John Adams and the Efforts of Time

We just watched the last episode of John Adams.  I got the DVD from the library and we went through it in one week, all seven installments.  I have to admit, the last episode brought tears.  The partnership between John and Abigail was well-portrayed and deeply moving.  The older I get, the more I find the strongest story resonance with depictions of deep, deep friendships, especially those that exist between lovers, spouses, life partners.  I cannot imagine losing Donna, who has become exactly that for me, in spite of the fact that I have friends of longer acquaintance, good friends, too.

The casting was incredible, the make-up superb, the writing first class.
What struck me most about this as well was the marvelously-nuanced dramatization of the fundamental differences in political philosophy between Adams and Jefferson.  I can’t help but think that when Adams declared that “the true history of our revolution is lost” he must have been thinking of the initial partnership and later dissolution of like-mindedness between himself and Thomas Jefferson, whom Joseph Ellis depicts an an American Sphinx.

Adams is here portrayed as an idealist who cannot separate his philosophy from his pragmatism.  In the first dozen years of the new republic, there was enormous public sentiment for France and when that country descended into the frenzy of its own revolution gone mad, that sentiment demanded that we support the revolutionaries.  The irony that France supported us when it was still a monarchy and now those very people that had backed us (granted, as a move in their own war with England) were the victims of the mob ascendant was lost on most people, and apparently even Jefferson, who wanted us to embroil ourselves immediately and deeply in support of the revolutionaries.  Washington—how lucky they were to have him—refused.  He was a militaryman by training and he understood how to assess the chances of success and how to go about surviving a conflict in which you are outmatched.  He had seen more than his share of defeat in a long career and knew well that ideology needed a strong hand to keep it in check, lest it carry you over the precipice.  He refused to side with France, believing that neutrality was the only way for the United States to survive.  Adams shared that belief.

Jefferson, and those like him believed that the rightness of the cause would win out.

Neither Jefferson or Adams had served in the military, but it appears that Adams at least had seen a bit of bloodshed.  He grasped an essential reality—that ideals do not win battles.  And yet, politically, he clung to his ideals in the face of an enemy who seemed capable of indulging any tactic in the cause of winning, namely Jefferson.  Almost a complete reversal of roles, at least in appearances.

Or was it?

Adams seems to have had a grasp of the long-term in a way that Jefferson, with his mercurial fixation on posterity, did not.  Adams grasped that the fields in which ideals must be left unsullied by pragmatism are different than those in which an immediate fight for survival is waged.  He would not interject himself where his loyalty to the Constitution said he ought not, even when it might win him another term as president.  Jefferson seemed willing to do work-arounds whenever his vision demanded.

I’m simplifying, of course.  Adams blundered in terms of ideals badly with the Alien and Sedition Act.  He knew he would be remembered more for that—and not well—than for having steered the country through the shoals of potential disaster by refusing to take sides in the squabble between England and France.  And the Alien and Sedition Act is a nasty, unAmerican piece of political offal.  Patently unConstitutional.

And yet Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory was also patently unConstitutional, a violation of due process, and in many ways unleashed nastiness and ugliness by opening up all that land to American incursion, wiping out more Native American nations and people, bringing us into direct conflict with Spain and then Mexico, lent opportunity for future presidents to exercise the worst aspects of imperial ambition all in the name of the United States and in contradiction to the Founding Intent of the republic….and for that he is praised.

The essential element of the American Revolution, as it was happening at the time, is simply a group of talented men scrambling around trying desperately to make something workable out of a deadly situation.  They didn’t want a king anymore, they wanted to run their own affairs, but they were also terrified of their neighbors, so some legal wall had to be built to keep New York or Pennsylvania or Virginia from dictating to the smaller states.  The southern colonies operated as agrarian economies based on slave labor, and they wanted to maintain that, so something had to be done to make sure the abolitionists in the north couldn’t strip them of millions of dollars worth of property and labor.  In the tumult of ongoing war, they were working at a fever pitch to make sure they came out the other side with what they wanted, even at the expense of the unity that was to guarantee a victory, and they had no idea how it was all going to look.  It was bedlam.  It was panic-stricken intellectual jerrymandering.

And somehow out of this a framework evolved that, not then and not for a long time to come, but eventually emerged as a marvelous machine.

But there was little solidarity of invention, little conformity of vision.  They all knew that they had to fight to be severed from Great Britain.  That afterward they needed to erect a coherent government that wouldn’t take from them what they saw Britain trying to take from them.  How they were going to do all this, on that there was little agreement.

It was a mess.

The myth prevails.

But not so much that sound research and a little patient thought can’t recover what might actually have been going on, and sometimes the results are something wonderfully poignant, insightful, and honest as this miniseries.  It ought to be shown in grade school.  It ought to be part of any American history course.

At a book festival a few years ago, I attended a discussion by a historian who had just published a biography of Aaron Burr.  She’d taken the trouble to go back to primary sources and look at the man through the lens of his times rather than our modern, prejudiced view of a murderer and traitor.  She talked about the humanness of these people, who were an amalgam—hero and villain, coward and genius, self-serving and patriotic, publicly strong and privately weak—when someone stood up to condemn her for her scholarship.  His argument was that it wasn’t right to denigrate these people who had given us so much.

“I’m not denigrating anyone, sir,” the historian said.  “I’m simply showing them as they actually were.”

“What good does that do?  I don’t want to know that they were assholes.  I don’t agree with what you’re doing.”

I don’t want to know that they were assholes.

