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Hey did you see this United deplaning business on the news? If you are here on the internet, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, but, in case you are reading this post in the far future or found it stapled to a tree or something, here is what happened: United Airline needed some seats on a full flight in order to move their staff around. Instead of bribing their customers to take a different plane, the airline coerced the passengers with the fine print of the ticket contract (which, as you can imagine, allows airlines to do anything they want in exchange for zooming you across the continent at 700 miles an hour). One customer was aggrieved and refused to leave his seat, so they called in militarized corporate guards (or the police? Who can tell these days?) to beat him up and drag him off the plane. The United CEO then issued a statement basically saying “We can do as we like. Our market is guaranteed.”
As you can imagine, this has stirred up some hard feelings among the general public, but the CEO was right. There is a cartel of four carriers which controls the majority of flights around America. If you wish to fly, you must do so at the cartel’s terms (or else you need to buy a plane). This consolidation has allowed the airlines to cut service, increase fares, and add a proliferation of fees. Most markets are under the thumb of a single carrier and, if you want to fly where they have suzerainty you will have to use that carrier or not fly. Good luck getting a train or even a bus in America.
I don’t mean to pick on the airlines: cable service provider, pharmaceutical companies, oil conglomerates, insurance companies, major banks…even toy companies all operate the same way in today’s deregulated society. America has a monopoly problem: but today’s companies are smart enough to avoid having one entity take complete control of a market. Business schools and the school of hard knocks have taught the heads of these companies to be slightly subtler about the way they fix prices and collude. With their record profits, they have also bought up politicians and control the relevant legislation that goes in front of them. Do you care about flight regulation legislation enough to lobby your congressperson? I personally do not, but I bet United sure does!
The bigger takeaway here is that capitalism is facing challenges of extreme success which are causing it to morph into naked oligopoly. This in turn is stifling competition and innovation. It is also breaking our political process. The Republican mantra that “government is the problem” and cartel companies like United or Aetna should be allowed to run everything for the benefit of a tiny number of great aristocrats does not really seem like a platform which was drafted by groundlings! The Democrats pretend otherwise but they abandoned responsible attempts to reign in business cartels back in the 70s. The parties have different favorites, but they are both content that the game is rigged.
It is not supposed to work this way. In an ideal market, you could punish United and its smug multimillionaire CEO by spending three dollars more to take an airline that doesn’t beat up its passengers and drag them off the plane screaming. In a better democracy, you could vote in a district where the winner was not already predetermined by gerrymandering.
This sort of thing means we are going to have to pay attention. We all need to be aware of regulatory capture: an endemic species of corruption whereby giant companies write rules which look reasonable, but which actually price smaller competitors out of the marketplace. Politicians rubber stamp these rules and claim they are looking out for the public interest (while the cartels support their subsequent careeers). We are going to need to be more attentive and smarter, or we are all going to be doing what giant corporations and their pet politicians tell us to do. The moment where we can act is quickly passing. We must push for effective new antitrust measures or we will all have to take our tiny expensive seat and shut up while brownshirts probe and beat us to their hearts’ content… not just when we fly but everywhere all of the time.
It is January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of Donald John Trump, casino magnate, television personality, and media provocateur as 45th President of the United States of America. Now, bad presidents come and go. The country has had plenty of liars, knuckleheads, perverts, and even a life dictator in the highest office (the life dictator actually turned out to be pretty ok, but we made sure to change the rules as soon as he was dead). Yet Trump strikes me as something special.
From now until when he keels over dead, the papers are going to be chock full of Trump’s bloviations, crimes, vulgarities, enormities, and attention-seeking behaviors (I am not sure if Trump will seize permanent hold of the presidency, if mortality will catch him before four years are up, or if he will go on to bigger better things, but I am absolutely sure we are going to hear about everything he does until he moves on to the great reality show hereafter). This success at attention seeking is the greatest source of Trump’s power. It is how he has built a cult of personality unrivaled by all but our greatest presidents (who were honorable enough to turn their backs on such dangerous and undemocratic personal style). Trump knows that outrage and hate are just as good for his aims as praise. All of the anti-Trump editorials and essays have helped him. He has discovered that fame in contemporary America is like absolute value in mathematics: it doesn’t matter whether it is negative or positive.
