Monday, December 27, 2010

Ayn Rand by Anne C. Heller

Ayn Rand originally expressed her system of ideas in her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, other works of fiction and in her magazines The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter . Because of Rand's criticism of contemporary intellectuals, Objectivism has been called "fiercely anti-academic". Although her work remains popular and highly influential in some quarters, most academic philosophers in their turn have dismissed her works as "sophomoric", "preachy", and "unoriginal". They primarily consist of a defense of the 'virtue of selfishness' in which altruism is considered a psychological disability and a moral defect. She was a great proponent of classic economy policy as embodied in 19th century laissez faire capitalism. The progress of humankind is born on the shoulders of those of superior reason and will, at war with the rest us liberals, religious, mystics of the spirit, savages, moochers, looting thugs, beggars, parasites, gibberers, carrion eaters, cavemen and headhunters.'

Like many conservatives in the late 1930s , Ayn Rand viewed FDR as a madman, a traitor to his class, a warmonger maneuvering America into World War II and worse. It would be impossible to exaggerate how bitterly he was hated. Many on the Right voted for him in 1932, when he appeared to be fiscally conservative and friendly to business. Once in office, he declared a need for extreme measures to lift the nation out of Depression. He assumed large new presidential powers, transforming the economy from a minimally regulated free-for-all into a federally regulated system that his adversaries regarded as a European-style socialism. He kept his promise to repeal Prohibition, but to the fury of some business interests and the political right, and the relief of many unemployed and working people, he also established the first minimum hourly wage, guaranteed unions the right to bargain collectively, created Social Security and unemployment insurance, and enacted 550 separate regulatory codes that capped industrial production, set wages and prices, limited competition, and gave rise to government-backed manufacturing cartels, all of which Rand would parody to the verge of surrealism in Atlas Shrugged.

Most threatening of all, perhaps, to Rand, FDR prohibited the private ownership of gold, which made it possible for the U.S. Government, like the Bolshevik government in Russia of her teens and the Nazi regime then ruling Germany, to inflate the currency and, she thought, arbitrarily redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. For her, the rise of the welfare state and a managed economy smacked of Fascism. It looked very much like a covert transfer of power from the old free capitalist class to a new all-powerful government elite, a fatal undermining of property rights and 'the old reliance on the free action of individual wills' which Rand believed was embodied in the original constitutional intent of the founders of the American Republic and the basis of the country's prosperity. Ayn Rand maintained this unreserved view of the American political economy to the end of her life.

Beginning in 1944 with the publication of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand became widely popular author. Though dismissed by the book review and university establishments, her fictions and philosophical essays struck a sympathetic chord in the hearts of millions of Americans. Fan mail poured into her publisher's mail box, from lawyers, teachers, librarians, bookstore owners, chemists engineers, housewives, active-duty military personnel, artists and musicians. These letters would continue for as long as she lived. Many readers thanked her for giving them the courage and inspiration to flout the stultifying expectations of their families and communities and to act according to their hopes and dreams; or they timidly asked her advice on how to become more like Howard Roark of Fountainhead, a passionate woman's erotic rendition of a rugged male hero.

To be perfectly fair the author notes that while her underlying message assailed the communitarian spirit which took hold of America in the 1960s, her specific positions on many of the issues of the day were often classically liberal, even farsighted and brave. As an extension of her commitment to individual rights, she consistently championed minority civil rights and equal opportunity between the sexes ( though she believed that every woman should properly worship a man, or men). Condemning the first use of force in any context, she opposed the Vietnam War long before her contemporaries did. And she spoke plainly and forcefully against State governments bans on abortion. “Abortion is a moral right- which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved.” Her reasoning was original and often, in its peculiar and eccentric way, progressive. She was a passionate and able public speaker who enjoyed tremendous acclaim on college campuses across the nation; always worth hearing.