Understandable sentiment, perhaps, but without realizing how utterly human they were we risk deifying them.  And we’ve seen that process at work through most of our history, to greater or lesser degrees.  The temptation to cast the revolutionary era in bronze and hold it up as some ideal age is great because it seems so simple and honest and straight-forward compared to our present age of almost fractal complexity.  We can see the desire for that kind of simplicity and, we believe, dependability in the constant purges against politicians who prove themselves frail or hypocritical or simply too human.  We want paragons, walking talking ideals who never stray from the Philosopher’s Gold of which we think the Founding Fathers were composed.  We sacrifice a lot of talent this way.  Brilliant economists, diplomats, orators, legislators get harried out of office because they slept with someone out of wedlock or smoked pot in college or eschew a religious point-of-view.  The examination of private lives in search of the unstained, pure of heart, consistently noble character drives the best and brightest away from even putting themselves forward to serve.  As if any of these factors relate to competence or civic virtue or ability to lead.

Any examination of the Founding Fathers shows such a catalogue of human frailty that likely none of them today could get elected as small-town councilman much less to the highest offices of the land.  Among them were speculators, slave owners, philanderers, alcoholics, bigots, gamblers, and all manner of personal hypocrisy.

But look at what they managed to build.

I think more such dramatizations ought to be made.  We should know very well how human these people were.  We should know that, really, they weren’t so very different than we were, beyond those differences that time and circumstance inevitably produce.  It would do us good to get the idea that if these—uncertain, petty, churlish, hypocritical, frightened men—could do what they did when the opportunity presented itself, what can we not aspire to accomplish with all the benefits of their histories and our present abilities?  Knowing that we are more like them than not would be a good thing, I think.

Hating the Government: An American Tradition.

G.O.P. Chairman Michael Steele made a few remarkably in-your-face comments recently about the health care debate.  Here, in his own words, is pretty much where he thinks the nation is going, why it shouldn’t go there, and what the Republican Party stands for.

This morning on NPR  he tangled with Steve Inskeep, in particular over this.

One quote in particular caught my eye:  ” Simply put, we believe that health-care reform must be centered on patients, not government.”

When you listen to the NPR interview it’s clear that we’re hearing another in the now decades-long tirades against the government which has become the hallmark of Right Wing politics in this country.

In this country, in theory, the government is supposed to be us, the people.  We elect our representatives, we tell them how we want them to vote, we change our minds, we are supposed to be in charge.  In theory.  Obviously, the reality is far from that.  For one, we are not a full-fledged democracy, we are a republic, and while we elect those who operate the machinery of the republic on our behalf, we do not have a direct say in the running.  Nor could we, really.  it is simply too complex.  We send our representatives to the various points of departure—state capitols, Washington D.C., county seats, city halls—to do that for us because it is a big, complex, often indecipherable melange of conflicting goals, viewpoints, and problems.  We do not have the time to pay the necessary attention to do that work ourselves, so we pay people to do it for us.

So why do we distrust it so much?

Well, because we distrust each other.

No, really, let’s be honest for a few minutes here.  We make certain assumptions going into a polling booth that the results will lead to some kind of cohesive approach to the enterprise we view as Our Country.  It’s rather surprising how often that turns out to be the case, but it’s not at all what we may actually intend.  This country is a collection of competing factions, down to the faction of the individual in confrontation with everyone else, and up to the factions of whole states in conflict with other states.  We vote for people who will represent our desire to be safe from our next door neighbor.

If that’s stating it too strongly, consider the reality.  Zoning laws are in place to prevent our next door neighbor from building something we don’t want next to us, be a bar, an art studio, a bordello, or just an odd-looking house.  I know, it’s supposed to regulate the conflict between residential and business, but in practice it’s a way to keep people out of our neighborhoods.  Used to be it applied directly to people, but that was determined to be unConstitutional.  Nevertheless, there are ways of manipulating housing costs, taxes, and other things to more or less accomplish the same thing—if we can’t keep people of different ethnic varieties out, at least we can make sure they have money, right?

Of course, it’s a contest, and these ordinances are challenged all the time—it’s a see-saw, or a tug-of-rope.  My point is, the basis of it is the very American value of being free from your neighbor’s values.

Go on up the ladder of issues.  The entire edifice of American self-image is based on the notion that a true American can—and must—fend for himself and that, in order to do so, he must be free from encumbrances wherever possible.  If you carry this idea to its extreme, you begin to see why there is such profound distrust of government, especially since the Sixties.

To put it as bluntly as possible, the fear of Socialism is a hatred of being forced to be responsible for your next door neighbor.  The anger fueling the antipathy for most single-payer or universal health care programs in this country comes from a sense that these ideas by-pass self-sufficiency and limit the individual’s ability to be separate from people he or she dislikes.

Now, I hasten to add that Americans do show a tremendous capacity for generosity.  We are sociable, we more often than not will turn out to help people in need, we have a history of spontaneous charity and rescue work.  The money we spend yearly on aid and relief through various nongovernmental agencies and even as individuals is enormous and makes my previous statement seem paradoxical.

It is not a paradox.  It has to do with what we perceive as choice.  See, if I decide to help the family down the street, who have fallen on hard times, I will do so.  I may even corral a number of my friends and neighbors into pitching in.  And if we succeed in helping them out of a tough spot and they get back on their feet, we—at least I—won’t even self-administer a back-pat of congratulations.  Success is its own reward.

But if it turns out, in whatever estimation you care to use, that the family we’re helping is beyond help for whatever reason, that perhaps dad is an alcoholic or they have a different problem that cannot be met or any of a thousand circumstances that make it appear they will never get out of their tough spot, I—and my neighbors—have the option to drop them as a cause.

If we are administering that aid via the government, we can’t do that.

We now must all remember the chorus of welfare stereotypes we have heard all our lives.

