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The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

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Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

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In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

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It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

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Quarantine Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood, Polymer, Mixed Media

America is still floundering quite a lot…and so am I! To prove it, here is a quarantine flatfish bas relief which I made on commission during the pandemic.  The Gothic-style sculpture is carved of wood and the little inhabitants (who are sheltering in place in their elegant town houses and cottages) are crafted of polymer.  I also carved the spires with a lathe, however goldsmithing is beyond me, so I ordered the base-metal crown online from a discount crown-dealer (who even knew there were such things?).  My favorite part of the work is the poor fish’s anxious expression and worried eyes.  In the upper right golden arch a fatuous king stares blearily at his malady-filled kingdom.  His vacuous first lady queen is his bookend and stares at him malevolently from the opposite side of the continent fish.  Between them is a crypt filled with sad little figures in shrouds, burial wrappings, and body bags.  A plague doctor winds his way through the virus-shrouded landscape as a gormless (and mask-less) yokel breaks quarantine near the flounder’s tail.

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Above them all, a dark spirit of pestilence wearing costly robes orchestrates events from the sunset heavens.  This is the realm of coronavirus now.   Let’s get our act together so I can build a beautiful new flounder of radiant health and justice! (Also let’s quickly go back to being a democratic republic: we may be experiencing a medieval type event, but there is no reason to go back to the venereal-disease-ridden mad king model of government).

Oh! Also…if you like my flounder art, go to Instagram and check out an endless ocean of flounder.  Now is definitely the time!

I haven’t written about last week–which was about the most miserable week which American democracy has endured since 2016 (or maybe since the 1960s…or the 1930s).  Like most good-hearted people, I have been feeling quite depressed about the sordid Senatorial acquittal of our very-obviously-criminal president…and about said criminal president’s ridiculous State of the Union speech…and about the disastrous Iowa caucuses…and about the reprisals and threats against witnesses and career civil servants coming from the White House (and its lapdog GOP)…and about, sigh, about the galloping authoritarian rot which is destroying the nation.  The only way to stop the gangrene in our political body is to cut off the afflicted parts (ahem, any GOP politician other than Mitt Romney) by sweeping the bounders, liars, traitors, thieves, and enablers of the Republican Party out of office in November’s election.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s post: this troubling article which is worth reading in its entirety at The Week.  To quickly summarize, the author believes that Bernie Sanders is unelectable because greedy Wall Street bankers dislike him.  However even if he (Sanders) were somehow elected and Democrats also swept both houses of the legislature, still nothing would change.  The fact that Sanders is doing well in the primaries and yet the market has not crashed proves this point!  It is sort of a peculiar and vacuous argument, yet it makes me furious.  The author asks whether successful business lords and fiance moguls are worried about the possibility of a Sanders presidency upsetting their cozy financial plantation and he answers:

…that’s not how Big Money sees things playing out. “A whopping 80-90 percent of participants at our client conferences thought that President Trump would win re-election in November,” Goldman Sachs noted in a recent report. With the unemployment rate at a half-century low and economic confidence at a 20-year high, it seems inconceivable to many investors that voters wouldn’t return Trump to office. For this crowd, prediction markets are as important, if not more so, than polling. And they show Trump as the favorite over the Democrats, with the exception of Mike Bloomberg.

The author is from the American Enterprise Institute (a right-wing economic think tank) and therefore he doesn’t believe in democracy unless it is a rubber stamp for some elaborate rent-seeking project from his paymasters in high finance.  I was going to excoriate him more about cultural and foreign affairs issues, but he seems indifferent to such things, and mostly concentrates on economic policy. In fact, in many ways he and I have disturbingly similar points of view: we believe that the nation’s largest problem is underinvestment in research and infrastucture.  We are both technophiles. He is even an enthusiatic supporter of space exploration!

But there the similarities end. Pethokoukis believes that medical care should cost as much (and be as ineffectual) as possible.  He believes that monopolies should run rampant and unchecked.  He believes that white collar crime should go unpunished and giant multinational companies should not be regulated by the government. In short he is a pro-business enthusiast of the status quo.

