Cheryl Strayed: Wild

April 16, 2014

imagesThis best-selling memoir relates Cheryl Strayed’s 1995 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail hike, from lower California through Oregon. I’d urged it on one of my book groups, but an outdoorsy member objected vehemently: “You don’t go on such a hike as unprepared as she was. It’s just stupid.”

I finally persuaded her that the stupidity was actually what the book was partly about, so we read it.Unknown-2

Strayed, then 26, was kind of messed up, from her mother’s death, her recent divorce, and a heavy heroin bout. She embarked on this extreme hike – without much relevant experience – hoping to find herself. Or something.

Well, she wasn’t totally unprepared; in fact, did quite a lot of planning and prep work, including acquiring a ton of gear, and arranging a series of resupply boxes to be mailed to her along the route. But for all the actually meticulous planning, she did stupidly omit something obvious: a trial run.

“Ton of gear” was a slight overstatement, but only slight. The book describes her organizing it in her motel room the day before starting out, cataloguing all the items. While reading, I’m thinking, “how much does all this weigh?”

Unknown-1So she gets it all packed into (and dangling from) her huge backpack, which is sitting on the floor, and only now, for the first time, tries to lift it. Guess what? Can’t budge it an inch.

Well, somehow Strayed did manage to maneuver what she dubbed “Monster” onto her back, and even to stand up, and walk with it. Eventually a more experienced hiker she meets on the trail persuades her to offload some of her excess burden.

The other obvious (even to me) thing you’d want to test out beforehand is how the boots fit. Fairly critical, you’d think. They seemed to fit fine, in the store. On the trail, not so much.

In fact, the book startlingly opens with her accidentally losing a boot over a cliff edge. One boot being useless, she then throws the other over too.images-1

But later we learn this wasn’t as disastrous as it might seem. The ill-fitting boots were from a company called REI, and after suffering in them for hundreds of miles, wrecking her feet, another hiker tells Strayed to call REI and they’ll send her a larger pair, free. She did, and they did. So after losing the first pair, she managed to hobble on makeshift duct-taped sandals to the next settlement to collect the replacement boots.

Unsurprisingly, Strayed has some glowing words for REI and its customer service. This points up something I’ve stressed often. With all the “corporate-this, corporate-that” invective, many people view businesses in general as impersonal malefactors caring only for profits. And admittedly some are. But this ignores a basic aspect of the human character, and businesses are human enterprises. Most people don’t want to see themselves as evil but, rather, as doing good.

Thus REI’s kind of customer service is not in fact uncommon. (I’ve mentioned my terrific experience with 48 Hour Books.) Many businesses realize it’s actually good for the bottom line. In the long run, it’s those behaving like REI and 48 Hour that succeed and prosper. And, if you think about it, the great majority of your interactions with businesses are altogether positive.

But competition is a crucial factor here. I’ve also written of my less-than-terrific experience with enterprises that don’t really have to compete for my dollar (eBay and the Postal Service). That’s why I’m a believer in free market economics. Any government intervention should aim at greater competition, but too often actually undermines it (by aiding some businesses to the detriment of others).

Unknown-3Another company Strayed lauds is Snapple, whose lemonade was a sublime treat at civilization stops after long hiking stretches. Likewise she makes the reader almost salivate at how luscious a cheeseburger tasted on such occasions. images-2This points up another of my pet themes: how we take civilization and its benefits for granted. Cheryl Strayed, after a couple of weeks roughing it, most certainly did not. Coming out of the woods, a Snapple lemonade and a cheeseburger were for her a Very Big Deal.

So, did the hike straighten out her life? As we used to say in grade school book reports, read Wild and find out.

Finally, you might ask, is there any sex in it? There is. Only one episode, really. But hot enough that it made me put the book down and go looking for my wife.

Do Women Earn Less Than Men?

April 12, 2014

President Obama’s been loudly hitting the supposed pay gap between women and men. All too typically, this is a phony issue distracting from our true economic problems he should be tackling.

