Tattoo nation

September 25, 2016

Going to the beach nowadays is to visit a tattoo exhibition.

images-1Tattooing used to be tantamount to sticking a label on yourself saying “low class” or “no class.” Then it became a question of brash versus demure tattooing. Now it seems almost a rite of passage.

One local blogger (Heather Fazio) even said she does judge tattooed people – she trusts them more. “They’re not afraid to be who they are.”

Even if “who they are” is a low-class freak show?

Sorry for that. I believe in self-expression, really I do. And in every individual’s freedom to do their own thing, even if someone else – including me – disapproves. (As long as no others are harmed.)

unknownSo if you want to decorate your home with paintings of big-eyed tots on black velvet, you’re welcome to do that too – but don’t expect me to applaud this as high art. I have a right too, to make aesthetic and cultural judgments.

You can call this “judgmental” as if it’s a bad thing. But what do we have brains for, if not to make judgments? We make them every minute of the day, about everything. It’s being human. And it’s fine, as long as I don’t try to impose my judgments on you.

Often people wear tattoos, and clothes, to be different, nonconformist, to set themselves apart from the common herd. images-2Ironically, such trappings become uniforms themselves when adopted by part of the herd. Your nonconformism must conform to the currently reigning nonconformist ethos. It’s often really a lack of imagination. There are enough conventional ways to be different that it’s hard to be truly unconventional. Today, having no tattoos may be unconventional.

Tattoos could be beautiful. In principle. In practice, they’re mostly ugly. The fact is that human flesh just isn’t a very good medium for artwork. Maybe I could imagine a kind of advanced high-tech tattooing that would overcome this and produce truly vivid and aesthetically arresting images.

images-3But instead what we mainly get are what look like smeary blobs. Also tribalistic markings (like for sports teams). Or messages that are often inane, or even sometimes in Chinese – on non-Chinese people – being “who they are?”

How often I’ve said to myself: “Nice looking gal there – too bad about the disfiguring tattoo.”

And don’t get me started on all the nose rings, eyebrow rings, rings in the pierced whatevers. Jewelry is supposed to beautify. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets can do so. Nose and eyebrow rings, not so much. images-4Of course, standards of beauty can be culturally determined and can vary from place to place and from time to time. We’re often told in Africa fat women are adored and thin ones shunned. What makes a necklace beautiful and a nose ring ugly to me? Is it just culture, and fleeting? Well, whatever the cultural and even psychological roots, it’s my aesthetic opinion.

To which I’m entitled, just as you are entitled to uglify yourself with tattoos and piercings.

Syria

September 22, 2016

So by mistake a U.S. airstrike killed sixty-odd soldiers of Bashar Assad’s Syrian army.

images-1Boo hoo.

We abase ourselves with apologies, while the Russians (who bomb hospitals and UN aid convoys) gleefully stick it to us with breathtaking hypocrisy. Well, those soldiers were human beings after all. Or had once been. More victims, really, of this horror.

At one point documentation emerged about eleven thousand tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. That was years ago already; I wonder what the count is now. Does anyone care? Nobody has been called to justice by any international tribunal.

I have no answers. Any good options on Syria were squandered long ago. We did go through the motions of training and deploying some indigenous good guys. They were wiped out. Last I heard, the force numbered four or five. Not four or five units. Four or five guys.

images-2And remember how President Obama made a fool of himself by failing to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use? And how Putin cynically “rescued” Obama with a face-saving deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons? Well, guess what? Of course it was just a charade. Assad has flagrantly violated the deal, continuing to freely use chemical weapons. With not a peep from Obama about it.

The Russians are not our friends. Any cooperation or coordination with them, in their Syrian military operations, is a trap. So is any negotiation with them because any deals they make are only self-serving and never honored. They just pocket the concessions and then make a mockery of their obligations.