So why does this silly short article make me so angry?

I have some friends in the Wall Street world, and after they have had a few drinks, they confide that a shocking number of their fellow finance titans and hedge fund folks support Donald Trump at the ballot box (and with huge donations).  These are not under-educated people who have been dazzled by the bits of Hollywood tinsel or false piety which Trump wears as a costume (albeit a costume which is even less believable than that awful fake tan ).  They fully understand the President’s incompetence, ignorance, corruption, and racism.  They also can see the damage that this fascist dolt is doing to the nation’s well being and future prospects.  Yet they simply don’t care.  Since they are getting such astronomical kickbacks…er tax cuts, the idea of the degradation or collapse of the United States doesn’t bother them:  they will simply fly off to Zurich in their helicopters and private jets. They are willing to pay to keep Donald Trump in place even though they know he is extremely detrimental to society.

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So what the author doesn’t quite say openly is that Wall Street IS Donald Trump. They have the same interests: (1) making as much money as possible through any means; and (2) ensuring that they “win” no matter what the cost to other people or the world.  The market makers don’t really care about the long term, or the medium term, or anything at all other than their bank balance in the immediate present. They don’t even care about the free market–it is “free” only in name and is really a done deal where the winners have already been chosen by collusion, insider deals, and price-fixing.

I simply have no idea about whether Sanders can win either the Democratic nomination or the presidency.  I don’t agree with everything he supports, but he is earnest, hard-working, and concerned about the serious degradation of our nation which has happened during the last few decades.  His sympathy for the working class is not a sham, like Trump’s pretend love for coal miners, factory workers and farmers (although I worry that Trump somehow intuits how to communicate with wage-slaves better than Sanders does). One would think that such things will appeal to anyone not wearing political blinders but our ongoing political crisis is making it difficult to predict or even understand how voters (or anyone) will react to things.  Also, everyone older than I am remembers communists and socialists as despised national enemies.  We will get back to Sanders in future posts.  I don’t think he is the real subject of Pethokoukis’s article.  The real premise is that the market (and market makers) are infallible.

So what truly infuriates me about this article is its smug faith in a free market which doesn’t exist.  Pethokoukis pretends the market is all-knowing (and that it has completely dismissed Sanders before he has even secured the nomination!) but what he is really writing about is a cabal among the management elite who control the system grasp for short-term profit.  Of course such people are fine with Donald Trump (just as the latter is unable to see how extorting foreign aid to win the election is problematic).  It is maddening!  The people who have subalterned free competition,  smugly assure us that everything is very fair, unless someone with different ideas has any chance of winning.  then they threaten to upend the system and destroy everything.  I guess this article strikes me as the real Wall Street response to the the impeachment debacle. Yes Trump is as guilty as possible but that is fine because it benefits us personally.  Just as the Senate’s terrible impeachment acquittal vote left American voters as prey to dark money and foreign interference, Pethokoukis attitude leaves small investors at the mercy of finance titans who can and will punish us if they aren’t guaranteed carte blanche to do exactly as they like.

 

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Today’s newspapers, op-ed websites, and blather channels are filled with agonizing editorials and Pollyanna-ish laments about how Democrats have made a terrible political miscalculation and now Donald Trump will win the election of 2020 (and probably ultimately fulfill his Fascist quest towards becoming the first Emperor of America).  I am indeed troubled by the large minority of Americans who seem incapable of understanding just how terrible the President’s actions are.  If selling out the United States and our allies to our enemies in order to win an election is acceptable behavior in the myopic eyes of Trump’s supporters, then what exactly would be impeachable?  Obviously, nothing will ever cause 38% of voters to turn against this criminal buffoon.

However, it is a bit of a mistake to blame the Democrats for how events have unfolded and then give in utterly to despair.  Knowing what we now know, Democrats must impeach Trump or else they will also be accomplices to this criminal administration.  In the future, when Trump is finally gone (a day which will ineluctably arrive, no matter what today’s Chicken Little pundits say) we will pore through all the records and unravel all of Trumps corrupt webs and confidence schemes. Undoubtedly when everything is laid bare, everyone will then ask why the Democrats didn’t push harder to impeach this scoundrel much earlier.