Perhaps a little more telling, we must bear in mind the misapplication of the public weal in exactly those circumstances which have resulted in people doing worse.  Many a state welfare agency—it varies—had, at one time or another, qualifications for aid that did often leave people in worse condition.  In New York throughout the Seventies and much of the Eighties, to qualify for assistance, you had to have lost everything.  There was no assistance for someone who just need a little help to keep them in their house or their decent apartment until they could find a job.  No, you come back when you’ve been foreclosed on or the sheriff has dumped all your belongings on the curb, then we’ll give you assistance.

This didn’t happen with Federal aid, but state.  Other things, usually the minority of instances where a bureaucratic glitch ended up costing a citizen dearly, that grew in the telling until it was a horror story.

But it wouldn’t matter.  Because we have a fundamental problem with being responsible for people for whom we have no affection, to whom we feel we owe nothing, we fight against public programs that even remotely seem like Socialism.

We have also been fed a steady diet since Vietnam of governments that run black ops on their own citizens.  The government is the enemy.  We can’t walk away or opt out.  It’s the government, what can you do?

And sometimes it’s true.  I lived through a period during which our phones were tapped and I was followed home from school for a time by FBI agents, all because it was 1969 and my dad owned a gun shop.  Nothing ever came of it, everything my dad did was legal and above board, but the presence of the government was palpable.

Americans want none of that.  We’re independent, self-sufficient, we don’t need your damn help or your damn interference.

Look at the difficulties with education.  Parents resent state requirements to teach subjects of which they disapprove.  Never mind that it might be for the longterm best interest of everyone that their kids know something about real history, real science, or even just about their own bodies, “we don’t want the government teaching our kids things we don’t like.”

But if the government moves against people we don’t like, we’re all for it.  We want the government to do something about drug dealers, pornographers, Ponzi schemers, toxic waste dumpers…

Unless that happens to be our business that’s involved in the investigation and the new requirements…

But basically we just don’t want the government telling us we have to pay for people we don’t like.  And never mind the reality.  never mind that our perception of certain people is skewed.  Fine, if that’s true, then eventually we’ll figure it out and fix it, but we’ll do the figuring out, thank you, and we’ll do the fixing.

Never mind that it doesn’t usually work that way—if left to collective individual sentiment, we might still have slavery, the vote still wouldn’t be universal, segregation would still be legal, and you still wouldn’t be able to buy certain books in a book store.

The danger here is that in arguing against a mindset that is in many ways systemically pathological, we overlook genuine concerns and embrace an all or nothing posture that will as readily dismiss workable solutions because they seem to appease a point of view we find ridiculous.  As in many such issues, the rational may be abandoned by both sides in the heat of ideological confrontations.  There is no question that many major institutions, erected at various times to meet problems that seemed about to overwhelm us, might have been done differently, more even-handedly, more sensibly if only the confrontation with the solution’s critics had not taken on an all-or-nothing extremism.

Somehow, along the spectrum of The People to The Government, a disconnect has happened that will not yield to simple common sense.  Yet the same skepticism doesn’t seem to apply to corporations.  People hate individual corporations, cast them as evil, but somehow fail to see the corporate system as a problem.  The idea seems to be that if only XYZ Corporation were run more ethically everything would be all right—we never quite make the leap to seeing that the way corporations are is at the heart of the problem and that XYZ Corporation can’t run any differently by the very nature of its make-up.  Yet that is the suspicion we carry bone-deep about the government—that it doesn’t matter who is in office now, the government by its very make-up is evil.

The result ends up being an abandonment of rational problem solving.  We’re presented with a false choice—a government solution or freedom.

Back in the Sixties, Ronald Reagan made his political bones running for governor of California, and he took on a proposed national health care bill then being debated.  He called it Socialism and that if we allowed it then “one day you’ll be telling your grandchildren about the time when we were free.”

The only thing you would lose, it seems to me, by using government as pathway to addressing certain social problems, is the freedom to turn your back on someone just because he or she doesn’t appeal to you.  You won’t be able to walk away from your neighbor.

But then, your neighbor won’t be able to turn his back on you.

Yeah, I’m idealizing.  But isn’t that what the G.O.P. is doing?  Stating cases that by their extreme ideological tone are caricatures of reality?

I’ll leave you with this thought:  it may be perfectly natural to want to separate yourself and your family from poverty, even if that means pretending it’s not your problem.  Maybe it’s not, directly.  But we don’t live in a world where we have the luxury of letting the poor remain unaddressed.  Poverty and disease are linked.  Tuberculosis is making a comeback, and it’s the poor neighborhoods where it’s taking hold first, and some strains are now drug resistent.  TB itself recognizes no class.  Money won’t stop it.  Withold services from them and the kids in rich counties are increasingly liable to come into contact with it.  Poverty is an incubator.

I don’t want universal health care because I’m such a great humanitarian.  I want it to protect myself and my family and friends from the epidemics history shows us germinate through the poor first.  Untreated diseases don’t just go away because they live in bad neighborhoods and effect people we don’t hang with.  Let that get started, then we’ll all find out just how self-sufficient we really are.

A Question…or Two…or More…

Just a couple of what seem to me like obvious questions.  (I know, I’ve been writing a bit on the health care debate, and I’ll try to do some other things after this, don’t want to bore anyone, especially myself.)

I see a lot of protesters waving signs that contain something like this:  HEALTHCARE REFORM YES, GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER NO.  TORT REFORM NOW!

Something about that doesn’t quite add up.  If health care is to be reformed, who is going to do it?  The industry isn’t without that there is a threat.  Which means there will have to be something outside the industry doing the threatening.  What might that be?

Hmm.  The government?

