Tuesday, June 30, 2009

So Damn Much Money by Robert G. Kaiser

(Gerald S.J.) Cassidy agreed that the weak and poor "have less representation" in modern Washington. He also agreed that money interests can set a legislative agenda that flouts the public interest but serves their narrow purposes. He has a favorite example of this, one that brought out the old 1960's liberal that sometimes lurked beneath Cassidy's $4,000 suits: the Bankruptcy Abuse Preventiobn and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, a project of the banking and credit card industries.

Enacted in April 2005, the act made it more difficult for consumers to evade paying their debts by declaring personal bankruptcy. Consumer groups and academics argued that the law would create unfair new burdens for families forced into bankruptcy by unexpected medical expenses or the loss of a job, but proponents were not deterred. Indeed, the final version of the law forced debtors to repay their credit card debt before thet paid child support or alimony.

Cassidy thought it was "the single worst piece of legislation from a public policy point of view that passed in recent years...Here you have a group of people that are essentially unrepresented- those who might go into bankruptcy- and you have the banks, the credit card companies, driving the whole issue. They came up wih a system that essentially turns people into paupers. That it could pass with the margins it passed by [ 303-126 in the House, 74-25 in the Senate, with lots of Democratic support] is absolutely stunning. You look at the amounts of money that were spent on that, it was enormous."

The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, an independent group that studies politics and money, calculated that the banks and credit card companies gave $40 million to the campaigns of members to promote the law over fifteen years. During the five years before the vote, the eighteen Senate Democrats who voted for the bankruptcy bill recieved, on average, $51,000 in campaign contributions from banks and credit card companies. Democratic senators who voted against th bill had recieved an average of $20,200.

In early 2008, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) confirmed the realities with a brazen display of public pique.

Congress had just approved an emergency "stimulus package"- legislation intended to persuade voters that the government was doing something to try to head off a recession. The largest part of the package gave a tax rebate-cash- to most taxpayers in the hope that recipients would spend it and thus stimulate the economy. The home builders had pushed several ideas they thought should be included in this package, including tax breaks for builders and expanded authority for State governments to issue tax-free bonds to finance cheap home mortgages.

The Senate Finance Committee drafted a version of the stimulus legislation that included some of the home builders' ideas- gravy for themselves, obviously. But the final version of the bill dropped those provisions. The president of the NAHB then announced that its PAC would stop giving money to all politicians. BUILD-PAC was the seventh-biggest business PAC; it had given $1.5 million to candidates since the beginning of 2007 and had more than $825,000 in the bank, ready to be donated. The president's statement made clear the home builders frustration: "More needs to be done to jump-start housing and ensure the economy does not fall into recession" The suspension of political contributions "will remain until further notice."

The statement raised eyebrows all over Washington. The NAHB had broken one of the cardinal rukles of the game. "Lobbies like to pretend that congressional action and their donations arn't tied," observed Melanie Sloan, executive director of a watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "But the home builders just confirmed that they are."

The home builders' suspension of contributions lasted just ten weeks. During that time housing legislation became a hot item in the House. The Banking Committee drafted a bill intended to stimulate the moribund industry. The NAHB announced that it had a new priority for this legislation, a $7,000 tax credit for first-time home-buyers. The House embraced this idea, including it in its housing bill. At the end of April, the NAHB resumed making political contributions. "Our message has been heard." said Ed Brady, an official of the association's PAC.

The home builders took on a challenging goal- to persuade Congress to act affirmatively on their behalf. One of the maxims of the lobbying business is that affirmative action in your own interest is always harder than blocking a proposal that helps somebody else. Managers of hedge funds and private equity funds confirmed this in 2007 and 2008.

These investment funds operate as partnerships, and pay low taxes. In 2007 Charles Rangel of New York, then the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, proposed a simple change in the tax code that would have raised the tax paid by hedge and equity fund managers on their earnings, from 15 to 35 percent. The 15 percent, less than most working Americans pay on their income, was based on loophole that allowed these managers to define their earnings as capita gains (normally money earned on investments held for a year or longer) rather than ordinary income. These were people who earned some of the biggest salaries paid in America. Rangel proposed, in effect, to close their loopholes.

Rarely if ever had an industry responded so dramatically to a percieved threat in Washington. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks these numbers, found that the hedge funds, and private equity funds, and investment firms and their associations jacked up their spending on Washington lobbying from less than $4 million in 2006 to $20 million in 2007. The same category of interests increased political contributions to candidates from $11 million to nearly $20 million from 2005-6 to 2007-8.

Rangel's plan was blocked. Its most effective opponent was the congressman's fellow Democrat from New York, Charles Schumer. He became the investment industry's leading advocate in the Senate, a role that benefited him in his job as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which collected millions from investment company executives while Schumer staved off legislation the industry opposed.

Long before Rangel proposed the tax change, Schumer was arguing against any federal regulation of hedge funds, at a Judiciary Committee hearing in June of 2006, in particular. This episode caught Gerry Cassidy's attention and stimulated liberal instincts: "It was the damnedest thing I ever heard of...It's mind boggling that you can have a force like hedge funds in the market, have it be unregulated, and have members defending it being unregulated." If a liberal Democrat had argued in favor of deregulating an important segment of the financial markets in the 1960's or 1970's, the idea "would have been laughed out of town. Now it happens and guys run to the committeee to defend it. It's just a remarkable change...."