The unexpected results of the disastrous 2016 election were such a shock that many journalists and opinion-makers now have Stockholm syndrome and secretly believe Trump can never be removed from office no matter what. This victim-blaming mentality needs to stop.  Democrats are not the problem and are doing the best they can in a disastrous political landscape where the GOP has abandoned all standards of decency and Constitutional responsibility. The Republicans are knowingly abetting the President’s brazen criminality.  Nobody should ever vote for a Republican for any office until they renounce Trumpism completely (and maybe cease their other norm-destroying, anti-Democratic misbehavior as well).

Today is a sad day for our democracy.  Our various failsafes have failed. Our secondary education system has likewise failed (and obviously it has been a failure for a long time): nobody other than crooked multi-millionaire oligarchs should ever have voted for Trump.  The fact that millions of otherwise normal people are so scared and lost within the PR blitz of lies that they embrace this American Mussolini illustrates that we have huge ground level educational reforms to add to our to-do-list of breaking up monopolies and reforming our sclerotic electoral system.

But these reforms will not be accomplished right now, and the best Democrats can do at this moment is their constitutional duty (you know, to counterbalance a dangerous demagogic grifter).  Cheating and lying might gain the Republicans a few poll points in the short term, but it will come back to haunt hem (so long as the republic holds together).  It is also worth remembering that tyrants (and Trump is definitely a tyrant–albeit a stupid, incurious, and unambitious tyrant) tend to fall with exponential speed.  To those who love liberty and justice, it may seem that his world of bribery, coercion, harassment, intimidation, extortion, and treachery will always guarantee his victory.  It doesn’t.  Once cracks begin to appear in a tyrant’s carefully spackled façade of mendacity, the fissures tend to widen rapidly exposing the rot within.  Trump’s rotten world of fiscal corruption and subservience to Russia is not hidden very deep.  It will bring him crashing to his true level (exile in Russia? Prison?) before too much time has passed.  On that day Republicans will regret their cowardice and trembling toadyism.  Democrats will be glad they didn’t listen to today’s hyperventilating pundits but instead did what was right and impeached this corrupt president.

Have courage! Do not give in to despair and fatigue.  Pundits who despise the president yet demand legislators never call him to account are dangerous.  Whereas we know the president is a knave and his supporters will not be swayed by actual evidence, these journalists (who see no path to victory for the 60% of the electorate who despise the president!) are sowing discord and confusion among their own side.  They are bringing their worst fears alive with panicky words.

Being afraid is why we are in the mess we are in.  Becoming more afraid is not the solution.

Today’s news is good.  Trump is a criminal who needs to be impeached and removed from office.  He may not be removed right away, but putting the evidence we currently have on the record (and carefully recording the astonishing perfidy of the GOP for the history books) is a painful but necessary step to being rid of him for good.  Even more importantly, acknowledging the truth in accordance with the dictates of the Constitution is the best way to start digging our way out of the political crisis which we are all trapped in.

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It’s time we had a painful talk about the pornographic ‘novel’, “Fifty Shades of Gray,” a best-seller published in 2011/2012.   [Disclaimer: I haven’t read this work nor watched the awful-looking movies.  I am guilty of a cardinal sin of scholarship: writing about something I haven’t read.  I don’t care: I never plan to read this thing.  My point here is not really about bad popular fiction] This uh…romance (?) book is about a shy & awkward virginal nobody who is sent to interview a manipulative billionaire creep.  Unsurprisingly, the manipulative billionaire seduces her with his obscene wealth and power and locks her in a contract where he is allowed to do anything he wants to her. Romance ensues!

It is tempting to look at this moronic plot, shrug, and say “Who likes this stuff?” Yet actually, we should not be surprised that this book was a top-of-the charts best-seller for years–a second look reveals it to be an extremely germane allegory of our actual lives.  America’s fantasies of being enslaved and abused by creepy billionaires are not harmless fantasies: they are the reality of our times!  It is the top item of the news every day.  The extent to which this slimy bondage narrative about billionaires abusing underlings has become the main story of our entire culture should not be overlooked or underestimated.