Unknown-1Obama dismisses pay gap deniers by saying, “It’s just math.” I’m reminded of the old line, “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

True, if you average all American women, and all men, women earn less. But what’s the significance of this? Not much – because it ignores differences in jobs, industries, career paths, etc. The fact is that women and men don’t have comparable working lives. Women – for a host of reasons (many having to do with differences in psychology and temperament; male and female brains don’t work identically; not to mention divergent parenting roles) – tend to have different talents and proclivities, to want different things, and to choose different careers and jobs than men. They tend to interrupt their career paths more often. And to be less aggressive in seeking advancement.

Such factors explain why, on average, women earn less. But – studies have found that if you control for these factors – that is, you analyze women and men following comparable career paths in comparable jobs – the pay gap is practically zero.

The President might reply that, well, women can’t necessarily get the jobs men get. But that’s wrong for the same reason that pay for comparable jobs really is virtually equal. imagesBecause in today’s highly competitive globalized economy, businesses cannot afford to discriminate against women, instead needing to get the best talent, irrespective of gender. In fact, if it really were true that firms could hire women with equal qualifications for less pay than men – why would they hire any men?

Undoubtedly, at one time women did face severe career limitations. images-3But that time is long past, and so this latest presidential crusade is disgracefully bogus; a cynical political ploy to posture as the champion of women (against a purported Republican “war on women”) and to perpetuate a gender gap that really does exist – in voting.

But it actually sends women a bad message, falsely warning that they face workplace discrimination. How many young women will thereby be discouraged in their career choices? Wrongly imagining they’d be blocked in their true ambitions, and choosing lesser ones instead? And I don’t think the politics of stoking resentments is good for the country.

Nor are the remedies Obama seeks for this largely nonexistent bugaboo of discrimination. All would reduce flexibility while adding bureaucratic and paperwork burdens for businesses, and pretexts for proliferating litigation, making it harder and costlier for firms to function. Yet again we see a president who constantly whines about jobs and pay yet constantly does things that handicap the businesses that provide jobs and their ability to pay workers.

images-4Meantime he ignores what is surely our biggest economic problem: ever more retirees soaking up pensions and health care, with an ever shrinking percentage of working people taxed to pay for it. That’s our real pay gap, and borrowing cannot bridge it forever. It will end in an equal-opportunity catastrophe, for all Americans – working and nonworking – and women as well as men.

My Love Poems

April 7, 2014

April is National Poetry Month. So – having authored a novel as well as books about politics, coin collecting, and what I hubristically call philosophy – it’s time for my poetry book.

Microsoft Word - LOVE POEMS cover copy.docxMy wife Therese Broderick is the real poet in the family, with a degree and everything. When she started going to open mikes, I’d go with her. So much left-wing stuff, I once remarked. She replied, “You should do some right-wing poetry.” Not that I’m really “right-wing.” But I tried; it was very hard; the left has all the good tropes. So my first effort was, actually, a parody of a lefty rant. In fact I titled it “Rant.” After I read it at an open mike, one gal gushed that she loved it. I didn’t have the heart to ask if she realized it was a satire.

But my poetry book is apolitical. I had also started giving my wife poems for birthdays and anniversaries and like occasions. This past Valentine’s Day she surprised me with an album housing all those poems that she’d kept – and encouraged me to publish them.IMG_3211

The edgy and imaginative title is Love Poems. (I preferred Love & Sex Poems, but wifey said no.) It contains 37 poems and poem-like things. Some are indeed sexy, some serious, some sappy, some silly (this is called “alliteration,” it’s a poetic device), and a few in Spanish (which my wife has been studying. My own high school Spanish being pretty rusty, I took it as a challenge to see what I could do with a limited vocabulary; though I may have cheated a bit using Google Translate.)