Therefor I am going to avoid hating further on the Donald. It only helps him. I am going to confront his personality cult indirectly by comparing him to the thing that interests me the most, but which Trump would least like to be—me! a broke nobody artist. I will look at Donald Trump as a human and see if we have anything in common.
I had this idea when I was at the Duane Reade downstairs at the Trump building at 40 Wall Street, Trump’s downtown office (which is next to the title insurance office where I work as a sad little clerk during the day). Duane Reade posts all of its prices in terms of what you would pay if you had a Duane Reade discount card (which is probably actually a vector for Duane Reade to sell all of your information to insurance companies and drug companies). Without this horrible card, everything rings up for 20% to 30% more than you expect to pay.
At the beginning of the presidential campaign, when Trump was merely one of many improbable Republican candidates, one of my colleagues ran into him shopping at Duane Reade. Trump was by himself buying an armful of hair spray (honest!), and was nice enough to take a picture with my coworker. The other day, as I paid 20% extra for my gummy bears and salve, I wondered if Trump has one of these awful cards for his hairspray, or if he too must suffer the same frustration when his goods all cost more than they are marked.
It made me think of him differently—not as a dictator come to crush America, nor as a gold-orange idol on tv, but as an actual person, and from there, in a rush I realized we share much more than I would like to admit.
Donald Trump and I both came from successful WASP families. Instead of being merchants and businesspeople, my family are scientists and administrators. But both groups made their way up by working hard.
Trump and I both went to similar colleges: The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago. We are both tall and goofy looking and we both make our money in the same business—real estate– although we could not be at more different places on the ladder (and Trump has recently left for public service).
From there the similarities become more disturbing. We both have a history of failed businesses that have left us with deep scars. We are both straight but can’t seem to make relationships last. Trump and I love New York City unconditionally (even though the city doesn’t seem to love us back). Each is secretly anxious that he is not actually good enough and so desperate to appear smart that he seems foolish… each is a rather silly man who is terribly, terribly worried about what people think of him.
I hope you kin that the point of this is not that Trump and I are a lot alike (I actually think we are profoundly different). The point is we need to stop concentrating on him as a unique personality and start looking at him as another politician. And we need to stop letting him get our goat.
Trump scares me and being scared makes people do stupid things. I have been so angry when I looked at self-satisfied or annoying posts on Facebook, that I felt like breaking off my social interactions with people I grew up with. I have come terribly close to angrily denouncing everyone in rural America as “deplorables” and swearing off West Virginia. More often than I would care to admit, Trump has filled my heart with blinding rage
My family has a dark saying. It is counter intuitive (and probably stolen from a ballad or a fifties tv show), but it turns out to be disconcertingly true: “You become what you hate”. You see it everywhere: social justice advocates who hate people for the circumstances of their birth, or folks who imagine all of some different sort of people are racists. Look at Trump’s die-hard followers who lambast city dwellers for being selfish and self-satisfied! Look at allegedly egalitarian city dwellers making fun of people for poverty and a lack of educational opportunities!
If we go down the path we are on, we are ALL going to be more like Trump than we ever want to be. We will not have his wealth or his facile ability to manipulate people by appealing to their greed. We will instead have his talent for sewing discord, ruining things, and bringing hatred and fear to the United States with hyperbole and bad ideas. By being afraid and despising him with our whole hearts we will make our fears come true. We will start to hate our friends and neighbors. Look into your heart and ask how you are already like the president. I have a feeling you will find more points of comparison than you will be comfortable with.
Donald Trump has not even been president a whole day and he has already divided the country further than any time since the Civil War. Eris is stealing the crown of liberty in America. The solution is not to concentrate on how hateful he is personally. The solution is to talk about how we can cooperate to actually get things working and make of our dreams come true. Billionaires don’t dream of killing little kids on the street. Coal miners don’t want the world to cook and choke. Even Donald Trump loves his family and wants a world where his grandkids can grow up safe and healthy (to someday bate the press in their own ways). We are all more similar than we would like to admit. But that shouldn’t be a shameful admission. It should make us stronger, smarter, and kinder.