Ayn Rand's worldview was based on the wishful thinking of her old style, epic romantic fictions. She often quoted her own characters as intellectual and moral authorities in her philosophical arguments. It was a 'black and white' world. Anyone who was not or would soon be a one-hundred- percent Randian Rationalist was her 'enemy' and an 'objective believer in death and destruction' as well as crazy. In the 1950s one of her intimates, Murray Rothbard- a quick-witted twenty-eight-year-old intellectual prankster and self-styled 'anarcho-capitalist'- divined a flaw in her approach that others wouldn't discover for a decade, if at all; the one-party nature of her philosophical system. The famous individualist “actually denies all individuality whatsoever" he exclaimed. Given her rejection of the relevance of family background, temperament, and personal preference in the formation of values and ideas, a Randian utopia 'would be a place where all men are identical, in their souls if not in their personal appearance'. In 1957 this was an eerily precise forecast of the busy uniformity of Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, where everyone agrees on almost everything. Indeed, to disagree with Ayn Rand inevitably evoked her censure, and ostracism from her 'inner circle'. Very few of her intimate friends or business associates survived the test.

This aspect of Ayn Rand's character is perhaps best expressed in the story of her sister Nora. In 1972, half a world away in Leningrad, her youngest sister, now in her sixties, stumbled on a copy of a Russian language magazine published and distributed by the U.S. Information Agency. The magazine contained an article about the range of political opinion in America and included a thumbnail sketch of Rand. Nora was familiar with her older sister's pen name but had heard nothing about her since 1937, when Ayn had stopped writing to her family in Russia. The decades-long Soviet barricade against Western influences had insulated Nora and her husband, a retired factory engineer named Fedor Andreyevich Drobyshev, from all knowledge of Rand's best-selling novels and her fame as a polemicist. Nora contacted the U/S. Embassy in Moscow and, with its help, sent a letter of inquiry to the USIA magazine. Eventually the sisters re-established contact and a campaign was begun to fulfill Ayn's old and treasured dream to show Nora the splendors of America.

Finally, at Kennedy airport, the two sister's embraced each other and wept in greeting. Ayn's husband Frank and Fedor shook hands. But it wasn't long before the first discordant notes crept in. Having live most of their lives under a Communist system in which neighbors and shopkeepers might be government agents, Nora and Fedor were suspicious of the driver of the limousine Rand had arranged to take them into the city, then Rand's cook and housekeeper and later a guest at dinner, thinking of them as possible informants planted by the U.S. Government. Never one with much empathy for others, Ayn began to take it amiss that they couldn't or wouldn't recognize that America was a free country. For their part, the Drobyshevs were disappointed in Rand's austere standard of living. They had expected a “rich, noble lady” in a three story house, not a modest apartment in Manhattan.

If Rand hadn't fundamentally changed, Nora had. Rand remembered her as a spirited girl of sixteen who admired Western fashions, loved to draw, and worshipped her older sister. Now she appeared to be an average, aging Russian woman, satisfied to be cared for by the state. She and Fedor were childless, and they lived in a one-room apartment that was regarded as a luxury in a period when many Russian families had to double or triple up. After teaching for a few years, Nora had made a career in display design. Fedor had invented a piece of factory equipment that earned him a larger than ordinary pension. When Rand or one of her circle argued against Soviet totalitarianism and in favor of individual liberties, Nora responded, “What good is political freedom to me? I'm not an activist.” She quarreled with her sister over the benefits of capitalism and the evils of altruism, about which she later said, “It was the altruism of our entire family that enabled Ayn to get out to the United States in the first place.”

Worse, perhaps, Nora didn't approve of America. She disliked American conveniences, which left her with nothing to do all day; she preferred her old routine of waiting in food lines and gossiping with her friends. When asked what she and her friends talked about, she said they discussed freedom and what it would be like to do and say anything they wanted, adding, however, that they didn't really mind the Soviet way of life. One day, she went into a store to buy toothpaste and found herself over-whelmed by the number of brands and sizes and became angry when a clerk wasn't willing to help her choose. Why were there so many kinds of everything? How did New Yorkers stand the crowds of strangers? Why was Central Park so dirty?

The one thing Nora wanted to do was to visit Hollywood, and Rand disappointed her in this; the writer had a deadline to meet for The Ayn Rand Letter and, besides, she lacked the physical stamina to travel or act as a tour guide. “But you are a rich and famous person!” Nora objected. “You can do whatever you want!” Naturally, Rand was indignant. How dare this opinionated woman criticize America and make demands? What happened to the little sister who had shared her love of Western values?

