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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Illusions Of Travel–You Can’t Go Home Again

One of the many benefits and pleasures of travel is being able to maintain ideal images and to ignore what might be behind them.  I was able to cruise through Papa and Baby Doc’s Haiti, dance all night in Carrefour, eat elegant French meals in Petionville, walk through the markets, down by the port, and drive out to the beaches of Jacmel with nary a thought to the Duvalier’s reign of terror and the murderous Tonton Macoutes.  Port-au-Prince was all romance, color, and meringue.  There are only a few countries out of the many that I have visited where not only did nothing go wrong, but everything went right.  I was so happy that I spent many mid-night hours on the balcony of the Victorian Hotel Splendide smiling and unbelieving of my good luck as I overlooked the city, listened to the drums of voodoo ceremonies in the hills beyond, and smelled flowers, rain, and wood fires. Until the Baby Doc was overthrown and exiled.

Port-au-Prince when I returned for the first time since Duvalier’s departure was a different place, more suspicious and dangerous. The smell of burning tires filled the city.  Many were burning in protest against the regime, the wealthy, or just in frustrated anger and the lawless, dysfunctional place the city had become.  Many more tires were burning because of ‘necklacing’, a particularly brutal form of lynching where a tire is placed around the neck, set alight, and allowed to burn until the victim catches fire and is roasted to death. 

I insisted on staying at the Splendide and found it open but empty.  I was the only guest and a day or two after I arrived, the tanks of another coup rumbled out of their barracks and up to the Presidential palace where firing broke out.  I hunkered down in my room, listening to the BBC.  I was sure that angry mobs would break into the Splendide, ransack and pillage it since the police had gone in hiding, the military was fighting the rebels, and there was no national or local government.

This anarchy, of course, had always been festering, kept down by the repressive forces of the Duvaliers; so the explosive expression of violence and undirected aggression was not surprising.  I never returned to Haiti, and try as I might to remember only the romance, the music, and the languid days on the beaches of Macaya, I could only recall the acrid smell from the burning tires, the mobs storming the palace, and the frantic ride to the airport before it closed.

I have always succeeded in ignoring the bad and seeing only the good.  I think I am lucky in that regard, because most of my memories are good ones.  When friends asked me about the dark side, the dangers, the upheavals, dirt and disease of the places I visited, I always dismissed their questions, preferring to tell them about my civilized lunches on Lake Tanganyika, by the pool at the Teranga in Dakar, on the beach at Copacabana.

I had once stayed in a grand old hotel in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.  It was run by Italians and had a lively, European atmosphere.  It was always filled with visitors, both tourists who had come for the wildlife (you could hear the hippos roar from the verandah) or for work.  The food was excellent, and the city was calm, clean, and cool.

When I returned to Burundi a few years after the first and most devastating clashes between Hutus and Tutsis (never as horrific as the Rwandan genocide but frighteningly savage nonetheless) I insisted on staying at the same hotel.  Once again, I was the only guest.  The pool was half-filled with stagnant, scummy rainwater.  There were mosquitos in the dingy rooms.  The European food had been replaced by gritty local fare, and there were only two or three staff.

Paul Theroux’s latest book, The Lower River, is about a former Peace Corps volunteer who returns to his village in Africa, a place where he had spent some of the happiest years of his life, then finds that both he and the village have changed.  It has become poorer and more desperate, many years removed from the heady and optimistic times after independence, and he had grown older, less resilient, and less hopeful about his own life.  He was returning to Africa not because of Africa but because it might offer him solace and renewed meaning.  He barely escaped from his life. Formerly trustworthy, caring, and social natives robbed, exploited, and manipulated him; took advantage of his good will; and cast him aside unceremoniously.  The story is reminiscent of the true tales of the 18th century British traveller Mungo Park who, at first seeing only the innocence of the primitive, was bought and sold, tied and tethered, robbed and left in the jungle time and time again.

I have always tried to keep this malignant side of culture out of sight.  I ignored the fact that I was played, cadged, and taken by friend and foe alike in poor countries who cared less about the ‘development’ I was peddling and more about the money they could make off its loosely-monitored projects.  I saw this crafty manipulation as part of the Third World, a story to be told to colleagues at the hotel bar, an inconvenience, and only a minor irritation.

I had finally reached the limits of frustration on one trip to Pakistan when I saw my own staff pilfering money, supplies, and equipment in an arrogant, dismissive, and carefree way. I complained to the Secretary of Health who was my official counterpart in the country.  I explained how the money from an American benefactor was being diverted from its original use – to save Pakistani lives (it in fact was blood money paid to the government by a pharmaceutical company whose product had indirectly contributed to deaths in a village because of overdose) – and how he should intervene.

Politely but firmly he told me that I didn’t get it.  It was indeed blood money and neither the pharma company nor the US government cared what happened to it.  Of course the money disappeared.  Why wouldn’t it?  No one wanted the project, were insulted by the stipulations imposed, and rejected American paternalism, and everyone was poor.

Whatever romantic notions I had about that corner of the Subcontinent disappeared like vapor when I heard these dismissive, sarcastic words.