And the nature of the reform, if it isn’t to be entirely self-serving on the part of the industry, will have to be devised by a somewhat disinterested party.  Who might that be?

The government?

And tort law…well, that’s, as it says, Law.  Which is legislation.  Which is—wait for it!— the government!

So what is being asked for here?

That the government enact reforms that do not involve the government, do not make use of government authority, do not engage government offices, and will not grant the government any power to enforce.

So how will that work exactly?

Or is there some third party out there we haven’t been told about capable of doing all this reforming?

Oh, the market!  Which basically is consumers, which is, well, all of us.  The people.

But wait…isn’t the government supposed to be the duly elected voice of the people?  So if the people are demanding reform, how are the people supposed to both express such a desire and then implement said reforms?

I guess, through their duly elected voice—the government.

But if the government is not to be trusted, I guess that means the people aren’t to be trusted.  The people don’t know what they want, what is good for them, or how to go about managing the reforms they’ve demanded and, somehow, achieved.  So there will have to be an appointed body of presumed experts who do know how to manage all this to act on the people’s behalf…

Who might that be?

The industry?  Hmm.  Well, since it’s the industry that needs reforming and the people who have demanded reform, handing management of the reform over to the very thing that needs the reform would seem, well, not to put to fine a point on it, stupid.

So I guess we’d have to elect a representative body to manage the reforms.

Oh, wait, don’t we already have such a body?

Yeah, it’s the government.  So by demanding reform of an industry, it would seem reasonable that we not trust the industry (that already doesn’t do what we want it to do) to reform itself.  It would be silly to create a whole other body to oversee all this when one already exists that has over two centuries of expertise in doing exactly this sort of thing.

So how is anything is going to change otherwise?

Just wondering, you know, because some of the demands sort of don’t make any sense.

The Madman In The Auditorium

I like Barney Frank.  He says what he feels, usually in a way that makes his argument better.  But it’s almost a no-brainer to do a comeback on the idiocy with which he was faced in Dartmouth, Massachussetts this past week.  I mean, what do you say to someone who thinks it’s a valid statement to compare Obama to Hitler?

A woman carrying a poster with Obama’s image modified with a Hitlerian mustache stepped up to the microphone to ask why Frank supports a Nazi policy.

There are so many things wrong with this it boggles the mind where to begin.  Frank’s response was probably the most effective.

“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” he asked.  Then:  “Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table.”

He then commented that her freedom to carry that poster and make such lamebrained statements was a tribute to the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech.  I salute his restraint.

To  compare any president of the United States to Hitler is a stretch, even with the likes of Obama’s predecessor.  (I might consider it for Cheney, but even he does not match the level of malignancy achieved by Adolph, nor does our system allow for such people to act with unrestrained impunity, hard as that might be for some to accept.)  But to compare Barack Obama to the mad man of the 20th Century is such a profoundly ignorant mischaracterization that it is tempting to write off this whole experiment in potential civilization as a failure.

Where does this shit come from?

The Republican Party, what is left of it, is grasping at straws, sinking in the quicksand of its own inanity.  We must take care to not be pulled into the quagmire in some misguided attempt to rescue it through well-intentioned but doomed bipartisan sentiments.  The Republican Party has devolved into a nasty cadre of ideologues, a shrinking room of hydrophobic screechers who claw and scratch at anyone who tries to do this country a service by bringing it back to some semblance of decency.  They have fed on their own conspiracy-fevered viscera for so long that they cannot even hear the words much less the sentences of opposing viewpoints.  We should perhaps let them sink and drown.  It would be a kindness.

The fear-mongering is reminiscent of everything we’ve seen since 2000.  Rachel Maddow, who is one of the most able of contemporary analysts on television, shows the process and the connections here.

Shouting, screaming, inane blather—noise filling the spaces in which rational discourse might take place if only the decibel level could be reduced.  Platitudes, sloganeering, slander, and lies are flooding these so-called town hall meetings and shoving aside reason and discovery and thought.  These are not people who are interested in understanding anything, they are people bent on stopping something they’ve been told—been told—they should not allow.

Why?  because for the last almost three decades we have been regularly told that the government is bad.  That anything the government touches turns to dross.  Because when the government tells you it is there to help, you should run away.

Why?

Because corporate America is a competing government and will not surrender power.

There is a scene in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts where the head of the movie studio talks about the demands of the writer’s union.  They want control over their scripts, input int he process of filmmaking, a say in what gets cut, rewritten, changed.  The mogul tells his crony “Uh uh.  I’ll give them money, but I’ll never give them control.”

I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the book in front of me.  What has this to do with the current debate?  (And I ask in all seriousness, What debate?)  It’s the same thing:  corporate America will give discounts, new services, it will spend money through lobbyists on politicians, it will spend money shipping professional protesters around the country, but it will never give up control.

Well, if only it worked that way.  If corporate America got together and and actually did something about the health care issue, then all this might be worth it.

There are simple facts that need to be addressed.  We all know what they are.

Health care is pricing itself out of the the reach of the lower middle class.  It has already done so with the working poor.  It’s becoming too expensive for the middle class.

Ah, the critic says, those people do have access!  Yes, emergency room care, which is not the best and not a fix.  It’s a maintenance system whereby band-aids get applied that keep people going but do not give them health.

Costs.  Technologically, we have the best medical system in the world.  The problem is, we can’t afford to use it on everyone.

Simple problem.  Where do you start to address it?

The publicly owned insurance companies posted profits of between three and five percent in the last few years.  On volumes in the tens to hundreds of billions, that can add up to a lot of money, but direct redistribution of those profits toward cutting costs will do very, very little.  We can assume the privately held companies are making about the same profit.  Sorry, but stripping away three percent profit margins isn’t going to lower overall premiums at all.