As in Ukraine. Russia actually had signed a treaty with Ukraine, pledging (in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons) to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I guess that didn’t apply to Crimea, ha ha.

images-3So regarding Syria, nothing negotiated with Russia could be beneficial. We’re just played for patsies. The repeated “cease-fires” are a cruel joke. And what is our Syria policy objective anyway? Just to destroy ISIS? But doing that would help not just the blood-soaked Assad regime and its Russian patrons – and our great pals the Iranians – but also Al Qaeda. Because, although this is murky, the other main anti-Assad force, rival to ISIS, is the Nusra Front, now renamed JFS, which originated with Al Qaeda. Though objectively, among all Syria’s contending forces, JFS may actually be the least bad.

images-5And anyway, destroying ISIS is not a Syria policy because it would not resolve the basic conflict. Bashar Assad may “win” in the end by thoroughly destroying his country.

Then he can stand upon the seared devastation and declare,

images-4“Look upon my works ye mighty and despair.”

Ban the box?

September 20, 2016

unknown-1Since 2007, eleven states have enacted bans on checking a job applicant’s credit score. The aim is equality and fair hiring – since someone with low credit would more likely be black, poor, and/or young. Yet when two economists (Robert Clifford and Daniel Shoag) studied these bans, they found hiring more racially biased.

Why so? Another well-intentioned liberal utopian idea whacked by the law of unintended consequences. It seems that when employers cannot see applicants’ credit scores (often a good predictor of reliability on the job), they give added weight to factors like educational attainment and experience – on which young, poor, and black people do even worse.

imagesThe Americans with Disabilities Act similarly aimed to help a disadvantaged class, by giving them a litany of on the-job-protections — enforceable through litigation. Thusly turning disabled workers into lawsuit bombs, making employers wary of employing them at all.

Well, you may say, what’s wrong with requiring employers to treat disabled staff fairly, and penalizing them if they don’t? But even an employer with all the goodwill in the world would realize that what she considers fair, someone else might not, and in today’s litigious culture, that’s a big risk. unknown-2Some lawyer sharks make their livings by cooking up dubious ADA cases and shaking down businesses for settlements. (The ADA was a bigger boon for lawyers than for disabled people.)

It’s all part of a trend to see businesses as enemies of society. As if people should provide you with goods and services with no profit, selflessly, as a public service. A friend of mine constantly whines about supermarkets making profits, asking why they can’t just give up some profit and cut prices. But she likes being able choose among thousands of products in one store. Supermarket profit margins average around 1%.

Now we have the “ban the box” movement – referring to the job application checkbox, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” As though it’s somehow unfair for an employer to know this about a job seeker. Applicants do have rights; but don’t businesses have some rights too? Isn’t it, indeed, unfair to require a business to hire someone without knowing their credit rating, or criminal record? Those tell something about the person. And while people with bad credit or jail time deserve some consideration, are they entitled to be treated as though those facts about them aren’t facts?

unknown-3And I’m dubious anyway that “ban the box” would actually help the intended beneficiaries – let’s face it, mainly young black men. Who, percentagewise, have a greater likelihood of criminal justice encounters. Businesses know that. If barred from learning whether a black applicant has a clean record, a common response would be wariness about hiring him – making it harder for black men to get jobs. Just like with credit scores.

Sometimes the “unintended consequences” are not even a surprise. Sometimes they stare you in the face. But that never seems to daunt liberal do-gooders in their effort to repeal reality.

After I wrote this up, an article in The Economist reported on another study, showing states with “ban the box” laws, sure enough, do experience lower black hiring.

unknown-4And now Massachusetts has banned employers from asking job applicants what their present salary is. Fairness to women is the stated aim.

Why not just go for total fairness and require businesses to hire workers knowing nothing about them at all?

Bible Babble

September 17, 2016

The Massachusetts Bible Society is conducting “The Great Bible Experiment” – discussion forums in “America’s least Bible-minded cities.” Strangely, Albany tops that list (maybe it’s all the students; Boston comes second). A radio blurb said a humanist would be on the panel. So I went.

imagesMy wife wouldn’t come, expecting just a sales pitch for Bibles. Actually none were on sale, and the event seemed more or less sincerely aimed at dialog.