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The characters in “Fifty Shades of Gray” at least have a safe word.  We do not.  The new oligarchs can do anything they wish and face almost no repercussions (as was illustrated by the lack of accountability for the events which caused the Great Recession…and illustrated again, afterwards, when the people who caused the crisis became much richer).   This is because of a devilish nexus of market consolidation and oligopoly.  Since the super rich now own almost everything (including the media outlets and tech platforms we use to communicate), it also means that we live in a world awash in glowing panegyrics to these monopolists,raiders, and conmen. We also live in a country where both political parties are captured and compromised by monopolistic moneyed interests (all of this is elucidated in this rather superb Atlantic essay about how the political crisis of the 21st century is taking us much further down “the road to serfdom” than we would have imagined).

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Obviously in addressing these problems, I am talking about President Trump, but I don’t think Trump is actually a billionaire.  He lost his inherited fortune in the 80s and has been adding billions and billions of dollars of increasingly shady debt ever since.  However he certainly identifies as a billionaire (snicker) and he serves the crooked schemes of oligarchs…and the even darker schemes of his unknown true creditors. It is these finance, tech, and real-estate tycoons who are the real problem.  Unfortunately it is difficult to even fathom how they are removing real competition from the system or real political power from the hands of voters.  Here is a rather fascinating article about he true darkness of money in politics.

If you followed that link you will see it was mostly about money in conservative political circles, but the Democratic Party has a similar problem.  Every day some new Christian Gray flies out of the sky and offers to tie us up and save us from ourselves.  “Come on, you know you’ll like it” says Bloomberg as he pushes us onto a stained sofa and fumbles for the straps.

In case you are laboring under the ingenuous middle-class fantasy that this applies to all of those slutty self-hating poor people but not to a worthy, hot, hard-working burgher like yourself then wake up! We are all poor compared to people whose net worth is measured in nine and ten and figures.  The prevalence of SLAPP suits, K Street consultants, and secret nondisclosure agreements  with Epsteins,  Weinsteins, and Michael Jacksons reflects a world where the rich are too big to fail and the rest of us are two small to ever succeed.

It all needs to change. Instead of wasting your life in some monopolistic company’s taupe open office while counting other people’s money or building marketing concepts for stuff you can’t afford, you could have your own business.  Instead of health care that can only be obtained through working for a gigantic company, we could have a real safety net.  We need rules and regulations, but not the sort of rules that can only be followed by organizations with giant compliance departments and that only benefit huge corporate cartels.  Barriers to market entry that are too high for anyone who isn’t an international oligarch. Globalism is the story of how vast new international cartels and oligopolies have broken politics and culture in such a way that we can’t even respond (except with essays that nobody reads).

This is unacceptable.  Let us talk about how to rewrite this bad codependant SM tale.

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The French were the original masters of the erotic tale.  From Clovis I until Louis XVI, they wrote an unrivaled “Shades of Gray” style series of bondage novels which started hard and grew even more perverted and extreme as the centuries rolled by.  But the French people got tired of this series and flipped the script and rewrote the whole premise in the boldest way possible.  Perhaps we need to think of doing some radical editing and rewriting before the story of our own lives becomes even more like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Story of O”.

We can rewrite this tale with thoughtful political reform and  redistribution (we use to call such thing taxes and expect everyone to pay their fair share so we could have a society and make real scientific discoveries).  Billionaires need to sign up for this and agree to just being extremely wealthy instead of needing to have ALL the wealth. Otherwise someday they will find not President Trump or Bloomberg, but President Robespierre.  They should think that the forces we are now unleashing could result in billionaires getting screwed too. Not the Christian Gray way.  The French 1789 way.