This beautiful book (well, the binding and printing are beautiful at least; done by 48 Hour Books, I can’t recommend them highly enough) is attractively priced at just $3.99; plus $1 mailing cost (within USA; Paypal OK; e-mail frank@fsrcoin.com; address Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208).

But here is a free sample – this one was for Therese’s Fifty-first birthday:

THERESE 5.1

The latest version!
New and improved!
Fully updated and state-of-the art,
Retaining all the best features
Of the previous versions,
While fixing, of course,
Their bugs and glitches.
I want to launch you on my desktop,
With soft mouse clicks,
Through my fingers
That caress your icon,
My face pressed up
Against the screen,
My eyes devouring
Your luscious code,
Stripped down to
Its naked noughts and ones;
I want to penetrateUnknown
Your open logic gate,
You killer app, you.
I can hardly wait
For Therese 5.2

 

 

 

PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

April 2, 2014

Unknown-1I’ve read the major atheist books – Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens – which might be called “combative.” Some feel the confrontational stance disserves the cause. I’m of two minds. True, telling believers “you’re idiots” is not helpful. But religious thought has been so powerful for so long (with such bad consequences) that assertive dissent seems well justified.

PZ Meyers (that’s how he spells his name), in The Happy Atheist, pulls no punches, laying on the scorn; but he does it in an easy, breezy, good humored manner. UnknownBooks debunking religion go all the way back to Tom Paine, but Myers does it well, not content with just making the obvious points.

For example, it’s clear that ideas of Heaven and Hell are rooted in fear of death and chafing at unfairness in life. Myers, however, digs down to dissect these beliefs, showing how incoherent they actually are. A Hell where people are tortured forever? Myers notes that souls have no bodies and hence no pain receptors. But even ignoring that, such sustained agony would soon disintegrate one’s psyche, and continuing to torture an insensate husk would be pointless. Maybe an omnipotent deity could get around that; but how does this sadism square with the idea of a loving and forgiving God? Unknown-2While punishment as a deterrent makes sense, souls in Hell have no way to get back in God’s good graces, so what is the point? And, as Myers puts it, in your brief earthly life you get to guess which faith is true, and if you guess wrong, it’s billions of years of horrific suffering. “That’s insane,” he writes.

Undoubtedly, “Hell” is the creation of people full of bitterness toward other people; such a belief is an insult to God.

Myers similarly unpacks the idea of Heaven. The problem is that desires and dreams are what life is about. Fulfill them all, and where does that leave you? In “a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.” images-1Alternatively, believers might cast Heaven as some sort of “pure bliss, pure joy . . . unadulterated rapturous ecstasy . . . the crack cocaine vision of afterlife.” Tempting, perhaps, but this isn’t any kind of worthwhile existence either.

As Myers says, death is an end, that “deserves all the sorrow that the living bring to it, but the absurd attempts of believers to soften it with lies are a contemptible disservice to the life that is over.” Religion actually makes a mockery of death’s seriousness.

One chapter is headed, “What Dreadful Price Must We Pay to Be Atheists?” Of course Myers is being facetious; but apropos the book’s title, many religionists do think atheists must be miserable misfits with something awry in their heads, unable to accept God’s love and all the happiness it confers. But atheists reject religion for one simple reason: it isn’t true. Trying to make oneself believe lies is no recipe for contentment. If believers get happiness from their faith, it’s a false paradise (I’ll refrain from saying “fool’s paradise”). Freeing ourselves from falsehood, and looking life’s truth fearlessly in the eye, is a recipe for happiness. That’s why atheists aren’t the afflicted lost souls believers think they are.

In fact, I know people who were tormented by their religion, struggling to square all its circles, that no prodigies of ratiocination could ever achieve. Only when they were able to extricate themselves from that briar patch could they finally feel at peace with their existence.

imagesIt’s true it comes to an end. But a fairy tale of immortality doesn’t alter that. I’ve noticed that people who insist they’re Heaven bound are in no hurry to go. However, knowing there’s no afterlife makes me appreciate this one all the more profoundly. In an impersonal cosmos with no god, life is an almost miraculous gift. Disgruntlement at not having more would be absurd. I am happy with what I’ve got.

