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

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What Do Dreams Mean? The Answer Is Obvious

Harvey Klinger had a dream about Africa – savannas, a Mauritanian desert seashore, a threat of violence, and Melissa, an American woman who had never been to Africa with whom (in his dream) he had slept and who asked him why they had driven along the coast without stopping to move to the back seat of the Land Rover or to a native hut, or onto the black sand beach.  It would have taken hours for the gypsy caravan in which he was travelling to make it down from the high precipice to the tidal reaches of the sea and the blue waters extending far past the horizon into outer space where he and Melissa were headed or could go if it weren’t for the tourists and the demonstrators and the cattle. 

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It was a beautiful dream, a composite of his Africa – intimidating, satisfying unsuspectingly beautiful, a hodge-podge of sexual adventure, crime, elegant women, food, and a liberation from wife, children, and family; a pause from responsibility, duty, expected rectitude and purposefulness.  The dream had its usual add-ons – there were no gypsy caravans in Africa, no falaises, and no places which looked like Turkish towns. overcrowded with summer tourists looking to walk the route of St. Paul or visit the Roman ruins along the Black Sea; but there they were in Harvey’s dream, busy, bustling, beachy and out of place in the deep piney forests of Georgia around them, slowing his caravan on its passage to the sea.

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There is nothing more boring than other people’s dreams, and I mention this one not for its own sake but to bring up the obvious nature of dreams.

Harvey Klinger had long wanted to sleep with Melissa Vaughan, but never had the temerity to even approach her.  After all she was half his age, a family friend, dangerously psychotic; but still, all in all, one of the most attractive women he had ever met.  There were pros and cons – a love affair vs an inextricable entanglement, doomed from the start if for no other reason than if the relationship were ever to become known, two families would be scandalized, not just one.  Not only was there his age (what on earth was Uncle Harvey thinking?); and hers (hadn’t Daddy been enough?) , but the outrageous sexual villainy of it all.  December-May relationships happened all the time, but between a Washington lawyer and a part French Bourbon New Orleans artiste on the verge of insanity?

But there she was in his dream, on the passenger side of the Land Rover or on the back hard wooden benches of the caravan, under the canvas and with the sheep, either one was too distant and unfriendly for Harvey’s purposes; but her inaccessibility – the gearshift, the animals, the rocking of the caravan as it made its way down to the sea – made a point.  In real life she was not to be, not for him, and even though he may have consciously considered putting his arm around her, the dream told him no, never, or even ever again.

Why she turned up beside him in some composite African country in a gypsy caravan going through Turkish tourist towns on the way down to the Mauritanian coast was an unanswerable question – not even worthy of being asked given the obviousness or irrelevance of dreams.  The dream mechanism in the hippocampus could either be sensible – helping the likes of Harvey Klinger to face facts and deal with his dilemma – or totally random.  Why in another dream, would Harvey be arranging flowers around the casket of a Circassian officer? or eating udder and clams in Passaic, New Jersey?

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No one has yet deciphered the nature and role of dreams.  Emptying the hard drive? Drawing down on emotional inventory? Sorting out id-ego-superego conflicts? Or simply recreating in kaleidoscopic, hallucinogenic form, the events of the previous day? Any or all of these explanations have salience.

And what of purposeful dreaming? The ability that some are said to have to engineer a dream, wish it into being, take it out of the realm of conjecture and randomness, and make it a product of consciousness?  If this were possible, then dreaming might be simply an extension of reality. 

But what about Melissa then?  As much as Harvey tried, holding on to dream fragments of Melissa as he woke up, hoping to quilt them together with more sensuous live memories of her, he had no luck.  As he drifted back to sleep he found himself either n Belgrade cooking tripe, with his father playing wiffle ball, or walking naked through Times Square.  Was the dream of Melissa and he together in the Land Rover/gypsy caravan so far-fetched or so remote in his dream-life that it was gone for good?  Would he have to wait for his subconscious to bring her up and out again without his doing or his will?

So he had to be content with looking at his family album – he and Melissa as college friends, at family reunions, on the shared boat on Long Island Sound; she in summer stock, they on Martha’s Vineyard – or social media far less satisfactory, too nonchalant, and indifferent to matter; but there she was with her long blonde hair; tall, inviting, lithe, and irresistible.  It was never enough, but except for his dreams Harvey was unable to tell Melissa how much he wanted her; and the dreams were never repeated, not even fragmented cameo appearances.  For all intents and purposes she was gone – whatever mechanisms were at work in his cerebral cortex; whatever splicing, combining, random or purposeful firing of synapses enabled dreams of Melissa, he had no control over them. 

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The next time he dreamt of Melissa, he was in a nondescript location – vaguely African because of the light and sounds of the street, but it could have been anywhere.  The vividness of the gypsy caravan, the colors of the flood plain and the ocean, and the sensuousness of the precipitous ride off the falaise down to the sea were all gone.  She was as real as she was in the previous dream but just as inaccessible.  Worse, she wanted him, and wondered why he was so concerned with the lock, the refrigerator, and the balance sheet of the day.  He was disoriented – as sexually aroused as he had ever been but distracted; and when they finally began to make love it was as though she were wearing a chastity belt, a clumsy wooden thing with no give, no slide, and no entry.

Any fool could have told him what was what and what the dreams were telling him.  Either get off the fence and tell Melissa your intentions; or make up your mind that she isn’t for you and as hard as it may be, forget about her. Or address her as an old man’s fantasy – an ironic Platonic sexual shadow, always there on the walls of the Oberoi hotel room, never more than a fantasy and an ideal, a reminder of life’s short span and limited possibilities but surprisingly real nonetheless.