“You can’t go back any more” has become a cliché; but it is nevertheless true.  Time erodes even the fondest memories, especially if they have been built on illusion.  Both Theroux’s character and I suffered from that particular travellers’ disease – fantasy; and while his alter ego barely escaped a savage death, the rest of us have learned that it is better to retain, nurture, and water our illusions rather than see if they are real.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Travel In Greene-Land

I am an admirer of Graham Greene, and find in his stories of travel, alienation, and especially moral and religious crisis, a writer of subtlety, depth, and insight.  As one who has travelled much of his life to as places as far-flung as those described by Greene, and


e for whom travel for all its dislocation and difficulty – or perhaps because of them – I have gained insights and perspective from him.

I was always anxious before travelling, less about the pitfalls of post-Civil War Angola, the political anarchy of Ivory Coast, the crime and social dysfunction of Kenya, the endless civil unrest in Bangladesh, than about leaving my familiar, settled, and routine life.  I was not afraid of adventure, for romance was always on the other side.  I simply was anxious about being wrenched from my life of family and predictable comfort.  It was because of that sharp anxiety that the experiences of travel were so pointed and transformative.  Because I came from a settled life which I could navigate like a blind man, the new world of new countries was especially clear and bright.

Samanth Subramaniam, in a review of a recent Pico Iyer book (The Man Within My Head)in which the author writes of his kinship with Graham Greene, writes:

In his guise of travel writer, Iyer has really been our most elegant poet of dislocation. Ever since Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1988, he has not so much travelled as wrenched himself from place to place; he has found kindred disquieted souls in disquieting locations, all out of joint with their space and time. Other travel writers attempt to feel at home in the world; Iyer thrives on alienation, because it is the facets of this alienation that make up his origin and his destination, his means of transport and his ports of transit. His kinship with Greene, whom he calls "the patron saint of the foreigner alone", has already been implicit in his books; Iyer has always been Fowler in Saigon, or Wormold in Havana, or Plarr in Corrientes, or any of Greene's other unsettled Englishmen abroad.

My dislocation was always temporary. I knew I had a home which I never questioned.  Although my travel was always personal and revelatory, I was never Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, doomed to wander the earth, or a Foreign Legionnaire fleeing from responsibility, debt, and harassing women.  I was not looking for enlightenment like Wordsworth when he crossed the Alps and saw the world from the top of Mt. Blanc with perfect clarity and vision.  I was neither wanderer nor seeker, but I found many answers nonetheless.  In all the more than fifty countries I visited in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, I saw a familiar playing out of history and the human nature that underlay it.  All societies whether tribal or imperial, and all individuals whether alone or grouped in families, acted out of the same self-interest, the same imperative to expand territorial perimeters, increase wealth, power, influence, and status.  With all the diversity in culture we are all the same.

Greene’s characters are lonely, dispirited, shipwrecked souls.  Querry (A Burnt Out Case) is a British architect who has lost has spiritual way and moves to Africa to work in a leper colony.  Although his outward motives seem clear – a desire to help the unfortunate – he is only seeking the context of others more miserable than he in which to immerse himself and to forget his loss of faith, purpose, and meaning.  Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) a long-serving policeman on the West Coast of Africa is also an unhappy but resigned man, living in the most remote and untraveled parts of Africa – The White Man’s Grave – in a stultifying marriage to an unbalanced woman.  His Catholic faith keeps him faithful, but after his wife finally leaves, he has a long affair which is never happy but always ridden with religious guilt.

Greene was a man riven by doubt, unable to give himself entirely to a person or to a faith – even as he knew that to refrain from such commitment was no way to live. Greene, Iyer writes, spent "his whole life searching for a haven that, were he to find it, he would only exile himself from or spoil, and then begin the search again." Iyer negotiates these ideas – of detachment, of faith, of home and belonging, of love, of displacement – turning them over and over like river pebbles, puzzling over their place in his own life, thinking them through.

Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel has collected the writings of many travelers from Ibn Battuta and Herodotus to Mungo Park, Paul du Chaillu, to people like Pico Iyer; and remarked how all of them told of the particular transformation that took place if one travelled alone.  I hated the moment of departure, kissing my children goodbye, hugging my wife, and waving from the cab; but soon I could feel the muscles in my back relax and the anxious fatigue disappear. Chatting with the Bangladeshi taxi driver was the first step in my elision from home to alone.  I was no longer a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and a friend.  I was only me, independent for a month, free to explore my new environment and my reactions to it.

I often had the feeling when I was very far from home that I would somehow never make it back. Tossing and turning in a stifling room in Timbuktu or waiting in the farthest Angolan outpost near the Congolese diamond-smuggling border, I thought I would never leave, that my adventures had this time taken me one place too far.  I have spent hours and days in a self-enforced solitary confinement. I spent three weeks in a cement room in a hotel in Puno on the altiplano of Peru during the coldest, rainiest season.  The altiplano can be spectacularly brilliant, Lake Titicaca blue and deep, Illimani and other snow-capped peaks inspiring; but in the dreary, wet, slogging winter, all is grey, depressing, and futile.  It was at these times that I had glimmerings of the isolation and remove of Graham’s characters.  There were no insights here, just painful loneliness.

So, I share and appreciate Greene’s sensitive unhappiness in the loneliness of exile; but I have been just an interloper for whom the security and comfort of family and familiarity was only hours away – a neophyte. 