I was first handed a questionnaire, asking me to pick six words from a long list to reflect my view of the Bible. Most words were positive, yet I was able to find six: words like dangerous, mis-used, scary, weird.

Attendees were encouraged to submit questions. images-1After one panelist, Father Warren Savage, an African-American Catholic priest, said he believed the Bible is all about love, my question was, “Why did God command the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the cities of Canaan?” The moderator combined it with a similar question citing the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Panelist Tom Krattenmaker responded that he simply disregards the Bible’s less appetizing parts. He was the advertised “humanist,” actually with Yale Divinity School, and author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. images-2He sounded like a Jeffersonian – Jefferson cut up his Bible, making his own book containing only what he deemed Jesus’s words of wisdom, throwing away all the rest. Krattenmaker said he “does not subscribe to the factual existence of God.”

Rev. Anne Robertson, MBS’s head, was an articulate and engaging speaker. She said she’d started as a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” type, a real Biblical literalist, but she’d repented. She spoke of how hard it was for her to first utter “the four words” – “I might be wrong.” Robertson stressed the difference between fact and truth, saying the Bible is not a book of facts, yet conveys truths. And she quoted another Bible bit: “we see through a glass darkly.”

The Abraham and Isaac story, Robertson argued, must be viewed in historical context: it’s an extremely old story dating from a time when child sacrifice was common. And the important thing about Abraham-and-Isaac is how its outcome differs from that cultural paradigm.*

Another question was why the Bible is losing sway. Father Savage answered, “the hypocrisy of Christians who don’t practice what the Bible teaches.” Krattenmaker said he inhabits a culture wherein gays are seen as just ordinary humans, and when Bible-thumpers go around crying “abomination!” it makes the Bible “radioactive.”

images-4As for living Biblical teachings, my second question said, “The Bible teaches I may own slaves, as long as they’re from foreign countries. Does this include Canadians?” But time ran out before that question could be reached.

And I refrained from submitting a further question: if you think the Bible is somehow divinely inspired, how do you know? How could anyone know? (“Faith” can’t be the answer, merely begging the question, what’s the basis for the faith?)

images-3*While the historicity of child sacrifice in the ancient Near East is widely accepted, a lot of that is traceable to what the Bible says – hardly an objective source. Even distant Carthage’s famous child sacrifice comes to us from its Roman conquerors – not an unbiased source either.

Dear Trump voters

September 14, 2016

unknown4You’re making a big mistake. A whopper. Believe me; OK?

What a big con you’re falling for. Make America great again? Trump has no clue what made it great. It wasn’t walls to keep out foreigners (and foreign goods). And it sure wasn’t brutes like him. His candidacy already drags America in the dirt.

A really big con. Bring back those old time factory jobs? Delusional. And what Trump is talking about, to supposedly achieve this, is economic suicide. Because most things you buy would be costlier. Most Americans – you especially – would be poorer. That import tax he advocates, to keep out cheap Chinese goods? It would really be a tax on you.

unknown-13You feel economically insecure – so you put faith in a billionaire? Like he cares about you? He says he created jobs. Trouble is, he didn’t pay the people who did them. That’s how he got rich – by screwing people, by not paying his bills, by skipping out on debts. By looting his businesses and leaving a trail of financial ruin and lawsuits. With frauds like Trump University, stealing the savings of people like you. He’s even stealing money contributed to his campaign. And stiffing its employees. (And it’s Hillary you think should be jailed?)

unknown-2I know it’s futile saying Trump cynically exploits overblown fear of terrorism. You’re 100 times likelier to take a bullet from your own gun. Terrorism is mainly psychological warfare, and one of its greatest assets, in spreading the fear it aims for, is Trump.