As Senator Bob Dole said in 1982: "Poor people don't make campaign contributions."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Masters and Johnson by Thomas Maier

Their closest aide, Dr. Robert C Kolodny, who worked for two decades with them and coauthored several books and medical articles, considered writing a biography of them and asked extensively about the origins of their partnership. Only after hours of conversation with Bill, who he considered his mentor and friend- and after comparing it with Gini's version- did Kolodny gain an understanding of what transpired.

"Bill made it very plain to her, fairly soon after she took the job, that being sexual partners was a requirement," Kolodny said. "Bill saw it as a consensual involvement. He indicated that he had been the instigator and Gini agreed with that. But Gini percieved it, as she put it, as a matter-of-fact, expected part of the job. And my suspicion is that had she not gone along with this, she might have not been employed too much later. I bet she knew that and sensed that." Bill envisioned a "blueprint", as Kolodny called it, in which his female associate would engage in sex with him, as a way of further comprehending all that they were learning through observation. He exacted this demand early in their working relationship, when Gini was still essentially a nondescript figure hired off the street. For all her [subsequent] insights, she was still [then] no more than a friendly paper-pusher with some typing skills, with whom he treated lightly until he was sure she would go along with his plans. If Gini "opted out of that", Kolodny realized she "would have been replaced".

In the late 1950's, "that early in their work together, she had made no significant contributions," Kolodny explained. The sense of Gini's invaluableness to their work arrived only after this private pact was reached. Bill believed, naively and erroneously, that his concupiscence could be contained to the lab. Despite their working dinners, Bill offered no pretense at romance. He seemed oblivious to his own wedding vows to Libby, and to Gini's courtship with Judge Noah Weinstein. No one would ever find out, he urged, if they kept this secret between themselves. "I don't think either one of them felt it was a romance," Kolodny said of their beginning. "It was pretty much pure sex".

Decades later, Gini paused for a moment when told of Kolodny's recollection, as if she'd heard an unpleasant truth. Because this version varied so much from the official version Masters and Johnson portrayed to the world, because it revealed so much more than she'd ever said before to friendly questioners, or to the version she had told her children and parents, or tried to convince herself, Gini seemed taken aback. Kolodny was Bill's friend, someone with whom she didn't always agree and often argued. The emotion in her voice revealed a longtime hurt. "Bill did it all- I didn't want him", she insisted about his subtle depredation, her normally modulated voice tinged with anger about the origin of their sexual relations. "I had a job and I wanted it."
"It might have been sexual harassment, but I hadn't really thought about it that way back then," she conceded. "He was a senior medical person."

In the late 1950's, newly hired secretaries didn't accuse the hospital's top-ranking physicians of sexual indiscretions. Many didn't say no to whispers over dinner. And if these women didn't agree to stir it up after highballs, their day jobs often abruptly ended, either by quitting or getting a pink slip at week's end. Gini had enrolled at Washington University to build up her life after two wrecked marriages and with two kids in tow. She wanted and needed to find a new life for herself through education. She said she couldn't afford to throw it away. Forced into compliance by personal circumstances and the tenor of her times, Gini didn't act offended or recalcitrant in having sex with Bill. She accepted overtures without complaint. "No- I was not comfortable with it, particularly," she insisted. "I didn't want him at all, and had no interest in him. I don't know how to explain it...I was in an emergency situation and the perks kept coming along."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Ash Wednesday Supper

Giordano Bruno wrote this dialogue in 1583 while staying in London as the guest of Michel de Castelnau, Lord of Mauvissiere, the French King Henry III's ambassador to the Court of St. James. It is patterned after Plato's Symposium which he probably knew from its Latin translation made in the 15th century by Marsilio Ficino. The scene of action is a dinner party in Whitehall hosted by Sir Fukle Grenville, a close friend of Bruno's patron, Sir Philip Sidney.

Remarkably, Bruno made a stinging condemnation of European colonialism, before contrasting the effects of his own philosophy with the effects of capitalist greed. At the time, England had only begun its colonial explorations; Bruno was writing primarily about Spain and Portugal. He must have read the denunciations of Spanish cruelty in Mexico made by the Dominican Batolome de Las Casa- most probably in Naples, where the Dominicans knew a thing about Spanish oppression themselves.

"Now, in order for you to understand the present business and its importance, I set for you the premise to a conclusion that will easily be proven shortly: namely, that if Tipys is praised for having invented the first ships and crossed the seas with the Argonauts, if Columbus is acclaimed in our own time for being "the Tipys who uncovered new worlds", what is to be done with him who has discovered the way to climb the heavens, traverse the circumference of the stars, and leave the convex surface of the firmament at his back?

The Tipys of this world have found the way to disturb the peace of others, violate the ancestral spirits of the regions, muddle what nature had kept distinct, and for the sake of commerce redoubled the defects, and add further vice to the vices of each party, violently propagating new follies and planting unheard-of madness where it had never been before, concluding at last that the stronger are also the wiser, displaying new sciences, instruments, and arts by which to tyrannize and murder one another, so that the time will come, thanks to those actions, that by the oscillation of all things, those who have thus far endured to their misfortune will learn, and will be able to give back to us, the worst fruits of such pernicious invention."