Greene’s simple, elegant, lambent language is somehow the only voice that can tell the tale of Scobie and Querry. Every few years I pull out my tattered, fading paperbacks which I used to carry with me and read when I was in Africa, and re-read them.  His solitary vision never fades.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Ruling Class

George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian (1.29.13) about the insularity of the world’s elites and how their hermetic existence encourages uninformed, self-serving decisions.  There is nothing new in this. Kings and their courts were always privileged enclaves, and decisions about taxes, wars, infrastructure, and economy were made to preserve, protect, and defend the monarchy.  Of course, some balance between kings and commoners had to exist.  Kings could not continue to tax monasteries to finance foreign wars without eventual revolt, and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette came to a very unceremonious end when their court became a Baroque imitation of itself and they were utterly dismissive of the people; but until 1787 the monarchy, the court, and the Church maintained a symbiotic, although testy relationship which excluded the masses.

Image result for images marie antoinette

In 'he Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains that the nobles of pre-revolutionary France "did not regard themselves as representative of the nation, but as a separate ruling caste which might have much more in common with a foreign people of the same society and condition than with its compatriots".
Each of the power centers maintained their own elite position.  The Church was wealthy and powerful as the kings of Europe and the Pope wielded influence and commanded allegiance through the dispensation of economic and plenary indulgences and the threat of excommunication. Military allegiances to the king or his usurpers shifted easily and internal strife and dissidence were not unknown; but the corps retained its integrity and its elitism and kept far from the common man except to commandeer him and send him into battle.

The ‘democratic’ dynamics that we now associate with modern society existed within the courts of Europe, not within the people, and especially not between the court and the ruled. Oliver Cromwell was the exception to the rule and for a while an embryonic democracy was the law in England.  However, it did not take long for the elite to realize that this was definitely not a good thing, and the Restoration of the crown followed soon after.

Image result for images oliver cromwell

In every society from the most primitive tribe in the Amazon to the historical courts of Europe, India, and China to the present-day global powers there is a natural tendency to want to acquire wealth, position, and power; and an equally natural tendency of elites to defend privilege against all comers. Louis XVI is long interred, and the French aristocracy a faded version of its former elegant self; but the elites still rule the land.  The Élysée is now the redoubt of énarques – graduates of the prestigious, elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration just as Oxbridge, Harvard, and Yale rule the Anglo-Saxon world.  The word ‘meritocracy’ is often used to describe these new elites, suggesting that they have worked hard to get to rule as opposed to being born into privilege; but the fact remains that today's ruling class share many of the same attributes of education and background.

Monbiot describes his experience in an English ‘public’ school, one of many whose goal was to education and train the future leaders of the country.  According to the author, these schools shared much in common with the military – they were designed to break immature allegiances to family and replace them with more robust and patriotic ties to country.
The role of such schools was clear: they broke boys' attachment to their families and re-attached them to the institutions – the colonial service, the government, the armed forces – through which the British ruling class projected its power. Every year they released into the world a cadre of kamikazes, young men fanatically devoted to their caste and culture.
Ancient Rome was no different.  The schools for the elite studied according to the principles of Cato the Elder – a respect for fairness, justice, courage, fortitude, patriotism, eloquence, intellect, and honor – for he knew that with this comprehensive range of attributes, young Roman aristocrats would know how to rule and to remain in power. 

Image result for images statues ancient rome

Little has changed since then, and elites are still in power, still insulated from the masses, still making self-serving decisions, still perpetuating themselves and fighting external influence.  Although the political parties in America have become democratized – i.e. candidates are chosen through popular primary voting and not by party regulars – there is little doubt that they remain elite institutions with claques of lobbyists helping them to conclude deals with business.  Insularity is assured.  Politicians ally themselves with moneyed interests (large corporations, Wall Street) who keep them in power, gerrymander electoral districts to assure longevity and incumbency, and easily manipulate the media and their constituents with inflamed rhetoric, inflated promises, and little substance.  People may feel that they are part of a horizontal, equalized, democratic system, but they are not.

Monbiot suggests that elites, who depend only on themselves to define worldviews, create their own versions of reality. “If the world does not fit your worldview, you either shore it up with selectivity and denial, or (if you have power) you try to bend the world to fit the shape it takes in your mind.”  Certainly the Neo-Cons who were the architects of the war in Iraq believed beyond all credibility that not only did the United States have a mission to civilize the Middle East with democracy, but that it could – despite all historical evidence to the contrary - complete the mission.

The hawks who surrounded LBJ during the Vietnam War were equally convinced of America’s moral superiority and mission to spread its way of life.  Only until LBJ was brought down by America’s version of the French Revolution, did the mob rule.
Last year the former Republican staffer Mike Lofgren wrote something similar about the dominant classes of the US: "the rich elites of this country have far more in common with their counterparts in London, Paris, and Tokyo than with their fellow American citizens … the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well being except as a place to extract loot. Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it."
Monbiot writes as though this is some kind of celestial revelation; but it is nothing of the sort.  It is business as usual. Why should anyone expect society to change its patterns and ways expressed for 200,000 years?  There is no doubt that today’s societies are more democratic.  There are far more checks and balances to reign in elite power than there were in the time of  Louis XIV or Henry VIII; but elites continue nonetheless, operating according to the same rules of self-interest and –preservation.

