Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ayn, The Donald and the devil's dung

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”
Donald Trump  

I'm really smart." 
Donald Trump

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns--or dollars. Take your choice--there is no other.  Ayn Rand 
My father used to tell me, "Watch the immigrants son, they will teach you your own country, because where you only see shit, they can see gold"... I can't think of a better example of my old man's dictum than Ayn Rand. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1905, Rand emigrated to the USA at the age of 21 and probably no one, native or foreign, has ever understood, and exploited, the dark side of the American soul so quickly and as well as Ayn Rand.

From colonial times America was split between the hard scrabble, small farm and workshop, Puritan spirit of the New England colonies, where the ultra-Calvinist Pilgrim Fathers had fled religious persecution in England to found a "shining city on the hill", this in contrast to the "get rich", exploitative ethic of the slavery-based southern colonies, with their lucrative cash crops: tobacco, indigo and cotton.

I'm making no great discovery to note that being inhabited simultaneously by both of these conflicting spirits is what constitutes the roots of the uniquely American personality. The war of these spirits with each other, along with racism, is what constitutes the core of the American malaise.

The conflict is often resolved by a sort of money-grubbing sanctimoniousness which many people (especially the British) consider America's trademark.

To give you an idea of how welcome a liberating relief Ayn Rand's message that money is the "root of all good" has been to many wealth-obsessed Americans raised in our Bible-beating traditions, let's have a quick refresher of the foundational texts:
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.    1 Timothy 6:10

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6:24
This train of thought has been recently brought up to date, by none other than Pope Francis:
The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.  Pope Francis: Speech at World Meeting of Popular Movements
His Holiness's reference to "the dung of the devil" brings us to Donald Trump.

The Donald seems almost beyond caricature. Looking for one word to describe him, I came up empty in English, but there is a Spanish word that fits him perfectly: "esperpento".

Originally an esperpento meant something grotesque, an object which you might frighten children or marauding crows with, but esperpento was converted into a term of high art by one of Spain's greatest dramatists, Ramón de la Valle-Inclan

Here is a workmanlike definition of what he created:
Esperpento is a type of theatre developed by Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1869-1936) focusing on characters whose physical and psychological characteristics have been deliberately deformed and warped to the point where they become grotesque caricatures. Valle-Inclán used this esperpento as a vehicle for social and political satire. Span¡shD!ct
To give you an idea how The Donald might fit into all this, let us consider one of Valle-Inclan's most famous characters, the aristocratic, Marqués de Bradomín, who considered that humanity, indeed creation itself, was divided into two different parts, one of them being the Marqués de Bradomín and the other part everything and everyone else.

You can see what fun Valle-Inclan could have had with Donald Trump.

I think that the best way of viewing Donald Trump is to see him as a Rorschach Test  of the American personality, which, if you are American, means your own personality...

Scrutinize (with an intense scrute) the things Trump says and does that resonate with you. What offends you? What amuses you? And why.

This is a very valuable exercise for any American, because an American archetype like Donald Trump to work with doesn't come along every day. DS

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Greece is the horse's head in the left's bed

The best thing that can be said of the weekend is the brutal honesty of those perpetrating this regime change. Wolfgang Münchau - Financial Times
You may ask yourself why Germany, and those who follow her, are publicly torturing and humiliating tiny Greece in such a brutally inflexible and ugly fashion, ignoring contemptuously the democratically expressed will of the Greek people and much of European and even world opinion.

The reason behind it is simple... and to be effective it would have to be.

Frank and open brutality is never subtle, that is the whole point: its message must be clear to all.

