Friday, May 29, 2015

Trending Upward

"Arrogance is lording over a planet where a majority of all species that have ever lived are now extinct, without giving it a second thought . . . . Evolution does not always mean advancement."
                    - Timothy Egan, "The Arrogance of Jeb Bush," NYTimes, May 29, 2015

All the prejudices I here undertake to dispose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God directs all things to some certain end, for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God."
                   - Spinoza, Ethics, Pt. 1 (Appendix)

Tim Egan's New York Times column glosses a recent, breathtaking bit of Jeb Bush pre-campaign pandering in anticipation of the Koch Brothers' privately funded Republican primary: “And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you,” he said with affecting sincerity. “It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t have a conversation about it even.”

Naturally Jeb's talking about climate science, or climate "science," as he might prefer it. "The people" who say these things, of course, are the very sort who belong to the Royal Society and the National Academy of Science, who issue "reports" which refer to climate change as "one of the defining issues of our time." Always these same people - the ones with the arrogance to pretend to know anything about the very topic they are trained to investigate, who have the unbounded gall to marshall orderly data in support of their contentions, who have the temerity to present a nearly unanimous front, across the global community of climatologists, in their public pronouncements.

Jeb Bush is supposed to be less appallingly stupid than his older brother, who admitted while he was president that greenhouse gas, to which climate change is tied, "is due in large part to human activity." So to give Jeb the benefit of the doubt, he's probably not stupid, he's only pandering for that imperceptible nod from the Koch Brothers without which no Republican can any longer hope to bear the scepter and wear the royal accoutrements.

"He'll say what I say"

Whatever brief enlightenment may have invested our species in the 16th century, when Spinoza wrote, has been suborned, squandered, recklessly spent, traded for a specious idea of our own 21st-century evolution. We've unwisely combined the 13th-century superstition (lifted from Aquinas who lifted it from Aristotle) of a providentially guided universe in which humanity is the acme, perfection and sole purpose, with the (otherwise salutary) idea of evolution. 

The hybrid notion, of a providentially-guided evolution, is a travesty - the idea that humans evolve according to some divine plan which tends towards the survival, eventual perfection and assured persistence of (at least the more advanced examples of) the species. (Technology abetted by capitalism make, on this view, but a pair of God's handmaidens.) Things don't, of course, work like that in Darwin's world, a nonfictional realm in which the inapt and nonadaptable can not persist, a world directed towards no end, a realm in which survival is merely one outcome of natural process and not a goal towards which things necessarily tend according to some benign inevitability. 

To suppose otherwise, to ignore the fate of the coelocanth and the great sloth, is true arrogance; it is the arrogance that supposes humans alone are exempted from the natural mechanisms that drive the habitable planet. We will likely become the sole species whose extinction was due to its own stupidity.

Jeb's earnest wish to be able to have this "conversation" is another specious bit of Republican open-mindedness. No, such a conversation is no longer edifying, useful or instructive. Here's NASA's version, if you really want to have that conversation, a version which accommodates the Fox Newsers' claim (accurate so far as it goes) that the mean global temperature has dropped in the past decade :

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memento Mori

Listening to certain favorite pieces of music can call up strange and sudden intimations of mortality wrapped in a perfectly consonant sense of transcendence - all of which is, admittedly, temporary if a bit heady. One such piece is Jehan Alain's organ piece, the "Litanies," which comes out of the quiet with suddden bravura, high tones bordering on atonalities that lend a kind of awful immortality to its young composer, a sense that the listener may also share in such good fortune.

The Litanies is probably the most remarkable of Alain's not so many other organ compositions, mainly written in the 1930s when he was a young organist at the church of Saint-Nicholas de Maisons Lafitte in Paris. Alain was a regular prize winner at the Conservatoire de Paris, a composer of ethereal and dissonant "modernist" compositions - tight, structured, mostly meditative rather than exuberant - whose tonal qualities (not entirely "harmonies") are perfectly matched to the high, reedy tones of a French organ, an instrument which exchanges the grandeur of a German cathedral organ for refinement, a high madness and finesse which suggests immortality founded in spirit and irony rather than in forcefulness and overbearing strength. The Litanies seems to me the swelling exception to this, the intimation of death and transcendence.

Jehan Alain (1938)

" . . Alain was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider in the  . . .French Army," Wikipedia records. "On 20 June 1940, he was assigned to reconnoitre German advance . . . and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching tread of the Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the enemy troops with his carbine, killing 16 of them before being killed himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre . . . and was buried, by the Germans, with full military honours."  He was all of 29 years old, and a musician at that. It is not implausible that the mechanical sound of such a near and sudden approach of the rebarbative was sufficient to make him die for music.

The other bits of music that have something of the same effect - a kind of transcending of thought, an immediate sense of something supra-human which religion never seems quite able to illumine in an ironic soul - are Beethoven's symphonies, especially the Third, the "Eroica," (with its grand and awful 'marche funebre); the Seventh (with its even more g. and a. funeral march); and of course the choral Ninth which, with its depth, power and optimism, subverts our post-20th century judgment that (given what we've done to one another in the interim) such a sanguine view of humanity must have been naive.