Worst of all, Nora did not admire Rand's novels. Rand had proudly presented the Drobyshevs' with copies of all four: taken together they were the heart of Rand's life achievement, which until now no one in her family had ever seen or read. Rand had fulfilled her youthful promise, in every sense. But she gained no recognition from Nora. With the exception of part of We the Living she later said that the little she had read was offensive and contrived. “My sister had just artificially constructed everything,” Nora told and interviewer in 1997. “She made up all of our lives.” Setting aside Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, Nora borrowed or bought a volume by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose more subversive works were unavailable in Russia and who in 1974 would be charged with treason and forced to emigrate, eventually settling in Vermont. Rand hated Solzhenitsyn for his outspoken anti-Western views and his religiosity, and when she discovered that Nora preferred his writing to her own, she demanded that Nora return her books. Nora complied. All told, the little sister pronounced her older sister's writings to be “fake” and “lacking in talent” and she paid no more attention to it.

In the third week of their visit Fedor collapsed with a sudden heart attack. By then, Rand had stopped speaking to her sister and did not come to the hospital either that day or during the two weeks of her brother-in-law's hospitalization. After he had been discharged and taken a few days to recuperate, Rand suggested that the pair return to Russia. She did not see them off. She did call her lawyer to assure herself that Nora would not automatically inherit any of her money when she died. Nora would not, he told her. Nor, as it turned out, did Nora wish to; the younger sister resembled the older in her stubborness and her propensity to mix anger with contempt.

Even after Nora's return to Russia, Rand avoided speaking of her sister. Yet she must have sorely felt the loss – if not of the living Nora, then of a long-cherished illusion that, once upon a time, she had possessed a girlhood soul mate. “She had hoped that the idea of freedom was still burning in her sister,” recalled Elayne Kalberman. But the lure of freedom may never been as powerful for Nora as it was for Rand. Although childhood had been a time “when I liked everything about my sister,” Nora recalled in 1997, “I was merely her shadow and yes-man...She always wanted adoring fans.” Nora died in St. Petersburg in 1999, at the age of eighty-eight, without ever again speaking to Rand.

Rand's sole legal heir, Leonard Peikoff, at seventy-six remains her most faithful adherent. In his 1982 book, The Ominous Parallels, he traces the causes of the Holocaust to collectivism and altruism, his mentor's betes noires. In 1985, he co-founded the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) with Philadelphia Eagles owner Ed Snider. ARI promotes Rand's books and ideas and provides support to approved Rand study groups around the world. It also acts as a repository for the author's papers, which, according to Rand's stated wishes in the 1960s and 1970s, the Library of Congress had expected to receive upon her death. Peikoff did make a donation of the original manuscripts and galley proofs of her four novels and accepted a million-dollar tax deduction for it, but delayed making further gifts of her papers.

Peikoff's dispute with the Library of Congress smoldered for a few years, but he eventually agreed to relinquish the remaining manuscript pages, and in 2002 the library sent a conservator to Peikoff's Los Angeles home to remove the framed pages from the wall on which they hung. The next day, hundreds of angry e-mails sent by Objectivists arrived in the mailboxes of library staff members and assorted others, including employees of the congressional committee that oversees the libraries operations. The Peikoff supporters were furious at what they regarded as government theft of private property. The libraries were 'thugs with guns”, the e-mails claimed, using one of Rand's favorite designations for government officials. This is one of the many peculiar incidents I heard about that indicate the Ayn Rand cult endures into the twenty-first century.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

John Calvin by William J. Bouwsma

John Calvin's theology was very different from the hardened system that has long passed under the name of Calvinism; infinitely more complex and interesting than the received version. The American Pragmatist William James may have a better if a subtler claim to be considered one of Calvin's spiritual sons than many who have thought of themselves as Calvinists.

