"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Annals Of A Bureaucrat - Government Shuts Down And No One Notices

 Harry Fender worked in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of ______which occupied a sprawling four square block building and employed thousands who, said one Washington wag, could be reduced by half and no one would notice. 

Yet Fender took his job very seriously, untroubled by the flow of papers that circulated through his office and onward and upward through the bureaucracy.  Such layering was an assurance of democratic process - decisions that were participatory and inclusive could not be taken without due deliberation of many; and in such a multivariate democracy such as America's there were many bases to be touched. 

While he worked in Accounting - keeping track of the federal billions that were channeled from Congressional decree to local states and municipalities - his business could not be transacted without the imprimatur of other departmental units - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, labor, producers and suppliers, investors, lobbyists, philanthropic organizations, and many more. 

Not surprisingly, few of these units ever agreed.  One farm subsidy entitlement passed unanimously by the House got stalled in the Department of Agriculture by a hardline group of gender activists who objected both to the language of the legislation and its intent.  Too few women were to be directly benefited by the bill, and would be terminally consigned to egg baskets and drawing water.  The generous allocation by Congress should not only be allocated for machinery, well-drilling, and mega-crop management, but 'ground-level' activity, i.e. that of women. 

The Department of Social Welfare was the worst, dealing as it did with the most contentious political issues of the times.  Not only who should be entitled to welfare and how much; but when, how, and how much should beneficiaries contribute and pay back   The Department of Health and Human Services was just as bad, riven by partisan politics from the day COVID came to America. 

So after many years in government Harry Fender was used to infighting, squabbles, and petty distinctions; but reckoned that the job of a good bureaucrat was to filter, strain, and purify and to produce a product which, although not ground-breaking or innovative, was workable - a good compromise. 

When the government shut down, as it did periodically, the fracas on the fifth floor and the ninth and in the rest rooms and by the coffee machines stopped.  The corridors were quiet, and only a few office lights remained on - Harry's one of them.  Although most employees were furloughed, the shutdown order specified that someone must remain to show the flag - or in the language of the legislation, 'Assure continuity and decorum'; so it fell on Harry to keep the lights on.  

He was not allowed to work, however - the administration had temporarily suspended Internet access, and intelligent algorithms monitored screen time on every open computer - and so he settled in to days of long lunches, walks in the park, and the occasional movie.  While Henry was a serious, dedicated worker, he enjoyed these days of enforced leisure. Because they were mandated, he never felt guilty about his excursions, his outdoor cafes, and his early sundowners at the Olde Ebbitt Grille. He knew that everyone - Congress, the White House, the bureaucracy, and the people of America - needed and depended on government, and it would soon be back. 

However, most Americans hardly even noticed.  The business of America is business said 'Engine' Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman and private sector advocate; and so it was.  The government might be closed, said businessmen and women at every level of the economy, but our doors are open,  If fact many were delighted to get government out of their hair.  The government business of regulation - invasive, intrusive, obstructionist - paused, and the machinery of supply and demand economics cranked out products, financial instruments, buyouts, takeovers, faster than ever. 

Local banks continued to loan, small shops and salons kept selling and servicing, and only die-hard environmentalists who could not hike the national trails of Yellowstone or the Blue Ridge, were inconvenienced.  Congress, in passing its government closure bills was sure to add important codicils - Social Security and Welfare checks would still be in the mail, and the Post Office would remain open to deliver them. 

Democrats who had the most at stake in government closures - they were the party of big government - worried about public sentiment.  If the shutdown lasted too long and few Americans felt any pinch, conservatives might well achieve their goal of reducing if not eliminating government. 

After all, what was the Department of Agriculture doing in an international free market anyway, other than doling out farm welfare?  Why was there a Department of Commerce when dirigisme and state incentives were devices of socialist states; and corporations were quite able to fend for themselves in the international marketplace?  Given the longstanding local control of public education in the United States - local school boards were supreme- why was there a Department of Education?  Health care in America has never been socialized or nationalized, and the private sector has guaranteed top quality health care and life-saving drugs without government.  The list goes on. 

Henry was glad when government returned to work.  He had gotten bored with his walks up and down K Street, around the Washington Monument, back and forth along the Tidal Basin, enjoying his lattes and croissants at Starbucks and Peet's; and more than anything, he was anxious to do the nation's work. 

Despite the endless papers, meetings, colloquies, revisions, retooling, and reorganizations of his department, a kernel of truth and justice was always squeezed out.  It was all worth it. 