Escalation of commitment refers to a behavioral phenomenon whereby a group of people who have embarked upon a decision which is producing increasingly negative outcomes continue forward with their course of action despite the accumulating evidence of bad results. This sounds ridiculous, but it is a very frequent pattern in human behavior. It is worth casting our minds back 100 years to 1917 when the First World War ground into its 3rd year despite the deaths of millions of combatants on both sides. In economics, a very similar situation is described as the “sunk cost fallacy’: throwing away more and more resources because the idea of losing the time and money already invested is too painful to bear. One sees this at casinos all of the time, when a punter keeps grinding tokens into a machine waiting for it to pay out. One sees it in casino owners who build lavish follies with borrowed money even after the gamblers have all been fleeced or given up. One sees it in institutional investors which will not give up on certain bankrupt debtors because the banks themselves will lose too much money.
The reasons for escalation of commitment are manifold, but boil down to certain unpleasant fundamentals about human preferences and decision making. Changing one’s mind is difficult because it involves admitting an error. Additionally, it is more painful to lose something than it is pleasant to gain something (a dreadful dictum which explains so much of human behavior). Leadership norms punish seemingly inconsistent behavior more than bad results; if a leader admits a problematic course of action and changes it, they are more likely to be punished than if they just went ahead with whatever idiotic thing they were going to do anyway.
All of this is to highlight that people have an astonishing ability to lie to themselves when they have done a colossally stupid thing. They will continue onward with such behavior in the face of rational evidence and will fall into certain tribal behaviors which make it even harder to escape the spiral of collapse.
These factors make terrible decisions particularly dangerous. Historians are always looking back and exclaiming “How could they have kept on with this course of action?”
And, of course, there are counter examples and arguments. It is Impossible to ever reap the rewards of a risky investment if one abandons a project too hastily. Would Columbus have reached America if he had given in to the terrors of apparently endless ocean? Would Thomas Edison have persevered through all of those hundreds of unsuccessful filament materials to the electric lightbulb? Yet some of those filaments glimmered or shone brightly for a moment. The Santa Maria did not fall off a giant waterfall at the edge of the world but instead the sailors saw evidence of land. Evidence should help us escape the dreadful escalation of commitment.
If a leader is behaving erratically, wickedly, and stupidly is it wise to ignore such behavior, in the belief that he will somehow correct himself? If there is no coherent plan but merely bombast, corruption, and hollow stage-managed cheers, why would you choose to cheer along?
Once you have invested enough effort in a bad idea or a terrible leader, it isn’t possible to escape. Human behavior means you must follow…even if it leads to Changping, Verdun, or a bunker beneath Berlin. If I learned anything from history class (or from my own failed business with a light-fingered dipsomaniac business partner) it is to be on guard for escalation of commitment early. Don’t go down with somebody else’s leaking ship or drink from their poisoned chalice. Just because you made one bad choice doesn’t mean you have to make more.
Hilary Clinton should be our president. If you are a voting-age United States citizen you should vote Democratic up and down the ticket.
Now, admittedly Hilary is 1) grasping, 2) secretive, and 3)shifty , but she exhibits these traits well within the ordinary operating tolerances of American politicians. Indeed, in the right light, and, with a bit of squinting, these traits could be 1) ambition, without which, no one would be a politician to begin with, 2) the ability to plan, and, 3) the ability to compromise and change tack based on the circumstances. Additionally, she personally knows every important leader in the world. Above all, she is a workaholic, a smart person, and somebody who cares that the nation succeeds and prospers.
East Flatbush, the Afro-Caribbean immigrant neighborhood where I live now reminds me greatly of Clay County—in bad ways and good ones. Poverty, addiction and and feuding are big problems, but the great bravery, loyalty, and personal generosity of the inhabitants tends to keep everyone moving forward and make life worthwhile. The distinction between city and country is a false one. The distinction between Americans of different races, religions, and genders is likewise not so big as some people would make it out to be. Democrats for all of their flaws, believe in a united nation. Lately Republicans are deliberately dividing us so they can get everything they and they alone want. The Democrats are wrong-headed and frustrating. They tend to neglect the two most important issues in front of us, research and national defense. But Republicans have stopped caring about these issues as well and they are actively trying to injure the nation so that they can advance their own agenda. This political infighting is causing people to lose faith in the system (which feeds into the “government is broken” death cycle which is so dangerous).
The United States needs to be careful. The Han Dynasty and the Soviet Union stopped thinking they were countries and suddenly they were not. We are the United States of America, but it could be otherwise. Anyone who wants to be president should recognize that the nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from West Virginia and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair–and all sorts of people from everywhere else (Hillary Clinton, an Appalachian who ended up in New York, knows this) . The states and their people are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that. Let us remember that on election day…and all of the other days after that. We must work hard with President Clinton so that the election of 2020 is not so divisive and awful.
