a very strong incentive to move human society beyond fossil fuel dependency which is injuring life on Earth. Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies, Republicans, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and most of the world’s billionaires will now belittle this accomplishment and attempt to squelch it as quickly as possible (since their wealth and power are dependent on the fossil fuel economy). It is up to all of us (including you liberals in the back who have traditionally espoused that anything nuclear is fundamentally unwholesome) to make sure that we don’t squander this stupendous opportunity to move society forward and undo some of the terrible harm our never-ending thirst for dirty energy has wrought upon our beautiful world.

Well, we have reached the Midterms. Thus far, I haven’t blogged so much about this important election for reasons of emotional health: which is to say that watching America’s political crisis grind the nation’s progress to a standstill and turn us all against each other is both alarming and depressing!  However, the election takes place tomorrow and it is now necessary to endorse candidates. Obviously, you should vote for the Democratic Party and its candidates for all elections on all tickets

It is unfortunate to issue such a blanket endorsement. In better times, when the affairs of the nation were more ordered (and one of the two parties hadn’t gone completely rotten), it was necessary to assess candidates by their individual merits and positions. Hopefully that time will come again! Alas, right now, the GOP consists of anti-American fascists who are working as hard as possible to neuter and dismantle the United States of America and steal all of its assets to distribute to crooked kleptocrats and oligarchs. Their reasons any voter would want this outcome may be worth exploring later (I believe rich Republicans want to destroy the nation so they can loot it, whereas religious Republicans are unable to see that truth and instead think that treating people cruelly and badly is what Jesus would want).  Yet the net result is the same—Democracy destroyed; the country rendered subordinate to Russia and hollowed out.

Americans like to pretend to be smart and cynical, so a lot of voters say “All politicians are crooked” Then these voters don’t vote…or they vote for grandstanding populists who mask graft with home-spun hucksterism. Such a fundamental mistake is understandable (since elucidating what is going on right now involves looking past the clicks-at-any-cost misdirection favored by large media-conglomerates). Also, in recent times, when the parties were very similar, pretending to be cynical so that one could be lazy and not vote was not a particularly grave sin. Yet this election demands voters’ full attention. We are nearing a point of no-return in the Republicans’ long planned doom loop (the mechanism they have used to ratchet a permanent hold of control despite commanding only a minority of votes). Read about the anti-government doom loop here!

The Republican party has not published a political platform. They believe that lies, coercion, rigged districts, and infinite dark money (from unknown payers) will be sufficient to win enough state-houses and gerrymandered house seats to permanently end representative government.  They might be right! But before we just believe what they say and give up on self-governance, let’s take a closer look at what they actually want.

The real Republican Platform is horrifying. When you listen to what Republican politicians say, bear in mind that these are their true aims. In the absence of a published list of their agenda, here is an unvarnished list of their objectives and principles based on their words and actions:

  • Russia is always right. Vladimir Putin is Emperor of the World and must be obeyed accordingly
  • Government by self-determination should be destroyed. Monopolists, oligarchs, and foreign governments should make all of Americans’ choices for us.
  • You and your family should be silent indentured servants to these same moneyed interests
  • Hypocritical religious extremists should be allowed to dictate what you read, whom you love, and, above all, deny medical treatment to those they disfavor.   
  • Social Security and Medicare should be abolished and seniors should die in the street

It is not a surprise that the Republicans did not codify this totalitarian evil into a platform (although Greg Abbot tried). What is a surprise is that Republicans have sold anyone on any of these ideas! These corrupt and evil positions run directly counter to the universal ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice which our system was founded on. Once the Christian nationalists realize that banning abortion does not prevent abortion and that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell are very interested in replacing the safety net with tax tax breaks for billionaires (but care very little for the false pieties of evangelical Christianity), then perhaps the great masses of illiterates who dully stand by as these con-artists destroy the Constitution will be jolted out of their pretend cynicism, but by then it will be too late to retrieve the nation from “Big Lie” adherents who believe that only their party should be legally allowed to win.

It has probably not escaped your attention that I have said a great deal against the Republican/Fascist party and not said as much for the Democrats.   

I was underwhelmed by President Obama. His inability to craft political consensus and break the nation out of this political deadlock struck me as being a result of his own political inexperience. I now see that this was exactly how his Republican political enemies wanted things to look. Also President Obama cared about the hostage–I mean nation–and gave up on some of his political aims for the greater good of the country. Obviously it does not matter to Republicans if the nation is destroyed, since that is their intention anyway (after all, it’s much easier to steal from a nation where everything has been ruined and the only remaining law-enforcement agents are proudboys and hollowed-out rent-a-cops). The rule of Solomon the Wise stands against Republicans. They are happy to kill the child just so that they can have control of it (BTW you should click on that link to a previous endorsement which says what I am saying now, but with greater Biblical eloquence and better examples). Nobody should vote for any Republican this year for that alone.

