Thursday, November 29, 2012

The House of Reprehensibles

This is the 200 anniversary of the term Gerrymander. In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor redrew districts to insure his Republican-Democratic party’s reelection in such a way as to create an area resembling a salamander, claws and all. The practice has never left us.

With Democrats sleeping during the 2010 election, the Republicans stole the House of Representatives for a decade. What was off-year for a presidential race was very much on-year for the census and redistricting.

One hopes the lesson has been learned. The good guys depend on high voter turnout. We were taught in Civics class that democracy rests on informed participation. The red states urge us to stay home and if we get aroused they will do anything from broken machines, intimidation at the polling place, restricting early voting and misinformation about time and place. Goebel lives.

The imminent threat to America is less from Al Qaeda than from the subversion of Tea Party Rovenoids. In control of dozens of state houses they have become the proto- fascists in our midst. Aggressive and shameless, their latest ploy is to apportion the electoral votes not according to population but according to congressional districts which are considerably disproportionate in number.

Imagine a class of fifty students in a room with a hundred seats. Thirty are divided and bunched together on each side of the room. The remaining twenty are spread out here and there. This resembles a map of the red/blue divide in this country with both coasts bluish and a red middle excepting some rust-belt states.

It is also Pennsylvania, Philadelphia to the east, Pittsburgh on the west, containing the bulk of the population, heavily Democratic. What we are moving toward is a body of Congresspersons representing either blue population centers or ruddy, rural, empty space…. rocks, ranches and rows of crops. Grassland needs love, I know, but not from Congress.

Despite the 33 seat advantage held by Republicans over the Democrats in the House the Democrats actually got more votes for their candidates. Thanks to gerrymandering the tilt went in the opposite direction. While each seat represents the same number of people they are drawn to bestow great advantage to the party which dominates the state government. For example Ohio and Pennsylvania are two blue states for Obama but are controlled by red State governments. Obama won the former by 5% yet Pennsylvania ended up with 13 House seats for Republicans to 5 for Democrats. Likewise in Ohio the margin is 12 to 4. 
There seems to be a slight disconnect between the Obama brain trust and the DNC. Will the Jim Messina/David Plough computer design be passed along and deployed for the  Congressional races to come or was that a two-time phenomena reserved for the president?             

Greater still is a disconnect between the will of the people and the make-up of the Congress and Supreme Court. Republicans just appointed 19 people who will chair committees in the House, all white men. They ignore women in both leadership roles and policy-decisions. The demographic drift in the general population toward people of color must be reflected in the legislative and judicial branch.   

Even greater than a redress of the odious campaign finance decision, would be a federal ballot measure extending the Civil Rights Voting law to all states and prohibiting suppression moves such as we have seen and including Election Day as a national holiday. Instead, the five dangerous men on the Supreme Court will hear a case brought by Alabama which would end the Voting Rights law altogether. What would my high school Civics teacher say to that?


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Push Button And Walk

While waiting at the corner to cross the street in Beverly Hills I was asked by a woman to push the button because she didn’t want to dirty her fingers. The hazard of a public button had never occurred to me before. After all, a mosquito with no sense of direction may have landed there with West Nile virus and it may be multiplying or dividing on that dreaded surface. From now on I think I’ll use my elbow.

So much can happen while waiting for red to turn green and the white walk icon to flash. As the count-down went from twelve to one I started reviewing my entire medical history including all the diseases I somehow eluded even with my reckless exposure to buttons, doorknobs and handles. Of course my mother, who was a pre-eminent scholar of miasma theory, discovered early on that all disease was caused by the dreaded draft and failure to wear three sweaters and galoshes from October through March.

I’m glad I came down with chickenpox, measles and mumps and got them over with as a kid. I’m not sure about whooping cough. I have a faint memory of whooping. Every kid should whoop once in a while. Diphtheria has a mellifluous ring to it but I suppose it was gone before my time. I didn’t know anyone with diphtheria however sweet the sound. Pneumonia was devoutly to be avoided and double pneumonia, twice as bad; triple would land you in the Guiness record book.