Monbiot laments the depredations of his people – those who were educated, trained, and molded to rule in a benign, caring way.  Although he self-deprecatingly calls his aristocracy only ‘third tier’, there is a lot of exculpatory confession here.
So if you have wondered how the current [British] government can blithely engage in the wholesale transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, how its frontbench can rock with laughter as it truncates the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country, why it commits troops to ever more pointless post-colonial wars, here, I think, is part of the answer. Many of those who govern us do not in their hearts belong here. They belong to a different culture, a different world, which knows as little of its own acts as it knows of those who suffer them.
Of course, Mr. Monbiot.  Of course.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Deception And Virtual Reality

Gary Younge (The Guardian 1.28.13) has his knickers in a twist about the increasing deception in modern life.  What is to be made, he asks, of Beyoncé lip-synching lyrics at President Obama’s inauguration, or the sneaking of some horsemeat into British hamburgers, or the fake Lance Armstrong?  Before you know it, you won’t know whom to believe.

He misses the point.  Nobody cares.  Our virtual, imagined, and idealistic world will always trump reality. When mind and machine are eventually linked; and when infinite combinations and permutations of individual fantasy are possible in a virtual cyber-world, few if any of us will long for ‘reality’.  Virtuality will replace reality because it will be so much more attractive.  It will be a world without the warts and blemishes, blebs, bulges, grime, and sludge of life and will be Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Chateau de Versailles, and the pristine air of the Himalayas.

Imagine in a not too distant future that your mind has been linked to the computer via electronic patterning, DNA manipulation, and biochemistry. Cyberspace will contain images, sounds, fragrances, and stories of all of history, and you will be able to enter this world, select the period you wish to live in and the people to accompany you.  You can write your own scenarios and your own poetry.  You can walk through the gardens of Versailles with the love of your life, sit at court with Marie Antoinette, listen to chamber music, and wear powdered wigs and high, buckled stockings.  You can make love in the bedroom of the dauphin, look out the window as the summer sun sets and the last breath of lilacs floats into the room

You will not be aware that this is a virtual reality, for it will be so meticulously created through a combination of your own imagination and the historical record, that it will exist in its own space.  You will willingly abandon reality, leave the dross and sludge of real life behind, and enter a virtual world which you create, and travel in it with the woman of your choice whether real or imagined

Would you ever exchange this virtual world for your old, shopworn, hackneyed, predictable real one?  Of course not.  (Adapted from Virtual Reality,4.4.11 http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2011/04/virtual-reality.html)

Younge does not agree and is worried that our world is headed for the diabolical universe of The Matrix, all illusion and construct with only one sane, grounded, real man to save the world:

In the science fiction film The Matrix, all-powerful machines transform the planet into a huge computer simulation where humans exist only in a dream world. Among the few sentient "free" people left fighting the machines is Cypher, who abandons the struggle following a revelation: he actually prefers the simulation to reality.

This view is the common one – not only has Man been finally dominated by the very machines he has created (See also Terminator I and II); but he has been forced to live in a frightening world of someone else’s fiction.  Pure Hollywood melodrama, full of conspiracy theory, heroism, and special effects.  Cypher, however, understands the temptation, allure, and final seductiveness of a virtual world:

"I know this steak doesn't exist," he says. "I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?" He chews the steak ostentatiously and sighs. "Ignorance is bliss."

What is left out in the retelling is that Cypher is eating not just a delicious steak, but the most delicious, succulent, tender steak he has ever eaten.  In a virtual world perfection according to individual taste and preference will be the currency of the day.

Americans in particular love fake.  Las Vegas is only the most elaborate example.  Why go to Paris, Luxor, or Venice when you can wander through simulated gardens, up and down simulated canals, and stare in wonderment at fake Sphinxes, palaces of the doges, or the elegance of Hyde Park? We willingly give up our disbelief, our sense that it is all not real because it is real.  If you can’t tell the difference, then the distinction between fact and fiction, real and fake disappears.

Is there any doubt that our love of games, now almost indistinguishable from the action of real war or football, will lead to a fully simulated, 3-D, holographic experience?  And is there any doubt at all that we will want to spend hours in an exciting world insulated from shit, Shinola, and dead-end jobs?

Our houses imitate Tudor palaces, Mediterranean villas, Georgian mansions, and Moghul gardens.  American colonial, white-frame or brick homes are so boring, traditional, and ordinary.  Why not opt for the exotic and the foreign?  Who cares if you build a chateau on one measly acre of land in Potomac?  You have created the environment you have always dreamed of. 

So the Beyoncé flap is nothing.  It was her voice belted out on the Mall.  It was she singing, gyrating, emoting.  No one knew the difference until they were told. Were they gypped? No. Younge disagrees:

Well, it makes a difference. If it was as much of an honor to be performing at the inauguration as Beyoncé claimed, she might have found time to rehearse at least once. Moreover, the essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge – it's the one take that matters.

Glenn Gould, the brilliant, eccentric pianist of a few decades ago, known especially for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, quit the concert stage abruptly saying that the audience interfered with his creative process; and that alone in his studio he could remaster, electronically edit, and perfect his work.  Listeners thought they were listening to the same Glenn Gould whom they had seen on stage, but they actually heard a virtual pianist, a more perfect and elegant one.  When they found out, they didn’t care and bought his records in even greater numbers.  Live performance is overrated, said Gould.