 

Our Dubai Trip: Shopping Mecca

March 29, 2014

Unknown-1Dubai’s main attraction is shopping. Maybe not an obvious vacation choice for us non-shoppers.

Luckily, there was a big international art fair, with worldwide dealers exhibiting cool modern work. Almost as cool was ogling the other attendees.

Dubai is not a place of historicity. IMG_3215It has the feel of one that arose from the desert yesterday, which is pretty much true. Patches of desert remain, among the skyscrapers. Dubai is also one of the most internationalized of countries – indeed, the natives are a small minority of the population, which is not even mostly Middle Eastern, a great many inhabitants being from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

But back to shopping. The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest, with 1200 stores (and it sprouts the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa). imagesRight inside the entrance we were greeted by a dinosaur, and her handler. The dino was a full size fossil skeleton of an 80 footer. The handler was an attractive young Filipina whose job was to explain about the dinosaur to passing visitors like us. UnknownShe was well schooled in all things dinosaurian, properly scientific; but at the end sweetly confided that she had trouble reconciling that science stuff with her “beliefs.”

We spent an hour sauntering through The Mall of the Emirates, though without setting foot inside a single store. The anchor attraction there is the indoor skiing facility – yes, in fact, an entire enclosed snowy winterland, with the temperature kept below freezing. Visitors can rent cold weather gear – padded jackets, woolen caps, mittens, boots. Sure amused us, coming to Dubai to escape such weather in Albany, NY. In Dubai, they pay to experience it.

Dubai is a wealthy country and the glitz of its malls makes ours here seem almost shabby in comparison. This is not a place for Abdul Sixpack to shop. images-1As my wife remarked, “You’d think the world runs on shoes and handbags.” Designer shoes and bags at that. Are there enough wealthy people to keep so many upscale stores in business? Apparently. Wearing a full burqa is not incompatible with carrying the most chic designer handbag. Not to mention a bag of purchases from Victoria’s Secret.

Sinful you might call this conspicuous consumption, no doubt bringing in the word “inequality” and drawing invidious contrast between the pampered, privileged folks buying Hermès bags and Prada shoes, and the unwashed masses who can’t feed their children. As if (many imagine) children go hungry because others have wealth they spend on luxuries.

Also in Dubai (photo by Elizabeth Robinson)

Also in Dubai (photo by Elizabeth Robinson)

But that’s not how the world works. In fact such spending by the rich supports a slew of jobs that make the poor less poor. Sneer if you like at the trophy wives buying Prada, but be careful what you wish for – without that spending, the poor would be a lot worse off. And don’t imagine that if the rich had less in the first place, others would have more. The world doesn’t work that way either.

Anyway, I wasn’t put off by watching Dubaians thronging to the malls to shop till they drop. I love it. Better this than grim-faced austerity (and poverty). images-2And I couldn’t help thinking, strolling the mall while the news was full of Crimea, that this is a far better model for how life should be.

Gucci, not guns. Make money, not war.

Russia Acting From Weakness — ?

March 26, 2014

President Obama says Russia is actually acting out of weakness.

Maybe the most fatuous thing I’ve heard a president say. If this is weakness, we could use some in the oval office.

The Economist’s latest editorial (worth reading) suggests that even China should feel threatened by the principle Russia is asserting in Crimea — if Crimea can secede, why not Tibet? This too is fatuous. Russia and China don’t recognize any principles. They do what suits them, and justify it howsoever.

20140322_LDP001_0(From The Economist’s cover. The sign says STOP or the West will put you on the naughty step)

But The Economist is right that Crimea represents a profound undermining of the world order, requiring a robust response. We’ve grown complacent in recent decades, taking for granted that military conflict among major powers (and grabbing territory by force) is a thing of the past. But in fact this modern world system is not on automatic pilot, somehow governing itself. It requires a hands-on system operator. The UN isn’t that. America is the only entity capable of filling that role.