He did none of the above, and periodically dreamt of Melissa in strange guises and on weird, unexplained foreign stages.  This would have been all well and good, an emotional consignment to be inventoried with all the rest, if it hadn’t been for the increasingly wonderful compositions she took on.  It was as though bits of every woman he looked at on K Street, every movie actress he watched on Netflix, every attractive Legal Associate with whom he worked at his downtown law offices, were pieced together around, in, and between Melissa.  She was even more irresistible than ever for she became every woman Harvey had ever wanted not just simple unique Melissa.

The good news was that Harvey’s obsession with Melissa waned as confounded and confused as it became with all the other women in his life, real, imagined, or glanced.  The bad news was that his sexual desire – and frustration – increased each time he had one of these composite dreams.  It was all women he wanted.  It was woman he wanted, undifferentiated, uncharacteristic, but decidedly female.

Oy, vey”, was all a friend said over coffee when Harvey told him of his confused, frustrating, and irritating fantasies  No help at all, no parsing of inter-cognitive twists and turns, no sympathy for his old man’s lust, the worst kind. 

No big deal. The stuff of every man’s regrets.  Go to sleep, forget about it, and see what you remember in the morning, is the best advice one can give.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Toxic Femininity–Oops, Of Course There Is No Such Thing

Hadley Barker had been brought up in a traditional old school family – disciplinarian father, warm caring mother, church, school, and civic activities.  His father was strict but never abusive.  His mother caring and compassionate but never servile.  Male and female roles were well-established, complementary, and very well-balanced.   It was a man’s world in the sense that George Barker brought home the paycheck, and that Helen Barker had few professional opportunities outside the home; but it was a woman’s world because in addition to serving her husband breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she was as liberated as any woman many years later.  She was not only a sexual libertine but a savvy manager, ahead of her time.  She understood risk, transparency and creative evasion, contractual obligations and legal evasions, and time management.  Her dalliances with the most attractive and seductive men of New Brighton were many and she accommodated and managed them well.  Her husband had no idea of her sexual adventurism, her lovers had been chosen for their equally savvy ability to negotiate the town’s moral code, comings and goings, and best offerings. 

While her husband worked a nine-hour day at the office and the children were in school, Helen Barker did what was expected of her in American society.  She took stock of her beauty, allure, intelligence, intellect, and savvy; reviewed her options, and made the best possible choices within a carefully-calculated calculus of risk.

She never simply bedded a man, any man; but selected carefully from among the crème de la crème of Central Connecticut – Yale professors, Hartford insurance executives, and the Farmington well-to-do.  Her world, far from circumscribed was open, interesting, and challenging.  She never gave a second thought to working for a living, making her way up the corporate ladder, or becoming an entrepreneur.  She was quite happy as she was, content with her modest authority in her own family and her exciting social liberty.

There was nothing particularly new about Helen Barker if one considered the past.  Volumes of history, drama, and fiction are filled with stories of capable women, supposedly under a patriarchal yoke, who managed to influence husbands, lovers, and the course of contemporary events.  One has only to look at Shakespeare for tales of strong, determined, able women who never sought to change the social order but to work satisfactorily within it.  Shakespeare’s most attractive heroines are canny, devious, and manipulative.  Patriarchy, male autocracy, and male preference meant nothing to them.  Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, knew how precisely to manipulate her son and the powers around him to suit her own ends.  Goneril and Regan never gave their weak husbands a second thought while sending their father, King Lear, off to the heath with nothing and as nothing as ‘a bare forked animal’.  Nothing was out of bounds for Dionyza who attempted child murder to rid her daughter of any competitors.  Tamora mutilated the daughter of Titus Andronicus in her unholy rise to power. 

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More restrained but equally powerful women such as Margaret of Anjou and Katherine of Aragon and Cleopatra were able to maneuver and manipulate the men around them to further their own political and social ambitions.  They gave nary a thought to the confining and supposedly abusive male dominions in which they lived.  Fighting, obstructing, and confronting the established order made no sense, especially when men were not so strong as they themselves assumed.  Shakespeare’s other heroines like Rosalind, Viola, Kate, Imogen, and Portia played with, laughed at, and bested the men in their lives.  They may not have had the same impact on history as their Tragic sisters, but they showed men for the less-than-able characters they knew they were.

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The best plays of Ibsen and Strindberg were about strong women who were beyond the traditional morality of their age and plotted to realize their ambitious by working it, stretching it, and using it to their advantage.  Laura in Strindberg’s The Father emasculates her husband in order to gain control over their daughter.  Hedda Gabler is a true Vedic destroyer without guilt or remorse.  Miss Julie, a product of Victorian society but never content with it, stretches the boundaries of social hierarchy, understands the fundamental nature of sexuality and sexual ambition, and governs Jean, the valet.

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Women with less natural talent, ability, will, or ambition feel obligated to take on what they see as white male privilege.  ‘Angry feminism’ is a term which has social media life.  Looked at from a doctrinaire feminist perspective, anger is absolutely necessary when confronting the sexual, emotional, physical, and mental abuse to which women have been subjected for centuries.  Anger is the fuel for political activism, the sine qua non of unconditional protest.  The problem of male patriarchy and ‘toxic masculinity’ is so deeply-rooted in American society that only anger, hostility, and aggression can it possibly be addressed.  Men, set in their ways, content with their received authority and social position, will never respond to anything but aggression.

Looked at from a more historical and sociological perspective, such anger is a waste of energy.  A look at any social milieu – whether family, community, advocacy group, political party, or representative government – shows that canniness, deviousness, manipulation, and insidiousness work far better than shouting.  Women have always gotten what they wanted from their husbands; and every politician, businessman, and financier are no different.  Yet to do so requires supreme confidence and amorality.  One cannot succeed in modern society as Jesus Christ, only as Machiavelli.  If they don’t achieve their ends, then they have not sufficiently understood the nature of the opposition and the human vanity, arrogance, and presumptuousness which drives all men and women.