Bruno vaingloriously ( as was typical of scholars at that time) contrasts this with his own philosophy ( termed 'The Nolan") which was a re-working of St. Augustine's idea that 'The centre of the Universe is everywhere, the circumference nowhere' , based on recent astronomical observations which were, none-the-less, still unsupported by mathematical proofs.*

"The Nolan, to cause entirely contrary effects, has released the human spirit and intellect, which were confined in the narrow prison of the turbulent atmosphere; where they scarcely had the capacity to look, as through certain holes, upon distant stars, and whose wings were clipped, so that they could not fly through the veil of these clouds and see what is really to be found above...Now behold him, who has crossed the air, penetrated the heavens, wandered among the stars, and passed beyond the margins of this world, made to vanish the imaginary walls of the first, eighth, ninth, tenth, and as many other spheres as you would like to add, according to the reports of vain astronomers and the blind visions of the vulgar philosophers; [who] thus, in the presence of all sense and reason, with the key of clever investigation has opened the cloisters of the truth, that can be opened by us, stripped naked the covered and veiled truth, given eyes to moles, enlightened the blind who could not focus their eyes to admire their own image in these many mirrors appearing on all sides, loosened the tongue of the mute who could not and dared not express their innermost feelings, healed the lame who could not make that progress with their spirits that our ignoble and dissolute flesh cannot make, and makes them no less present than if they were dwellers on the Sun, the moon, and the other known stars...These flaming bodies are the ambassadors who proclaim the glory and majesty of God, Thus we are moved to discover the infinite effect of the infinite cause, the true and living footprint of infinite vigor, and we have a teaching that tells us not to seek divinity outside ourselves, but within, more deeply inside us than we are ourselves."

* Like Thomas Hobbes, Bruno believed that "squaring the circle" would unlock the mathematic secret of the motions of the planets.

Ingrid D. Rowland; Giordano Bruno; Heretic & Philosopher; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y.,2008

[Needless-to-say, unlocking the secrets of the universe- a work still in progress- has not thoroughly dampened the enthusiasm nor much of the cruelty of modern colonialists, particularly those' who have thus far endured it to their misfortune'. But it is notable that no one suggested that a man like Albert Einstein be burned at the stake as was Bruno, though he might easily have been caught up in the exterminating regime of the Nazis.]

The National Security Ideology

"Observers preoccupied with delineating the differences between this Republican President and that Democratic one may uncover any number of small truths while missing the big ones. Identifying the big ones requires appreciation for continuity rather than change. It's not the superficial distinctions that matter but the subterranean similarities.

President Bush's critics and his dwindling band of loyalists share this conviction: that the forty-third president has broken decisively with the past, setting the United States on a revolutionary new course. Yet this is poppycock. The truth is this: Bush and those around him have reaffirmed the pre-existing fundamentals of U.S. policy, above all affirming the ideology of national security to which past administrations have long subscribed. Bush's main achievement has been to articulate that ideology with such fervor and clarity as to unmask as never before its defects and utter perversity.

Four core convictions inform this ideology of national security. In his second inaugural address, President Bush testified eloquently to each of them.

According to the first of these convictions, history has an identifiable and indisputable purpose. History, the president declared, "has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty". History's abiding theme is freedom, to which humanity aspires. Reduced to its essentials, history is an epic struggle, binary in nature, between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."

According to the second conviction, the United States has always embodied, and continues to embody, freedom. America has always been, and remains, freedom's chief exemplar and advocate. "From the day of our Founding," the president said, "we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. As the self-proclaimed Land of Liberty, the United States serves as the vanguard of history. Revising, refining and perfecting their understanding of freedom, Americans constantly model its meanings for others around the world. In 1839 the journalist John L. Sullivan declared the young United States s "The Great Nation of Futurity". So it remains today. Within the confines of the United States, history's intentions are most fully revealed.

According to the third conviction, Providence summons America to ensure freedom's ultimate triumph. This, observed President Bush, "is the mission that created our Nation". The Author of Liberty has anointed the United States as the Agent of Liberty. Unique among great powers, this nation pursues interests larger than itself. When it acts, it does so on freedom's behalf and at the behest of higher authority. By invading Iraq, the United States reaffirmed and reinvigorated the nation's "great liberating tradition," as the president put it. In doing so, "we have lit a fire as well- a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." Only cynics or those disposed toward evil cold possibly dissent from this self-evident truth.

According to the final conviction, For the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere. Only when the light of freedom's untamed fire illuminates the world's darkest corners will America's own safety and prosperity be assured. In effect, what the United States offers to the world and what it requires of the world align precisely. Put simply "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one" This proposition serves, of course, as an infinitely expansible grant of authority, empowering the United States to assert its influence anywhere it choses since, by definition, it acts on freedom's behalf.

The ideology of national security does not serve as an operational checklist. It imposes no specific obligations. It functions the way ideology so often does- not to divine truth or even to make sense of things, but to provide a highly elastic rationale for action. In the American context, it serves principally to legitimate the exercise of executive power. It removes constraints, conferring upon presidents and their immediate circle of advisers wide prerogatives for deciding when and how to employ power.

Nothing about this ideology, however, mandates action in support of the ideals it celebrates. It doesn't, for example, oblige the United States to do anything on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe or Burma, no matter how heavy the yoke of oppression they are obliged to bear. It certainly does not prevent American policy makers from collaborating with debased authoritarian regimes that deny basic freedoms like Hosni Mubarek's Egypt or Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan. What it does do is provide policy makers with a moral gloss that can be added to virtually any initiative by insisting that, whatever concrete interests might be at stake, the United States is also acting to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.