However, lately, we’ve been asleep at the switch – disengaged and dreaming. And we see the consequences. They are severe. While Obama emolliently suggests that, well, after all, Russia is merely a regional power and no direct threat to us, that is fatuous too. This concerns the way the whole world works. If you don’t think Russia is a big concern, how about China? If Russia can grab Crimea, why can’t China grab those islands it’s been disputing with Japan and other nations? Or grab Taiwan? Every small or weak nation in the world is threatened by the “principle” of Crimea.

UnknownThe Economist deems it urgent for America to reassert leadership – right away. Mr. Obama, no more of your low-key constitutional law professor, have-it-both-ways, split every difference, lead-from-behind, “false choices” self. Wake up, damn it!

Specifically, The Economist says Russia must see the cost of its crime being more than expected – whereas so far, it’s actually been even less than the cocksure Putin might have expected. While Europe does need Russia’s gas, Russia’s need to sell it to Europe is greater, because that’s a critical prop to Russia’s economy. Cutting off the gas would hurt Europe, but hurt Russia more. We should act swiftly to supply Europe with liquefied gas from our newly abundant fracked production.

The President always stresses consultative, collective approaches. That’s fine, but you know how it is when a committee has no leader (as with the Obamacare website). Obama must press the Europeans hard, for a strong collective response, even if it entails some economic pain, which we should share.

It’s unfortunate that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s lynchpin, has a personal style much like Obama’s. Maybe if the Germans won’t get with the program, we should threaten them with economic sanctions.

“The World Without Us” — America’s Global Role

March 23, 2014

We got this film from Netflix on a misunderstanding. A book with the same title imagined Earth’s future if humans disappeared. But the film is a documentary exploring the consequences if America retreated from the world. 

images-2It was well done, though it had subtitles riddled with errors. I didn’t know we’d fought a Persian Golf War.

The film introduces fictional presidential candidate “William Turner” with an unabashedly isolationist platform. He’s no kook, but a slick candidate earnestly spouting familiar tropes: Unknown-1America has spent too many lives and dollars overseas, sticking our nose where it doesn’t belong, being a bully, and all we’ve achieved is enmity and hatred; we should instead focus on our own needs here at home, like job creation. It’s made to sound highly seductive; yet the film goes on to show how misguided this really is.

We begin in Europe, as populous and rich as us, asking why it couldn’t shoulder a bigger role in security matters. But Europe is not a nation and doesn’t act like one; it’s a squabbling family, with no appetite for biting bullets. So in the 1990s ex-Yugoslav wars in its backyard, Europe dithered for years while atrocities mounted, until finally America cried “Enough!” and bombed the Serbs into accepting the Dayton peace deal we brokered. Unknown-2When trouble recrudesced in Kosovo in 1999, America, having learned the lesson, moved quickly this time,  again bombing the Serbs into submission. We had no U.N. authorization.

In the film, historian Niall Ferguson says that when America acted unilaterally in Kosovo, he and many like him were aghast (“agassed” in the subtitles). But Ferguson candidly admits he was wrong –  that America’s action was right, probably saved many lives, and made the world better.

“William Turner” types make “intervening in other countries’ internal affairs” sound nasty and illegitimate. That’s what we did in Kosovo. It’s what we didn’t do in Rwanda (800,000 dead), Darfur (200,000 dead), and Cambodia (1.7 million dead; Vietnam eventually intervened there to end the carnage).

Next, the Middle East. Too bad the Yugoslav lesson was forgotten (if Obama ever knew it) when it came to Syria (140,000 dead and counting; 9 million refugees).

Syrian street scene

Syrian street scene

The 2008 film predated Syria’s civil war, but argued that the Mid East is a volatile area liable to explode without America’s  deep engagement; which Syria proves true.