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Which leads us to toxic femininity.  The caricature of women in the past has been harsh indeed; but why have women been so insistent on taking their pound of flesh, hectoring the disappointing  men they have married?  Why have they stayed married despite all signs that point to dissolution and preferred to nag, irritate, and badger instead?

Successful modern day women have either acquired enough financial capital to leave a bad marriage; or have, like Shakespeare’s heroines, figured out how to get the best out of their husbands and their marriages to satisfy their needs.  The less successful revert to caricature

A confounding factor in all this is feminism itself.  On the one hand women are asserting their absolute strength, authority, ability, and independence; but on the other are demanding safe spaces, neutered men, congenial and protective institutional environments, limited free speech and civil rights.  What is a woman to do?  Which is she?  Strong, competent, and independent; able to negotiate the world of men easily and quickly? Or dependent, still needing shelter and accommodation?

In addition women are taught as part of the ‘male toxicity’ canon that men’s natural, biological, sexual drives – aggressive, demanding, persistent, simple, and undeniable – are wrong, retrograde, and destructive.   There is something wrong and suspicious about male pursuit.  Yet millennia of human history demonstrate just the opposite.  Human evolution has depended on male aggression, competitiveness, and pursuit.  While there is no doubt that such masculinity can have its excesses – the bell curve describes all human activity and ability – there is no reason to deny its reality or its legitimate place in modern society.

Therefore most women are caught betwixt and between.  They settle for bad marriages, bad jobs, and bad children and instead of doing something, complain, rage, nag, and harp and become as toxic in their own way as their wandering, dismissive, wandering husbands.  In being taught that the system itself is the enemy and that only by destroying it and remaking it in women’s image can women ever find reward, women have been sold a bill of goods.  Women need no institutional support, no self-interested twisting of legal codes, and no patrons.  True equality can only be achieved by asserting one’s moral authority, intelligence, and individual will.  In being taught that evolutionary biology is wrong, women have been further deceived.  Rather than dealing with biological difference – as Shakespeare’s daunting heroines did – women are instructed to deny it.  Certainly no good can come of that.

The war between the sexes, as hot as it has ever been, will cool down for sure.  Its anger, suspicion, and hostility is more a product of today’s identity politics, the politics of grievance and victimhood than it is any fundamental issue.  This era of over-sensitivity, inclusivity, and group identity will eventually wither and die.  Who knows what will come next, but one hopes at least some return to sexual reality, confidence, will, and individuality.

Friday, January 25, 2019

A Better World–No Harm In Hoping, Although Since All Signs Point In The Opposite Direction Why Bother?

Bob Maslitt had never despaired about the slow and irregular progress of humanity towards a more perfect world.  He knew that despite his and others’ efforts, God was not to be denied; and that eventually He would see fit to back his and other progressives’ attempts to reverse the course of history.  God was, after all, on his side; and if He chose to be more dilatory than one might wish, so be it.  Earthly and heavenly rewards would be forthcoming.

But where did such divine optimism come from? Certainly Jehovah tracked his Creation but was more often than not disappointed, and in acts of divine justice and retribution destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and the entire world in The Flood.  If the world was headed for a fiery Armageddon, then it must be ordained; and no amount of staying tactics could possible restrain ‘the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword’.  Yet Bob and his colleagues thought that there must be some loophole, some way out of divine determinism.  Would not faithful commitment be enough to stay the fatal blow? If one were acting in His name to slay the idolaters, to rid the world of worshipers of the false god of progress , would that not count for something?

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Where in the Bible does it say that mankind can stay the hand of the Divine? The book of Job suggests that God might be open to imprecation, and the Old Testament God might not be so doctrinaire as it would seem; but nowhere except perhaps for a slight diversion in Ecclesiastes, would Yahweh ever budge from his authoritarian principles.  He and no one else would be the determiner of the fate of mankind.  After all he created Adam and Eve; and if they had not turned out as he might have hoped, righting the boat was his responsibility.

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Then comes Christ with his message of good news.  Old Testament laws and regulations might have been formerly valid to sustain and further extend the authority of Yahweh,  the arrival of Jesus whose message of forgiveness and redemption offered hope to millions who had thought themselves condemned for eternity, changed the rules of the game.  One had to no longer feel a pawn in a divine, universal drama – thumbs up or thumbs down.  Jesus, his disciples, and his spokesman Paul offered human hope.  Faith in the Lord might not guarantee salvation, but would likely be high on the list of God’s criteria for entry into The Kingdom.  Human action for one’s own salvation was problematic at best; and any personal investment in the spiritual evolution of others was not on the table.  Only God’s grace – his election – could determine who would be saved and who would not be.

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Yet Bob, even knowing that he was swimming upstream – that Jesus, according to his own subjective, personal criteria, would choose who would and would not be saved; and that his Father, although optimistic about his son’s commission would still always revert to his old ways.  If the human race did not shape up (criteria not well-delineated), He would destroy us all.  Whether a Jew or a Christian, the outlook looked bleak.  There would either be another Flood or a fiery End of Days Armageddon.

Bob suggested that God’s reasons for universal destruction had never been clear.  Yes, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were lewd, lascivious, and no longer mindful of God and His Kingdom; but were they that bad?  And were there not occasions of sin far more insulting and immoral?  The regimes of Hitler, Stalin,and  Pol Pot in the Twentieth Century alone ought to have been enough to condemn the world.  So, since Jehovah’s mighty sword was capricious at worst and subjective at best, then maybe there was a role for human intervention after all.  Perhaps there was such a thing as a divine Doomsday Clock whose hands could be set back through secular efforts.

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Assuming that Bob were right – that human action could set back Armageddon and could hasten universal salvation – who could ever read God’s mind? and what would the mile markers be?  Jesus’ temptation in the desert was yet another parable of faith.  Who is to say what modern day temptations would be.  Perhaps the political demons of the Twentieth Century were put in power by God himself to test our resolve; and that, contrary to Bob Maslitt and his fellow progressives, our rejection of socialist/communist political oligarchy is part of God’s plan?  All of Bob’s concerted efforts to restore some semblance of socialist universality might be exactly against God’s wishes.