Meanwhile, despite the brouhaha in Congress leading up to the shutdown, the late night meetings, the media howling and accusations, the rest of the nation was completely undisturbed; and, as Democrats rightfully feared, citizens began to wonder what the good was of government after all.  Congress was little more than a circus side show; the inner workings of the federal government were tangled, confused, and clotted with bureaucratic lifers; and the state legislatures and departments were no better.  

There would always be the true believers, the ones for whom government was still the protector of democratic values, champion of the poor and disadvantaged, promoter of equal rights and social justice, and the locus of good; and they were furious at any trimming of the sails of the ship of state.  The legitimacy of government could not, should not, ever be challenged. 

Yet more and more these voices were muted; for the more government was shut down, and the more its billions of tax monies expropriated from the electorate were wasted in fraud, misuse, and mismanagement, the less patience Americans had for government, any kind of government. 

Eventually Harry Fender went back to work, happy that once more his computer was alive, meetings resumed, and his inbox filled.  The kernel, he thought, the kernel.  He would find it. 

Friday, September 29, 2023

Feminine Beauty - A Beautiful Woman's Value Has Been A Constant For Millennia

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.  The standards of feminine beauty have not changed for millennia. Symmetrical features, luminescent eyes, full lips, and luxuriant hair all express health, wealth, and well-being as well as being pleasing to a natural sense of geometrical order, and sexual appeal.  There is little difference between  the women painted by Leonardo and the most beautiful Hollywood actresses of today.

Such beauty has always assured success.  All things considered, beautiful women are hired first, promoted first, married first, and sought after always.   Beauty has been less important for men whose success and sexual appeal has come largely from professional ambition, family status, and wealth; but still, the tall, handsome man is always noticed, deferred to, and given the benefit of the doubt.  While women may reasonably doubt these men’s fidelity, they are drawn to them.  Male beauty implies good breeding, good nutrition, and good genes.  It is a stand-in for the more easily assessable and practical qualities.

It is no surprise that the women portrayed in art – the women of Botticelli, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Ingres, and the sculptors of ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome – have been beautiful.  The wives and courtesans of royalty, the aristocracy, and the socially prominent have been beautiful, and while kings like Henry VIII, desperate for an offspring, chose as much for fertility as for beauty as he continued to remain childless, most demanded only the most attractive.

Image result for images nefertiti

It is also not surprising that the standards of female beauty in non-Western cultures which have in recent years emerged from poverty – India, China, and Korea – have become more universal, remarkably similar to those in the developed world.  This is in part due to competition – It is understandable and normal for women in formerly poor countries, now rich, to emulate women in the West. 

The factors of economic privilege, health, and well-being also come into play; but it is the undeniable quest for the perfect female beauty which has endured for millennia that is perhaps the most important factor in this evolution.  This is not to say that the ancient Asian standards of beauty were not admired, but that exposure to the more universal characteristics of beauty derived from classical civilization and continued, assured physical homogeneity.

The enduring standards of female beauty while valued as signifiers of health and well-being are even more indicative of an inherent male sexual preference.  Heads will turn and have turned for centuries for beautiful women, women whose facial symmetry, balance, and sexual suggestion are desirable regardless of status and class.  While the circumstances of poverty and social disadvantage have inhibited women’s sexual choices, and while most poor women in difficult circumstances have no opportunity to expand the gene pool, to marry up and more attractively, some are discovered or manage to expand their opportunities.

The point is less about social mobility than a seemingly innate, hardwired, male preference for classic female beauty.  Men may choose to ignore a woman’s lack of physical attractiveness for her intelligence, talent, charm, and sexual allure; but all things considered, they would prefer a woman with all these attributes and beauty.

Since most women are not beautiful, sayings like ‘Beauty Is As Beauty Does’ or ‘Beauty Is Only Skin Deep’ reflect a cultural compromise.  It is within that one should look for beauty; for the intelligence, compassion, consideration, talent, warmth, humor, and energy that are far more important than superficial looks. These qualities to not level the playing field, but they help adjust it.  At the same time appreciating female beauty and appreciating its economic value does not preclude an appreciation and acknowledgment of a woman's intelligence, creativity, insight, or savvy.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Feminism was particularly significant because it attempted to redefine beauty and change perspective from a purely male one to a female one.  What men thought of women was irrelevant, said feminists.  Every woman’s ‘beauty’ was relative to her and her alone; and that female value and worth had nothing whatsoever to do with looks or appearance.

This new perspective was indeed radical because it challenged the notion of essential beauty and challenged men’s authority at the same time.  It was appealing to women not only because it gave them new authority, esteem, and privilege but because it marginalized the idea of physical beauty.