And there’s the lying. Compulsive, pathological lying. Politicians may bend the truth; Trump disembowels it. Lying about New Jerseyites celebrating 9/11. Lying about his past stance on the Iraq War. Even when he meets a foreign leader (Mexico’s president), he lies about the discussion. (“Telling it like it is?”)

unknown-3And lying about why he won’t reveal his tax returns. What’s he hiding? Why do you imagine such a liar is not making a fool of you about everythingThe Economist has examined the phenomenon of “post-truth politics” encouraging people to forgo critical thinking in favor of having their feelings and prejudices reinforced by spoon-fed garbage. Trump’s earlier nonsensical “Birther” campaign was a prime example.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

And then there’s the incitement of violence, encouraging supporters to punch people, saying he’ll pay their legal bills. Even hinting someone should shoot his opponent.

unknown-4And the ignorance. The willful ignorance of an ego so out of control he thinks he knows everything. “I know more than the generals about ISIS.” And he insisted – emphatically – “Putin isn’t going into Ukraine.”

Hello? Read a f**king newspaper.*

And he admires Putin; prefers him our own president. Putin, the dictator, thief, murderer (literally). Putin, another big liar, who has shredded Europe’s peace, our worst enemy who’s messed with us at every turn. And Putin wants Trump to win, too – he, at least, understands it would do the opposite of making America great again. (Watch out for a late dirty trick by the Kremlin aimed at throwing the election to Trump.)

unknown-6And the insults (McCain not a war hero – the judgment of Trump who dodged the draft). He wants immigrants screened for their adherence to American values (as if that’s doable). How about screening presidential candidates for adherence to American values? They don’t include lies, frauds, thefts, insults, violence, and bigotry, fear, and hate.

To quote leading author and columnist Thomas Friedman, Trump is “a disgusting human being. His children should be ashamed of him.”

unknown-7But Trump famously has said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes (insulting his own supporters). They do seem impervious to any damning truths about him. This shows they back him not for what he is but for what he represents. This is cultural: revenge of the no-class losers.

The Economist has also reported a careful analysis, through sifting survey data, concluding that the most common factor behind Trump support is really racial resentment – the idea that non-whites are undeservingly coddled; that a less white America is a worse America. You may well deny this, while actually deceiving yourself. What we really think, and what we think we think, can differ.

images-13But we should search our hearts, and not give reign to our basest impulses. What a tragedy for America if this vile creep wins.

* Yeah, I know your answer: he’ll surround himself with sage experts. But so far it’s mostly a gaggle of rump-kissing lowlifes.

Donald Ainslie Henderson: hero

September 13, 2016

One who saves another’s life is reckoned a hero. Donald Ainslie Henderson is a hero you never heard of, but he saved around 100 million (so far, and counting). He died August 19.

Unknown-1Henderson was responsible for eradicating smallpox, an extremely nasty disease. (If you believe in God, ask him some time why creation included such features.) When Henderson got this assignment from the World Health Organization in 1966, smallpox was still killing two million annually, and no one thought it could actually be eliminated. Except Henderson.

In fact, the WHO put an American in charge so the U.S. would be blamed for failure. They forgot our motto: “The difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a little longer.” In this case it took till 1977. That year the world’s last smallpox case was registered.

Henderson succeeded by doing what humans do: indefatigable hard work, research, figuring out the best methods, and a lot of cooperation. Hundreds of thousands of people ultimately pitched in to this massive effort.

Those who romanticize the natural world should remember that things like smallpox are part of it. Nature is not our friend. Our entire history is our battle against it. Our victories should be celebrated. This was a great one.

I am so proud to be a member of the human race.

Colombia’s peace deal: how to end wars

September 10, 2016

There are important lessons to be learned from Colombia’s recent peace deal with its FARC insurgency, ending a 52-year civil war.

Uribe

Uribe

The FARC may have started as an ideological “revolutionary” movement but degenerated into murderous drugs-and-kidnapping criminality. Its atrocities prompted the rise of anti-FARC paramilitaries which behaved just about as brutally. Colombia seemed headed for failed-statehood until President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) got serious about combating the FARC militarily and also cracked down on the paramilitaries. He was a hero.

Santos

Santos

His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, capitalized on that progress with painstaking four-year negotiations, culminating in the peace settlement.