Humanism has always been a problematic philosophy because it has no foundation.  It is a canon based on objection and opposition.  True, enlightened human beings, for centuries enslaved by autocratic theocracy but now freed from it, can mature into secular divinity.  Because such humanism has no foundational, absolute values, it can be anything – a philosophical chameleon, a love-the-one-you’re-with easy rider.  While Bob and his friends may demand social change based on such secular, moral values, they are erecting social movement on shifting sands.  Who said?

Then there is the niggling question of historical relativism.  Who can say that the Twentieth Century, one of the most violent in history, is a more evolved human era?  Or, who is to say that the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, models of intellectual clarity and insight but the bulk of whose citizens lived in penury and despair?

Last but not least is the question of genetic determinism.  The human race has not changed one iota since its emergence as Homo Sapiens 300,000-50,000 years ago.  We are still as territorial, acquisitive, aggressive, expansionist, and self-interested as we ever were; and unless there is some serious tinkering with the double helix, we will continue to be.

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How then can Bob possibly imagine such thing as ‘a better world’ let alone a perfect one.  How can he not conclude that no matter what well-meaning investments he and his fellow progressives might make in the course of world events, they will amount to nothing?

None of this philosophical fol-de-rol matters one single bit to Bob and his compatriots.  No logical, compelling, or even irrefutable philosophical argument can persuade them to relax.  Not only does it feel right to act, but it seems morally wrong not to.  It matters not that such conclusions have few religious, philosophical, or historical foundations.  The view of the committed progressive is that while history provides the necessary context within which socially activist interventions are designed, it is not determinative.  One can escape from its confines.

It takes all kinds, the saying goes.  Not only is there room in the big tent for optimists, realists, and pessimists; but all are welcome.  Racial, ethnic, and gender diversity aside, the true plurality of American society is philosophical.

All well and good.  In the practical, street-level arena of partisan politics, it is good to have differences of opinion based on world view.  If there is one thing that distinguishes conservatives from progressives it is this - either there is such a thing as progress, or there isn’t.

While most conservatives never stop to consider the logic of their beliefs and argue as hysterically as liberals about current issues, more temperate, objective observers know otherwise.  We are still as acquisitive, destructive, and aggressive as ever before – traits which have led to the growth of civilization, culture, and society; but which may have impaired reflection, introspection, and spiritual evolution.  Who is to say which is better?

it turns out that the much maligned ‘Que sera sera’ , ‘la cultura de la hamaca’ may indeed be the most sensible if not right one.   Things are not getting better, they have never gotten better (or worse), and they are unlikely to. 

A common inscription on ancient Roman tombs read,  “I was not, I was, I am not, who cares?” The best attitude of all.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Arrogance In The Jungle–’Mosquito Coast’ And The Inevitable Failure Of International Development

Paul Theroux’s book Mosquito Coast is the story of an obsessed man who wants to bring his inventions to primitive tribes, exposing them to rationalism and enterprise and by so doing, civilizing them and bringing them quickly into the modern world.

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Allie Fox is an inventor, a genius, an engineer, and an evangelist.  America is going down the tubes, he preaches to anyone who will listen, corrupted by fast food, cheap clothes, appliances out-of-date as soon as they are delivered, rooms full of plastic, disposable toys, and a total dependency on a market economy which seduces, captures, and imprisons otherwise self-sufficient, practical people, leads them to believe they cannot do without a supplier.  As a result Americans have become fat, complaisant, indifferent, and neutered. 

He and his family must leave this cultural nightmare and live simply and independently.  Only the most remote, uncivilized, unexplored place will do.  They will live among primitive tribespeople who have never been corrupted by consumerism and live in a state of nature.

Yet although Allie wants to live among people who survive on very little, and expresses an admiration for them, he believes nothing of the kind.  For him the Miskito Indians , unconscious of anything but the jungle, primitive beings with no vision, no understanding, and no chance for evolution, are as trapped as the Americans he left behind.  Only he can bring them out of their ignorant, prehistoric life.  Whereas the great American capitalist machine was too big to destroy, its influences too extensive, and consumers too mindlessly accepting of its offerings; the Miskito Indians were at Year Zero.  Everything he brought would be an evolutionary step forward; but like the religious missionaries who preceded him, Ally was convinced that what he was bringing was as revolutionary as Jesus Christ.  Fat Boy, Allie’s invention to ‘make ice out of fire’ would be an immediate revelation – like the Word of God – to the Indians.  As soon as they saw Fat Boy produce an unimaginable, unthinkable, magical thing, they would be converted to progress, development, enterprise, and evolution.  He would oversee this development, help the Indians see the benefits of ice; how it can preserve fish, alleviate pain and reduce swelling, cool living spaces, and provide refreshment.  Ice would be the first, most important element of the epiphany. 

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Ally builds Fat Boy, but while he explains its simplicity (ice out of fire), he overlooks its complexity.  Ice cannot be made without ammonia and nitrogen, brought from the outside world.  A mere irritating detail, the thinks.  The concept itself – that the most primitive and common natural element familiar to the Indians – fire – could be harnessed and transformed, would be the point. Ice would not simply be a by-produce of fire but a metaphor for development. The Indians after seeing what engineering, enterprise, and intelligence could do would be on their way to a better life and a better world.

The story ends badly.  Taking a page out of Conrad’s Victory, Theroux introduces evil, slavers and profiteers, who will destroy Allie’s community, evolutionary plan, and even Fat Boy.  Their intent is immediately clear to Ally, and he feels he must kill them, traps them in the works of Fat Boy, and intends to freeze them to death.  The slavers, however try to shoot their way out, puncture the pipes containing the highly flammable nitrogen and ammonia, and Fat Boy and every hut, Indian, and animal in the village are destroyed.