But why should we care? Why not just let others sort out their own problems? Apart from the simple humanitarian concern, today’s world doesn’t consist of disconnected self-contained ghettoes. In a globalized world, there’s really no such thing as a “local” problem, everything being connected to everything else. And regarding the Middle East in particular, there’s oil to be concerned about.

Unknown-3The film presents some interviews with typical “no war for oil” platitudes. A European favors solar and wind power, not violence; “Use your head,” he smugly concludes. Then the film shows how silly this is. How vital oil is for the entire world’s economy, and thus, to the well-being of people everywhere, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, who tend to be hit hardest by any economic dislocation. And it’s actually not America that depends most on Mid East oil; it’s Europe and Asia, who are the chief beneficiaries of America’s global engagement. Not only have we kept oil flowing — America’s navy also plays a critical role in keeping open the sea lanes by which that oil flows to Europe and Asia, and by which much other world trade travels.

When people cynically say the Iraq war was “all about oil,” that may be partly true, but they seem to imagine we simply grabbed the oil — the behavior of conquerors throughout history — including WWII Japan (now getting its oil thanks to America’s global role). But we don’t grab oil, we pay for every drop. Had the Iraq war been “all about oil,” surely we could have simply made a deal with Saddam to buy it, saving ourselves the trillion or so the war cost.

Japan, as the film shows, with its restrictive pacifist constitution, is a particular beneficiary of the U.S. security umbrella. And one might ask why Japan shouldn’t just pay for its own defense. Well, here’s something to think about. Absent America’s role, Japan, neighbor of nuclear-armed China and North Korea, would be forced to go nuclear itself. An increasingly jingoistic China deeply mistrusts Japan, and would be apoplectic if Japan got nukes. This would not be good.

South Korea too is under the umbrella. It’s more populous, and vastly richer, than North Korea. Why does the South need us? Unknown-4Well, North Korea is the most militarized society on earth, with an army of 1.5 million. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is right near the border. The North tried to seize the South once before, and nearly succeeded till America stepped in. Our defense of South Korea is the only thing deterring repeat aggression.

Then there’s Taiwan. The Chinese insist it’s part of China, and upon their right to take it by force some day. Taiwan is a prosperous democratic free market country playing an important role in the world economy, which we have pledged to defend. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have untold disruptive consequences. But China wouldn’t dare try it as long as we stand behind Taiwan. Cutting Taiwan loose just isn’t an option.

And so it goes, all over the world. America plays an indispensable role in global security and stability, and lubricating international commerce. On our recent Dubai trip, a Pakistani cab driver volunteered the understanding that small countries like Dubai are effectively protected by America. No other nation can fulfill this role. Without it, the world would be a much worse place — worse for everyone, including us. 

We already see the consequences of even a little bit of American disengagement, of “leading from behind.” Failure to engage early in Syria produced a metastasizing horror. And if we’d been more decisive about Syria, would Russia have been emboldened to invade Crimea? And if Russia gets away with that, with barely a slap on the wrist, what’s next? China is in dispute with various nations, most prominently Japan, over Pacific territorial claims. Will China now feel free to settle them by force?

At film’s end, President Turner runs for re-election touting fulfillment of his promises. Our troops have all come home. Nothing is said about how the world fares.

images-1

Maybe too soon for the shit to have hit the fan.

A New Cold War?

March 17, 2014

DUBAI, U.A.E. — I recently  participated in a discussion where someone said, “Why is Obama taking such a strong stance on Ukraine?” Huh? Meantime, the “Obama is weak” trope is commonplace; with the retort being, “What would you have him do? Send troops?”

UnknownThis is a 1938 moment. It’s clear we’re really just hoping Herr Putin will be appeased by Crimea only, and won’t go further. We play-act at diplomacy with the Russians virtually laughing in our faces while they do send troops — shredding a key principle which has undergirded the modern world’s peace among major nations, and threatening return to an earlier and nastier paradigm. If Russia can invade a place on the phony pretext of protecting its countrymen, well, there are a lot of them in a lot of places. We can’t have this. Russia must pay a price sufficient to get this demon back in the bottle.