I just read The Economist’s rather excellent series of articles concerning the extent to which enormous multinational conglomerates have gained dominance over the world’s economy and politics. This article concludes that American and EU politicians will have to use a (quasi-miraculous) combination of self-restraint, prudence, insight, ingenuity, determination, and bravery in order to control these monopolies/cartels without risking destroying the innovation & growth which make them [the giant corporations] so valuable. I was suddenly filled with indignant fury! Our political leaders cannot approve simple funding against Zika–a serious and universally-feared communicable disease. American politicians seem like poltroons who would rather fight each other over moronic soundbites rather than picking extremely low hanging fruit. How can they be expected to reign in vast all-powerful companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars which wear a million aliases yet have neither face nor address?
However, once I calmed down, I realized how dangerous and counter-productive this sort of anger is. Our indignant fury at the system is not helping us—in fact this anger at our leaders is making everything worse. And anger at the system helps one side more than the other. Being infuriated and throwing up your hands and saying “everything is hopeless” is, itself, a partisan position.
This is because the so-called tea-party legislators have gamed the system in a way which has diminished the system. Namely, they have told everyone that government does not work and then they have deadlocked government so that it does not work. They have done so in order to cynically reap electoral advantages, and in order to privatize government services and turn sundry public holdings over to their cronies. As the government gets worse and worse—they can claim to be correct about how useless and ineffectual it all is.
This strategy is successful in that government indeed becomes less and less effective (just like the Republicans said!), but it is a dangerous strategy–like trying to take over a spaceship by turning the life-support systems off and prying open the airlocks. Our state is already showing the sad results of such naked sabotage—but becoming angry or nihilistic about this terrible problem only magnifies the damage. We are trapped in a feedback loop.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the Russians have been meddling in our election this year with a series of leaks, statements, vague threats, and (probably) with money. I find it alarming how similar the Russian strategy is to the tea-party strategy. A Rand Corporation spokesperson summed it up succinctly: “(The current Russian leadership) may think there is a low-cost/high-payoff way to increase the perception that the system over here is chaotic and is not reliable.” They would do such a thing in order to make autocracy look good…and apparently that is working too.
Republicans have tried to exploit this so they can momentarily balk the demographic trends which are relegating their party to obscurity, but in doing so, they have opened a portal to hell. Indeed the tea-party people seem to have lost the momentum and they are being swept away by the autocratic and fascist-style politics they have unleashed.
Being angry at the government is how the Republicans and the Russians want you to feel. They want the government to fail so that they can allow oligarchs to take over even more critical functions. They want corporations (and the rich people who own them) to directly control the streets, schools, parks, and military as well as the hospitals, courts, and prisons. They believe that you should be the plaything of autocrats and enormous monopolies.
So I have stopped being generally angry at the election and the government. We all need to move beyond feeling so much directionless anger and fear. These things are poisoning us. We need to gain a sense of steely calm and we need to carefully and methodically fix the problems which are undermining our superpower. This doesn’t involve saying that everything is broken and there is no point trying to fix anything. It involves seeing that the system is broken because one of our two parties is deliberately sabotaging our state. Let’s throw out these revolting tea baggers who are defrauding us, so that society can start building things and discovering things and caring for people and the planet—oh, and busting up the monopolies which have been preventing competition and free enterprise from doing what they are supposed to do.
And if the Russians and the Republicans win, they probably can’t dismantle the entire system in 4 years. We can throw them out then and start to bust trusts and rebuild society in 2020. I can see the bumper stickers now “Hindsight is 2020: No more President Trump!” but it would be better if we didn’t have to print such things. It would be better if we acted like adults and sorted out our problems now with a combination of self-restraint, prudence, insight, ingenuity, determination, and bravery.
It’s Earth Day, the arbitrary day in April which we have chosen represent the splendor of the biosphere. More accurately the day is a PR soapbox, which environmentalists use to harangue everyone about the truly disastrous job humankind is doing in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on the planet. I agree with the environmentalists—I guess I am an environmentalist! Humankind is using up too much of the biosphere for ignominiously stupid things. We have Problems (with a capital “P”) yet we spend most of our time worrying about Justin Bieberlake and whether the consumer goods we purchase properly reflect our status. For Earth Day, instead of writing about fracking, drought, or overfishing, I am going to write about chickens and status. Status is what social animals crave more than anything. It is the crux of our life. Yet the mad quest for status causes us to make awful decisions for ourselves and for the world.