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In his arrogance and mad obsessive evangelism, Allie is contemptuous of the Indians he meets.  They live in the muck, squalor, swamps, and malarial mosquitos without doing anything to improve their lives.  Within months Ally and his family have built a rain-proofed house with clean running water, kitchen, and lavatory.  Although he says that his intent is to show the Indians how it can be done, encourage their own initiative and activity, he is dismissive of them.  They will never be more than ignorant throwbacks to the Pleistocene.  All his efforts – the house, the gardens, and Fat Boy are really monuments to himself.  The more he builds, and the more he keeps the jungle and its pestilence out, the more convinced he becomes of his own powers.  The fact that the Indians may or many not benefit from his genius is irrelevant.  He has built The Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the Honduran jungle.

International Development – the effort of Western governments to raise the poor of the Third World out of poverty and bring them into the modern world of health, wealth, and education – has been an unfortunate but predictable failure.  Foreign aid workers have been no different than Allie Fox, with a missionary zeal, a sense of moral and cultural superiority, and a dismissiveness of the ‘beneficiaries’ they have intended to help.

It is no surprise that many of the early American Peace Corps Volunteers, assigned to rural villages in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, would come to the same conclusions as Allie Fox.  In their eyes, the natives were as ignorant, unwilling to change their ways, and unable to appreciate the enlightenment brought to them from outside.  No matter what the Volunteers did – build chicken coops, pig sties, kitchen gardens, or plant new improved seeds – the natives were reluctant to change at best.  These Volunteers returned home to jobs in the government’s agency for international development; but rather than the culturally-aware, field-tested, seasoned professionals that senior officers hoped they would employ, the returnees were now more convinced than ever that their work would always be missionary rather than economic.  ‘These people’ would never help themselves.

No one ever admitted this deep-seated prejudice.  In fact many development projects were designed precisely to mask it.  ‘Self-reliance’, ‘cooperative planning’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘community needs first’ were totems of development.  These means to progress were more important than the end results themselves.  A culture of patronizing investment grew and was accepted as policy.  Directors of US foreign aid projects deliberately refused to consider the Chinese model of development – a quid pro quo contract where Chinese engineers and imported workers would build African roads, ports, and railways in return for concessional prices and guaranteed delivery of natural resources.  There were no ‘conditionalities’ in these deals, no promises of transparency or reform.

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Yet, despite the fast, universal inroads the Chinese made in Africa; and despite their growing geopolitical influence, it has still been hard to move US foreign aid policy out of moral exceptionalism.   Doing good dies hard.

There is a bit of Allie Fox in every development worker.  It is hard for a young woman from the most developed, advanced, civilized nation faced with the seemingly intractable problems of underdevelopment and still isolated and marginalized socio-economically backward rural communities, to believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of rapid development.   A culture of aid dependency is only natural.  The optimism of the bright young things going to Africa is still fueled by a Christian ethos – the Word of God is enough for miraculous transformation – and by a very American commitment to doing good, even if good is never the result.  Helping others is more often than not a selfish enterprise – not unlike that of Allie Fox.

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It is easy enough for conservative economists to say ‘Pull the plug’, finally and abruptly wean developing countries off what has become an inefficient, futile, and idealistic enterprise.  If African countries want financial assistance, say these economists, let them appeal to the international capital markets.  Within that international system, loans must be repaid, never forgiven.  World Bank soft loans would be things of the past and American-style grants totally forgotten.  The reality is quite different.  The real question is how do you wean Americans off their compulsion for doing good?  As many attempts as there have been made to dismantle foreign assistance no president, Republican or Democrat, has succeeded.  It has a life of its own – a special, anointed life. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Fat Boy–Dealing With Ugliness In A Beautiful Culture

America is not a beautiful culture by any means.  Its casual, off-the-rack, comfortable line of clothes is the standard not the exception.  Of course the runways of New York rival those of Milan and Paris, but haute couture never makes it way very far down the ladder.  ‘Who cares?’ is more the byword than ‘everyone cares’, the essence of French culture, Italian bella figura , and even classic Edwardian style.  No one really cares about fashion in hyper-democratic America  where ‘anything goes’ is a proud statement of democratic inclusivity.

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Clothes, style, and fashion may be items dismissed in modern America – a frivolity, a throwback to elitist days of wigs, lace, and bustles – but beauty is an industry.  Every man, woman, and child in America wants to be as beautiful or handsome as the Hollywood ideal – sexy and alluring or masculine, commanding, and strong as the best of Hollywood.

Unfortunately,  given such a culture of beauty, most Americans must deal with second, third, or fourth best.  We are not a culture of natural beauty like Ukraine where every other woman on the streets of Kiev could pass a screen test.  We are a race of mongrels where only genetic chance produces classic beauty; and where most often the mix of white and black, black and Asian, Indian and Pacific Islander somehow never turns out right.  White-on-white mixing also goes awry.  Darwin and Mendel warned against too much genetic proximity; and the ugly genes of Uncle Bosworth and Great Grandfather Hiram somehow seem to show up at the most unexpected and inopportune times.

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he culture of inclusivity is aimed at these misfits – the lantern-jawed, high-forehead, tulip-nosed, parsons’ lipped boys and girls who, through no fault of their own, were born in a country which prizes classic beauty.  Despite claims to the contrary, there has always been one standard of beauty – symmetrical features, height, musculature, physical grace and allure.  The standard has not changed since the ancient Greece and Rome, and has been expressed in Pompeii, Persia, India, America, and modern Europe.  Anyone born outside these classical limits will have a harder row to hoe than those within it.  Beauty has always meant status, wealth, and well-being.