Hospitals scramble to make ends meet because the insurance companies can bargain down the prices hospitals charge.  I witnessed that personally a few years ago and was amazed at the size of the bill initially written and the amount the insurance company actually paid.  I was not billed the difference.  The shortfall had to be made up somewhere, you’d think, and it is—through Medicare.

The government already subsidizes the system.  And Medicare works pretty well, but in terms of lowering the overall cost of national health care, its hands are tied.

The fact remains, our tax dollars are already paying a good part of the freight.  How come no one is complaining about that?

Probably because most people don’t make the connection.  And because the government appears to have little say in how the system operates.  (This isn’t true, but no one has bothered to find out.)  What the government does not have any say in is how much all this actually costs.  Supposedly the market takes care of that and it is assumed—generally by people who have health insurance and good care—that the price paid is just what it costs.

It’s like a room into which all the stuff we’d rather not pay attention gets tossed.  Like Fibber McGee’s closet, we can’t afford to open it lest all that stuff explode all over us.

The system is headed for a breakdown, and I imagine that some in the industry are likely trying to figure out how to fix it before it does become like the automobile industry and collapses.

None of which has anything to do with those people comparing Barack Obama to Hitler.  They had internalized the faith that the government must be kept out at all costs, that the government will hurt us, that the government will destroy, that the government cannot do anything right.

They hold these views even while they depend on that same government for all the things they’re not complaining about.  This is very much a religious psychology, which holds two conflicting viewpoints in the mind simultaneously and sees no contradiction.  These folks are incapable of rational discourse because they’ve accepted a premise which is false from the start but which they cannot abandon because it is the foundation of their patriotism.

Yes, I said patriotism.  For they see themselves that way.  They are “saving America” from the Socialists, the Communists, the Liberals.  If universal health care comes to pass, they will have lost their country, because….

Why?  What is it they think will happen?

I do not know.  I can guess, but even that may be off-base.

But one thing I do know—if they win, they will have damaged the political process once again.  They will have made it impossible to hold a rational conversation on a national level.  They will have proved one more time that rather than argue, reasonable people will go home and say nothing.  Because reasonable people usually have difficulty acknowledging irrationality in individuals—functional insanity.  We have a hard time seeing someone as being utterly devoid of a single worthwhile thing to say on a given topic.  We are reasonable, we know they can be if only given a chance, and we have such faith in reason that we won’t accept its opposite in others.  We can’t understand why reason won’t win.

Barney Frank doesn’t seem to have much trouble with that, though.  He nailed it.  The woman with the poster, to him, had no more intelligence than the dining room table.  It would be a good thing right now if all the rational people would start getting a little more impatient, a little less tolerant of idiocy, and little louder.  We’re supposed to be smarter than them, but we are loathe to pick up a cudgel even when the madman is running around with scissors and hurting people.  Time maybe to get over that.

Boston, 1989

One of these days I will get the Art section of this website straightened out.  If you go there now, you’ll find a lot of photographs, but several of them when clicked on expand to huge size and you only see a corner of the image.  I found that if you click on that again, it reduces to screen size.  Still, it’s a bit of a pain.

Meantime, I can always post an image here now and then, and for no other reason than I like to.  Like this one, taken in Boston circa 1989.

boston-1989.jpg

I’m proud of my photography.  Quietly, almost too shyly.  I love the medium, always have, and some time in my childhood I became acquainted with the work of Ansel Adams.  The older I get the more I appreciate his artistry and I doubt I’ll ever match it.  But I’ve done a few pieces that I think are not too bad.

I had my first gallery show in July.  The reception evening was a surprise.  The place was never empty, and most of the people who came through I did not know.  I felt very pleased.  We didn’t sell anything, but I hadn’t expected to.  Now that the bubble is burst, though, I may try to do that again.

I’ve been taking photographs actively since I was 15.  That’s nearly 40 years now and I have tens of thousands of negatives.  The technology has changed and the industry is digital and I need to crack the books and learn it.  I’ve been dipping a toe in the (non) waters of digital imagery, hence the photographs posted here and on Facebook.  I have a lot to learn and I should get on with it before I run out of either time or interest.  But even if I don’t, I can still put a few up here for wandering visitors to enjoy.

The My Factor

Listening to the harangue over the health care reform squabble, I can’t help thinking—even I saw a few episodes of West Wing, I who do not watch television, so of all the  Lefties out there who probably hung on every second of that show, why is it so hard to grasp how things don’t get accomplished in D.C. ?  Yeah, it was fiction, but it was, in my opinion, pretty accurate in terms of the culture.

But people complain and wonder why Obama doesn’t just “ram his reforms through.”

Well.  The man is a consensus builder.  We just got done with a president who wasn’t.  Obama has not yet been in office a year and already people are ready to jump ship because he’s not the second coming of FDR.

How thoughtless, ill-informed, and shallow supposedly intelligent people can be.  It should not be surprising, yet…

First off, instead of presenting his reform package, he handed it to Congress—which is where all the arguing was going to happen anyway.  Suppose he had presented a package.  What is happening now would have happened anyway, and then he would be directly blamed for having drafted a lame plan.  His plan would have been eviscerated and Congress would then proceed to draft something possibly worse than what is emerging now since Obama’s plan would have been discredited through failure.   As it is, the plan being touted is All Congress’s.  Anything wrong with it, it’s on them.   Obama has been arguing that regardless what happens, things have to change—which is frightening to many people.  With the stimulus package, things were already broken.  With health care they are merely on the verge.

Secondly, he’s got lots of balls in the air just now.  A lot.  Most of them are disasters he inherited.