Truth is thought by many to be knowable, but most know that it is a matter of perception. 

In 1868, after five years work, Robert Browning completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book. Based on a convoluted murder-case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve books, essentially ten lengthy dramatic monologues narrated by the various characters in the story, showing their individual perspectives on events, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself.

The Alexandria Quartet is a tetralogy of novels by British writer Lawrence Durrell, published between 1957 and 1960. A critical and commercial success, the first three books present three perspectives on a single set of events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II.The fourth book is set six years later, in Corfu.

As Durrell explains in his preface to Balthazar, the four novels are an exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject–object relation, with modern love as the theme. The Quartet first three books offer the same sequence of events through several points of view, allowing individual perspectives of a single set of events. the fourth book shows change over time. (Wikipedia)

Even earlier (1709) Bishop Berkeley denied the existence of reality itself:

Berkeley’s primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived. Thus, as Berkeley famously put it, for physical objects "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"). Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

No one questioned the nature of reality so starkly as Berkeley; and in the early 18th century most people believed in this world, the heavenly, but no more; and while observers in the 19th and mid-20th centuries had matured philosophically to appreciate that truth and reality were more elusive and a matter of perception, today’s world is far more challenging.  In the Age of the Internet, who can tell what is true or false, real or unreal?  It is an age of competing claims, photo-shopping, and imagination.  It is so seductive and easy to believe whatever you read or see, why bother hunting for corroboration?

Gary Younge correctly observes this trend, but draws the wrong conclusion:

These moments of deception go beyond sport and show business. They are emblematic of a culture where marketing trumps substance, cynicism triumphs over sincerity, and what is fake is openly and actively promoted over what is true.

Authenticity and transparency, it turns out, are just two options among many. Worse still, we all too often actively collude in the deception on the grounds that the version of events that has been curated for us is preferable to the truth.

Of course authenticity and transparency are just options in this virtual, cybernetic world; and yes, alternative realities are being curated for us during this transition period before our eventual self-curated imagined, virtual world.  The train has left the station.  The smell of ‘real’ grass, ‘real’ lilacs, and ‘real’ pine trees will soon be things of the past.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Catholic Church–Insular And Remote

Frank Bruni reviewing Garry Wills new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (New York Times (1.27.13) refers to “the curse of Catholicism” an elitist insularity which in its self-protective secrecy has widened the gap between the Church and its believers:

The Roman Catholic Church, specifically to its modern incarnation and current leaders, have tucked priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapped them in mysticism and prioritized their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews. I have a problem, in other words, with the church’s arrogance, a thread that runs through Wills’ book, to be published next month

Wills lays the blame on priests who in contradiction to the wishes of Jesus formed a cabal for purely selfish interests:

Among the Vatican’s issues with Wills was his stated belief in a 2010 article that the priesthood, rather than originating with Jesus and a specially selected group of followers, was selfishly created later by a “privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves.”

Bruni focuses on the sex abuse scandals of recent years and the denials, cover-ups, and mendacity of the Church throughout this period.  This attitude of rectitude and defiance might have protected priests in the early days of the scandal, but eventually alienated even its most faithful followers.

Circling the wagons, however, is nothing new for the Catholic Church.  One thinks first and foremost of  Henry II and his battles with Thomas Becket over the rights and privileges of the Church.  Beckett argued that the clergy should not be subjected to secular law – i.e. the Church would adjudicate all crimes and misdemeanors by its priests – while Henry insisted that the Church, as part of England, should be ruled by secular law.  The Church was a powerful political force in Henry’s day and for centuries thereafter, and the king made a relatively minor incident into a cause celebre to make a strong show of regal force.  The battles between church and state continued for over 400 years until the conflict finally came to a head during the reign of Henry VIII.  The cause celebre at that time was Henry’s marriages, but the political positions were identical.  Both church and king claimed sovereignty.

Five hundred years later, the Church is still fighting to protect its own, to reinforce the bastions and ramparts that protect it from the secular world, and to fight increasingly with today’s kings and presidents.  Not only did the Church act as it always has in the past by slamming its doors to prying eyes, but it lashed out, as the Popes had against the Henrys to assert their authority and dominance.  The Catholic Church today has formed alliances with Protestants, no less, to fight what it sees is the secularization of modern society.  It has been on the aggressive, attacking pro-choice advocates in the United States, threatening excommunication of prominent Catholic political leaders who espouse pro-choice positions, and have begun a holy war on moral dissolution.

Therefore the Church’s actions regarding its pedophile priests should not come as a surprise.  While our generation abhors the sexual abuse of minors, priests over the last 1000 years since Becket and Henry II have certainly committed their share of heinous crimes.  In other words, nothing much has changed.  Priests do dastardly deeds, the Church covers them up, fights to keep out the light of secular justice, turns up the heat of attack on its attackers, and eventually goes back into its comfortable private enclaves.

The second fact that Bruni and Wills overlook is that priestly castes have been around since our emergence from caves.  Shamans, witch doctors, and priests have always been among the most intelligent members of society and have used their powers of observation, analysis, and persuasion to arrogate power to themselves.  The absolute rule of priests in Hinduism, for example, is no different from those in the Catholic Church.  Hindu priests exert control over the faithful because only they have access to sacred texts and only they can perform the holy rites of birth, death, and marriage.  The scenario is the same for other religions who have established a priestly caste as intermediaries between God and His people.