Or so feminists thought.  Women today might be more self-aware, confident, ambitious, and powerful than ever before; but classic beauty has not lost either its appeal or place in popular culture. Study after study have shown that beauty has benefits far beyond the bedroom.  Attractive women and men are given preference in hiring.  While supervisors may not admit it, a candidate with all the professional qualifications plus beauty, is more likely to get the job.  Professor Shahani-Denning of Hofstra University has compiled the most important research on the subject.

The bias in favor of physically attractive people is robust, with attractive people being perceived as more sociable, happier and more successful than unattractive people.  Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students, voter preferences for political candidates, and jury judgments in simulated trials.
Recently other researchers have investigated the “beauty is goodness” stereotype in U.S. films and found that attractive characters were portrayed more favorably than unattractive characters on multiple dimensions across a random sample drawn from five decades of top grossing films.  The authors also found that participants watching a biased film (level of beauty and gender stereotyping) subsequently showed greater favoritism toward an attractive graduate school candidate than participants watching a less biased film.  In the area of employment decision making, attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants.

Beauty is a fact.  It is a tradable commodity, a factor in natural selection, a variable in most social and commercial transactions, and the first and last thing we remember about people.  It is no surprise at all that some of the most famous paintings and sculptures in history have been of women. Artists since Greek and Roman times saw a sublimity in the female form.

So what of the ninety-five percent of women who do not measure up to the classical beauty of Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlize Theron, or Margot Robbie? It is not surprising that billions of dollars are spent on women’s cosmetics alone (an estimated $62 billion in 2016) and many billions more on clothes and apparel.  If one is not born with natural beauty, there are many ways to compensate.  Cosmetics which accentuate naturally attractive features and disguise the unattractive; or clothes which complement skin color, natural line, and physical attributes will always be in demand.  Beauty is big business, and with the weight of social history and biological imperative behind it, high revenues should be no surprise.

And for those who cannot afford even these cosmetic enhancements?  Those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, consigned to mating within a narrow range of unattractive options, must live not only outside the socio-economic mainstream, but the cultural one as well.  The diamonds-in-the-rough, natural beauties who appear in all generations and at all socio-economic levels, will either be ‘found’ or will marry as best they can to the most promising, attractive man of their milieu; but most women will muddle through, painfully aware of beauty and their lack of it each time they turn on the television, and settle.

There is no shame in this, nor any lesson.  Just as there are bell curves for intelligence, talent, and athletic ability; so is there one for beauty.  The marvelously beautiful and the pitifully ugly lie near the asymptotic ends of the curve, and are small percentages of the population; but just as it is no accident that the economic and financial One Percent is small because the number of people with high intelligence, unique ability, ambition, will, and talent are few and far between; so the Beautiful One Percent is equally small.  Both, however, exert a disproportionate influence.  No one ever said that societies are equal. 

Yet there are margins of truth beyond which image cannot reach.  A face-lift can enhance the way a woman looks to others.  It is a restoration of the image she has always presented, and one which reflects who she feels she is.  A woman who had always been classically beautiful and whose classic beauty had helped her gain social access into the well-heeled and well-watered society she had always sought, despite her modest upbringing, felt it only right and reasonable to restore that beauty once it began to fade. 

There is no point, many women feel, in being patrician  like the Bostonians who were as proud of their sags and lines as they were of their patched tweeds and beat-up old Fords.  If a woman thinks of herself as beautiful- her most telling and important characteristic – if that beauty disappeared, so would she.

Facial reconstructive surgery – becoming a woman you never were – was another thing altogether.  Why should a woman, fated with the genes of unattractive parents, suffer that fate if she had the means to neuter them?  There was no pride in being thought of as ‘the smart one’, ‘the talented one’ when her desire was to be ‘the beautiful one’.  Women since Nefertiti have been prized for their beauty, a beauty the standards of which have not changed for 5000 years; so why not choose that universal virtue over others which had more than their share of rough edges. Besides, she wasn’t all that smart.

Old patrician Bostonians call beautiful women vain and impressionable.  How long would their ‘beauty’ last?  Giving in to faltering good looks expressed an existential purity which the vain could never understand. Yet for her there was no vanity involved.  It was only a matter of consistency; and who was to say whether faithfulness to an image, a desire, a creation was any less valid that a spiritless acceptance of the ways the cards are dealt?

Vanity is considered a sin not because of its meaninglessness, but because of its exaggeration.  A woman who has a face lift to restore what was legitimately a classic beauty and the defining feature of her life should never be considered vain.  A woman who was never attractive but who has repeated face lifts, make-overs, and style upgrades to try to approximate a false, artificially-determined beauty is most certainly vain.

We are all vain in that none of us like the stacked deck in front of us.  We will all enhance the qualities we have, gloss over the ones we would like to forget, and do our best to create ones we never had. 