The following is an excellent exposition of the message, "to whom it may concern" that has been sent  far and wide, using the misery of the Greek people as its vehicle:
One cannot pursue an even moderate left-wing policy in a system of global capitalism. Syriza never got a chance to apply any of the leftist policies that it says it favors, because it was busy negotiating with the creditors and because it had no genuine freedom of economic decision-making, since basically all its policies were dictated by the troika. Even if it had a margin for maneuver, it is hard to see how its moderately leftist policies (halt to privatization, higher taxation, greater role for the public sector) could be implemented. Notice that we are talking here not of some radical anti-capitalist program but of just broadly leftist policies that try to limit somewhat the unimpeded invasion of the market and private interest into all social spheres. Such policies are obviously unacceptable not only to the mainstream EU but also to many individual governments, which fear Syriza-like movements in their countries. Branko Milanovic - Al Jazeera
However brutality is often a sign of weakness, not of strength. The heartless, tone deaf response of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble to the suffering of the Greek people reminds me and many others of the Soviet Union's response to the timid Czechoslovakian liberalization of the "Prague Spring" of 1968.  That was 1968 and "something was in the air", something contagious and the USSR wanted to make sure that no one under their rule "got any ideas" .

Paris - 1968
Today there is also "something in the air". Probably the most influential public figure to speak clearly about that "something" is Pope Francis.
The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home. Pope Francis: Speech at World Meeting of Popular Movements
The public humiliation of Greece, its government and its people may have exactly the opposite effect to the one Merkel and Schäuble desire. It is certainly a lesson to be learned, but the lesson people take away from this "class" may be one of greater political consciousness, one of unity and resistance, and not one of fear and submission. DS

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Po' white racists are burning the American flag?

A white supremacist burning the American flag?

There are times when an expatriate says to himself, "maybe I've been away too long". This is one of those times.

The Charleston massacre shocked me and horrified me, but unfortunately it didn't surprise me... Billy Holiday's classic, "Strange Fruit" is as valid today as the day it was written. Racism is part of America's DNA and will be as long as there is system/culture that divides humanity into winners and losers holds "losers" in contempt and though marketing, celebrity worship and mainstream media makes most people feel deep down like losers. 

In such a system feeling superior to someone, anyone, somehow, is an irreplaceable, psychological crutch. And po' whites need that crutch more than anyone. A person of color that is struggling to stay afloat can feel that her color is holding her back and she is probably right, but "po' white trash", descended many of them from the settlers of pre-revolutionary, colonial times, white, Anglo-saxon, Protestansts of literally Mayflower vintage; those creatures that Cris Rock describes as "Broke-ass mothafuckas, livin in trailer homes, eating mayonnaise sandwiches, fuckin' their sista, listening to John Melloncamp records!" have no such "excuse", they have to take their failure, their loser-hood straight in the vein. "Even" black people hold them in contempt.

So, Roof's murdering a group of peaceable African-Americans gathered for Bible study doesn't surprise me, but seeing a photo of such a white supremacist burning an American flag does surprise me.

Talk about cognitive dissonance: I am of the 1968/Vietnam generation and this image of Dylann Storm Roof burning the American flag is one that I find very striking. Something very important has changed.

Way back in the 1960s, rednecks like Roof made up a large percentage of the draftees that were sent off to fight that war and they were the ones who attacked the middle class boys who were the ones with student deferments, who were the ones that burned the American flag and their draft cards back then as a protest in demonstrations against the war.

In fact, the traditional backbone of the US Army: America's military "caste," has always been white Scotch-Irish southerners, some aristocrats, most of them poor.

What can this burning the symbol of America's military power by one of their number mean?

Reading about him it is obvious that he has had a life and upbringing that is identical to millions of other poor, white, southern boys... This one went around the bend.

Here, I have to quote myself on Dylann Roof, as I believe that, precisely because he is crazy, he is a peek into the darker areas of  an important part of the American subconscious:
They live in their dream world and perhaps their dream world is not so different from ours, differing mostly in that we only visit that world in our sleep or under the influence of drugs and they spend their tortured lives inhabiting it. Their life is a “daymare,” so to speak. Perhaps we could learn about our own hidden darkness by studying his visible darkness.
I am sure his burning the Stars and Stripes is an important signal from the depths of the American subconscious, but I am not yet sure of how to interpret it. DS

Saturday, June 06, 2015

America's Zen koan: What is "freedom"?

noun, plural koans, koan. Zen.
1. a nonsensical or paradoxical question to a student for which an answer is demanded, the stress of meditation on the question often being illuminating.

