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It has taken me about 24 hours to stop quivering in rage over that putrid presidential debate last night. I don’t particularly want to think about it or write about it. I strongly suspect that you don’t wish to read more about it either. Alas, engendering such feelings was the entire point of Donald Trump’s participation. He was not acting that way without reason: his grotesque performance revealed the secret to his power. Even if we desperately want to lie on the sofa, eat pastry, and watch Halloween cartoons, we need to instead talk about how Trump’s bad behavior gets him what he wants.

Imagine the election were a pie-baking contest. Biden reads revered cookbooks (& talks to master chefs). He peels peaches, greases pans, mixes brown sugar and white sugar, and creates a bunch of peach pies which are fine, edible pies. Maybe you prefer rhubarb pies or savory pies or whatever, but Biden’s pies are passable and could probably have won in past fairs. Donald Trump however doesn’t open book or switch on an oven. He goes out to the cow pasture and collects heaping bushel barrels filled with BULLSHIT. Then he comes to the county fair where all of the hungry judges sit with their napkins around their necks and he throws the filth everywhere. “I brought cowpies to show how Biden’s ideas are crappy!” he says as he hurls ordure onto everything. Biden’s pies are ruined. So is everyone’s appetite. So is the very idea of pie. After experiencing such a thing (and we have all been experiencing 5 years of it) fair-goers might be excused for not wanting to judge pies, or eat pies, or go to the fair, or to even think about any of it. And thus Trump wins as his brownshirts, proudboys, and religious fanatics vote him to be the greatest master baker in American history.

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That is what is going on, and even if you feel like puking and never hungering for pie…I mean democracy… again in your life you need to take a deep breath and sit back down at the judging table.

A disturbing refrain which I hear all of the time these days is “Everybody else is equally bad.” Don’t fall for this poisonous lie! That is Trump’s message which lies at the center of his strategy to keep voters at home. It is why he is ruining all of the pies. If all voters show up to vote, Trump will lose in a historical landslide. Therefore he must make democracy itself look bad and call the validity of the entire process into question. Although he is a undisciplined dullard (or maybe because he is an undisciplined dullard), Trump has an unparalleled ability to make everything seem so terrible that it doesn’t seem like participating is worth the bother. In 2016 he steamrolled the Republican party and won the election not by looking good or competent, but by drowning out everyone else’s messages with his provocative and attention-seeking behavior. Voters become grossed out by such behavior and give up on voting. This allows Trump and his enablers to make even more things seem pointless or dangerous and the evil cycle perpetuates itself. Joe Biden had to actually synthesize complicated policy ideas and memorize evidence and do hard work. All so Donald Trump can spit on it as voters squirm and say “I don’t want any part of this: all politicians are equally bad.”

Ever since he won the democratic nomination, Biden has had my vote, but as he goes through this gauntlet with this ghastly bully he is winning my respect and admiration as well. If Biden can deal with a challenge like last night’s, he can deal with other crises and disasters which require steely nerves. Although Biden did not look as good as if he were serving delicious peach pie to grinning gourmets, he did not get steamrolled. He had to get down in the mud with the bully and thus his larger (and finer) points about healthcare, foreign policy, were destroyed by Trump’s distractions. Biden’s nice pies were ruined. He spent all of that time in the kitchen for nothing…last night. But we cannot let a few distasteful episodes make us lose our appetite for true representative government. As long as the kitchen is still standing, we can clean it up and get back to baking wonderful pies for the good of everyone. Keep a strong stomach and a clear head. Everyone is not equally bad. That is what villains say so that you will lose sight of their misdeeds.

If you don’t freak out we can end this national nightmare and, and…come to think of it, I love peach pie! I am going to go make some myself, as soon as I write a check to the Biden campaign.

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Today’s post starts out funny but quickly becomes troubling and: so maybe just read the first part?

As you might have guessed, we start with Jerry Falwell Jr.–not because his current scandal is hilarious (although it really is) but because his affairs illustrates some larger points which we would be wise to think about.  Falwell is a rich and powerful evangelical leader who is one of the most prominent  members of the “religious right,” an aggressive blend of Christian fundamentalism and far right politics.  He has long treated his father’s university as a private fiefdom–a political/moral training camp for creating followers and minting money.