Now, the metaphor has been used before, but that doesn’t make it any less true—this country is a Big Ship and you don’t turn it around on a dime.  If you do that, you break more than you fix.  Maybe that’s what needs to happen, and sometimes we’ve had leaders who did that when there was but one maybe two major things that needed to be tended to.  But that’s not the case just now.

Everything is in a mess.

I’m not going to fault the man for failing to meet impossible expectations.   Let’s assume he did just start “ramming things through” and taking a dump all over Congress in the process, and things would inevitably get worse.  For the ideologues who are displeased with what they perceive as half-measures just now, he might be a hero.  Maybe, but quite certainly he would be a one-term hero.  The Republicans could make good book on a spectacular failure and be right back in power, at least in Congress, and then what?

So I think it a stupid thing to start bailing on him this soon into his term when he is possibly the most unifying, certainly the most intelligent and well educated president we’ve had since…hm.

Here’s what’s likely going to happen.  Congress will put together a lame package.  It will pass.  Then likely as not it will fail.  The system will collapse.  On its own.

Then the big fix will come in.  Congress will be discredited and Obama will be able to present a plan with legs and the  public will back it because they will already have seen what happens when the really necessary steps are not taken.

Right now, the reality is that health care costs too damn much.  The public option was designed to force the industry to charge less.  The way it’s set up, they can’t.  Too many people making too much buck are too dependent on it.  When that system breaks down, then you can fix it.  As long as it is seen to work by those who can afford to hire lobbyists, it will remain in place.

And it’s true, Obama doesn’t have a way to pay for it.  He’s playing a dangerous game right now.  He’s banking on you and me and the next door neighbor fomenting rebellion.  He’s hoping we unilaterally strike (as in labor strike, just so my meaning is clear) and tell the insurance industry that enough is enough.  That we’re not prepared to allow them to hike our premiums whenever we have medical needs or cancel us if we really get sick.  The fact is, the insurance industry is a business, it is designed to make profit, and if it can do that by taking care of people, it will—but if it can’t, then it won’t help anyone it can figure out how cut out.  The basic principles need to shift, but that won’t happen in a system built on conflicting benefits.

It’s ironic, you know, that people are terrified of a government bureaucrat dictating health benefits, but they don’t have the same reaction when a corporate bureaucrat does the same damn thing—-or have we all forgotten HMOs?

It’s not so hard to understand, though.  It’s a mindset and it is basic to the American psyche.

Here’s the mindset that has to be overcome.  “Keep the government out of my medicare.”  I heard that actually said.  Oxymoronic, yeah?  But it expresses a bone-deep sentiment that is fundamental to the American psyche and it is expressed by one word in that phrase—My.

Reality aside, people do not view government services as “theirs”.  They pay their taxes, in this view, to benefit Other People.  Not them.  Yes, yes, I know, it’s ludicrous, but tell me it isn’t true?  The public option would be seen as Not Ours.  If it goes through the government it passes out of private hands—my hands—and becomes something that no longer belongs to me.  Private insurance, private health care, bad as it may be, is Mine.  That’s the key word, that’s the core of the fear.

Tally the complaints we hear daily, often as a joke, about dealing with City Hall.  The Department of Motor Vehicles is a case in point.  Complaint after complaint.  Not all of it invalid, but far far more than is warranted.  Get someone, anyone, over fifty-five talking about vehicle inspections and the more recent emissions tests, and you can get a visceral reaction all to the negative.  People do not see the government as Theirs.  It is an institution with which they must deal, but it is a nuisance, a thing that gets in the way, a burden, an obstacle, not like the local retail store or the private contractor.

Further, though, that resounding My goes to the heart of another sensitive issue in American culture that is connected to merit.  Because, so this reasoning goes, when you support something through the government, when you pay taxes for it, people who don’t deserve it will get it.  You lose all control.  And then you get the same level of attention as “those people over there” who don’t work.

That most of us do not fall into anything like that category, and government programs are pathologically geared to preventing the so-called undeserving from getting anything they shouldn’t have matters not at all.  I will not argue the perversity of the mindset, but that’s where it lies.  Single payer, to take it further, means it is no longer Yours.  Your money goes out the door to the government and is diffused through a population of folks, many of whom you don’t want to pay for.  Never mind that improvement in general public health redounds to all our benefit.  Never mind that dealing with poverty-related disease protects us all.  Never mind that decent health care is fundamental to beginning the eradication of the cycle of poverty.  Never mind that so much would cost much less in the long run.  The question in the average mind is, “Why should I be made to pay for someone else’s health care?”

Now, it doesn’t matter that basically this is the way insurance works now.  We’re talking psychology here, not reason.  The fact is, you can cancel your insurance if you don’t like how it’s operating—stupid maybe, but it’s the illusion of control, the fiction of private property.

And just now, we are still living under the aegis of Reagan-speak, which cast the government as the Other, the Alien, the Tyrant.

It’s a form of classism.  Never mind that it might work better.  The sad fact is, it will work for people many of us may feel don’t deserve it.  And that is part of what America is all about.  Ownership, control of personal destiny, the ability to deny on the basis of merit.  It’s the dark side of the very system that has also provided a great deal of good to a great many people.  It’s a holdover from the age of self-reliance and is reinforced through our romantic connection to Manifest Destiny and the City on the Hill, the latter image most recently invoked by Reagan and referred to obliquely by George W. Bush.  Only the Elect may live there, and that doesn’t include those who can’t (or, in this characterization, won’t) support themselves.

The fact is, we haven’t found a way to effectively argue with this.  Two reasons—it is largely unstated, and it’s hard to debate something that is not even cogently recognized; and when it is challenged, the challenger sounds like a Socialist.