America is in many ways the freest country in the world and then again it isn't.

For example: America is a country where a wealthy and famous father of six children and grandfather of five, can, at the ripe age of 65, dominate the national conversation by freely deciding to become a woman and simultaneously, America can be a country where a single mother who works full time at minimum wage, and her children, can live in poverty.

A typical, traditional Zen Koan would be, "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Today our Zen koan to meditate upon would be: Is there a connection between these two realities, these two experiences of the reality of freedom, these two Americas... is there any "cause and effect"?

Since our celebrity culture doesn't devote many magazine covers to them, what, exactly does the term "working poor" mean?

While poverty is often associated with joblessness, a significant proportion of the poor are actually employed.The working poor are adversely affected in terms of many organizational outcomes such as job attachment, career attainment, and job attainment because of mediating factors that are cognitive, affective, and relational. Largely because they are earning such low wages, the working poor face numerous obstacles that make it difficult for many of them to find and keep a job, save up money, and maintain a sense of self-worth. The official working poverty rate in the US has remained somewhat stable over the past four decades, but many social scientists argue that the official rate is set too low, and that the proportion of workers facing significant financial hardship has instead increased over the years. Changes in the economy, especially the shift from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy, have resulted in the polarization of the labor market. This means that there are more jobs at the top and the bottom of the income spectrum, but fewer jobs in the middle. Wikipedia

In this the United States is rather unique among developed nations, again from Wikipedia:

Credit Wikipedia

The closest I can come to answering the Zen koan I first proposed would be the following "counter-koan"

Perhaps a single, American, working mother, over the age of 65, would like to transition to being a man:

Credit Wikipedia

The media’s group embrace of Jenner’s transition should be seen for what it is — not a revolutionary step toward minority rights but a money grab for ads, ratings, sales and buzz in a culture of provocation and greed without ethics or conscience. Kathleen Parker - Washington Post 

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.
Jeremy Bentham

 "The rest is commentary — [and now] go study." 


Monday, June 01, 2015

When we teach robots to to fish, do all men starve?

Scott Santens describes himself as:
"Citizen of Earth and New Orleans. Writer and advocate of basic income for all. Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Member of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, moderator of the /r/BasicIncome community on Reddit, and founder of The BIG Patreon Creator Pledge. — @2noame" 
Mr Santens is a leading militant in the basic income movement, which, to simplify brutally, advocates all citizens receiving enough money to live decently, merely because they are human... even if they are permanently unemployed and probably unemployable. A condition which  in the foreseeable future, if we examine the advances in robotics and information technologies, may be the status of almost everyone in  the world... outside the sex industry, or the owners of the means of production themselves.

Without too much exaggeration, this could be considered the greatest change in the human condition since the Agricultural Revolution.

Because for the last 12,000 years, except for a few aristocratic layabouts of inherited wealth, the destiny of all human beings: men, women and children, has been to work hard, very, very, hard.
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"
Genesis 3:19
For centuries, enlightened individuals have believed that education was the solution for advancing humanity. I'm sure you are all familiar with the famous quote of the medieval Jewish philosopher from Cordoba, Maimonides:
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
The genius of Scott Santens has been to take Maimonides' dictum and turn it into the following riddle to describe mankind's present and future situation:

"When we teach robots to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?"  

For make no mistake, the equation, work = life, is hard wired into our civilization.

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.
Saint Paul: 2 Thessalonians 3:10

Just in case you think you can dismiss Saint Paul as representing a "rightwing" mind set, check the following:
"In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”
Try to make a sincere self-examination: if in a future robot-IT driven world, you somehow managed to have a remunerative job, would you be willing to support an enormous mass of unemployable people? Certainly it would put your empathy to a severe test to do so.  And if you,  as a mere worker, would make that sacrifice... How willing do you think the owners of all the robots and the IT would be to share their wealth too? To get an idea, try asking the Koch brothers.