I’ve suggested that Obama’s fecklessness on Syria emboldened Russia. Actually, we can go back to 2008 (pre-Obama) when Russia was countenanced to grab a chunk of Georgia with scarcely a murmur of scolding. Or back to the 1990s, when I already felt we were muffing the opportunity to enfold Russia securely into the world community. We were too inhibited by our habitual enmity, unable to turn completely on a dime. Nor could Russia, but we should have been better.

It’s been widely argued that expanding NATO to Russia’s border was a mistake, a provocation. But it was Russia that chose to see it that way, though we did fail to spin it differently. However, now we see that NATO expansion was not a mistake; being obligated to defend all its members debars Russia from invading any of them, like the Baltics. Likewise Ukraine, had it been brought into NATO.

So, yes, we are in a new cold war. It’s not of our making. If we failed in friending Russia, it’s really Russia  that has unfriended us. For quite some time Putin has been on a vicious anti-Western jag. And this lot is just as bad as the Soviets if not worse. Russia has trashed its 1990s Budapest treaty guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (which international law would require anyway), on the ridiculous pretext that Ukraine now has a different government, which Russia refuses to recognize, calling it the product of a coup (whereas in fact Ukraine’s parliament properly ousted Yanukovych for his crimes) — while Russia does recognize the new Crimean “government” installed by its soldiers after chasing out the elected officials at gunpoint. The secession referendum, also at gunpoint, is also insupportable. As is the claim that Russia is acting to protect its countrymen. While Putin denies Russian troops are even there!

imagesHe and his apologists seem hepped up with a Nietzschean sense of Russian moral superiority over a flabby West. Our indeed flabby response to the Crimean atrocity can only abet this sickness. What makes Russians so puffed up about their nation? — thoroughly corrupt, cynical, undemocratic, bullying, drunk on military swagger and literally drunk on vodka – a nation so crummy that, not coincidentally, its birth rate is just about the world’s lowest. (Who’d want to raise a child there?) Russians seem to feel, “We may be a crummy nation, but we’re a strong one.” Well — bully for you.

Much more could be done (non-militarily) to punish Russia, but we’re too economically beholden. (As Lenin said, the capitalists will sell the rope to hang them with.) I used to think globalized world trade would make military adventurism foolhardy, endangering a nation’s linkages to the global economy. But now we see that cuts both ways; nobody is actually willing to punish military adventurism by cutting those links at cost to themselves. 

Europe is held hostage to Russian gas; we should use our new fracked gas bounty to free them from that. Russia should be expelled from the G-8 and, more importantly, the WTO, which it worked so long and  hard to get into. Or, at least, this should be explicitly threatened if Russia annexes Crimea, rather than our thus far piddling, unspecified, and thus non-credible threats. Going to the UN Security Council would only point up our diplomacy’s make-believe (because of Russia’s veto there) — but why not instead convene the General Assembly (where there’s no veto) for a resolution to condemn Russia’s action  and pretext?

Pleasantville: A Subversive Allegory

March 14, 2014

“Pleasantville” was a 1998 film starring a young Tobey Maguire as Dave, a high schooler whom his popular slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) considers a hopeless dork. He fixates on re-runs of a bland 1950s family TV show, “Pleasantville.”

Enter Don Knotts as a mysterious TV repairman who, long story short, zaps Dave and Jennifer into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, slotting them into the roles of that family’s kids.

UnknownIn Pleasantville it never rains, the high school basketball team never loses (never misses a shot), and sex never occurs. It’s not necessary because the town is frozen in time, as are its inhabitants, never having been younger than they are now, hence they didn’t have to be conceived. (This is unstated, but inferred.) Also, Pleasantville is the entirety of existence. Outside its borders there is nothing.