 

I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: Facebook likes, shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and dissemination  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you foward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems becaue they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

What is the most powerful force in human affairs?  Most people would probably assert that love is paramount.  Compassion for one’s mate, one’s family, or one’s fellow beings  is as beautiful and dominant as its reputation.  Powerful arguments can be made that pursuit of status is the most important thing (I suppose this includes ambition, greed, pride, and fame-seeking in all of their guises, good and ill).  An idealist would say the pursuit of wisdom is our greatest drive:  it is only through wisdom that we understand the world and collectively move upwards (or, indeed, know anything at all).  Cynics might say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates people.  Religion, with its false certainties and self-serving rules could also conceivably be named as the prime motivator of our social species (probably by some priest in a silk robe riding a palanquin weighed down with gold).

Unfortunately, these are all wrong.  The greatest force of human affairs is fear.  Any felon or dictator (or middle manager) knows the fastest way to make people behave a certain way is to credibly threaten them. Fear also lies beneath all the other drives listed above. Even when people are motivated by love, it is their fear of losing love (or never finding it) which makes them act.  To motivate a parent, tell them their children are in danger! Economists tell us that the pain of losing a thing is more cutting than the pleasure of attaining it (and I believe them). But superseding any of that, fear is a fundamental constituent part of all of us.  Terror and anxiety are hardwired into us by evolution.  An animal which doesn’t watch out for predators, traps, and adversaries is soon dead.

I will tell you another reason I say this.  I am afraid.  I am afraid to even write this terrible truth. When I was a child I lay awake, unable to sleep because I was afraid that God would send me to hell for some infraction.  When I finally realized that there are no deities except for the ones we imagine, I became afraid of death which brings an eternity of utter oblivion.  I was afraid that nuclear war would burn away our civilization and leave the last survivors to die rotting and screaming of radiation-poisoning.  I was too nervous to talk to girls.  I hid in books and even they made me afraid. In sleep I was tormented by nightmares.  The only time I haven’t been afraid was when I was drunk.  So I drank as deeply as I could.  Then one day I became even more afraid (rightly) that drink was dragging me to my grave and robbing me of myself.  Our fears are not necessarily wrong or false—but feeding them by indulging them…or trying to escape them…it only makes them worse.

I have told you that fear is the main motivator of folk (of all our fellow animals, actually). It has saved us time and again…it is how our forbears survived this world of fangs, traps, spears, Assyrians, and mustard gas to reproduce. But it is a terrible weakness too. Politicians and the press know this better than anyone.  Listen to the speeches.  The main point is generally that you will be gunned down by madmen or outdone by foreign competitors if you don’t follow a certain leader.  Watch TV and look at how the ads manipulate you to buy snake oil and salad shooters by invoking your fear of cancer, old age, or other people.  The news today is instructive.  One group of politicians says “if you don’t carry a gun, you will be gunned down by a madman and the other side wants to ban guns!” the other side says “only if we ban guns, will we not be gunned down by madmen” and on and on they go, in a circle, about every subject.  It is driving us all crazy and reducing us to sad, angry tribes of wretched cowards.

This is just terrible! No wonder the authoritarians are creeping back and the quacks and con-men do such boom business.

There is only one recourse.  I am sure you know what I am going to say…but my point is a paradox, so I will say it with a tale ripped from popular literature. Did you read ‘A Game of Thrones”?  It is the story of an execution and its aftermath. The first scene foreshadows this, and has the best moment of the series.  A group of conscripts and draftees are attacked and slaughtered by unstoppable monsters.  The terrified survivors of this attack run away and are subsequently caught by the authorities (the main characters!) who put the deserters to death.  The beheading is seen through the eyes of a child who is watching his father act as executioner.   Afterwards the child is confused.  One brother said that the condemned man was afraid when died, but his other brother said the prisoner was brave and died well:

“What do you think?” his father asked. Bran thought about it.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Only when you are afraid can you be brave.  Only through such bravery can you avoid being ruled by fear. The theme is echoed later on as the protagonists’ fortunes falter and their little sister is lost in the midst of a brutal civil war.  To make her way through this terrifying world of armed goons and psychopaths with knives, she repeats a mantra again and again.  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It allows her to keep her wits when others freeze. It lets her do things she would be afraid to do otherwise.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is a platitude from a dime-store fiction (and a metaphor–don’t test it at home!), but it embodies a critical truth.  Winston Churchill said it as “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

On the other side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said it in his first inaugural address to nation terrified of the Great Depression “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” I am saying this to everyone, but most of all to my fellow citizens.  We need to remember FDR’s words again and again. In our world of seething change and garbage content which indulges facile drives, these words are as true as they were back when World War II bore down on all of us.