Postwar presidents have routinely tapped elements of this ideology as a source of authority. America's status as a force for good in a world that pits good against evil has provided a rationale for bribing foreign officials, assassinating foreign leaders, overthrowing governments, and undertaking major military interventions. George Bush did not invent this practice; he merely inherited and expanded upon it."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Giordano Bruno's Misogyny

It is truly, O most generous Sir, the work of a low, filthy animal nature to have made oneself the constant admirer, and to have a fixed solicitous attachment upon or around the beauty of a woman's body. Good God! What more vile and ignoble vision can present itself to a clear-sighted eye than a man, brooding, afflicted, tormented, sorry, melancholy; who waxes now cold, now hot, now boiling, now trembling, now pale, now blushing, now in a pose of perplexity, now in an act of decisiveness, a man who spends his best season and the choicest fruits of his life distilling the elixir of his brain towards putting into thought and writ and sealing in public monuments those endless tortures, those grave torments, those reasoned arguments, those laborious thoughts and those bitter desires addressed to the tyranny of an unworthy, imbecilic, foolish and sordid smut?

What tragicomedy, what act, I say, more deserving of pity and laughter could be produced in this theatre of the world, on this stage of our perceptions, than these subjugated men, rendered pensive, contemplative, constant, steadfast, faithful, lovers, devotees, adorers, and slaves of a thing without faith, bereft of all constancy, destitute of intelligence, empty of all merit, void of any acknowledgment or gratitude, where no more sense, intellect, or goodness is to be obtained than might be found in a statue or a painting on a wall? And where there abound more disdain, arrogance, effrontery, vainglory, rage, scorn, perfidy, lust, greed, ingratitude, and other moral vices than the poisons and instruments of death that could have issued forth from Pandora's box, all to have, alas, such expensive accomodation with the brain of such a monster?

Behold, inscribed on paper, enclosed in books, set before the eyes, and intoned in the ears, a noise, a commotion, a clash of devices, of emblems, of mottoes, of epistles, of sonnets, of epigrams, of books, of chattering scribbles, of terminal sweats, of lives consumed, of cries that deafen the stars, laments that make hell's caverns reverberate, aches that strike the living dumb, sights that exhaust the pity of the gods, for those eyes, for those cheeks, for that bossom, for that white, for that crimson, for that tongue, for that tooth, for that lip, for that hair, that dress, that mantle, that glove, that slipper, that high heel, that avarice, that giggle, that scorn, that empty window, that eclipse of the sun, that throbbing, that disgust, that stench, that sepulcher, that cesspit, that menstruation, that carrion, that malaria, that uttermost insult and lapse of nature, that with a surface, a shadow, a phantasm, a dream, an enchantment of Circe plied in the service of reproduction, should deceive in the manner of beauty; which simultaneously comes and goes, issues and flies, flowers and rots, and is somewhat beautiful on the outside, but truly and fixedly contains within a shipyard, a workshop, a customhouse, a marketplace of every foulness, toxin, poison that our stepmother Nature has managed to produce: and once the seed she requires has been paid out, she often repays it with a morass, a remorse, a sadness, a flaccidity, a headache, a lassitude, this and that distemper that are known to all the world, so that every place aches bitterly where it itched so sweetly before.

De gli heroici furori ( The Heroic Frenzies); dedication to Sir Philip Sidney, 1585

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Department of Veterans Affairs by Martin Schram

When you leave the VA headquarters, turn right, walk south on Vermont Avenue, and turn right again, you are on H Street. And if you walk one block west, you come to Hay-Adams Hotel, just across from Lafayette Park from the White House. It is a posh place with a cozy bar and on one recent evening at about six o'clock, I found myself there, talking to a gregarious fellow with a gravelly voice, a stocky man, not tall, who was recounting to me a triumph at work that had obviously made his day.

He reviews benefits claims cases down the block at the VA, and he had just spent the afternoon researching the medical literature relating to a veteran's claims to see if experts had conclusively established that the veteran's cancer was most likely caused by something that happened during his military service. Finding no definitive connection in the literature had been his absolute triumph, which he told me about with bureaucratic exaltation. As he got to the key moment of his story, he announced his victory in a voice well oiled by the afternoon's alcohol, the decibels so loud lobbyists stopped boasting and turned to look a the VA man declared his adjudication triply:

"De-nied! De-nied! De-nied!"

Now, maybe the veteran who filed the case was indeed one of these fellows who had tossed a spurious spiel at a VA bureaucratic in the hopes of coming away richer than he deserved. But the VA reviewers unabashed glee as he shoveled through the medical volumes and dug out a factoid that cast doubt on the validity of the veteran's claim should make us wonder about the sort of mind-set we want our VA claims reviewers to have when they approach their cases. Do we want them to be intrepid investigators to find some thread of doubt somewhere, anywhere, no matter how long it takes to research- so they can shout "De-nied!" three times? Even if it is only on the basis of an inexact assertion that it is less likely than not that the cancer was caused by something that happened during the veteran's military service? Do we want our reviewers to be forever looking for the bad apples in the baskets? Or do we want them to move those baskets, which contain so many good apples, quickly and fairly to market- understanding that in the process we may let a few bad apples get through as well?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The Crisis-of-Confidence Speech" by Andrew J. Bacevich

By the late 1970's, a period of slow growth and high inflation, the still-forming crisis of profligacy was already causing real distress in American households. The first protracted economic downturn since World War II confronted Americans with a fundamental choice. They could curb their appetites and learn to live within their means or deploy dwindling reserves of U.S. power in hopes of obliging others to accommodate their penchant for conspicuous consumption. Between July 1979 and March 1983, a fateful interval book-ended by two memorable presidential speeches, they opted decisively for the later.