Let’s start with chickens. Chickens are social creatures. They have a very intense “pecking order” of who gets to do what–which is literally based on pecking. When I was growing up we had a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens. The rooster was on top of the pecking order and he would eat first and peck any subordinate chicken he liked. The top hens had bright red feathers and shiny eyes. They pecked subordinate hens, who in turn were cruel to their social inferiors…and so forth. At the bottom of the heap were some sad-looking hens who got pecked by everyone else. They were the dull red color of old bricks and their feathers were falling out. The very bottom hen was a festering mess of sores. She was almost always eaten by a hawk or a raccoon (if we humans didn’t put her in the pot first).
It is an exceedingly accurate model of humankind. In each society, the glistening cocks at the apex of society have unlimited access to resources and freely mistreat anyone beneath them. People at the bottom of society are in real physical danger from their low estate and could easily die from disease, exposure, or crime. However the way we attain this hierarchy is determined by social dynamics much more complicated than those on display in the poultry yard. After middle school we can’t actually hit each other without involving constables and lawsuits, so we base our status grabbing on a more complicated set of networks and social markers.
To continue with the theme of chicken, my roommate always aggressively points out that she purchases organic free-range food–unlike certain benighted philistines who just buy the cheapest factory-farm chicken (I guess this is due to my insatiable desire to harm the planet, torture living creatures, and poison myself and everyone else with “toxins”?). I have seen a “free-range” chicken farm—and it looked like a factory farm with a dinky wired-in aviary appended. Maybe it would be better to be a chicken living there, but probably not by much—certainly not to me anyway.
My roommate is an exceedingly lovely and gentle person who earnestly doesn’t want chickens to be tortured (but still wants to eat chicken, because, let’s face it, that’s what humans like to eat). Why am I picking on her? For status of course! To push my political agendas and ideologies!
Our pursuit of most things is really a pursuit of status: resources, mates, health, political power, unfettered access to knowledge…all good things come from high-status.
In my book, the people who have the highest status are people who have lavish flower gardens and lots of medieval Chinese porcelain (perhaps this mindset explains why I am a jobless lout writing an eccentric blog). Most Americans would probably dwell on other status criteria—the most injurious automobile, the lowest trousers, or praying loudest in church. Status-markers comes in so many flavors that it is sometimes difficult to recognize how central it is to who we are.
I am worried that Earth Day has become a part of our ceaseless attempts to one-up each other. It is like my roommate’s “free-range” chicken legs: a foolish status object rather than a way we can legitimately determine how to best preserve the vast fragile web of interlocking ecosystems.
Mother Nature chose to apportion chickens’ share of resources based on how they peck each other. Evidently she chose to apportion human agendas by how we choose and display our cars, our meals, our houses, and our gardens. Our ideas are related to our social position and how we portray ourselves. Hence our endless jejune jockeying over whose stuff is better, or tastier, or more moral, or greener, or more expensive. Political consensus is attained by a synthesis of endless small-scale aesthetic and moral choices which add up to large-scale policy choices.
This bothers me because I find many high-status “green” ideas to be bad ideas. If we rely on “organic” produce which requires vastly more land, water, and energy to produce, we will use up all the world’s land without being able to feed everyone. Likewise many “sustainable” energy sources like ethanol, solar panels, and dams use more energy than they create…or cause waste or environmental degradation. People who oppose nuclear power plants (in favor of fracking I guess?), and embrace resource-devouring, erosion-causing organic farming frustrate me. But their motives are often noble and praiseworthy.
“Earth Day” seems like a button or a bumper sticker (and a sanctimonious and unfun one at that). Our true problems…and opportunities…are much greater and more difficult to grasp and popularize. But a button, a bumper sticker, a sanctimonious “holiday” are a start. So is a confused and self-contradictory essay about the politics of environmentalism. Happy Earth Day! We’ll keep working on this. There are solutions to our very-real environmental problems, but they are going to require scientific research, hard work, and sacrifice of some cherished sacred cows (or chickens) by everyone.