All of us were probably in the vise of the Grippe once or twice. Whatever hold it had on us seems to have loosened over the years. The last case was probably reported fifty years ago but you have to admire its evocative name. It turns out the Grippe was likely the flu or bad cold but you had more purchase returning to school having snapped the chains of the Grippe.

Scarlet fever was a mixed blessing for me. The bad news was my 103.6 temperature (rectally speaking) which probably had my mother cursing the sweaters and malevolent air. The good news was that it left me with a heart murmur which murmured selectively. It excused me from strenuous physical activity of my choice. I played my heart out in the schoolyards but exempted myself from running the mile or climbing the rope in gym.

By now the six seconds was changing to five. I still hadn’t come down with West Nile virus though who knows what colonies were thriving on my fingertip. I started thinking how I overcame another early deficit. My mother divided the world into good eaters and bad. I was the model of a bad one. I never mastered the art of hiding the liver under the mashed potatoes. And all that time people were starving in China demonstrating what a good-for-nothing kid I was. It was only a few years ago that I learned the people in China, even then, were told that Americans were starving. Somewhere along the way I became a good eater. If only my mother could see me now particularly in Chinese restaurants.

The green came on but there is always a car or two defiant of the tyranny of traffic lights. Pedestrians must walk with caution. I also learned this from my mother. She was convinced that cars, particularly trucks were driven by assassins. Making it across the street took a lot out of her. Getting to the other side was like crossing the river Jordan, a kind of deliverance having dodged road-rage and the forces of evil in noxious air.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Giving Of Thanks

Now that I think about it, next to Valentine’s Day (Eros), Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  Gratitude Day. Thanks-A-Lot  Day.  Lucretius Day….more about him later….what could be bad?

This is the one holiday, altogether secular …pray if you must…that commemorates no one or nothing except our good fortune to have landed here rather than there. We get to share with family and friends: to eat, drink and gather around the hearth even if we have no hearth.  What a concept!

We let cantankerous, crusty Uncle Crazy come down from the attic. We offer a place at the table and test our patience with that neighbor who can’t stop talking and some in-law who never speaks. Everything is possible for a few hours particularly after a feast of gluttony followed by hours of sloth. This may be the one moment of the year when we put into practice William Blake’s notion that the road of excess leads to a palace of wisdom. My guess is that we feel more crapulous than sagacious.

Even if we have modest means or dine alone, the notion of gratitude can still apply. The grace inside gratitude is simply meeting the life around us, the turning of seasons, increments of changing light and resources we have to make our way.

Coming together is a kind of communal experience….pot luck dishes, pass the stuffing. We might even forgive ourselves for stealing Indian land and for four centuries of indulgence. This is where Lucretius comes in.

He was a noble Roman who lived in the century before the year one, Common Era. As a follower of Epicurus he wrote persuasively and poetically articulating our purpose in life as the pursuit of happiness. Not narcissism or hedonism but rather the embrace of life in all its wonder, variety and awe.

H. L Mencken defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. Epicurus was much maligned by the papacy. Christianity, in its day, was (is) a doctrine of original sin, banishment, suffering, denial and penance. Two, four, six, eight let’s all go out and flagellate. As much as the holy church made room for pagan (peasant) beliefs and rituals they begrudged a philosophy of pleasure, except of course, for themselves in the upper echelons.

Let Thanksgiving abundance be our answer to a culture of pinched minds, self-denial, repression and eternal damnation. In his eloquent poem, The Nature of Things, Lucretius expressed the essence of Humanism. What seems so elemental and obvious (to me) was to the Roman church, subversion; namely, that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that fear is damaging to humanity and that happiness, compassion, bodily pleasure is itself a virtue. He went on to write about the delusion of an afterlife. I celebrate his heresy. When do we eat?   