The Democratic Party has an unfortunate tendency to see problems in the world as being entirely America’s fault.  They are eager to coddle foreign enemies while censoriously blaming our own diplomats, military, and intelligence agents (and straight middle aged white guys) for all of the world’s troubles. Yet for all of their wonkish idealism and dogmatic identity politics, they keep coming up with policy ideas, and they keep earnestly believing in the rules of democracy. They keep fighting the Russians and Chinese (and all of their downstream villains). They keep trying to make sure that people have enough to eat asnd can go to the doctor and can look after their kids. Most importantly, they want America…and you and your family to succeed. Republicans want you to die so that a billionaire can have all of your stuff. Then they want the world to die from climate change and habitat loss ( I don’t think the Republicans have fully thought this through but have merely embraced mass extinction because it fits with their other choices)

(Also I actually think Biden has done a decent job considering all of the interlocking crises we face…AND considering that the previous guy stacked the deck so that things would be impossible for him, but political operators say not to talk about how well Biden has done, so I guess I won’t).

But you should take Biden’s integrity into consideration and you should take the wholesale moral abomination of the cowardly, lying, traitorous criminal Republican Party into consideration as well when you go to cast what they undoubtedly hope will be the last (or next-to-last) vote you are ever allowed to cast. Republicans hate democracy, they hate nature, they hate your family, and above all, they hate YOU with all of their malice and malignancy. Vote accordingly.

Doomscrolling (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

Happy Halloween! As a special inktober treat for the special day, here is another little allegorical ink drawing of our times featuring strange orchid bishops sheltering in their Romanesque monasteries. The churchmen (who do not seem especially holy or worthwhile) interact with their doomed milieu through their little handheld personal communication devices. Meanwhile the haunted world outside is subject to dragon attack, volcanic eruption, war, and doom.

As ever, the strip of nature in the foreground is the true key to the meaning of the composition.

Orchid Monastics in a Golden Orchid Rain (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Our Inktober special feature of Halloween-adjacent pen-and-ink drawings continues with this enigmatic golden orchid monastery piece which I drew with colored inks on yellow paper.

Lately I have been drawing a series of intricate altarpiece-style compositions after the style of Medieval illuminators (whose seminal contributions to art, culture, and media have been underappreciated because of the post-Vasari cult of celebrity). Hopefully writing about these illustrations in these posts will help contextualize the themes I am trying to highlight.  

Here is a little monastic microcosm of the world.  In one monastery, a white-haired abbot lords it over his little flower novices.  In a sister monastery, the mother superior and her votaries carefully send out an intimate message to the monks by means of technology. Sundry lizard people, extinct animals, and cloaked figures roam about in the space between the two houses as a rain of yellow orchid blossoms falls down from the heavens.

To my mind, the most important part of this composition is the tiny strip of nature in the foreground–a little ecosystem of weeds, wildflowers, seeds, nemotodes, myriapods, and maggots (who are furiously breaking down a mouse skull). The human world of sly courtships, status posturing, and religious grandstanding grows up out of this substrate and pretends to be superior to it (while actually being entirely dependent on the microscopic cycles of life).  All of the pompous & made-up things which humankind uses to dress up our savage primate drives do not change the fact that ecosystems are of paramount importance.

The religions of Abraham (among others) put animals and the natural world at the bottom of their moral hierarchy. I believe they are ultimately doomed because of this stupid outlook.  Whether they will take us all to a garbage-strewn grave with them remains an open question.  

The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

Artist’s conception of a general Arcology

All of this talk about Mirabilis, the fictional future city of marvels which is dying from within (the setting of Daniel Claymore’s new science fiction/mystery novel) has gotten Ferrebeekeeper thinking about arcologies.  At present, an arcology is only a concept for the future–a super dense human city engineered to contain a self-sustaining ecology.  However, for a long time, architects, futurists, and urban planners have been working on buildings and communities which partake of the grand ideas behind arcologies.  Maybe that idea—building a mutualistic gestalt between lots of people, all their stuff, and humankind’s favorite living things—is really at the heart of urbanism.

We will talk about the implications of arcologies a lot more in the future.  To my eyes, the synthesis of ecology, evolution, and engineering has only happened in rudimentary ways thus far, but humankind will need a much greater grasp of this technology (and whatever sciences lie beneath the catchall field of ecology) to proceed any farther down the road we wish to be on.  For today’s post, however, we are only going to talk about contemporary news—since one of the world’s richest states has broken ground to build what is pretty definitively an arcology.  The planned city will consist of two 500 meter (1640 foot) tall glass skyscrapers standing 200 meters apart (from the outer wall of one to the outer wall of the other).  Between the two buildings will be an internal courtyard filled with delights.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this–the buildings’ length will be 170 kilometers (110 miles).