I wanted a clear break from the previous week’s posts about dreams and nightmares…but here in the United States of America today is the 2014 midterm election—so we haven’t escaped nightmares yet. With the adroitness of a deer frozen in the headlights, Ferrebeekeeper has refrained from endorsing any candidates until the last minute. Since Americans are now headed to the polls (or have already voted) it may now be too late to make a meaningful difference–which sounds like the essence of American democracy right now anyway.
Before I suggest how citizens should vote, let’s quickly examine the two national parties.
With their abject obeisance to big business and (pretend?) love for the most inane and inhuman strictures of religious fundamentalism, Republicans are deeply troubling. It does not help that they are unapologetically hostile to minorities, women, immigrants, atheists, polytheists, Muslims, young people, spotted owls, South Americans, sick people, children, scientists, non-scientists, science fiction enthusiasts, artists, Asians, unemployed people, employed people, homosexuals, van owners, poor people, people with unruly hair, city dwellers, intellectuals, small business people, circus clowns, florists, manatees, et cetera. Despite these problems, I have usually swallowed my gorge and voted for the inhumane Republicans in general elections. I do so because they stand for robust national defense and for funding science & technology R&D. These two issues constitute 90% of what matters to me in politics—and, if you studied history at all, you would feel the same way. However contemporary Republicans have abandoned these values. In their rush to defund government and hand power to big business cartels, they are slashing research funding—a huge and inexcusable error. Republicans assert that the market will take care of science research. Anyone who has any experience of today’s market knows that it will only provide costly service contracts, addictive medicines, plastic rubbish, and consumer debt. Government is necessary for the truly important things.
Although they pretend otherwise, the Democrats are similarly in the pocket of special interest groups. They enjoy passing endless hard-to-follow laws which curtail productivity and destroy small businesses (and therefore favor big business). In their haste to pander to individual rights and interests the Democrats abandon the all-important larger good. Although the Democrats claim the mantle of environmentalism, a close examination of their policies reveal little that would really help the environment—or anybody other than their cronies. Democrats do not currently stand for scientific innovation at any cost, nor for muscular intervention in the wider world, but rather favor an attitude of “let’s solve our problems at home first.” This attitude is dangerous, since our problems at home are never going to be solved (particularly by nanny-like moralizing laws). Without continuous scientific innovation, the vast problems which humankind is creating will destroy us. Without a large scary military, the Pax Americana will founder and today’s globalized world will fall to chaos (or become thrall to Chinese exploitation schemes). The minutiae of identity politics will matter little in such a scenario.
The obvious alternative to these two unappealing choices would be to vote in some third party candidates, but, because America’s political duopoly holds such vast power, this is more-or-less impossible. Additionally, although it seems unlikely, the third party candidates are even less impressive than the lickspittles, hypocrites, and malingerers fronted by the GOP and the Democrats. Argh!
If all choices are problematic (or outright awful) what is a good-hearted voter supposed to do?
My proposal is completely impossible (which is why I have not bandied it about until 2:00 PM on Election Day)—but it has the benefit of being extremely appealing to everyone other than incumbents and professional politicians.
Red America and Blue America are too deeply entrenched. It is an artificial distinction built by professional politicians. Let’s upend that. Everywhere with a Bible-thumping Republican basking like a lizard in a gerrymandered safe district should elect the place-holder Democrat. Likewise, here in the blue heart of Brooklyn we could throw out the crooked machine Democrat and vote in the unknown Republican. My congresswoman is an anti-defense Democrat who has no knowledge of history or science. Her only position is that the government should lavish more money on entitlements for lazy unemployed people like me. The Republicans haven’t even bothered to contest this district: her only opposition is some unknown mouth-breather from the “conservative” party. Let’s elect that guy! My parents in rural Ohio have a lunatic tea-party congressman who told my mother “women’s opinions don’t matter.” They should elect the anti-establishment Democrat. Working together, we could reverse the red and blue polarity of the country!
I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most of the sacrificial Democrats in red districts or Republicans in blue districts (who have no electoral chance whatsoever) are not actually that far from the core values of their district. We would have legislative houses filled with socially liberal Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats. Many would be political outsiders and all would owe their seats to a mass joke by the voting populace. If Idaho was represented by traditionally minded Democrats and New York City was represented by minority Republicans (cough, I mean “conservatives) perhaps these new legislators could work together and pass some much-needed political reforms before K street bought them up too.