This is really not a question for a dystopian, Sci-Fi film. We have living models with us today of how the world of the future will probably look. 

The other day a friend sent me a link to a wonderful article in The New Yorker about the capital of Angola, Luanda, which in my opinion, describes what the world of mega-inequality will probably look like in only a few short decades... if some cataclysmic social change doesn't take place before then. 

It's a long article and I recommend reading it all, but I've extracted some of the meat from it to give you a general idea.
For the past two years, Luanda—not Tokyo, Moscow, or Hong Kong—has been named, (...) as the world’s most expensive city for expatriates.(...) The country now produces 1.8 million barrels of oil a day(...)The boom has transformed a failed state into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.(...) Almost nothing is made in Angola, so nearly every car, computer, crate of oranges, tin of caviar, jar of peanut butter, pair of bluejeans, and bottle of wine arrives by boat. Every day, a trail of container ships backs up from the port through the Bay of Luanda and out into the sea.(...) Grotesque inequality long ago became a principal characteristic of the world’s biggest and most crowded cities. But there is no place quite like Luanda, where a bottle of Coke can sell for ten dollars(...). Per-capita income in Angola has nearly tripled in the past dozen years, and the country’s assets grew from three billion dollars to sixty-two billion dollars. Nonetheless, by nearly every accepted measure, Angola remains one of the world’s least-developed nations. Half of Angolans live on less than two dollars a day, infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world, and the average life expectancy—fifty-two—is among the lowest. (...) Nearly half the population is undernourished, rural sanitation facilities are rare, malaria accounts for more than a quarter of all childhood deaths(...). One businessman famously distributed Rolexes to guests as party favors at a wedding. Each member of parliament recently received a new hundred-thousand-dollar Lexus. Isabel dos Santos, the President’s forty-two-year-old daughter, is typically described as the richest woman in Africa; Forbes puts her net worth at more than three billion dollars. (...) In 2011, as president of the Red Cross, dos Santos paid Mariah Carey a million dollars to perform for two hours at the organization’s annual gala. (...)Hotels, luxury apartment buildings, shopping arcades, and modern office complexes compete for space in the city center with shantytowns made from corrugated tin and heavy cardboard and with tens of thousands of people who live on mounds of dirt, in the scrapped remains of rusted and abandoned vehicles, or out in the open, next to fetid, unused water tanks.  Extreme City - The New Yorker  
The article will print out to about twelve pages and every one is filled with dozens of grotesque examples similar to the ones I have chosen.

In the article we have the answer to Scott Santens' marvelous riddle, "when we teach robots to fish, do all men eat or do all men starve?".

To paraphrase Marie Antoinette:

"If the people have no fish, let them eat cake"  


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

American science will save Mexico from... the Americans

We can look at the illegal drug problem, first as an individual tragedy, something that destroys ordinary lives and secondly, and probably more importantly, as an enormous business that moves billions of dollars beyond the control of legitimate state authority and which corrupts said authority in a worldwide chain of corruption and violence that degrades the lives of millions of people, especially in poor and disorganized societies.

"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States"
Porfirio Diaz

The oft repeated quote above has become a classic because it would be impossible to condense more truth in fewer words.