The 'Eroica' was written as a tribute to Napoleon, a tribute which was rescinded when, in 1804 Napoleon declared himself "Emporer of the French," thereby becoming, according to the composer, "no more than a common mortal." As are we all. But perhaps, Beethoven seems to whisper and shout, mortals all, we can do better than where the last two centuries incline us.

After 11 Israeli athletes, in Munich for the 1972 Olympics, had been held hostage and then assassinated by Arab terrorists in the wake of Israel's six-day military assault on Arab territories, the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolph Kempe performed a memorial performance of the "Eroica" - less than three decades after the liberation of Hitler's concentration camps, a memorial to Jews performed freely and in great deference by Hitler's hometown orchestra.  If nothing can ever be said, say it with Beethoven.

Hostage takers, Munich 1972

 And then there is Max Bruch's violin concerto #1, Romanticism in its dark and driving quintessence, the violin wafting in just after the first dark bars of ominous strings, the solo persisting in fleeting and answering strains. A swallow chasing a wasp above a deep and uncompassed sea, the picture of any soul, today and tomorrow.

A lost happy soul

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Have a Twinkie (You'll Feel Better)

“In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”  —  Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

And with all due respect to Mr. Bierce, I submit that the good doctor may have had it right the first time - the fraud's first refuge, in the United States at any rate, is to carp about the overreach and persecuting zeal of the government (generally pronounced 'gummint'). Either way, Bierce's gloss pays due deference to the fact that patriotism, like talk and Chinese binoculars, is cheap and easily come by. Take the Bible and the Constitution, wrap that hellish package in a flag, then put on yer cowboy hat and you've got the unabashed squinty-eyed humbuggery of Cliven Bundy.

There is a legerdemain practiced by the ultra-right in which some imaginary "exceptional nation" is cognitively divorced from its government, and the resulting gap permits any number of transgressions against the latter (real) institution in order to preserve the delusion of the (fictitious) former. By all the available evidence it appears that a deep hatred of government is a sine qua non for true love of country. I can't help but wonder how, say, Sennacherib of Assyria would have felt about such a refined sense of grievance among his own subjects.

"Here, hold this - it's your head."

Here's how it works: patriotism in the name of some delusional great nation is the refuge of scoundrels, fraudsters, hypocrites, PayPal scammers,and other assorted felons either currently members of Congress or lobbying said members. But the federal government - the actual institution, not the fraught imaginings of such cranks - is charged with protecting the citizenry against those same fraudsters and felons. Their hatred of "government" is only natural, since it is the very institution charged with insuring that they can't engage in the sorts of things they intend to engage in.

One unsavory case in point: James T. Reynolds, Sr., Tennessean, patriot, ex-husband of another felon and father of James, Jr., a third felon.

The New York Times and any number of other media outlets report today that four nonprofit cancer charities founded by Reynolds and operated by his extended family and associates, have been named in a fraud complaint (not a lawsuit, unfortunately) brought by the Federal Trade Commission in concert with attorneys general for the fifty states and District of Columbia. The Reynolds' operations are estimated to have netted them $187 million dollars in the brief span of four years from 2008 to 2012. You can read the details anywhere on the web, but what particularly caught my eye was this feeble attempt at exculpation by Reynolds Junior, CEO of the Arizona-based Breast Cancer Society.

The society settled before the complaint was filed, then promptly closed its doors. A statement on the society's website reads in part that "Charities - including some of the world's best-known and reputable organizations - are increasingly facing the scrutiny of government regulators. Unfortunately, as our operations expanded - all with the goal of serving more patients - the threat of litigation from our government increased as well."

"Our government" - nice touch that, offering us all - plain folk and wealthy frauds alike - common cause against the very institution charged with regulating practices like skimming 97 percent of every charitable dollar for personal use - cars, luxury cruises, college tuition and dating services - the remainder going to purchase "medical services" such as boxes of paper plates, plasticware and napkins, or childrens' toys (sent to an adult cancer patient), even boxes of Hostess Twinkies.

"Feeling better?"

I'm guessing that, "threat of litigation" aside, there is no more loyal patriot to be found than Reynolds Minor. He just hates the institution that threatens his livelihood with lawsuits, calls him out for what he is, and won't allow him his cut of the charitable pie any longer. Anyone could eat American Pie if the government would just step aside and let us patriots get about our business. And, though capitalism may be the economic system handed down to our Founders through providential foresight in grace abounding, the Reynoldses are not capitalists. Still, by their considerable enterprise, they have turned even cancer into a free market commodity, and taught us all how charity might trump capitalism as the shorter route to prosperity.

The money isn't there, in case you were hoping for a refund. But you can be certain the tax man didn't get any either.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Fever Dreams

It's no longer news that the State of Texas, that cynosure of every secessionist's fever dreams, is monitoring some local Department of Defense training operation for sinister and subversive intent. Why the federal government would want to own Texas is anyone's guess except that it already does, so what's the big deal? In the world of crazytown news, I've come to think of Texas as the new Floriduh (another state which keeps a pretty stiff pace).