The “No-more-war” crowd sacralizes the word “negotiations,” fantasizing that all conflicts can be solved that way. Historically, the vast majority of wars have instead been solved militarily, by one side simply winning. A combatant who sees a chance to win through arms won’t likely make the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement.

Colombia shows this. Repeated negotiation efforts failed until the FARC was first brought to its knees militarily. Yet the government couldn’t wipe it out entirely, hence both sides now had incentives for concessions to get a deal. The government had to swallow some bitter pills, including a degree of leniency toward people with blood on their hands.

Unknown-1But it was wise to do so. All normal human beings have a powerful inborn justice drive, an instinct that crimes should be punished. And punishment for crimes is indeed just. However, retributive justice is all about the past, while a peace deal like Colombia’s is all about the future, and we mustn’t sacrifice the latter for the former. If leniency is what it takes to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and lay a foundation for a brighter future, then so be it.

images-3In this, Colombia’s peace deal conforms to what is becoming the modern model for such settlements. We’ve seen broadly similar ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere, with magnanimous “truth and reconciliation” processes, so that losers aren’t just stamped on, but accommodated back into society. Colombia’s pact enables the FARC to turn into a normal political party.

All this is, quite simply, the way it’s done now, and it’s a very good thing. We may not have “outlawed war” as pacifists dream (though in fact, in history’s broad sweep, war is very much on the decline). But we have gotten a lot better at resolving conflicts, and in ways that are beneficial for the societies involved. This is a very important form of progress, bad news for cynics, and a big point scored for those with an optimistic outlook upon humankind and our world.

Still, conspicuously absent from the growing list of conflicts resolved in this intelligent, foresighted way are any involving Muslims (and a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims). Regrettably, this seems to reflect a cultural difference: most Muslim societies are still locked in a bloody-minded “winner-take-all” mindset regarding conflicts. They have failed to grow to greater maturity in the way so many others (like Colombia) have done. As an optimist, I expect they one day will, but in the meantime it’s frustrating. (However, let me note Tunisia’s progress, the one nation with (so far) a good outcome from the “Arab Spring,” thanks to the kind of modernist mentality I’m talking about.)

imagesColombia is still fighting a smaller but stroppier rebel group, the ELN, and its FARC deal must be approved in a referendum. The vote may be close: the lack of prison time for miscreants is indeed hard to swallow, and Uribe, to his discredit, is campaigning against it. One might think the desire for retributive justice would be strongest in the rural areas that suffered most at FARC’s hands; but because they’ve suffered the most, they are keenest to approve the deal and draw a line under all the suffering. Let’s hope Colombia follows their lead.

Banning the burkini

September 7, 2016
Banned in France

Banned in France

The “burkini” is Muslim swimwear; more burqa than bikini, it enables gals to get wet while still covered. Some French jurisdictions have banned it.

Allowed in France

Allowed in France

French women on beaches go practically naked. Bare skin has long been permitted; but now it is compulsory. Am I alone in finding this bizarro?

The burkini bans follow France’s ban on the burqa. They claimed police need the ability to identify people in public. That’s disingenuous; a reasonable law could simply require face-baring if requested by an officer. Why not be honest about the real reason for the burqa ban: they see it as reflecting a culture that regards women differently.

True, women wearing burqas often do so in subjugation to men, and that’s bad. However, some wear them out of choice, however misguided that might seem, and in any case, this is a matter between women and their husbands or fathers, in which this libertarian doesn’t think government should interfere. Except to protect women from violence if they go against their menfolk.

Everyone should be free to wear what they choose. This includes religious garb; indeed, in this first-amendment country, it especially includes that. We don’t ban people from wearing crosses or yarmulkas; nor should we ban burqas.

images-4Or burkinis. It does seem perverse that France allows immodesty on beaches but won’t allow modesty. This is discriminatory and mean-spirited toward Muslim women, effectively banning them from beaches. France also bans even headscarves in schools.