Continuing in this long tradition, the insatiable appetite of Americans for "recreational" drugs, and America's endless supply of freely available automatic weapons for Mexican narcos is literally destroying Mexico.
MEXICO CITY—The killing of a 6-year-old boy, allegedly at the hands of five children playing a game of kidnap, has stunned people here and raised questions about the effect the country’s wave of drug-related violence is having on society.(...) For the past decade, Chihuahua state was known as a murder capital as warring drug gangs fought over an important shipping route for cocaine and other illegal drugs heading to the U.S. Since 2008, the state has registered more than 17,000 homicides. In 2010, violence peaked at 111 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with an annual rate of about 4 per 100,000 in the U.S. and less than 1 per 100,000 in most of Europe. (...) In a recent study, (the Citizen Council for Security and Justice in Chihuahua, a civic group) and others like it asked dozens of children across the state what kind of violence they had witnessed in their communities. “We were astonished by the results,”(...) The children had latent memories of the homicides, kidnappings that happened in their neighborhoods. They drew dead bodies in soccer fields, corpses in a pool of blood. They drew weapons, and even bullets.” (emphasis mine) Wall Street Journal
About 70 percent of the guns seized in Mexico and submitted to a U.S. gun-tracing program came from the United States(...) Evidence that U.S. weapons trafficking has been fueling a bloody drug war that has cost more than 35,000 lives in Mexico since late 2006 has angered many Mexicans. "I accuse the U.S. weapons industry of (responsibility for) the deaths of thousands of people that are occurring in Mexico," former President Felipe Calderon said. "It is for profit, for the profits that it makes for the weapons industry." Huffington Post
Of course, as far as official America (the White House) is concerned this is all Mexico's fault:
Foreign sources of opium are responsible for the entire supply of heroin consumed in the U.S. Efforts to reduce domestic heroin availability face significant challenges. (...) according to UN estimates. During the 1990's, Latin America evolved as the primary supplier of heroin to the United States (...) opium poppy cultivation in Mexico remains high, and Mexico continues as the primary supplier of heroin to the United States. Estimated cultivation of opium poppy reached 10,500 hectares in 2012, with an estimated pure potential production of 26 metric tons.(...) The responsibility for curbing heroin production and trafficking lies primarily with the source countries. The profitability of growing opium poppy and the lack of resources or commitment by regional governments to implement crop substitution, alternative development, or eradication are key factors that prevent significant progress toward reducing opium production. (emphasis mine) The White House President Barack Obama
Paradoxically, legalizing marijuana in many places in the USA, thus making, good, reliable, local cannabis available at competitive prices, has been leading Mexico to produce more heroin.
Policy changes in America have given Mexico’s narco-farmers further incentives to focus on opium. Until not so long ago, Mexican traffickers made a lot of their money from cannabis. But these days most of the cannabis in America is home-grown. Nearly half the states have legalised medical marijuana, and four have voted to legalise it outright. Exporting pot to the United States is now like taking tequila to Mexico. Facing a glut in the cannabis market, Mexican farmers have turned to poppies. Economist
Here is the good news for Mexico: in a not too distant future, it will be possible to "brew" heroin in American garages or kitchens like meths: "Breaking Bad" style.
Shortening an industry’s supply chain is bound to affect the activities of existing suppliers. That is as true of the recreational-drugs industry as it is of any other. (...)  Savvy drug barons will therefore be reading their copies of Nature Chemical Biology with particular interest—for the current edition of the journal contains a paper describing a technology that could completely disrupt their business models.(...) For the authors of this paper, (...)have found the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle that will permit opiates to be made from glucose through the agency of yeast (...) instead of fermenting sugar into alcohol, you will be able to ferment it into morphine.(...) If strains of yeast that can turn out opiates are liberated from laboratories and pass into general circulation, brewing morphine-containing liquor for recreational use will be easy. It will be illegal, of course. And the authorities will, no doubt, try to crack down on it. But those who smuggle the stuff from places like Afghanistan may find themselves driven out of business by home-brew opium clubs based in garages. The Economist
You don't have to wear a tinfoil hat to sometimes think that the international "war on drugs" is just part of the game, useful in raising the street price of the product and an opportunity for taking more bribes.

Legalizing cannabis doesn't mean more people smoking it, just as legalizing alcohol after prohibition didn't mean mass-alcoholism, it just meant more tax money for the state.

It might be more productive to ask why so many Americans need so many mind-altering substances, in such quantities, to get through life.

Until that question is solved, the technology of home-brewed American heroin, which, like meths, will never be legal, could at least break the back of the Mexican drug cartels, save thousands of lives and finally, and not the least important for Americans, keep a large country bordering the United States, with a population of about 124M from dissolving into anarchy. DS