Remember.  It’s all about the My.

When I Was But A Wee Thing

I found a very old packet of photographs the other day, going all the way back to nearly the beginning.  They were snapshots taken the day of my Christening.  This would have been, according to the date written in the booklet, November of 1954.  I pulled the one of my parents and me, did a little clean-up with photoshop, and here it is.

me-mom-dad-b.jpg
Mom was a fox, dad had moviestar good looks—maybe B picture, but who cares?  Mom was absolutely crazy about him and he has never lost his complete fascination with her.  They have never regretted a single day they’ve spent together as far as I know (barring the usual ups and downs every relationship has) and they are good companions.  At this point, they hadn’t been married quite eleven months.  Me?  I’ve been privileged to be along for the ride and I credit them with teaching me  how to love my own Donna.  “You have to like each other,” Dad told me once.  “Love comes and goes, but when you’re not in love, you have to like each other.”

That was the absolute truth.

Dante’s HMO

Now for something less sturm und drang (which is ironic, since just now it is thundering and raining outside) and more reflective.

We’re still attending the Dante reading group.  Yesterday we did Canto XIV of Purgatorio and indulged some lively conversation over the meaning and intent.  It’s become fairly obvious (long ago, back in  Inferno it was obvious) that Dante was not talking about the afterlife, not in any serious way.  All of this is a critique of the world and its denizens.  It is a thoroughgoing strafing and scourging of the component parts of the world through which he moved.  He was doing what science fiction does, talking about the present world through the distorting lens of the fantastic.

There are equivalent personalities in Inferno and Purgatory.  There seems to be a question of degree, however, and an additional component of self awareness that has put the denizens of Purgatory—the Purgs in our group shorthand—and the Infernals where they are.  We have just completed Pride and are in the midst of Envy, and certainly there are those in Inferno who suffer from the same faults.  The difference is the Purgs know they have a failing, the Infernals embrace their flaw as if it is only right and natural.  The person of Chaco for one is convinced he’s heaven-bound just as soon as the bureaucratic cock-up that’s put him where he is gets cleared up.  The Infernals, you realize, are exactly where they want to be.

This is a point I think Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle missed in their otherwise delightful take, Inferno.  They portrayed the denizens of hell as people being punished and are aware of being punished, unable to do anything about it.  But it becomes clear with close reading of Dante that this is precisely not the case.  Chaco, and his ilk, like the way they are, they have no problem with themselves, it is the world that they see as the problem.  They would tear down creation to make it conform to their view of how things should be.

Whereas the Purgs have no such conviction.  They are flawed and feel incapable of doing anything about it.  They know there is a problem, but can’t seem to identify it, or feel powerless to effect change.  Theirs is a more complex dysfunction, and it is compounded by a confusion with the systems they have lived and worked within.  They are loathe to drop the forms they have grown both comfortable and diseased embracing.

And Virgil, who is outside this entire construct being a pagan, pre-Christian, tells Dante:

That was the iron bit meant to hold man within his proper bound.  But you men swallow bait and hook and all, and then your ancient enemy yanks you in—small profit to you then, the rein or call.

Stepping outside for a moment, which is Virgil’s freedom, this suggests that mankind has been sold a bill of goods, a slick salesman has had his way with us, and we bought it.  Bought into it.  And we’re stuck with it.  There are wonders enough in life and elsewhere, but we’re too busy tending the Great Machine to pay attention—or to think we can abandon what doesn’t work in the hope of finding…better.

If Dante hadn’t written this in the 13th century, one might see it as an almost modern critique of the corporate system.  But why not?  The same flaws inform modern institutions, drive people to ignore their own best interests, create the same monsters of singular obessive control.

Seen from this perspective, I have to say—I can’t resist saying—that the entire health care debate seems custom tailored for a Dante-esque interpretation.  Kind of fitting.  And frightening.

Can’t Get No Women So I’ll Die Blues: An Absurdity

George Sodini never got it right, apparently.  He posted a kind of diary entry on the web explaining how not right he got it.  “The biggest problem of all is not having relationships or friends,” he wrote.

According to his confession on the web, he hadn’t had a girlfriend since 1984 or a date since May of 2008.  Hadn’t had sex for 19 years.

“Women just don’t like me,” he wrote.

So he came up with a solution.  If he couldn’t get his life the way he wanted it, he would end it.  He acquired firearms, ammunition, he set down a plan.  He intended to off himself and end his pain.

Only problem with that is, he decided to take a bunch of women with him.

He was 48.  So the last time he’d had a girlfriend, he’d been (roughly) 23.  You can see images of him on his webpage if you choose to look.  He wasn’t bad looking, he kept himself fit, he looked every bit the so-called “Eligible Bachelor.”

So what went wrong?  Or, more probably, what never went right?

And, finally, do we care?

We might have if he had done himself in at home, alone.  Bullet in the brainpan, up through the mouth by way of the soft palate.  Days would pass, someone would notice that he hadn’t shown up.  If he’d truly been without friends, maybe the smell would have alerted someone.  Body found, the notice on the website as explanation.  Sympathetic pondering by people who may have thought he’d had so much to live for.  The irony of such deaths is that those people around the victim who really did care come forward and he would never know.

But instead, he goes out like a kamikaze, gunning down women he did not know—knew of, perhaps—in a fitness class.  Vengeance for his unchallengable loneliness.  All merit for sympathy gone.  Gutless wonder till the end.

Do I have any sympathy?