Bruni goes on to summarize another issue raised by Wills:

At the start, Christianity not only didn’t have priests but opposed them. The priesthood was a subsequent tweak, and the same goes for the all-male, celibate nature of the Roman Catholic clergy and the autocratic hierarchy that this clergy inhabits, an unresponsive government whose subjects — the laity — have limited say.

Once again, this is not surprising, for both secular and religious institutions behave in the same ways.  The courts of English kings with their internal rules, regulations, and routines were all organized to concentrate power and to dominate and intimidate the citizens they ruled.  The Vatican is no different.  The all-male clergy has nothing to do with misogyny, and all to do with the hocus-pocus of Biblical interpretation.  If Jesus meant for there to be women priests, the Vatican says, then there would have been women amongst his disciples.  And the application of this doctrine goes a long way in perpetuating the ‘mystery’ of the Church.  Every time a male priest consecrates a Mass, it is as though a disciple of Christ is present on the altar.  There is an unbroken line between priest, bishop, cardinal, Pope, and Peter; and of course by extension to Christ himself. 

Breaking up the all-male priesthood would not simply be ‘catching up with the times’ but a breach in the wall, a tarnishing of the imperious, unknowable majesty of the Church.  No small thing.

I was brought up Catholic and left the Church largely because of the unctuous, sanctimonious priests who lorded it over us all from the pulpit and the confessional.  There was truly a cabal of arrogant, pompous, and self-interested and self-serving men.

Bruni and Wills aver that they have nothing against priests in general, many of whom are good, compassionate, and dedicated men.  It is the Church itself that is responsible for its own decline.  Its secrecy, inwardness, fiery denials, and continued sanctimony in the face of criminal activity are unconscionable and indefensible.

While I agree with that, I cannot exonerate priests who, as recent events have shown, used the cover and protection of the Church to commit unspeakable deeds.  The present diminished state of the Church is the result of a complicity of both clergy and Church.  It takes two to tango.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Women In The Military–Feminist Objections

Strange as it may seem, American feminists are lining up to oppose the deployment of women in the front lines.  This position is strange for because for over 40 years since the beginning of the modern feminist movement, women have been arguing that they are the equals of men, and therefore should be denied no opportunity available to their male colleagues.  In the early days of feminism, women rejected biological determinism.  Yes, they said, we have babies, hot flashes, and we can’t seem to hold back our tears, but these are but inconsequential side effects of X chromosomes and have nothing to do with social, physical, intellectual, or economic abilities. 

One of the most ridiculously memorable events of that period was ‘The Battle Between The Sexes” when in 1973 Billie Jean King, a top-ranked tennis professional played Bobby Riggs, a 55 year-old former mid-level patzer.  It was Hollywood hype, grand entertainment, and pure American Idol grandiose marketing, but there was still a conviction that this showdown actually meant something.  Men wanted this uppity woman to get thrashed; and women wanted to blow the balled asshole off the court.

The conviction of men was such that they overlooked the fact that King was a big, strong woman in her prime; and Riggs was a paunchy, creaky version of what he might have been. He was a man, after all, and there was no way that a muscled, testosterone-rich, aggressive, competitive male, however diminished by age and disrepair, could possibly lose.  If he no longer had a devastating serve or powerful backhand down the line, he could certainly intimidate the girl, forcing her into errors, and hopefully reduce her to tears. I don’t remember who ‘won’ nor did I care -  the event was as staged as a bout of professional wrestling – but a lot of people tuned in.

The Seventies was a heady time for women who got their first whiff of liberation from male dominance, and we men knew they meant business:

In the Seventies we knew exactly what Feminism was – it was a militant movement of women demanding in society’s laws, traditions, customs, and attitudes.  There was no Right Wing, Left Wing, or Moderate Wing of this particular party – it was all militantly angry, hostile, and incessant in its attacks on patriarchy, male dominance, and maleness itself.  Men were the enemy, pure and simple.  They had enslaved women since the first monkey-man dragged a woman by her hair into the bushes, had his way with her, and then forced her to clean up the cave; and it was time for this to stop.  We knew that women meant business.  They even had an IRA-style military wing which – it was reported – would stop at nothing short of physical emasculation.  (Rebranding Feminism, Uncle Guido’s Facts 12.7.12)

Of course most women subscribed only to the fundamental feminist principle of social equality, who lived happily married lives, and left the take-no-prisoners fight to their more aggressive sisters.  These wives loved and needed men, but did their bit to demand more male participation at the kitchen sink.  Taking out the garbage was simply not enough, they insisted.  It was about time that men changed diapers, did the wash, and – mirabile dictu – clean the toilet.

I had a close friend who was dubbed The Phantom by her male colleagues because she combed the Washington Post and New York Times for the slightest sexist reference, and fired off letters to the editors.  One or two of her incensed letters were published, but most were tossed in the trash by male editors who, her female colleagues concluded, must have assumed that she was hysterical.