Falwell Jr. has a long history of racist tirades, homophobic stunts, shady business dealings, Covid denialism, and preposterous conspiracy theories, but such things are not entirely unknown among America’s extreme right-wing churchmen.   For the last few weeks he has been under a cloud because of strange racy photographs of himself removing his trousers while undressing a lady companion. This week, however, his whole masquerade blew apart when it was incontrovertibly revealed that he liked to watch his wife sleep with other men, most notably a special live-in pool boy named Giancarlo Granda (who may or may not have been extorting the couple), but apparently other business partners and acquaintances as well. When the scandal became undeniable, Falwell Jr. threw his wife under the bus by claiming it was all her fault. He admitted no wrongdoing, pulled the cord of his golden parachute and pocketed 10 million dollars for quitting his job as head of an ultra-conservative Christian university.

As a New York City libertine (albeit a celibate one) I believe that what married couples do in their bedroom with handsome young poolboys, business partners, sundry others, and who knows what sort of costumes, devices, onlookers, animals, religious paraphernalia, super drugs, etc. is entirely their own affair. Yet the outrageous hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public persona (and the extent to which he has leveraged said public persona for political influence and money) make his discomfiture particularly risible.  We probably shouldn’t be so amused: Jerry Falwell Jr. is now ten million dollars richer (ten million dollars which had already been taken from starry-eyed devout kids in exchange for a worthless education and a bunch of lectures about the necessities of abstinence and supporting Trump). Indeed, based on recent evidence, this huge freak is probably turned on by the worldwide derision directed at his private life.

Beyond Falwell himself, this excellent article in Slate, highlights the true significance of this sort of scandal.   Jeffrey Guhin (whose ideas I have liberally borrowed here) writes:

In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

Here is the real problem, acts like Falwell’s diminish our collective faith in other people.  That faith is the bedrock of religion (ask the Pontifex Maximus what happened to worship of Jupiter after a few centuries of Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabalus).  When devout Christians attack liberal professors, Hollywood movie stars, and atheist bloggers for destroying Christianity they are looking at the wrong villains.  The emperors of Pagan Rome had their unstoppable legions burn Christians to death in front of vast crowds and it only made Christianity stronger and more popular.  Christians who love the power of cruel smug bullies and the promised wealth of the idolatrous prosperity gospel are the real reason Christianity is declining in America.  Don’t take it from me, take it from peer-reviewed sociologists who carefully studied people who walked away from the house of Christ.

But even if you are not religious, faith in other people’s actions and motivations is also the basis of education, of government, and of the economy (Guhin correctly notes that money is just paper and computer numbers unless we believe in it).  Faith in other people is even necessary for evidence-based disciplines like science and medicine (we have seen how much modern medicine helps people if everyone regards doctors as the highly paid stooges of crooked insurance corporations).  Tobacco companies realized they could defang earnest anti-smoking studies by pointing to unrelated scientists whose research was funded by corporations and then just saying “everyone is equally bad”! Faith in other people is the bedrock of everything unless you are a lone hunter gatherer (in which case how are you reading this?).

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Day after day, I go to Facebook and look with bemused sadness at the posts of relatives and friends who are Trump supporters.  Far from feeling that this most un-Christian president’s ostentatious support of Christian values is a grotesque affront, they regard him as someone who “keeps it real”.  Trump’s penchant for doing illegal things and then insouciantly shrugging and say “everyone does it” is part of the way he gets away with it. Scandal and disillusion has left smart and caring people as cynics who believe that all politicians are crooked fraudsters.  Disillusionment prevents them from discerning which politicians are actually criminals.  It is another dark example of the cynical anti-government death spiral Republican leaders seem to be caught in (the enormous danger of turning citizens against the government was also the real thesis of my oh-so-long-ago 2016 endorsement). In the mean time our government (which needs to be doing lots of very complicated things to help our fellow citizens, ensure the nation’s defense, protect the world ecosystem, and secure a worthwhile future ) is left in the hands of ghoulish kleptocrats.