Here lies the true pivot of contemporary American history, far more relevant to our present predicament than supposedly decisive events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union...

Only July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter delivered the first of those two pivotal speeches. The circumstances were less than congenial, popular dissatisfaction with his presidency was growing at an alarming rate. The economy was in terrible shape. Inflation had reached 11 percent. Seven percent of American workers were unemployed. The prime lending rate stood at 15 percent and was still rising. By postwar standards, all these figures were unacceptably high, if not unprecedented. Worse yet, In January 1979, Iranian revolutionaries ousted the Shah of Iran, a long-time U.S. ally, resulting in a second "oil shock". Gasoline prices in the United States soared, due not to actual shortages but to panic buying. The presidential election season beckoned. If Carter hoped to win a second term, he needed to turn things around quickly.

The President had originally intended to speak on July 5, focusing his address exclusively on energy.. At the last minute he decided to postpone it. Instead, he spent ten days sequestered at Camp David, using the time, he explained, "to reach out and listen to the voices of America." At his invitation, a host of politicians, academics, business and labor leaders, clergy, and private citizens trooped through the presidential retreat to offer their views on what was wrong with America and what Carter needed to do to set things right.

The speech that Carter delivered when he returned to the White House bore little resemblance to the one he had planned earlier. He began by explaining that he had decided to look beyond energy because "the true problems of our Nation are much deeper". The energy crisis of 1979, he suggested, was merely a symptom of a far greater crisis.

So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy."

In short order, Carter then proceeded to kill any chance he had of securing reelection. In American political discourse, fundamental threats are by definition external. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or international communism could threaten the United States. That very year Iran's Islamic revolutionaries had emerged to pose another such threat. That the actions of everyday Americans might pose a comparable threat amounted to rank heresy. Yet Carter now dared to suggest that the real danger to American democracy lay within.

The nation as a whole was experiencing "a crisis of confidence," he announced.

It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation".

This erosion of confidence threatened "to destroy the social and political fabric of America."Americans had strayed from the path of righteousness.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer define by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

With his references to "what we've discovered" and "what we've learned," Carter implied that he was voicing concerns that his listeners already shared: that average Americans viewed their lives as empty, unsatisfying rituals of buying, and longed for something meaningful.

To expect Washington to address these concerns was, he made clear, fanciful. According to the president, the federal government had become "an island", isolated from the people. Its major institutions were paralyzed and corrupt. It was "a system of government that seems incapable of action." Carter spoke of "A Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests". Partisanship routinely trumped any concern for the common good: "You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another."

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies the mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.

The alternative- a course consistent with "all the traditions of the past and all the lessons of our heritage" pointed down another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. As portrayed by Carter, the mistaken idea of freedom was quantitative: It centered on a never-ending quest for more while exalting narrow self-interest. His conception of authentic freedom was qualitative: It meant living in accordance with permanent values. At least by implication, it meant settling for less...

How Americans dealt with the question of energy, the president believed, was likely to determine which idea of freedom would prevail...with this in mind, Carter outlined a six-point program designed to end what he called "this intolerable dependence on foreign oil... [with somewhat less of a emphasis on 'technological fixes' and 'market forces' than the programs being proposed today, thirty years later]..

Although Carter expressed confidence that the United States could one day regain its energy independence, he acknowledged that in the near term "there was simply no way to avoid sacrifice." Indeed, implicit in Carter's speech was the suggestion that sacrifice just might be a good thing. For the sinner, some sort of penance must necessarily precede redemption.

The response to his address- instantly labeled the "malaise" speech although Carter never used that word- was tepid at best. As an effort to reorient public policy, Carter's appeal failed completely. Americans showed little enthusiasm for the president's brand of freedom with its connotations of virtuous austerity. Presented with an alternative to quantitative solutions, to the search for "more", they declined the offer. Not liking the message, Americans shot the messenger. Given the choice, more still looked better.

The crisis-of-confidence speech did enjoy a long and fruitful life- chiefly as fodder for his political opponents.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kierkegaard's Moment by Joakim Garff

'Neither before nor since has the Danish clergy been subjected to such systematic persecution. Accusations veritably rained down on this "guild of clerical swindlers", also called "the company of pastors", this band of little, mediocre men, who had been so fortunate to get their parasitical snouts way down into the country's treasury, and who would do anything simply to hang on to their positions, even if, "for example, the state came up with the idea of instituting the religion that the moon is made of green cheese." Kierkegaard employed countless allusions, little stories, anecdotes, gossip, tasteless innuendos, and whatever else worked, in order to make the pecuniary position of the pastors into the central theme of The Moment, where he put the matter quite directly: "The question of the continued existence of the established ecclesiastical order is- a question of money."