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As much as modern progressive culture wishes to ignore the physical anomalies which leave most people on the cultural periphery; and which prefers to dismiss the very concept of beauty, no one is buying it.  One look in the mirror is enough to confirm the obvious truth. Few women have even the faintest resemblance to Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamar, Ava Gardner, or Marilyn Monroe, and few men can ever match up to the classic lines of Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, or Farley Granger.

So what to do next? Accommodation.  Women who fall far from the classic ideal of feminine beauty may prefer to challenge any such notions – work shirts, overalls, shit-kickers, and butch do’s are not only for the tough girls of Bernal Heights, but the heterosexual, feminist avant-garde women of Milwaukee and Sioux Falls.  Ugly is the new beautiful – rough, unclaimed, deliberate, in-your-face, take-it-or-leave it neo-femininity.  Or not, and choose to by the latest skin creams, eye-liners, blush, and lip gloss to accentuate whatever bits of beauty one might have, and to at least gesture towards the ideal.

Herschel Benoit was  a fat boy and had been ever since he was a child.  Roly-poly, happy-go-lucky, easygoing and easy to be with, but left on the sidelines at recess, picked last, impossible to fit except by New York Big Man tailors, Herschel was uncomfortable in his skin.  Every morning he looked at his dewlaps, love-handles, skin folds, and buttocks with dismay.  He was given a body that no one wanted – fat, uncoordinated, and undesirable.  There was nothing that could compensate for the bad genetic hand he was dealt, no possible makeover, no hoped-for reconfiguration of oversized belly, ham hock thighs, and Porky Pig jowls. 

The ‘inclusivity’ phenomenon had just taken root, too late to affect Herschel.  In his generation the slow, the unattractive, the inept, and the one-step-behind would have to deal with a world which wants nothing of them.  Herschel grew up in an era of bullying, aggressive honesty, and realism.  He would simply have to face facts, and maneuver however he might in a world whose values did not include him. 

At times he wished he could ‘display’ his corpulence – wear three-piece suits with tight vests and key chains; show off his neck rolls with shaved baldness; and duck-walk with confidence into the office.  A man to be reckoned with, a man of weight, posture, and presence.  Yet he had been born too early for any of this to have any salience.  He could no more strut down the corridors of his international bank, past the sexy young things in cubicles, head held high, proud, and handsome than he could run a Mayan gantlet.  He was fat, encumbered, and unattractive, and that was the beginning and end of the story.

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Plato was right – without higher-level, unattainable ideals, the human race would remain mired in mediocrity.  No man could ever be Apollo, nor any woman Aphrodite, but the un-achieved attainment was the whole point of human being – striving, aspiring, and desiring were the most essential aspects of human nature and responsible for progress, improvement, and enlightenment.

Suspension of disbelief is another way of putting it.  If Herschel could look in the mirror in the morning and suspend any rational, practical, objective assessment of his undesirable body and prefer to see its potential, its good points, and its hidden allure, so much the better.  There is no point whatsoever in accepting an unattractive reality.

The cosmetic industry is a multi-billion dollar business, and medical enhancement therapy is not far behind.  Why not cover up unsightly blemishes, highlight one’s few Hollywood features, and nip and tuck to accentuate or preserve them?  Looking good is not only for bella figura Italians and fashionista French but for everyone.  There is no doubt that when genetic selection becomes a reality, the DNA of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamar, and Vivien Leigh will get top dollar.  Who, if given the chance, would buy the feminist cant of ‘beauty is only skin deep’? Who would not opt for sexual appeal, allure, and attractiveness?

Meanwhile, what was Herschel Benoit to do other than accept second class citizenship?  He was too old, too fat, too misshapen for even the most radical cosmetic surgery to be any good.  He neither had the personality nor the desire to be a Jackie Gleason caricature, imposing as a big man, giving no ground to svelte; nor the desire to show off an ‘I am what I am’ dignity.  He was purely and simply unhappy that he had been born fat, grew up fat, and continued to be fat.  Marry a fat girl? Have fat children? Hang out with fat friends?

Few people can match up to Hollywood beauty.  Our noses are too long, our lips too fat, our cheekbones too low, our foreheads too simian, our ears too low-hanging and elephantine to give us even an even chance in the world of beauty.  And yet, there are few fallbacks.  Short of Bernal Heights flannels, Joan Rivers multiple surgical makeovers, or layers of Rodeo Drive makeup, we are stuck with what we were born with.  Some manage, others never give up, and some seem to gin up enough personality, theatricality, and drama to fool most people.  ‘Ugly is as ugly does’ is an aphorism never quoted but is as salient as its opposite.  Born ugly in a beautiful-desiring world defines a person even more than than one born beautiful.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Need To Renovate, Expand, Refurbish, And Redo–An American Obsession

The neighbors are cutting down trees in their back yard – lebensraum they told the people next door - space for the children to play unencumbered and free; and the sunlight which had never reached past the tops of the maples and cherries, never filtered down to the ground, would now allow grass to grow.

All well and good for new residents of this upscale Washington neighborhood always seemed unwilling to let what they bought be– to let the branches of the trees grow and let their children climb or swing on their limbs,; to let the backyard stay unimproved for  one-a-cat, volleyball, and short-field soccer just like the homeowners before them did; but who, it must be said, did their own reconfiguring of fence, garden, wall, and hedges to suit their own tastes after living on Dupont Circle without any green, trees, or light and air.

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it isn’t so much that the recasting of the neighbors’ backyard was illogical, a waste of money and time; but that the backyard was fine as it was, and that three generations of children at least had played there without complaining.  They adjusted and accommodated just as all children do.  Time out if the ball goes into the bushes, extra points for climbing to the top limb, tree-as-defenseman immobile in pickup soccer.  What was the point of a new, trimmed, treeless, and rootless backyard?