Anyway, all of this talk of outrageous hypocrites who pretend to be supremely holy when they are actually depraved, power-hungry leeches is wearing me out. Let’s tune into the Republican convention and see what Mike Pence has to say.

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Commencement at Liberty

Kindly accept my sincere apologies for not writing any posts last week!  It is late August, the last moment of proximate calm before the big election, and it seemed like an ideal moment to take some summer vacation (also I have had to keep on trucking to the office this whole time, so I needed some downtime).

Anyway, to get back to the affairs of the world, the 2020 United States presidential election is indeed coming up!  Unfortunately I find it completely enervating to write about the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump is a criminal, a con-artist, and a would-be-dictator.  Despite how eagerly he is embraced by Jerry Falwell Jr. and evangelical leaders of such ilk, Trump is no Christian at all: Trump’s true master is not Jesus but Vladimir Putin.  If you doubt it, just compare Trump’s (nonexistent) deference to Jesus to his (supine) deference to Putin. In New York it is widely speculated that the only way Donald Trump was able to borrow money after multiple high-profile bankruptcies was because the Russian mafia (which is, again, to say Vladimir Putin) backed exorbitant loans to Trump so that he would help them launder money through his crooked real estate empire.  So far Trump has successfully fought off all of the (somewhat feeble) attempts by investigators to get to the bottom of his financial relations with Russia, but the truth will eventually come out someday.  Since even the most dim Americans would probably (?) object somewhat to an American president who openly works for Russia only, Trump has confused the issue by attacking the concept that anything at all is knowable in any way.   Attacking knowledge itself (!) has had more severe ramifications than usual in this time of pestilence (although all of the other terrible harms which Trump has done the nation will become more obvious in time). All of which is to say nothing of Trump’s self-evident tyranny, cruelty, idiocy, sexism, mendacity, anti-environmentalism, racism, cronyism, nepotism, cowardly personal behavior, and unpleasant personal appearance.

And here is another problem: today I had meant to write about the Democratic National Convention (which was much more earnest, heartfelt, and effective than I had imagined it would be), however outrage over Trump has trumped my message of support for Biden. Trump derangement syndrome is not a real thing (there is no effective way for Americans of conscience to accept or even comprehend this corrupt oaf is indeed in the nation’s highest office where he is happily destroying everyone’s future), yet just beginning to look at Trump’s corruption  drowns out all other themes! It is yet another terrible emotional trap of these Trumpian times. My old anti-Trump posts were more thoughtful than today’s self defeating screed because everything hadn’t become Trump all of the time!

I promise I will write about the Democratic convention tomorrow.  It was an improvement on old-fashioned political conventions and I have a feeling we will be seeing more things like it, (even in a blessed Covid-free future).  In the mean time, perhaps it is necessary to begin coverage of election 2020 by denouncing the brazen & outlandish criminal who today sits at the Resolute desk. Joe Biden can and must beat him (otherwise the nation is going to break and a lot of us are headed off to concentration camps).  Tomorrow we will deliberately look away from the Walpurgisnacht rituals currently happening in Charlotte and talk about why a Biden/Harris victory will be a good thing even if we omit Donald Trump from the picture entirely.  Then we will get to work omitting Trump from the picture entirely.

After the horrible election of 2016, a friend of mine who is more sanguine about life  than I (and more effective at predicting what markets will do) opined that we don’t have to worry about Trump and the Republicans.  “Trump is like the pied piper leading Republicans into a crack in the mountain” my friend said. “The fact that he won, merely means that they are truly following him all the way into the unseelie darkness before the crack slams shut and vanishes.”

And yet I wonder if Trump hasn’t already taken all of us into the darkness already.  The Democratic convention gave me a moment of hope that there are still some people and things which won’t be destroyed by Trump’s final act. We will talk about it tomorrow.

 

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: 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 disseminates  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 forward 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 because 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 sublime, and love certainly always takes precedence over baser motives…in art, literature and music.  Compelling 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 intense 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 run from 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 in order 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 all of the novels.  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, Bran, is confused.  His foster 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 this side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said the same thing 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 the fear, the home of the slave.

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