The trees are changing color, Halloween is fast approaching, and the day was beautiful—which means today was the perfect time for the annual autumn trip to Greenwood Cemetery, the immense Victorian graveyard at the center of Brooklyn. As always, I was enthralled by the towering specimen trees, 19th century mausoleums, and the rolling moraine landscape, but, also I was decidedly shocked to find the cemetery was different! There was a new addition, and for once, it did not require a pile of fresh dug earth, a crowd of mourners, and a diminution of the human family.
Instead of a new grave, there was a huge beautiful bright white marble allegorical statue of a nude man standing on top of two writhing mermaids! What happened to bring this twenty foot Greco-Roman hand-carved titan to the quiet midst of my favorite necropolis? Well, I looked up the story (i.e. read the extensive plaque), and discovered that the statue was moved because women obtained the right to vote in the United State. Fans of the constitution will note that the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, two years before “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finished by the Piccirilli Brothers (Ferrucio, Attilio, Furio, Horatio, Masanielo and Getulio). What happened?
As it turns out, “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is probably the most controversial work of art in New York City’s history (certainly it is the most scandalous to be bought with public money). The statue’s bizarre history involves the way power shifts in a democracy, the changing meaning of symbols, and the greatest constant in art—the artist’s eternal inability to cope with deadlines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the allegorical work was designed by Frederick MacMonnies to stand in front of City Hall in Manhattan and to represent American politics. The handsome and robust figure of Civic Virtue stands triumphantly astride two snaky sea goddesses who represent the two great public temptresses of vice and corruption. However, since the actual marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, were very busy (and artistic creation does not always obey the schedule of small-minded foot-tapping bureaucrats) the statue took a very long time to finish and was delivered years late.
The statue was finally completed and installed in front of City Hall in 1922, but by then its era had already passed. Newly empowered women voters hated it for depicting women as semi-human beings who are subordinate, naked, and prostrate at the foot of an armed man (an allegory which seemed all too familiar to them). Not only was it decried as sexist: the classical Greco-Roman aesthetic was at odds with the modern new styles of the roaring twenties. Additionally the manly (but diminutive and lumpy) mayor, Figueroa de Laguardia, did not like looking up at the statue’s muscular backside as he (the mayor) stared out over his city from his office. Together the mayor and the suffragettes exiled the statue to Kew Gardens Park beside Queens Borough Hall where it languished at the center of a fountain for long decades. However even that was not enough to placate the artwork’s detractors who still demanded that it be moved far away from the center of political power in Queens. The great women’s rights crusader Anthony Weiner even suggested that it be sold online on Craigslist! Finally Greenwood cemetery stepped in with a protected public (but not very accessible) space for the statue and with funds for a renovation. The “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was surreptitiously moved to the cemetery in December of 2012.
I can’t help but feel like the suffragettes might have had a point. Why isn’t civic virtue a lovely & mighty lady like Justice, Temperance, or even Columbia herself. The statue is magnificently carved and executed, but it also looks like a dark fantasy of mermaid abuse. Yet its weird history says more than it does about who we are (and who we were). Queens’ loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and I am happy the statue found a pretty home where my fellow statue lovers and I can regard it up close. “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is both great, troubling, and hilarious , however, considering the statue’s provenance—from city hall, to a tertiary borough, to an empty cemetery–perhaps it can also be considered empowering.
Today’s post concerns various contemporary news items regarding outer space. At first this list may seem like a bit of a mash-up, but it all comes together as a very specific polemical point.
This year has already featured a lot of space news, but, sadly, most of it seems like it could have come from the 1950s. Iran launched a monkey to the edge of outer space. South Korea placed its first satellite in orbit (which seems like a response to North Korea doing the same thing last year).
In US space news, the 27th anniversary of the Challenger disaster came and went (that was an epically bad day in 6th grade–which was hardly a picnic anyway). Additionally, America announced that its biggest space plans for the near future include landing a redundant lander on Mars which was not exactly what NASA wanted but it fit the budget and was politically expedient. Our not-very-exciting work on our not-very-exciting next generation rockets continues slowly.
Finally, in other space-related news, paleontologists discovered that a massive space event apparently bombarded the Earth with Gamma rays in the 8th century. Astronomers speculate that two neutron stars might have collided! Also on February 15th a 50 meter asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth (flying by closer than many of our communication satellites).