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The There, There

Yogi Berra was prescient when he said, you can’t get there from here. Take away our GPS and we, as a nation, are lost. There really is a there, there though 90% of American students couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map and a majority couldn’t even find New York.

Somehow, the No Child Left Behind Law, left behind certain basic subjects such as History, Geography and Civics. The three have become compressed into a single elective.

As a result we have college students who can’t name the three branches of our government, think that Aristotle was contemporaneous with Lincoln and barely knew that North Dakota is north of South Dakota.

Some of our prominent inspirational leaders illustrate the point. It was said that George W. Bush had trouble finding Europe on the map. When Ronald Reagan landed in Bolivia on a state visit he got off the plane and stated it was good to be in Bulgaria. Sarah Plain famously saw Russia from her porch. 

It may be a function of empire but British schoolchildren know, or at least knew, their world map and where the sun never set. Americans seem not to have received this collateral benefit even with military bases dotting the planet.

There is nothing like a war to cultivate a sense of  place names. Suddenly I learned about Sarajevo, Mogadishu and Waziristan. For children in the 40’s, islands in the South Pacific such as, Okinawa, Corregidor, Tarawa and Iwo Jima entered our vocabulary overnight.

Insularity ill-suits us in a global community. Maybe it is part of the push-back against change. It certainly behooves us to take a look at a map every now and then. Florida is still the phallic sticking out of our un-zipped fly but Puerto Rico might, one day, become our 51st state and what about the District of Columbia?

Cartography was a growth industry a few hundred years ago. Now it is once again a dynamic one with climate change causing map-makers to work through the night. The world map is in a slow tango with the rise of oceans and dips of land mass. Borders are being erased. Deserts are eating away at arable land. Forests are yielding to chain saws. Ice-melts are gulping islands, reclaiming ocean-view properties and opening up a northern shipping passage.

Cartography has also become an art form. There is great fun to be had at a website called or better yet enter in Google “weird maps to rival apple” and enjoy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

November 2012

For Republicans it is post-mortem time, pointing-fingers, giving each other the finger and slowly removing their fingers from their ears which have deafened them to the voice of the people. They might use their thumb to hitch a ride back from Oz. It must be a harsh re-entry and it seems that many of the knuckleheads have chosen to remain delusional singing, If I Only Had A Brain.

Not a single Democrat lost his/her seat and the president has won a 3 million vote plurality but the Republicans seem to think it was their victory with a resounding endorsement of the Romney/Ryan tax plan. Boehner and McConnell might as well be the scarecrow and tin man.

For those paying attention this was an historic moment. The diversity of America can no longer be ignored. The non-white population will grow by 30 million four years from now while the Whites will decline. White men are dying on the golf course every day.  The party which denies evolution, climate change and woman’s reproductive rights also denies that time moves forward. Their effort to turn the calendar counter-clockwise has failed.

It is said the first casualty of war is truth. This is also the case with culture wars. As the late Sen. Moynihan said, You're entitled to your opinion but not your own facts. We have witnessed candidate Romney repeatedly lie until his nose grew from here to the Cayman Islands. His statements had a shelf-life of less than 24 hours as he would renounce Monday’s remarks by Tuesday morning.

Even a part of corporate America felt compelled to correct his fib when he charged Chrysler with shipping jobs overseas to China. Romney lost because he is an inauthentic man caught in an untenable situation. He was called upon to pander and deceive and his ambition blinded him to the naked falsity of himself. The emperor finally had no clothes and no core.

A corollary to the sacrifice of truth is the degradation of language. Words are abused, bloated and exhausted. What remains is a battlefield strewn with limp words badly in need of triage. Language deserves better. Taxes, Government, compromise, rape, entitlement, liberty and personhood are casualties that beg to be scrutinized and revivified.  

The unprecedented purchase of air time particularly on Ohioan, Virginian and Floridian ears most certainly had somewhat of a numbing effect. Our bodies showed they are self-healing. To some extent our senses know when to shut down. Paradoxically Rove and his purveyors of disinformation got caught in their own echo chamber of deceit. They only persuaded themselves through repetitive smears and many are still trapped in a carpal tunnel of the brain.       