Dave and Jennifer manage to find the repairman on their TV, and beg to go back home. The repairman only agrees to think about it. But meantime, Jennifer alters her character’s chaste relationship with her boyfriend. In “Lover’s Lane,” they have sex.

Thus begins the shattering of Pleasantville’s stasis. Unknown-1Other kids follow to Lover’s Lane. Then, suddenly, inconspicuously at first, amid the black-and-white, a flower blooms into color!

Of course it spreads, this metaphor for change, knowledge, and liberation. Soon, some of the kids themselves are turning colorized. The basketball team loses.

Unknown-2The Mom remarks she doesn’t know what goes on in Lover’s Lane. So Jennifer gives her The Talk: “When two people love each other . . . .” Mom, shocked, says “George [her husband] would never do anything like that!” But Jennifer explains that a woman even by herself . . . . and next thing, Mom is in the bathtub on a self-discovery voyage.

The result is so explosive that a tree by the house bursts into flame. imagesThere’d never been a fire in Pleasantville, and the firemen don’t know what to do. Dave shows them, and puts the fire out, becoming the town hero. This gets him a girlfriend, Margaret, who’d been someone else’s – further rocking the town’s seemingly eternal verities.

Its still mainly black-and-white population sees the colorized minority as a threat to its way of life, and conflict brews, even turning violent. In one scene, Margaret’s ex-boyfriend accosts the pair and ends with a taunt about “your colored girlfriend.” Soon we see a shopkeeper putting up a sign: NO COLOREDS.images-1

To the film’s credit, having made the point, it doesn’t belabor this riff. Indeed, I found the movie hilarious, but in a marvelously droll, understated way. A real masterpiece of cinematic art.

I also saw it as a political allegory, for fairly obvious reasons. There’s even a book-burning scene. But it was more than political. When the repairman finally reappears, Dave has changed his mind, and wants to stay in Pleasantville. But now he’s told he and his sister have messed the place up and must leave. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Dave protests. “Oh yes you did,” the repairmen replies – and shows a replay of Dave biting into a big red apple.Unknown-3

But Dave refuses expulsion from his newfound paradise. He turns off the TV, and with it, the repairman.

I’ve always loathed the Adam and Eve story. Never mind the atrocious idea of punishing unborn generations for a sin committed by others; and even the idea, more vile still, that someone had to be tortured to death to expiate that sin; but what was this so-called “sin?” Effectively, seeking knowledge. That’s no sin. It’s our great virtue. If there’s a God who’d punish this, our response should be not obedience but rebellion.

Apparently the makers of “Pleasantville” thought so too.

Of course, the revolution triumphs. In the end, all Pleasantville emerges into glorious color. And there is a world outside it (where Jennifer, reformed, goes off to college, to get more knowledge).

And the repairman is never heard from again.

Freetards

March 11, 2014

Paul Rapp is a local lawyer who writes a column on intellectual property in an “alternative” newspaper, Metroland. One of his 2013 columns started with a vicious tirade against free market economics (or, typically, a caricature thereof) — and its defenders (encompassing virtually 100% of serious economists). Prominent in Rapp’s rant were words like “obscene,” “racist,” “bullshit,” “cretins,” and “freetards.”Unknown

But his main point was to argue that internet service should be a public utility — like telephone and electric service, which society has decided should be universal. And in furtherance of that goal,  some people’s service gets subsidized by others.

However, what Rapp was really concerned about was his own internet service. Massachusetts, he said, “has some public/private thing going on” to run fast connection wires along main roads. But who, he asked, will run the cable (quite expensively) two and a half miles from the main road up to his house — and how will it be paid for? (Not by him, God forbid.)

Unknown-1Paul Rapp is an attorney (who charges for his services) and is presumably not economically disadvantaged. Choosing to live miles from a main road, why does he think he’s somehow entitled to have his costly internet connection paid for by anyone but himself? What would you call someone who wants service provided to him for free?

A freetard?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,858 other followers