All of this paints a rather alarming picture of a turbulent and dangerous universe where catastrophic events can occur with little notice. Meanwhile on Earth dangerous rogue nations (not you, South Korea, we like your style) are venturing into strategically important low Earth orbit. NASA’s current large-scale projects are lackluster (although its robotic exploration of the solar system continues to be exemplary). Are we discarding our leadership position in space because of debt, political paralysis, and complacency? It certainly seems like it…
On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. One of the teenage medical volunteers who assisted the many wounded American servicemen that day (and on days after) was Daniel Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants who had moved to Hawaii looking for a better life. As soon as Japanese-Americans were allowed to enlist, Inouye suspended his pre-medical studies and joined the U.S. Army where he was assigned to the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In 1944, Inouye fought in the Rome-Arno Campaign and then in the Vosges Mountains of France, where the 442ndwas given what amounted to a suicide mission: rescuing the Lost Battalion (a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment which was ambushed and surrounded by vastly superior force of German veterans). During that fight, Inouye was shot directly in the chest, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars which he had in his shirt pocket. The Nisei 442nd suffered over 800 casualties on that day (and, in fact, went on to become the most decorated unit in Army history). Inouye was given a bronze star and promoted to second lieutenant–which was most meaningful to him because the commission meant he got to carry a Thompson submachine gun into battle.
On April 21, 1945, Lieutenant Inouye was back in Italy storming a German fortification on the Gothic Line (the last line of German defenses in Italy). During a flanking maneuver, at a heavily armed ridge named Colle Musatello, his platoon was pinned down between 3 machine gun nests. As Inouye attacked the first nest, he was shot in the stomach. His wound did not prevent him from throwing grenades into the first gun placement and then rushing in to finish off the German soldiers with his machine gun. Refusing treatment, Inouye attacked the second machine gun nest in the same fashion and successfully destroyed it.
As the other men of his squadron attacked the third machine-gun placement, Inouye silently crawled within ten yards of the position and primed a grenade to throw into the bunker. Unfortunately he was spotted by a German soldier who shot a rifle grenade through Inouye’s right elbow. This meant that Inouye was clutching the live explosive in a hand over which he had no control as the German reloaded to finish him off. Inouye’s astonished soldiers report that the lieutenant ordered them back, then pried the grenade from his own dead arm, and cast it off-hand into the final bunker. After the bunker exploded, Inouye then mopped up with his Tommy gun and charged the main line. Shot in the leg he tumbled to the bottom of the ridge and blacked out. When he came to, the concerned men of his platoon were all around him, but he ordered them back to position with the exhortation that “nobody called off the war!”
During the action at Colle Musatello, Inouye reputedly killed 25 Germans (and wounded 8 more) while being shot in the abdomen & the leg and despite having his right arm mostly shot off (the shattered remains were amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia ). While he was convalescing from these wounds, Daniel Inouye met other many other badly wounded men including future Senators Philip Hart and Bob Dole (who became a lifelong friend).
Inouye remained in the army until 1947 and he was honorably discharged with the rank of captain. For his actions he was awarded many different awards including the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although his ruined arm meant that his ambitions of becoming a surgeon were ended, he studied political science at Honolulu and then earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law School in Washington. Daniel Inouye was the first Hawaiian congressman when the state joined the Union in 1959 and he was elected to the US Senate in 1962. He is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A long-standing tradition is that the most senior member of the majority party serves as president pro tempore of the US Senate, so Inouye, a democrat, is third in line for the US Presidency (after Biden and Boehner). If some appalling disaster brought him to the office, he would no doubt hunt down the malefactors and destroy them utterly (possibly with his own bare hand).
In this era, the political parties of the United States of America are bitterly divided. Whatever happens in today’s election is unlikely to change the long stalemate or foster friendship across the aisle. Things have sometimes been like this in the past—as when Democratic-Republicans locked horns with Federalists or when Whigs fought acrimoniously with the Jacksonian Democratic Party—yet I feel that is dangerous and shameful to have our leaders so deeply divided. There have been happier and more productive times too. Today Daniel Inouye is a bizarre and ancient political dinosaur, but he rhapsodizes about warm friendships with colleagues of all political stripes.
I would like to congratulate the victors in today’s election and wish them every success in their honored positions of leadership. The United States is in need of their finest effort and hardest work. However, I would also like to draw their attention to Daniel Inouye in order to remind them of America’s shared tradition of sacrifice, compromise, and friendship (& badass heroism).