Artist’s conception of “The Line” (ending point at the Red Sea)

This complex is part of “Neom” a strange futuristic city which will be built in the desert beside the Red Sea. The particular linear arcology/double skyscraper is named ذا لاين (which, appropriately means “The Line” in Arabic). The whole community is being planned and financed by that great utopian visionary entity–the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!??? Sorry about those extra quotation marks, but if you were around in the late twentieth century/early twenty first century, you might be more likely to think of Saudi Arabia as an ossified petrostate more famous for a Faustian bargain between kleptocrats and Wahabi religious extremists than for futurist thinking (although, come to think of it, the Sauds arguably did have a major hand in engineering our current dystopia of global warming, religious extremism, and vast inequality).

The Saudi Prince may be noble, but he is said to consort with insurrectionists and other low characters

Anyway, setting aside all political and ethical concerns, the plans for the Line were announced on January 10, 2021 by that notorious cut-up, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a fiend–er–friend to a cross-section of journalists). When it is finished, “The Line” is expected to have nine million residents (a million more people than New York City). The Line will be powered entirely by renewable energy, and inhabitants will be able to walk anywhere they want within 5 minutes. If their, uh…in-Line, destination is not 5 minutes away, they will be able to take a subterranean bullet train to any place within the arcology. Deadly motor vehicles (which killed 43,000 people in the United States alone last year) will be banned!

This actually doesn’t sound half bad and I might sign up–at least if I weren’t now on record making fun of the wife-beating, murderous, & conniving (yet reform-minded) Prince Salman. Estimated costs for building The Line run between $200 billion and one trillion American dollars (which is probably less than the Second Avenue subway line ended up costing). The Saudi government estimates it will create 380,000 skilled jobs.

Futurists, political theorists, and real estate mavens debate the merits of The Line. Humorously, the last group object that it falls down somewhat when it comes to their core mantra of “location, location, location” (located, as it is, in a barren sweltering desert with no attractions or neighbors of any sort). The real estate people also assert that it is otherwise a laundry list of development cliches and problems waiting to happen. For my part though, I am uncertain but intrigued. Even with slave labor and all of the wealth of the world’s foremost petrostate, I wonder if Saudi Arabia can build this thing according to the schematics. But imagine if they did! I admire this kind of crazy out-of-the-box thinking–and I kind of like the concepts behind both Neom and The Line. Since the United States has given up entirely on thinking about the future (and since the Germans are completely practical and the Chinese think only about subjugating Asia and Africa) somebody has to think big and attempt enormous impossible projects. I have mixed feelings about the vicious autocrats who rule Saudi Arabia, but I wish them good fortune in building their audacious science-fiction city. If it doesn’t work we will know a lot more about potential problems with insane mega engineering (on someone else’s dime). And it is does work, well we can build something like it within a canyon on the moon, or the shadow line of Mercury.

It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about augury. Who could have foreseen this?

A wise equestrian reads the future from birds on a lack and red wine vessel from mid 5th century Greece

Seriously though, today’s post is a quick clarification about the real meaning of the term augury (particularly in relation to how we use the word here on this blog). In ancient Rome, “predicting” the future by means of charismatic quackery was a pastime of astonishing popularity. In fact the word “pastime” might not even be comprehensive enough, since serious, society-wide decisions involving battle, agriculture, politics, statecraft, and commerce were regularly made by soothsaying consultation (naturally all sorts of frivolous personal matters were decided by such means too, just as they are now). Since the Romans were so profoundly hooked on magical prediction of the future, they had a lot of different divination methodologies. The famous sibyls, like the ones at Cumae, Dodona, and Delos, were closely entwined with pantheistic cosmology and thus critical to state power. However, the internationally famous seers and oracles were hardly the only channel for divination. The classical word also featured a breathtaking suffusion of fortune-telling methodologies such as:

  • cleromancy–fortune-telling through casting of lots, stones, or dice
  • hydromancy–predicting the future based on the movement of water
  • necromancy–consulting the dead about hidden matters
  • haruspicy–divination through examination of entrails
  • geomancy–interpreting omens within rocks, mountains, or sand
  • pyromancy–seeing events to come within fire
  • stikhomanteia–reading the future through writings or books (opened at random or by number)
  • numeromancy–using numbers to predict the future
  • augury–scrying by watching the acts or appearances of birds

In contemporary English, this last word (which once was its own specialized practice) has come to mean trying to tell the future through any and all means. Most likely the future is opaque to all forms of meaningful prediction other than logical projection (if a person steps into the ocean they will soon be wet). And, despite my facile parenthetical example, reason itself is a limited tool for understanding the future (which is filled with unknowable unknowns).