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Poetry, Change and the Whole Damn Thing

Having gained an hour’s sleep last night I didn’t quite know what to do with it.  I knew I’d have to give it back one night next April.

So here I am awake in bed. The clock says 6:30 but I know this as a 7:30 sun. I want to get in another hour of quality sleep. But the dawn’s early light got me thinking about our national anthem and how much better Woody Guthrie’s hymn to us all would be rather than this bombastic-drinking song of Francis Scott Key.

I tried reciting those lines to myself and couldn't get past the twilight's last gleaming without bursting into silent song. It all comes down to this: Did you see our flag this morning that was there last evening? Wow! Can you believe it... you know, the one that was lit during the night by rockets and bombs, Is this a great country or what?

It’s all about our flag, that great signifier, which wouldn’t hold still for a minute given our expansionist impulse, adding new stars with rapacity for the next 100 years. After all, it stands for the home of the free and brave….except for those enslaved, indentured servants, Native Americans, and un-enfranchised women.

I have a likeness for signifiers; they are first cousins to metaphors. The anthem is actually about transformation. From, Oh say can you see to Oh say does that… banner still wave.

I’m still in bed semi-sleeping. From there my thoughts go to poetry. How poetry changes nothing, according to W.H. Auden. He was wrong, so say I, to the pillow. What does produce change then: bumper stickers? Uncle Irving? A lightning strike causing a forty-watt bulb to bubble up overhead?

Not in a star-spangled way, poets say what they see. Many of us are poets by just living that sensibility in our dailiness.  It requires us to think symbolically and consciously, I'm thinking, as I slip into unconsciousness. For some folks, flag equals land of the free, home of the brave even when it isn’t true. It’s a worthy aspiration (though not for me) and summons feelings of pride and willingness to lay down their life.

Shakespeare put words on Henry’s tongue sufficient enough to send a boatload of Nigels and Clives over to Agincourt to fertilize their soil and centuries later to plant a generation of them in Flanders field. Maybe it is war that changes nothing, at least nothing much, for the good….except for those good wars which, with a modicum of awareness, may have been prevented before it was too late. By then I was off to sleep having saved mankind from future follies.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Weights and Measures

There you are caught in a web of algorithmic numerations falling off the fiscal cliff having swallowed indigestiible zeroes at 30,000 feet with time hanging heavy as Tarzan said to Jane it's an analog jungle out there and fast going digital glancing at your $400 watch to see that you’ll be 10 minutes late for the connecting flight but you win some and lose some it’s all a calculated risk since time is money and money is about the bottom line where top executives like you live more or less given a decent bonus if the Dow behaves without even hedging your bet but who’s counting and all vital signs are holding steady at 98.6 providing the 40mg tablet can be taken twice a day raising the HDL and lowering the LDL without a rise in blood sugar above the point of no return so you can rent a 350 XKE and if you make this light you’ll have the next five and arrive on time to beat the spread and out-flank your brother who was a premature long-shot but got all the breaks since 5th grade while you got the short end of the stick but you did the math and are now light years ahead so when our number's up  and we're light as a pin number we all die broke you always say.

More and more there is less and less night sky visible once full of blinks in orbit whose obit hasn’t reached us yet even in the space station where everyone is weightless looking down on us fellow mortals living our days in measureless ways love is uncounted in pluses and minuses and random kindness can go off the charts and be passed along without subtraction even as the nose of liars like you-know-who may grow an enormous inch or two visible to only half of us while the rest are half-blind with no IQ to speak of and now there will be no more polls (amen to that) just poles apart with infinite hope for us yet as the white majority in aggregate becomes the minority aligned with the human family then all of us will rise in the soufflĂ© in the yellow submarine sandwich in the salad bar mitzvah in a group communion body and blood initiated mingling friending in a new numberless macro metric so long division so long columns A and B and so long to us and them.