We MUST change.  We must look long and deep at whatever scary thing the clickbait article says and then think instead of just feeling. We must listen to our cowardly leaders carefully…and then we have to ignore our instinctual emotions and repeat  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”  Look at what I am saying right now (it’s scary stuff) and then repeat this mantra. Embrace your fear and understand it…and then do what is right instead of what makes you less fearful. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Repeat it when grasping old cravens on a screen tell you to give in to fear and submit to them.  Otherwise we will not live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We will instead be in the land of fear, the home of the slave.

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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

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Well, the American election is coming up tomorrow. I have tried not to write too much about this great national contest, since every other media channel in the world has covered it non-stop for 20 months now, but I guess it is time for Ferrebeekeeper to hop down into this mudpit and support a candidate. In the past, when there has not been such difference between candidates, I have supported voting out incumbents or cross-voting (i.e. voting blue in red states or red in blue states). Alas, Americans neglected my fine advice and we are now experiencing some real national strife, so for the 2016 election I am advocating a different course to unite the troubled nation.

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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.

So there are some very legitimate reasons to hope that Clinton will be our own iron lady (provided she can jettison this stupid rubbish about how free trade and globalism are bad for us). Hopefully she can also project American power a bit more robustly than certain presidents in order to gladden our allies and dismay our enemies.  She certainly has vast experience of public life, a sharp mind, and an indomitable will. So I am not merely voting for Hilary because of the despicable nature of her opponent.
Speaking of whom: beyond Donald Trump’s lack of policy, his ignorance of world affairs, and his extremely shady business practices, there is one overriding reason Trump should never be president: he is mean. He takes personal delight in cruelty, violence, and spite, in a way which I have not seen in another American politician (or even in any other person except for a few outliers in Junior High School whom I suspect have long since been hanged). Because of his sadistic streak, I have been sad to see Trump win over so many voters.  New Yorkers know that he is a con man, a loser, and a violent lout, why can’t everyone see these things about him? I kind of suspect it is more about primatology and less about people sharing Trump’s atrocious values–I certainly hope so.
But enough. Too much has been said about Trump.  The whole world has paid attention to him for far too long.  However I would like to talk about Trump supporters before the election ends tomorrow and we pretend we never have to think about this again.  The followers fall into two different categories: established Republican political leaders (who have always pretended to be lukewarm, although I don’t think that is really the case), and grass-roots political supporters who tend to be rural working-class whites.
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Appallingly, the Republican establishment has supported Trump even though anyone who has lead people in any capacity can plainly see he is not a worthy leader. This is why I recommend you vote against all the Republicans tomorrow.  A lot of writers and talking heads have acted like they are sorry for Paul Ryan, or Ted Cruz, or other Republicans who have been forced to support Trump. This is ridiculous. Those people haven’t been forced to do any of the things they have done. They have chosen their actions for specific reasons, and they should be judged accordingly. The current Republican leaders have been throttling the government of resources so that it doesn’t work right and then acting as though this somehow the fault of government. They have been throttling people of resources so they don’t work right and acting as though it is the fault of people. They are behind Trump not out of fear (although they do strike me as singularly cowardly) but out of lust.  If Trump wins they will be able to use his inattentive narcissism to remake the country in a grasping and mean-spirited way of their choosing.
Which brings us to Trump’s grassroots support. I am a West Virginian.  The whole nation makes fun of the state and this is generally regarded as fair sport (since, among the chattering class, it is not uncouth to make fun of poor white people the way it is regarded as bad form to make fun of poor brown ones). Additionally, the benefits of globalization have not much “trickled down” into West Virginia, except perhaps in the form of fracking revenues. To my horror, West Virginians are taking their revenge by voting for Trump. It is like the capuchin throwing away the cucumber.  It will not help them.  Indeed, this time, such spiteful protest could actively hurt us all.

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).

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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.

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