Yet I have a special place for augury in my heart because, like all goodhearted people, I love birds…but also because birds base their movements and actions on meaningful stimuli in the hopes of certain outcomes. Birds have senses and sensibilities which are different than our own. Of course, in my book, such matters are best explored by the ornithologist rather than Zeus (although, according to myth, the latter explored the avian mind through direct experience and found that birds have desires similar to our own).

Most importantly, birds can teach us what the future holds, not via magic or divine influence, but by more corporeal means. Modern people do not base their decisions on whether a dove escaped a falcon or a swan attacked an eagle not because we have learned to throw off the yoke of superstitious thinking, but because we don’t often see doves, falcons, eagles, and swans. The birds are very much predicting the future–by vanishing! Unless we want to follow them to oblivion, we need to help them stay alive by curtailing our abuse of the planet.

There’s an augury for you.

Sooo…since I am back to writing, I would like to start blogging about politics again. Unfortunately, continuing political stalemate is causing the rapid decline and failure of the United States of America. In such circumstances, it is enormously frustrating to write, talk, or think about politics. I can’t even successfully agree with the people I know I agree with, because I am so angry and dissatisfied! I have a feeling I am not the only person in such emotional straits!

Therefore to ease my way back in to the subject, I would like to write a furious jeremiad about the fundamental cause of our trouble–stalemate in Congress–and address where that fatal deadlock comes from. As ever, feel free to disagree or push back in the comments below (although I am less respectful of the fascist Republican party than I was a few years ago, when their plans to destroy the nation, replace our democracy with a theocratic dictatorship, and throw down everything we have built were only beginning to yield dark fruit).

Most good-hearted Americans currently look at the bitter strife, anger, and divisiveness of the political arena, and logically, they blame politicians. It is like if you walked into a bar fight, you wouldn’t bother figuring out who started it, you would just blame drunks in general and leave hastily before someone smashed your head. Unfortunately, that general self-preservation strategy is dead wrong for the fight which is going on in today’s America. The centrists’ cry that “they are all equally bad” is not warranted. Our founding fathers designed the legislative houses of Congress to be the center of the democracy with the power of the purse, the power to make war, the power to regulate interstate commerce, and of course the power to make and unmake laws. Congress is failing to do these things and we are only barely able to avert outright crisis by the unsuitable vehicle of executive power, or, worse, judicial fiat (whereby unelected and immoral rapists, dolts, and savages in black robes strip away all of our rights and return society to the middle ages).

The reason Congress is unable to address the crises of our time is indeed because the two parties have divergent views and desires…but the parties have always wanted different things. In the past, they could compromise. Why can’t they do so now? The obvious answers–political polarization, and gerrymandering (where politicians pick out their own voters and assure their easy re-election) are the right answers, but they too are symptoms of the fundamental disease. The disease is a sort of autoimmune condition–one party (the Republican one) has begun to attack government itself.

Since at least the time of Reagan, Republicans have been making war on the idea of government. It is a very cynical ploy (and an unexpected one, since Republican executives, legislators, judges, apparatchiks, etc. are themselves the government, or at least a big block of it). But it turns out to be a highly effective strategy. Here is how it works: When government does not work right, Republicans can say “look! the government doesn’t work right! We are obviously correct. Vote for us!” Then, when they are voted in to power, they can pass enormous tax-cuts for very wealthy people and do absolutely nothing else. This makes very wealthy people support Republicans and ensures that the government works even worse (which is what happens when things are not properly funded and when people who are supposed to do something do not do it).

Of course, sometimes the Democrats manage to win an election (although un-representative and minoritarian features of our system keep conspiring with outright Republican sabotage to make this ever harder), and then the Republicans pull out all of the stops to make sure everything fails and gets blamed on Democrats. Then, when Republicans are back in power there are more tax cuts for the enormously wealthy and more judicial appointments from the Federalist society and the doom loop continues.

For Republican tacticians, stalemate and continuing failure are the point. They are making it happen (with some help from selfish Democrats like Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer). Continuing stalemate gives the Republicans what they want and assures the Republicans will be able to continue moving us away from representative politics and towards one-party rule. Once we get there, they will no doubt rediscover the virtues of the government in the form of jackboots, Jim Crow, and privatizing everything off to the same people who have made our health-care system what it is. So if you say “everyone is equally wrong! Why can’t the parties get along? Politicians are the problem! Government is the problem!” well…that isn’t a neutral or centrist perspective, it is a Republican one. It is actually a clever strategy–unless you wanted to actually live in our country and make progress and have a family and not be a worthless indentured servant to some MBA shithead. If you want such things then government is very much your friend. Indeed, it is your only hope. You need to help people of good conscience make it work as well as possible by electing smart and devoted Democrats who can end the Republican doom loop!

The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

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