I know that I have foresworn my usual diet of tinfoil-hat political mockery, and that this particular bit of regional exceptionalism is old news by now. But as I think I've mentioned, I am residing literally within spitting distance of the state (not that I would ever do that), and everything at the house here has been quiet since the rains started and they shut off the irrigation sprinkler motor across the road (in Texas). Which brings me to my point.

While these sorts of febrile federal-takeover maunderings are the stuff of internet geniuses, adolescent masturbators, and those intelligent enough to see that it's already over, Texas guvunner Greg Abbott has endorsed this mawkish foolishness by deploying the state's national guard to monitor the comings and goings of our boys and girls in government-issue camouflage, now wandering across the abandoned reaches of West Texas, a strange place unto itself but still nominally within the national boundaries. (And frankly a better place for our military personnel than others have imagineered them into.)

If you look deeply into Gregg Abbott's eyes, as you can do in this photograph of him waving his hands like an ESPN hockey commentator . . .

 . . . you can probably detect nothing more sinister than a genetic vacancy, as you would expect to see in the blank gaze of any elected official - though not quite barking mad, like the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who wears a cross on his sleeve - lapel - as a sort of shamanistic assurance (as in 'everything's working out fine,' not as in 'oh shit, we're all nailed') . . .

"Imagine that this here snowball is the earth's left testicle."

I have no further wish to asperse Texans in particular, having come to know and admire many fine specimens of the soil, and having already had my fun in these pages during the reign of Guvunner Rick Perry, who also weighed in on the Jade Helm speculation to allay the fears of his fellow citizens by differentiating between a noble American military tradition on the one hand, and an upstart, sharia-inspired federal presence on the other. That, little as it may be, should keep the lid on in Waco. (Which is really a different thing from Ferguson and Baltimore, see, because it was white dudes, and they are not a bunch of savages who riot.)

But in a gentler time when people went crazy, we kept special places for them and transported them there in the padded van . . .

 We offered expert and specalized treatment by a rigorously trained medical profession . .
 "Hey, I t'ink we gonna hafta take offa da head."

These days we just lock them up (when they happen to look like this) for as long as we can manage to make them stay . . . 

Angola (LA) State Penitentiary lifer Chris Gage

When they look like this - a vacancy of forceful, manly, whiteness - we elect them to the statehouse, even when they exploit their elected office by enacting the sort of lethal mayhem calculated to keep them in it for as long as they can manage to stay.

Sic transit gloria patriae

Saturday, February 28, 2015

2.28 (Saturday) Refulgence of St. Norbert

According to the BBC News, a Canadian man was rescued from a snow storm after being mistaken  for a seal by another Canadian man. As the BBC News is not a notable source of merry japes, the story bears further consideration - particularly so in a zealous age in which our animal natures are cause for so much unseemly embarrasssment and hotly denied by right-thinking evangelicals on all sides of the monotheistic divide. (I also note in passing that, to my scant knowledge of hagiography, there is no patron saint of seals, so I have had to invent both St. Norbert and his liturgical day for this occasion.)

St. Norbert (So? He's Canadian.)

At the start let me assure everyone that this is not an aspersion on the perspicuity of the Canadian - one mistaking another for a seal. It seems that this chappie was making his way across the snowy Nova Scotian landscape, much in the way a seal might do, wending his way to a hospital appointment, when his car failed him. He exited his car and began to walk to a nearby house, but his arthritic knees quavered. Seating himself in a snowbank to rest, he found himself unable to right himself again after the fashion of humankind. So, fearing hypothermia or some other hazard constitutionally unknown to pinnipediae, he began to crawl along a darkened and snow-covered road toward the nearest lights in the landscape when he was discovered. 

"Well, he was obviously here."

His savior cannot in the strictest sense be called a samaritan, since he thought it was a seal in distress - orthodoxy requires that samaritans come to the aid of their fellow humans alone, any other creature in distress being fair game, so to speak, for the table. So the second man's act of kindness was perhaps doubly creditable in that he went willingly to rescue what he supposed to be a dumb creature and no christian at all. 

My alter ego was forever exercised by the similarities, even the superiorities of animals over humans ("there is no animal in the world as treacherous as man," he thought). He paid attention to his cat and his dog and rarely resisted their attempts to distract him. A fox, he remarks, stopping to listen before crossing a frozen brook, is making the same causal inference, using the same faculty, that supposedly marks humans as superior rational beings. 

The story of the man walking like a seal is just another case in point, another argument, a fortiori, for the very point I am making - though seals do a seal walk so much better than we do, we can clearly emulate them well enough to fool the average person of good intention. We are (literally, in this case) on all fours with the animal kingdom. And a man out on a wintry night stopping to help a distressed seal is a purely human moment, a recognition of our common animality and an implicit wish to coexist peaceably. The subsequent discovery that it was a person and not a seal adds nothing to the kindness.

"On behalf of all seals, I'd like to thank him for his interest," the rescued seal quipped. And well spoken, too - what better spokesperson for the world's pinnipeds than the man taken for a seal?