There is nothing shameful about image, fantasy, and fanciful ideas.  Reality for most of us is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Clearing The Decks For The Proper Business Of Dying - The Sad Story Of A Man With Too Many Causes

J.M. Coetzee in his Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, said

Aging is not a graceful business.  A clearing of the decks at least so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old - preparing to die


Harrison Lord felt himself neither old nor prepared to die.  Too many things still to do, he said, and not enough time to do them. Contemplating death and dying were morbid pursuits of interest only to the chaise lounge Florida crowd for whom life had been a dreary affair and death was not the end of something, but the longed-for beginning.  As for him, he would die in his traces, plowing a rocky field as he had his whole life - a life of purpose, good intentions, and happy endings. 

He had been a man in love with the idea of responsibility, of doing good, of making efforts count.  He had been tireless in his pursuit of a more verdant, peaceful, and prosperous world; one of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal pay; one of gender equality and affirmation; and one of restoring the black man to his rightful place atop the human pyramid. 

Rest on his laurels? Never. The fight for justice was a never ending one, and there could be pause, no  hiatus, no unnecessary pit stops along the road to a better world. 

So what would likely be the last decade of his life was to be no different from those before - years of energy, spirit, hard work, and good will.  He was the first to chair an online colloquium on climate change for his college classmates; the first to preside over a seminar on 'Civil Justice And The Rights Of Man', a discussion on Locke, Rousseau, and the need for restoration of civic values, and the first to chair a gathering of Emeritus members of the Equal Opportunity Commission, a meeting to emphasize the need for 'a fight to the death' for equal rights.  

Harrison was a regular contributor to the Yale Alumni Magazine, proud to list his current achievements with references to those past.  His trips with Martin Luther King over the Pettis Bridge had prepared him for the struggle ahead and led directly to his testimony before the House Sub-Committee on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusivity.  


"We are gathered here", he began his testimony, "not only to honor those past, those revered for running the gantlet of prejudice, hatred, and villainy and persevering; but to stress our fealty, our devotion, our absolute commitment to the black man". 

Not once did Harrison even give death a second glance - no frightening looks in the mirror, no troubling questions of mortality, no nettling bits of bleakness, no dark corners, no God, no Jesus.  No Coetzee doom and gloom for him, this crazy business of the proper business of dying.  Clearing the decks meant erasure, not clarity.  Contemplating death meant ignoring the present that would go on after him and hopefully more promising because of him. 

He was peripatetic - crazed to keep death away from his door said his chaise lounge friends who had done their share for house and home, family and friends, and were content to furl their sails, enjoy a sundowner, and enjoy the ease and comforts of retirement.  When all was said and done, what did his never-ending CV matter? Who at the pearly gates was keeping score? 'The last shall be first, and the first the last; for many be called but few are chosen' wrote Matthew.  Good counsel, said Harrison's friends, watching him banging away, losing traction and leather on his soles, filling every crack between loose slats with something, anything.  

"I did that", his granddaughter proudly claimed after she had crayoned all over the first page of his speech on transgender equality (Drag Queens In Mufti - The Outing Of Gayness In Donald Trump's America). Ah, the innocence of a child, Harrison thought, so sweetly proud of her accomplishment.  He, however, had held his pride in check, letting others praise his doings.  Although he listed one thing after another in the alumni notes, he did so with modesty and deference.  Yet, to himself, he said, "I did that!"

The days leaked on, a steady trickle but a persistent one.  He was a year older before he knew it, one more page turned in a fulfilling but still incomplete life.  Despite his wobbliness and bits of bad memory,  he was still tireless in his efforts.  Every lunch, every dinner, every recessional on Sunday morning was his opportunity to make a difference.  God might or might not be in his heaven, but surely it was up to Harrison and his cadre of progressive reformers to do right. 

"What makes Harry run?", joked a Yale classmate who found the herky-jerky puppet who hadn't changed a whit since his days with the Reverend Blanton Parsons, chaplain and Freedom Rider, nights in the carrels of Harkness Library boning up on Samuel Gompers, Lafollette, and Stephen Douglass and preparing another appeal before the Student Union. 

The fact that Harry Lord came by it honestly did nothing to stop the classmate's amusement.  From every possible perspective - historical, social, philosophical, Biblical - Harry's incessant, hectoring reformism was a stutter-step dance to fill the time between now and then.  

When he passed away, a lengthy obituary appeared in both the Washington Post and New York Times - so lengthy in fact that his wife had to pay extra for extra space.  Few people read it, however, so familiar were they with Harrison's career and his prolixity concerning it.  Dead and buried too soon, his admirers said, but then again, everybody had a start date and an end date.