After a death in the family, survivors, rather than give all the old man’s belongings to the Salvation Army and send the rest to the dump, use his old Victorian furnishings to finally fix up a family room which had become over the years an overflow basement, useful, forgotten, and damp.  There were no relatives in sight who would stay there.  It was only the point that mattered.

Middle aged couples, finally childless after many reproductive years which had produced no offspring, feel it is time to bump out the kitchen, double the cooking space, add track lighting and butcherblock tables, and finally replace the refrigerators and stoves which had served them well enough, but compared to the new, energy efficient, easy-access, ergonomic newer versions, were antiques.  And while they were at it, why not replace the tiles, the ceiling, the cabinets, woodwork, fans, and windows?  The fact that they had managed quite well for decades, managing small, low spaces, sticky drawers, and small cabinets with ingenuity and patience meant nothing now that they had time, liberty, and a good disposable income.

This need for change extends well beyond kitchens and family rooms, and in fact has nothing to do with wainscoting, grouting, and table tops.  It was ridiculous, Marge Hastings told her husband, to stay at home when they, thanks to two generous inheritances, could travel anywhere.  Enough of their quiet, predictable neighborhood,  the nearby college where her husband took and taught courses, the many trails along the river which were easy to walk in the Spring and Fall, and the local delis, coffee shops, and bakeries. It was time to refurbish their lives, Mrs. Hastings said, to renovate, renew, and reconfigure them; and to make even more out of the few years remaining to them than they ever done.

Of course there was nothing at all wrong, tedious, or bothersome about their lives.  Both were happy enough, engaged enough, and best of all uncluttered by new neighbors, a changing demographic, and out-of-state investment.   Where would they go? asked Mr. Hastings.  To Cancun, Turkey, Italy, California, what did it matter?  The point was scrubbing off the barnacles of an old boat that had sat in the water for far too long.  It mattered little where the boat would head, only that it would up anchor and move.

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The first year of this new course set by Mrs. Hastings was challenging to say the least.  A trip to the Far West to stay with distant cousins and hike the Absarokas, to Northern California for the vineyards, San Francisco, and the hip start-up restaurants in Napa and Sonoma.  A few weeks on Cape Cod to visit her old summer haunts; a side trip to Greece to rediscover memories of an illicit romance of her twenties. 

It was tiring just to think about these trips, let alone consider the tickets, the visas, the airports, and marginal, sidebar children they would entail.  There was no payoff in any of them.  How, in these final years of his life, would a trip to the Rockies, the New England Atlantic, or Europe possibly add anything he did not already have at home?  Would Cousin Bernice, a first year graduate student in ecology at Idaho State, add anything but enthusiasm to the well-worn issue of climate change ?  Would Great Uncle Hiram, a genius with tools, re-orient his existential trajectory?  Would all the bars of downtown Livingston, Idaho Falls, Wellfleet, Calistoga, or the Mission help him sort out life’s conundrums?

It wasn’t that Marge Hastings had gotten a bee in her bonnet; and everybody seemed to have gotten antsy about staying in one place.  America was a country where nobody was happy with what is, but with only what could be.  Excluding the marginal poor who never has never have the luxury of moving;  let alone a personal makeovers.

The rest of America, however, is on a roll.  The Hastings’ neighborhood was changing weekly.  The entire block of 48th Street was being redone – the Porters were adding a sunporch; the Pinkertons a third floor; the Lovellis a rose garden; and the Levins a new, three-car garage.  Old 100 year-old sycamores were coming down, privet hedges cut and replaced by all-weather fences, front doorways protected by Venetian cupolas, and front lawns reseeded and replanted with faux-tropical reeds and evergreens.

The block had been around for 75 years with no one giving a second thought to change.  There was something important about permanence, even though it meant some measure of inconvenience.  The older residents of the block knew quite well that higher-up cabinets would eliminate awkward stoop; that bigger, more ergonomically designed refrigerators would make reaching for the milk in the back a lot easier; and that cutting down the oak tree would let in more light and give the bulbs a better chance of flourishing.  Yet they resisted change, not because they were ignorant, stubborn, or simply old; but because it simply wasn’t worth it.  What did one ever really gain from changing anything?

“If it weren’t for me”, Marge Hastings said to her husband, “you would die in your traces”, plowing the same furrow he had for decades, never looking up or around.  Only she, with her outward personality, positivism, and can-do practicality, could make their life together sustainable if not exactly happy. 

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Her husband had heard this before, and the older he became, the more deaf he became to her entreaties.  There is one thing the settled have going for them – inertia – and it was simply too difficult for Marge Hastings to get her husband to the National Gallery let alone Greece or Turkey for her to persist.  He had to do nothing - lie on the couch with a book, prepare his lecture notes, take a nap, or watch a movie – and the battle was won.

His wife never got the picture, and there was always something going on in the house – retiling the patio, trimming the boxwoods, repointing the chimney, new lamps for the den – but he accepted these inconveniences as points in the marriage contract; never contested, just ignored.

Italians had the right idea, Mr. Hastings often thought.  Modern Italians live in old 16th century townhouses, negotiate streets blocked with Roman ruins, and never once think of bulldozing anything.   Change is suspect not embraced a priori.  Prove, demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that X has to go, then maybe.

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Both Hastings lived to a ripe old age, and despite his obstinacy and insistence on immobility as a way to enlightenment, he found that he wasn’t schmart and he was very, very old.   She, despite her insistent and lifelong dissatisfaction with what is and her perennial desire to make things over, realized that this too made no real difference to anything in the end.

A happy couple?  Not exactly; but compared to what and to whom?  Longevity counts for something; and if two people so remarkably and dramatically different in outlook could stay together, marriage might have something to say for it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Man's Responsibility For The Environment - As Much Sinned Against As Sinning

A young boy in a well-known private school in Washington, known for its liberal philosophy and premier education of Washington’s leaders, when asked about the role of man in the destruction of the environment replied that whatever damage man might have done to the environment, the environment took its toll on him.  We are all part of the ecosystem, he went on, and both influence it and are influenced by it. 