Kierkegaard emphasized the commercialization of Christianity, giving his articles titles such as "The Clergy as a Merchant Class" or "The Enormous Guild of Professional Pastors". Not infrequently the clergy was simply called "One Thousand Public Officials Who Must Live Off Christianity" (that is, they live off "the cloying, syrupy sweetness that is the stock-in-trade of witnesses to the lie"). The Pastor's role, Kierkegaard insisted, is thus to protect society against Christianity, and just as a statistician, when he is presented with "the size of the population of a large city is able to state the corresponding number of prostitutes consumed by such a city, it is also possible to calculate how many perjurers ( pastors) the state needs in order to protect itself against Christianity." This is a secret pact, and it produces benefits for both partners, the state and the pastors. And indeed, as a sort of business partnership, the pastors are especially keen on two things "(a) that the people call themselves Christians- the bigger the flock of sheep, the better that they take the name of 'Christians', and (b) that the matter rest there, that they do not find out what Christianity actually is."

Despite Kierkegaard's insistence that he wanted to carry out his campaign as "an individual", his newsletter was nonetheless a break with his previous principles, and Sibbern could scarcely believe his own aged eyes when he saw the first issue of The Moment. Not only did he have some doubts about whether Kierkegaard really had "a Christian disposition and temperament...although he certainly must have something of a sort," he was also surprised that Kierkegaard "who hated agitation the whole time I knew him, himself had become a zealous agitator." Martenson also noted this reversal: "Here he addressed himself to the masses- he, who had previously disdained the masses and had only sought quiet encounter with the individual."

Nor was it long before Kierkegaard himself began to sense the discrepancy between the message and the medium, between personal protest and public broadcast. On August 30 (1855), when he considered the effect he was having, he found no fault with the interest people had taken in his cause. There was absolutely no doubt that people were reading him, but the next step people took was literally in the wrong direction:

"The next Sunday, people go to church as usual. What K. says is basically true, and it is very interesting to read what he has to say- that the whole of the official worship of God consists of making a fool of God, that it is blasphemy. But we are used to it, after all, and we cannot free ourselves from it; we don't have the strength to do so. Still it is certain that we will take great pleasure in reading what he writes; one can become very impatient to get hold of the latest issue and learn more about this criminal matter, which is undeniably of enormous interest."

Naturally, Kierkegaard found this sort of interest deplorable, and it served only to confirm him in his belief that Christianity had been abolished and that "in our times, people are not even in what I would call a state of religion, but are alien to and unacquainted with the sort of passion every religion must require, and without which one cannot have any religion, least of all Christianity."

Kierkegaard's campaign was a corrective to "the established order"; he had pointed this out frequently and vociferously. But it was also something else, something he expended almost equal energy not mentioning: It was a corrective to extensive portions of his own works; his pseudonymous ventriloquism had now reversed itself, finally turning into personal statements. "When the castle gate of inwardness has long been closed and is finally opened, it does not move soundlessly like an interior door on spring-mounted hinges", he explained with a medieval metaphor.

In the work What Christ Judges with Respect to Official Christianity, dated June 16, he expressed himself more directly:"I began by passing myself off as a poet, cunningly taking aim at what I surely believed was the central point of official Christianity." The crux of the situation was that people had transformed "Christianity into poetry" and had thus abolished "the imitation of Christ, so that one can relate to the exemplar merely by means of imagination, living oneself in totally different categories- which means that one relates oneself to Christianity poetically." Kierkegaard noted with respect to his tactics that "the procedure was the same as used by the police to make the persons involved feel secure, in order to gain the opportunity to investigate a case more thoroughly." As time passed, this investigation revealed so much that the poet had to undergo a transfiguration: "Then the poet suddenly transformed himself. He cast off his guitar- if I may be permitted to put it thus-and took out a book called 'The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Kierkegaard's words border on the utterly platitudinous, but they were meant in deadly earnest, which is clear from various bits of evidence, including a piece in the seventh issue of The Moment that lays out in some detail the danger the poet poses to religion...

Something similar applies with respect to the remarks about nonsense (subsequently cited so often) which appeared in the ninth issue of The Moment:

"The human race is shrewd. It has compelled existence to reveal its secret. It has got wind of the fact that if one wants to have life made easy (and that is exactly what we want), it can be easily done. All one needs to do is to make oneself and make being a human being more and more insignificant- then life becomes easier and easier. Be nonsense, and you will see, all difficulties will disappear!...Be nonsense. Have one opinion today, another tomorrow, and then once again have the one you had the day before yesterday, and a new one on Friday. Be nonsense. Make yourself into many people. Or parcel yourself out, have one opinion anonymously, another under your own name, one orally, another in writing, one as a public official, another as a private citizen..and you will see, all difficulties will disappear."

"Nonsense" is the category of lightness, of non-committal and experimental hovering, of the mutability of the subject. But in precisely being all this, nonsense is also an insidious or involuntary metaphor for Kierkegaard's own works, which merely by virtue of the rapidly changing characters, the exploding population of the portrait gallery found in his pseudonymous works, and the edifying discourses in very varying spirits provide an almost classic demonstration of the behavior of a person who makes himself into "many", who parcels out his self, who has one opinion anonymously, another under his own name.

Kierkegaard had taken on his own character, had put aside all forms of indirect communication, and would no longer tolerate inwardness, neither his own, nor that of his culture, as a pretext for refraining from action.'