America seems to do better than Europe at integrating Muslims into society. Don’t be misled by a certain sulphurous presidential candidate and his fans. They are really outside the U.S. mainstream, which is fundamentally open and tolerant, genuinely believing in our founding ideal of personal liberty, and seeing strength and richness in diversity. Read George Washington’s letter embracing as part of America a Rhode Island Jewish congregation (which must then have appeared more foreign and exotic than do Muslims today).

Maybe France, facing repeated acts of violence by disaffected Muslims, should rethink its attitude toward its own Muslim citizens. France’s president says it’s at war. Take care it’s not a civil war.

UPDATE: Since I got this ready to post, news has come that a French court has overturned the burkini bans.

The animal that came in from the cold (My Labor Day tribute to work)

September 5, 2016

There’s a cynical misanthropic mentality seeing humanity as a curse upon the planet, and modern life as a snakepit of psychic malaise. I don’t buy it.

imagesRecently I traveled from Albany to New York and all along the way was struck not just by how humankind has thoroughly transformed the landscape, but by the stupendous amount of work it took. Whether it was the roads with all their vehicles, all the buildings and other infrastructure, the farmlands with endless rows of cultivation – how many man-hours of toil!

Unknown-2And did you ever stop to ponder how much metal we use, everywhere? And where it comes from – all the mining and milling and processing and fabrication? And don’t forget what it took for people to figure out how to do all this. Likewise all the buildings – every brick had to be manufactured, transported, cemented. Again, the colossal amount of sheer effort boggles the mind.

And what’s it all for? Quite simply, so we can live with less pain and more comfort and reward. We’re the animal that came in from the cold. Unknown-1We arrived on this planet with nothing, literally naked. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done ourselves. It wasn’t easy. To me it’s a veritable miracle.

This is Man’s fundamental nature. Believing (despite all religion) not that things are up to some God, or fate, but up to us. Not to accept, but to strive. Not to submit, but to prevail.

Gertrude Stein and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

September 3, 2016
Therese performing poetry

Therese performing poetry

My poet wife Therese Broderick started a Meetup group to discuss poets and poetry. Every month she’d sally forth to the appointed venue, and upon returning I’d ask her how many showed up. “One,” she’d cheerily reply. Meaning herself.

But, undaunted, she gamely kept at it, and by and by, others did begin to come; and now it’s a nice little thing.

One fellow proposed as a topic Gertrude Stein. Therese obligingly scheduled it; the fellow didn’t attend; but I did.

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein

Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American writer, but spent most of her life in Paris and is actually remembered less for her writing than for all the artists and writers who hung out with her; she was the eye of an aesthetic hurricane.

The discussion about her inspired me to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Toklas (1877-1967) was Stein’s longtime companion and (apparently?) lover. Now this is a somewhat peculiar “autobiography.” It tells very little about Toklas, but a great deal about Gertrude Stein (always called, in full, “Gertrude Stein”), and her relationships with all those belle artes luminaries. It’s immensely flattering to Gertrude Stein. At the start, Alice says “only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.” Of course one was Gertrude Stein.

And seemingly Toklas had a grandiose idea not just of Gertrude Stein’s merits but of her literary importance. We find statements like this, concerning one Gertrude Stein publication: “So for the first time a piece of the monumental work which was the beginning, really the beginning of modern writing, was printed . . . .”

Toklas

Toklas

Perhaps the author really imagined that writers thenceforward would write like Gertrude Stein. I must say I’m glad they don’t. She was an innovator, and I suppose someone needed to do what she did. Her poems (if they be poems, often a matter for debate) are at least not just strings of random words, they do have some structure (e.g., the definite article before nouns), but while “word play” is not exactly it, she does play with the structure of language. Reading these poems suggested Gertrude Stein was trying to do with words just what modernist painters do with shapes and colors. Her prose often eschews commas and goes like conversational speech does, in really the most literal way, which might be fine when spoken but is affectation on the page.

The book ends with Gertrude Stein refusing to write her own autobiography, but encouraging Alice to write one. However Alice, having so much else to do, can’t get down to it. So finally, “Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you . . . . And she has, and this is it.”