A very Buddhist thought, surprising for such a young student.  There is no change but change, he related; or in other words there is nothing but change.  Blame, guilt, attribution, moral consequences are meaningless in a world which is constantly changing and of which we are an integral part.  We may cut down forests, dam rivers, emit pollutants, and kill endangered species; but we may not only die from virulent diseases that emerge from African rain forests – ecology’s revenge – but unknowingly but irrevocably sow the seeds of own destruction.  Who can possibly predict the outcome of genetic engineering, man’s boldest attempt to remake the human organism in his own image?

The implications are far reaching.  As we edit out Great Great Grandfather Hiram’s bad genes, add those of Michael Jordan and Marilyn Monroe, and assure protection against the diseases and deformities we know, but we also expose the genome to other unknown, pernicious viruses.   Can’t the genome, once made public, be hacked?  If we are concerned about GMO foods and their lack of resistance to disease, then why not worry about our genetic structure, made more and more vulnerable by human intervention?

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The point is not whether genetic engineering is a good or bad thing.  The genie is already out of the bottle, tinkering with the human genome inevitable, and the search for a more perfect human organism underway and unstoppable.  It is the consequences of these radical and revolutionary events which are unknown.  It is just as likely that we contribute to our own doom and destruction as it is that we find the key to longevity, permanent good health, and a race of superior, highly-evolved individuals.

If man is as much a part of a changing physical, social, economic, and genetic ecology, as responsible for changes to it, instrumental in making others, and subject to exogenous forces which can never be predicted, then why is there a rending of garments over the spotted owl, the snail darter, or the warming of the climate?  If circumstances are such that man becomes extinct, it will not be because he has ruined the physical environment around him – rivers, oceans, streams, and forests – but because the human race has either become so large, and so environmentally influential that a whole host of swine flus, bat brain viruses, antibiotic- and immunology-resistant bacteria, and other unknown mortal pathogens emerge and destroy us; or because man himself, by manipulating a more existential genetic environment, causes his own extinction.

In other words, man is not the destroyer, the predator, and the cause of another Flood or a premature Armageddon, but nothing more than a player in the game of existential baccarat.  It is nothing more than vanity which condemns man for his ignorance, arrogance, and stupidity.  We are acting as we were created – intelligent, creative, entrepreneurial, visionary, and logical.  Creation is destiny, and we can only play out our ambitions, desires, and territorial claims as they are expressed.  We were not created to make right decisions, only decisions which seem to favor our longevity and dominance.  ‘Seem’ is the operative word, for no amount of intelligence can possibly decipher the imponderables of randomness.

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The young man at the Washington private school in question soon left the institution.  He felt put upon, unfairly criticized, and ostracized for his conclusions; and enrolled in another school which if less intellectually challenging was certainly less dominated by political creed.

His only sin was to suggest that the decline in the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay might not be due to environmental pollution and overfishing , but to an insidious, dormant, and suddenly and unexpectedly virulent virus.  Even if this were not the cause, he went on, fewer Bay oysters was not the end of the world; and only part of the inevitable cycle of the life and death of organisms.

The boys and girls at _____ were by no means interested in carrying the argument further, reflecting, as the disaffected student had, on Asian philosophies which were  eloquent on the subject of change, influence, and the role of man.  The Hindu God Siva was The Destroyer and The Enabler; and he danced the cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation, none of which had particular meaning or relevance (i.e.,  no era was any more moral, principled, or better than any other) but was simply the way God had designed things to be.  Any individual at any point in this cycle was irrelevant as were his actions.  Whatever man does and regardless of the temporal influence his actions might have, in the larger scope of things, his actions are insignificant and meaningless.  The only hope for anyone born into this random drama is to understand it.

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The _____School had been established on what it considered to be superior moral principles.  Its original patrons had supported abolition, refused entry into both world wars, and valued pacifism, social reform, and a moral-based system of governance since the 18th century.  While these progressive principles were historically valued and respected, they had come under serious scrutiny in the modern era.  The school and its foundational philosophical supporters refused to budge off a 19th century political platform and had been co-opted by 21st century progressivism., the canon of which – environmentalism, gender-race-ethnic inclusivity, and anti-capitalist hostility – was incorporated into all aspects of its education and social environment.

It was taken for granted that Americans were the world’s villains - environmental predators, military adventurers, territorialists, misogynists, and racists – and far from existing within a universal philosophical context, were outliers, destroyers with no thought of Siva –esque regeneration or renewal, cultural Nazis, and complete moral reprobates.

There could have been no farther straying from essential philosophical principles than that of the _____School and its supporters.

Western philosophers were never in the dark on such existential principles. Metaphysicians like Kant and Descartes, and moral philosophers like Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Sartre all reflected on being and existence.  Only latter-day princelings like Lacan and Derrida weighed in and took an unequivocal stand - the academic philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and their followers is wrong and irrelevant.  Only social, cultural, and historical context mattered, and one was quite right to judge white, male privileged opinions suspect in a multicultural world.  Of course man is responsible for social and environmental dislocation.

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The young student who resigned from the ____School went on to academic excellence, and was later noted for his reasoned and philosophically-grounded arguments against the received wisdom of philosophical environmentalists.  While those he left behind preferred to focus on the here-and-now, he shifted he discussion, broadened it, and demanded more academic responsibility and integrity.  The common wisdom and popular belief is that temperature rises are fact; icebergs are melting; summers and winters are nothing like what they were; and if nothing is done, climate Armageddon is close upon us.  He never denied all this, but only insisted on a broader, more inclusive, and far more intellectually sound analysis.

A priori conclusions, based on and influenced by a contemporary zeitgeist, are never right and valid.  Philosophical reflections are not only pertinent but necessary