Soren Kierkegaard; A Biography by Joakim Garff,
Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Times Square Red by Samuel R. Delany


The Times Square problem I perceive entails the economic "redevelopment" of a highly diversified neighborhood with working-class residences and small human services (groceries, drugstores, liquor stores, dry cleaners, diners and specialty shops ranging from electronics stores to tourist shops to theatrical memorabilia and comic book stores, interlarding a series of theatres, film and stage, rehearsal spaces, retailers of theatrical equipment, from lights to makeup, inexpensive hotels, furnished rooms and restaurants at every level, as well as bars and sexually orientated businesses that, in one form or another, have thrived in the neighborhood since the 1880s) into what will soon be a ring of upper-middle class luxury apartments around a ring of tourist hotels clustering about a series of theatres and restaurants, in the center of which a large mall and cluster of office towers are slowly but inexorably coming into being.

The generally erroneous assumption about how new buildings make money is something like this: a big company acquires the land, clears it for construction, an commences to build. After three to five years, when it is complete, the company rents the building out. If the building is a success, all the offices (or apartments, as the case may be) are leased, and the site is a popular one, then an only then does the corporation that owns the building begin to see profits on its earlier outlays and investments. Thus the ultimate success of the building as a habitation is pivotal to the building's future economic success.

If this were the way new office buildings were actually built, however, few would even be considered, much less begun.

Here is an only somewhat simplified picture of how the process actually works, it gives a much better idea of what goes on and how money is made.

A large corporation decides to build a building. It acquires some land. Now it sets up an extremely small ownership corporation, which is tied to the parent corporation by a lot of very complicated contracts- but is a different and autonomous corporation nevertheless. That ownership corporation, tiny as it may be, is now ready to build the building. The parent corporation also sets up a much larger construction corporation, which hires diggers, subcontracts construction companies, and generally overseas the building proper.

The little ownership corporation now borrows a lot of money from the bank- enough to pay the construction corporation. It also sells stock to the investors- enough to pay back the bank loan. The tiny ownership corporation (an office, a secretary, a few officers that oversee things) proceeds to pay the parent construction corporation with bank funds to build the building. It uses the stock funds to pay back the bank. Figured in the cost of the building is a healthy margin of profits for the construction corporation- and for the large corporation that got the whole project started- while investors pay off the bank, so it doesn't get twisted out of shape. Meanwhile both the ownership corporation and the construction corporation pay the parent corporation and the construction corporation pay the parent corporation as their controlling stockholder.

Yes, if the building turns out to be a stunningly popular success, then (remember all those contracts?) profits will be substantially greater than otherwise. But millions and millions of dollars of profit will be made by the parent corporation just from the construction of the building alone, even if no single space in it is ever rented out. (Movies are made in the same manner, which is why so many awful ones hit the screen. By the time they are released, the producers have long since taken the money and, as it were, run.)

Believing in the myth of profit only in return for investments, public investors will swallow the actual cost of the building's eventual failure- if it fails- while the ownership corporation is reduced in size to nothing: an office in a building on which no rent is paid, a secretary and/or an answering machine, and a nominal head (with another major job somewhere else) on minimal salary who comes in once a month to check in,..if that.

Two facts should now be apparent. First: The Forty-second Street Development Project ( I use this as a metonym for the hidden [limited liability] corporate web behind it) wants to build those buildings. Renting them out is secondary, even if the failure to rent is a major catastrophe for the city, turning the area into a glass and aluminum graveyard. In short term speculative business adventures of (to choose an arbitrary cutoff point) more than three million dollars, such as a building or civic center, (second fact) the profits to be made from dividing the money up and moving it around over the one of six years during which the money must be spent easily offset any losses from the possible failure of the enterprise itself as a speculative endeavor, once it's completed....

Far more important than whether the buildings can be rented out is whether investors think the buildings can be rented out. In the late seventies, three of those towers were tabled for ten years. The ostensible purpose for that ten-year delay was to give economic forces a chance to shift and business a chance to rally to the areas. The real reason, however, was simply the hope that people would forget the arguments against the project, so clear in so many people's mind at the time. Indeed, the crushing arguments against the whole project from the mid-seventies were by the mid-eighties, largely forgotten; this forgetting has allowed the project to take its opening steps over the last ten years. The current ten-year delay means that the public relations corporations have been given another decade to make the American investing public forget the facts of the matter and convince the same public that the Times Square project is a sound one. It gambles on the possibility that, ten years from now (@2008) , the economic situation might be better...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Unknown Soldiers by Joseph E. Garland

Reliving World War II in Europe
Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon,
Headquarter's Company of the U.S. Army 45th Division's 157 Infantry Regiment.
Protean Press, Rockport MA. 2009

A couple of weeks after my solo celebration of Victory in Europe in the officers' parking lot above the Bay of Naples my shin was so well healed that to retain my limited service status my guardians at the hospital redefined my incapacity as psychoneurosis, I suppose on account of the baffling crippling of my legs. "I'm not terribly violent yet", I reported home. "Give me another six months, and I'll froth at the mouth for you!"

Of course the amusing psycho news brought a chin-up response from Ma.

Whatever is keeping you from feeling whole again, I'm sure we can set you right somehow, and soon. One by one the awful, terrifying possibilities are being eliminated, and you can see the way opening up, I'm sure, to return to an opportunity to make and shape your life again.