Let’s see…

Until I met Donna, almost none of my girlfriends stayed with me more than three months, the vast majority less than one month.  I called somewhere around 86 girls to ask to go to my senior prom, and not one accepted, so I didn’t go.  86.  (I found out later that there were 4 I didn’t call who would have gone, but I either lost staying power by number 86 or they weren’t on my list to begin with, it’s hard to remember.)  Sex?  Problematic.  I actually did have sex with a number of girls who then refused to go out with me.  Not because of bad sex (though, frankly, how good could it have been?) but because I was a Nobody, a Nonentity.  They did not want to be seen with me.  Had nothing to do with me, I know, it was a status thing and let’s face it, teenagers can be brutal.

I was frustrated enough after the end of what till then had been my most serious relationship—a woman I had asked to marry me, who subsequently (after initially accepting) trashed our relationship in the most thorough and humiliating manner—to consider suicide.  Not to worry, obviously I didn’t do it, nor has it ever crossed my mind again, no matter how bad things have gotten.

It is very difficult to be optimistic with a track record like I had.  But all things are relative.  I did have dates, I did manage to have something of a sex life, I always had female friends, and I for damn sure always had very good friends in general.  Not many, but this is something in which quality is the only determining factor.

In the middle of your self-pity, such benefits don’t register.

Mainly, my major problem was a matter of communication.  I didn’t know how to do that with females.  The whole idea that I could talk to girls the way I talked to guys was completely and totally alien to my experience—I’d tried that and it didn’t work.   (I wasn’t really doing a great jobh talking to guys, either—when you have a communications problem, it tends to be all-encompassing, but if you have a couple of good buddies it just seems like the problem in uni-dimensional.)

Yeah, I wanted to have sex with every girl I tried to talk to.  It got in the way.  They wanted to talk  (perfectly reasonable) and get to know me, and then maybe there would be some activity.  I couldn’t stop obsessing on all the stuff I wanted but couldn’t have, so all my conversation was stilted and artificial.

Did I know that at the time?  Not really.  I mean, someone could explain it to me, but did it really register in a way that would have changed my behavior?  No.

It was something I needed to learn to do.  And internalize.  And I needed to get past the stereotypes.

Stereotypes?  From where?  Oh, movies and television, of course.  Those guys talked cool and made witty remarks, why couldn’t I?  Well, I could.  But it was artificial.  All I got was rolled eyes and see-ya-laters.

But you learn.  You pay attention.  You try and try again, not in the same way, but in the different ways suggested by the information you get from listening!  ‘Cause, like, it’s not about you.

But it took me a long time to figure this out and yes, it was frustrating to watch all these other guys my age making out all right and being completely unable to figure out what I was doing wrong.  But I figured it out.  Eventually.

And I didn’t shoot one woman.  Ever.  I didn’t even shoot myself.

Why do I tell you all this?

Because frustration is no excuse.  Because I can sympathize with someone who just keeps trying and failing.  Because I’ve been there, feeling unloved, unwanted, a self-pitying lump of despair, staring in the mirror and wondering where the boils are that keep turning all the women off.  But mainly to say that with Mr. Sodini, no matter what he proclaimed on his website, it wasn’t what he claimed it to be that tipped him over the edge.  That was just the excuse.

One of his neighbors told police  “He was so antisocial we really didn’t learn anything about him.”

He was the man who had bought the expensive suit, got the fashionable haircut, wore expensive cologne, went to the party and stood there waiting for people to notice how wonderful he was.  But he never talked to anyone.  And when everyone pretty much went on doing what they’d been doing all along and ignoring him, he went away miffed.

He was broken in more ways than an inability to keep a girlfriend.  It would interesting to find out why his girlfriends left and why he rarely dated anyone long enough to develop a relationship.  We might find that he was too self-centered.  Too disinterested in anyone else.  Because usually, when people aren’t interested in you, it’s because you’re not interested in them.

But I come back to the fact that after all the frustrations in my life, all the slights, stabs in the back, insults, chronic disregard, and general shittiness with which so many people trreated me, I never killed a one of them.  It never even occurred to me to do that.

By the words on George Sodini’s confessional, he had apparently had enough of living the way he’d been living and decided to commit suicide.  But like some ancient warlord, he wasn’t going to ride the death barque by himself—he needed an entourage.

I find nothing sympathetic in the man.  His response to life’s basic ambivalence was one more wrong thing done.  “If you don’t date me I’ll kill some strangers!”  Very attractive, I’m sure that will turn it around for you.  “It’s all women’s fault and to prove it I’m going to shoot a bunch of women who don’t know me and won’t sleep with me!”  Yeah, that’ll make your luck change, I’m sure.

Killing someone else because you can’t get your act together renders you pretty much unfit for any consideration other than as an example of the ultimate loser, the epitome of a screw-up, the zenith of denial that you are the architect of your own life.  Sure, you have to obey the zoning laws, but otherwise how that structure looks is all up to you.  If it’s a ramshackle wreck when you’re done, you can’t blame anyone else.

The thing about being young and awkward is, you learn.  You grow up, you learn, you get over it.  No one is born with the ability to do all right, we all learn it.  Some faster than others, level of ability varies…

The only failure is to quit.  And the surest way to ignominy is to quit by destroying others.

Men are killing women all over the globe, for all manner of excuse.  But mainly because the women left.  They left these men, their families, their villages, towns, cities, countries, because they couldn’t stand the adolescent neediness and control, because they are hnuman beings who want something better.  Women leave.  Men hate it when they do.  And some men will kill them rather than give them the option of leaving.

But none of these men ever seem to consider that they are the reason these women are leaving and if they want it to change, they must change.  If they can.

Blaming someone else for your shortcomings is an ageless game.  It is pathetic.  It deserves no sympathy, but it is, indeed, pathetic.