During the Seventies women chucked the trappings of traditional femininity – stopped shaving their legs and armpits, wore jackboots and flannel and sported butch hairstyles – and de-gendered the playroom. If there were dolls, strollers, and cribs in the playroom, they were for their sons.  They were continually surprised that the boys ripped the heads off the dolls, turned the cribs over and made forts out of them, and had stroller fights. Mothers were equally surprised that their daughters paid no attention whatsoever to the toy bulldozers, tractors, and dump trucks given to them for Christmas.  They made dolls out dish towels, put their ‘babies’ to bed in home-made crèches, and nursed and rocked these laundry clumps just as lovingly as if they had been real dolls.

Gradually women came to accept the facts – they weren’t as strong as men, couldn’t bench press 1000 lbs. but at least could be proud of the Soviet ‘women’ pumping big-time iron on the Olympic stage.  OK, few American women had so totally given up their feminine upbringing to want to look like these mustachioed Bulgarians; but still, you had to admire them:

Bulgarian Weightlifters Sweep European Silver, Bronze

Later women came to accept the fact equal opportunity was the real goal of feminism, and that women could relax and go back to frilly things as long as they had access to the boardroom.  A few years ago I sat in a meeting at my consulting firm, and the women were all dressed, as my mother would say, ‘provocatively’.  I couldn’t believe the bounty – low cleavage, short skirts, sexy hairdos, and heels.  Of course in our de-sexed workplace, you could look but not touch.  Even for an appreciative smile you could be hauled in front of the zaftig Soviet-style PC harassment monitor on the third floor.

It was a good time to be a women, or so it seemed to the male outsider.  Women could dress and behave however they wanted, assured that any unwanted advances would be severely punished.  They could pick and choose whomever they wanted to flirt and cavort with.  They were pushing up against the glass ceiling and finding that it was not so impermeable, and while there were still plenty of misogynists around, they were troglodytes, worms, and throwbacks. Title IX was the hallmark of equal opportunity for women who long ago had given up the idea of physical matchups.  Equivalence was the keyword, and women could compete at elite levels for equal pay and consideration.

The military was one of the last bastions of male dominance.  Although women could serve in the military, they were always second-class citizens, serving behind the lines while their male counterparts fought for glory.  When would women finally be shown the respect they deserved and the recognition the were owed for their patriotism and courage?  That is, when would they be eligible to take a bullet in the chest?

Finally, President Obama, paying political tribute to the women who helped elect him, removed this final barrier.  Women would now be able to serve on the front lines.

You would think that feminists would be rejoicing.  They are, however, protesting this liberal, conscientious decision by the President.  Why, you might reasonably ask, since feminists have been fighting on their own front lines for gender equality for so long. For one thing say the feminists, women provide the necessary antidote, balance, counterpoint to male aggression and depredation.  If it were not for women, these feminists argue, the world would be an even more violent, untamed, and brutal place.  The words of Virginia Woolf still resonate:  

Though many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's. Law and practice have developed that difference, whether innate or accidental. Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman's rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; and it is difficult to judge what we do not share.

How then are we to understand your problem, and if we cannot, how can we answer your question, how to prevent war? The answer based upon our experience and our psychology—Why fight?—is not an answer of any value. Obviously there is for you some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting which we have never felt or enjoyed. Complete understanding could only be achieved by blood transfusion and memory transfusion—a miracle still beyond the reach of science (Three Guineas, quoted by Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic)

Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post (1.26.13) take another tack – women are simply not the aggressive type:

Unbeknown perhaps to many civilians, combat has a very specific meaning in the military. It has nothing to do with stepping on an IED or suffering the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means aggressively engaging and attacking the enemy with deliberate offensive action, with a high probability of face-to-face contact.

If the enemy is all around you — and you need every available person — that is one set of circumstances. To ask women to engage vicious men and risk capture under any other is beyond understanding. This is not a movie or a game. Every objective study has argued against women in direct combat for reasons that haven’t changed.

This is what makes us men, often amused by but sympathetic to Feminism and the Women’s Movement, wince.  Either women are equal to men or they are not.  Since they have pushed, protested, demanded, complained, and whined for so long, it is time to put up or shut up:

Heather Mac Donald at National Review, who declares with hyperbolic outrage that "the only reason to pursue [the policy of women in combat] is to placate feminism's insatiable and narcissistic drive for absolute official equality between the sexes." (Noah Berlatsky)

As always, there is a middle ground.  What kind of woman, after all, will willingly accept and embrace mortal combat?  Not the weak sisters to whom Parker refers, above, but some tough motherfuckers.  These women who self-select themselves for combat duty in infantry units will more than likely be the first over the hill, the ones who toss grenades into the machine-gun nest, who lay down withering fire as they charge enemy positions.  These women were the girls who opted for the guns, trucks, and bulldozers that their gender-sensitive mothers laid out for them at Christmastime; who played video games, and stood up to bullies. 

The military is currently studying the operational implications of the President’s order, and it is obvious that women will not be routinely sent into combat as men are.  They will have the option to serve in forward units, a policy which will preserve the President’s intention for equal opportunity while assuring the most kill-hungry women to get a chance to take out the enemy. The women will be scary, and most of their male brothers-in-arms will be afraid of them.

But, oops, another little problem raised by Parker:

The threat to unit cohesion should require no elaboration. But let’s leave that obvious point to pedants and cross into enemy territory where somebody’s 18-year-old daughter has been captured. No one wants to imagine a son in these circumstances either, obviously, but women face special tortures. And, no, the rape of men has never held comparable appeal.