My father being on a fishing trip in Maine, his always protective wife added that she wouldn't show my letter to him until I sent a clarification, which I hastily and rather sheepishly attempted:

There has been an alarming amount of hogwash in the States about psychoneurosis, but the fact is that it runs the gamut all the way from near-insanity to mere nervousness. The latter is about my case. I'm only rather nervous, restlessly so, I mean. It's absolutely nothing to be alarmed about, for I've been that way ever since the first days on Anzio. It manifest itself by extreme restlessness, the inability to stay still, fairly heavy smoking, shortness of temper (frequent "blowing your top", just a way of getting off excess steam). Just about everybody who comes out of the infantry alive is that way, varying only in degree, and it will obviously wear off to a great extent in civilian life and through a process of adjustment. That ease your mind? I'm perfectly frank and holding nothing back. I'm just war-weary, that's all.

Little did I or anybody else know. So she showed Pa my letter and wrote back wondering that anyone who saw combat could think of anything else, "but of course the human mind and body can get over those things, especially young ones."

Meanwhile her reflective husband counseled their "rather nervous" son:

You have done your duty as a citizen-soldier, and when that duty is discharged your real life begins. This is trite and comes poorly from a parent, but while you are waiting don't let your time be too much wasted... After a year in civilian life you will look back on your army life as a strange interlude, but one in which much of your positive character will have been built.
We will not again inhabit the world or see the social systems reappear that flourished before the world upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century... There's going to be considerable equalization, and the wise people will adjust themselves to a world where the wealth is much more equally distributed than now...I can imagine no worse basis for a lasting friendship with Russia than the oft repeated predictions that we'll be at war with her inside of fifteen years. We, with our bank accounts, are just so afraid of the Russian influence and the possibility that we might have to share prosperity with the working classes that we can't bear it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lone Wolf by Maryanne Vollers

Murder, Myth, and The Pursuit Of An American Outlaw

This is the story of Eric Rudolph, the man responsible for the Olympic Park Bombing as well as two others: a gay night club and a family planning clinic in which a security guard was killed. He was the object of a prolonged manhunt by agents of the FBI and AFT as well as a host of local law enforcement agents. He hid out in the mountains but was also able to shop at Walmart and eat at Taco Bell with some frequency. He had an observation post overlooking the National Guard Armory where the search teams had their headquarters and once planted a bomb at the entranceway to it. Taking pity on the agents and figuring that if things had turned out differently he would have been among them, he eventually defused it. After a couple of years he tired of being on the run, reluctant to spend another winter in the hills, grew careless and allowed himself to be captured raiding a dumpster at a local restaurant by a novice sheriff's officer.

An intelligent and resourceful individual he was careful about his health (eating "healthfully"- mostly nuts, dried fruit and whole grain) and considerably well- read in history and philosophy, not a militia or assaultive type of personality. After capture he endured lengthy interrogations without unduly incriminating himself and won the respect and lasting admiration of his very high-power lawyers. He was able to plea bargain his sentence from death to life in prison by agreeing to reveal the location of his large and dangerous stash of dynamite.

Among his belongings agents discovered a Bible with passages justifying the killing of homosexuals and abortionists carefully underlined. This seems to have been his fairly exclusive interest in that book. Even so, the author and various other investigators who have looked into his case doubt that his commitment to "saving the lives of the unborn" was very thorough-going or the prime motivation for his crimes, although that was what he tried to present in Court.

Ms.Vollers conducted several exclusive interviews with Rudolph. In one she asked:

"You mentioned in your letter that you've been "personally confronted with the horror of abortion" Would you be willing to explain what you mean? Was it a girlfriend of yours?"

"My ex-girlfriend [he never told me which one] had a close acquaintance who had an abortion. I can still remember the sense of hollowness, the atmosphere of indifference that surrounded her "choice" It was a kind of rotten, superficial, amoral feeling that MTV specializes in promoting. I felt dirty and wanted to wash the "cool", "hip" indifference off me with a Brillo pad."

Another clue to what made Eric Rudolph tick is suggested in his answer to the question:

"You have been labeled a loner. How would you describe yourself?"

"I would describe myself as an idealist with average intelligence. I associate with people and enjoy social situations, especially if there is stimulating conversation. I like serious conversation. This has narrowed my social circle considerably. Most of the people I have associated with don't enjoy serious subject matter, so I have tended to keep to myself. This is probably where they get the loner label. I don't mind. If the "normal"man is expected to sit around all weekend drinking beer and watching greased men beat each other with folding chairs on television, then put me down as a loner."

Today, (or at least in 2006 when this book came to press) Eric Rudolph is incarcerated in a special unit of the Federal SuperMax in Florence, Colorado, along with Theodore Kaczynski (the Unibomber), Richard Reed (the shoe-bomber), Zacarias Moussaoui and a few other Muhajadin. He is only allowed out of his cell after a full body search, for a shower or a brief time in an isolated recreation yard. Perhaps the authorities are justified in their suspicion that if it were possible to make a bomb out of sugar and salt, Eric Rudolph would do it.

The prisoners in Rudolph's unit are not allowed to associate except that they each have a television and can holler out comments to each other through the openings where food trays are received. Besides the news the only program the muhajadin watch is "Jeopardy" , because the female contestants are always dressed demurely enough for their religion. In the contest of this game Rudolph is a tremendously useful resource to them.