Yup, women need protection again.  Back to the drawing board.  Women have special needs – their femininity disqualifies them from service.  Please, spare me the anguish.  Rape is rape – as humiliatingly brutal, degrading, and dehumanizing for a man as a woman.  And while we’re at it, waterboarding, genital electroshock, psychological torture, getting prodded, reamed, sliced, and beaten are no fun for either men or women.

My conclusion? If women want to get chewed up by raking enemy fire, blown apart by IEDs, mutilated, maimed, traumatized, and debilitated; raped, abused, and tortured, go right ahead.  Not an option for every woman, certainly, but by all means let there be this golden opportunity for those tough women who can be called soldiers.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Meritocracy vs. Equality

David Brooks wrote (NY Times 1.25.13) that the recent Obama Administration’s focus on income inequality and the redistributive policies to reduce it were misplaced.  There is a difference in American society more fundamental, says Brooks, than income – the growth of a meritocracy which benefits the few and leaves the many behind.  This is not a bad thing, says Brooks.  After all, high achievement, ambition, and motivation are at the very heart of the American psyche and responsible for our remarkable innovation and productivity.
The first problem with the effort [to promote social and economic equality] is that it’s like shooting a water gun into a waterfall. The Obama measures, earned after a great deal of political pain, simply aren’t significant enough to counteract the underlying trends.
The second problem is the focus on income redistribution. Recently, there’s been far more talk about tax increases than any other subject. But the income disparities are a downstream effect of the human capital and geographic disparities. Pumping a few dollars into San Joaquin, Calif., where 2.9 percent of the residents have bachelor’s degrees and 20.6 percent have high school degrees, may ease suffering, but it won’t alter the dynamic.
No matter what government does, those who can escape the small towns and cities of America for the nodes of higher achievement – Washington, Boston, San Francisco, San Jose – do so.  In these nodal cities, over 50 percent of residents have college degrees, and are employed in upwardly mobile, demanding intellectual jobs.  Not only that, but at the top levels of employment in these cities, many executives, managers, and professors have obtained degrees from America’s top universities:
Robert Oprisko of Butler University found that half of the jobs in university political science programs went to graduates of the top 11 schools. That is to say, if you have a Ph.D. from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and so on, your odds of getting a job are very good. If you earned your degree from one of the other 100 degree-granting universities, your odds are not. These other 100 schools don’t even want to hire the sort of graduates they themselves produce. They want the elite credential.
 Image result for harvard logo

What Brooks is suggesting is that no injection of federal money, either directly or indirectly, can transform Flint, Michigan; New Britain, Connecticut; or Vineland, New Jersey into dynamic, fluid, intellectually exciting places.  The brain drain will continue, leaving these cities even worse off.

However, Brooks’ observations only confirm what has always been true in America – upward social mobility and economic competition.  People for generations have fled narrow, stultifying existences in Small Town, America for the bright lights of the city; and have understood that a premier education is the best and most proven passport for entry into this rarified world.  American capitalism has always been a system of inequality because it is a country devoted to equality of opportunity.

Benefits for those left behind are few and far between because we laud and reward those who rise and prosper.  Because intelligence, talent, drive and ambition, creativity, and insight will always be concentrated in the very few, it is no surprise that they leave insular lives for companionship with like-minded people. 

The only real issue is whether or not concerted efforts to help individuals rise to the meritocracy can prove beneficial.  That is, rather than continuing the generalized,scattershot, and minimal redistribution of income permitted within current American political philosophy; should investment be made in reconfiguring K-12 education to foster, nurture, and encourage the talented (contrasted to today’s policy of favoring the disadvantaged)?
Our system of higher education is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places.
However, higher education is more often than not a failed system, charging exorbitant fees and providing very little.  Those students who do manage to graduate do so in debt and with few prospects of good employment and little of the civic education necessary to make them responsible citizens.

Poor education is but part of the problem which consigns many American to socio-economic levels below their potential.  Not only must education be reformed, but public funding of social programs which perpetuate dependency, the status quo, and inertia must be discontinued and families forced into the mainstream of competitive, meritocratic America. 

It is not clear how much this investment and radical transformation of local communities will enable more people to rise to the top.  It may help to enable them to climb a few rungs on the socio-economic ladder, but it is unlikely to swell the ranks of the meritocracy.  These super-Americans will always find a way.  One needs only look at the most prominent Americans – our Presidents – to see how their drive and ambition was unstoppable.  Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Obama were not born of privilege, but with ability, vision, and strength. Few highly successful Americans these days have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

American meritocracy is a good thing, and should continue to be encouraged. There should be no leveling of the playing field which restricts or inhibits rise and accession to it.  There will always be a social bell curve with the talented and unique at one end, the less well-endowed and disadvantaged at the other, and the great middle either fat and satisfied or striving to move up and out.

There are meritocracies in every society, even in primitive tribes.  If there is such a thing as a human bell curve, then where was it among the Jivaro? Where could one see power, influence, intelligence, and cultural leadership?  In the priests, witch doctors, and shamans; and in the bravest, most cunning, and most resourceful hunters and warriors.  Even the most primitive, marginal human populations act according to the same laws of human nature.

Image result for images jivaro indians

Therefore Brooks’ observations are interesting, but nothing new.