Calvin remained in major ways a humanist... he never condemned humanism in general and, unlike Martin Luther, rarely attacked Erasmus. Humanists looked for inspiration not to the philosophers of antiquity, as is sometimes supposed, but to its orators, poets and historians. Their preference for the arts of persuasion (rhetoric) over rational conviction was associated with the human as passionate, active and social rather than intellectual beings. They saw language less as a medium for conveying the truth about the world than as an essential ingredient of life in society through its abilities to move the feelings and stimulate the will to act; to inspire souls and set the human heart afire.

Calvin recognized that language is a cultural artifact, the soul of human society and that if people are to be persuaded to cooperate and obey this required rhetorical skill because mere doctrine generally stated does not really move them. Rhetoric- the gold chains in the mouth of Hercules which attracts the ears of the common people- had, in Calvin's view, a mysterious affinity with Divinity. God's very creation of the world was His expression of rhetorical eloquence; His special grace.

In Calvin's view the essential rhetorical virtue was what he called decorum: the deliberate adaptation of speech to one's audience for the sake of persuasion; a wise teacher accommodates himself to the understanding of those who must be taught.. This view determined how Calvin approached his analysis of Holy Scripture: 'God speaks to us of things according to our capacity for understanding, not according to what they are ( which is ultimately inscrutable).

Taking into account the diversity of times and ways of learning, the Holy Spirit accommodates itself to mans infirmities of understanding, and perhaps even more specially to the the roughest and most common peoples. For Calvin this helped explain otherwise puzzling texts, especially those which seemed to deal with natural phenomena in unscientific ways. He believed that such passages should be interpreted figuratively, those figures being appropriate to the earliest stages of human culture, metaphors for a simple folk. When taken literally, Calvin maintained, they are highly misleading. Thus Calvin himself maintained a flexibility in his Biblical exegesis which is 'modern' in every sense but nor always conspicuous among his subsequent and contemporary followers.

In the first place it was important to know how Holy Scripture used words, to understand the rhetorical procedures, style, language and specific idioms of the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin languages through which it has been transmitted to us down through the ages, and to know the cultural contexts in which those words were deployed. When Saint Paul wrote that 'long hair in men was contrary to nature', for example, what Paul meant by 'nature' was what was then acceptable by agreement and custom by the Greeks of his time. Calvin himself came to avoid a crudely material conception of 'hell' itself and regarded 'fire' as a metaphor for God's wrath , 'smoke' as a figure meant to convey the obscurity of Divine things, and in many other ways dismissed 'biblical truths' based on the 'empty shell' of its mere letters or strictly literal interpretation. In other words, full appreciation of the bible depends upon reading it as literature.

Calvin understood that Biblical texts had been assembled and transmitted by fallible human beings over many centuries, the earliest scriptures communicated orally for years before being put into writing, originating as a shapeless collection of prophesies which underwent a series of later reworkings. The New Testament probably contains many copyist errors, some verses arising from the marginal notes of scribes. He thought that the division of the text into verses and chapters was sometimes quite arbitrary and misleading.

The Evangelists were not annalists but artists. Neither were the Gospels written in such a way as always too preserve the exact order of events but to bring everything together so as to place before us a kind of mirror or screen on which the most useful things of Christ could be known. In fact, for Calvin, the notorious differences between the different Gospel accounts increased their credibility, proving that there had been no collusion among their authors. He also noted ambiguity in Scriptures, that some passages could be expounded in at least four different ways. And, understanding that the variety of minds is such that each tends to be pleased or edified by different things, in a doubtful case we are free to use our individual judgments provided no one tries to force all others obey his own rules.

Did the devil really lift Christ to the pinnacle of the temple? The matter is uncertain- the miracles related in the Bible are not essential to its core message- it is permissible to admit ignorance about such specific matters without harm. In such matters Calvin's personal preference was to suspend his judgment.

In other words, John Calvin denied the existence of a fixed New Testament canon. He regarded the notion of a 'verbal inerrancy' in the Bible as a form of willful blindness. We are called upon to continue to pursue our knowledge and understanding of the word of God.

Calvin believed that, since the order, reason, end and necessity of human existence for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose and not apprehended by human opinion, those things and events which he was convinced take place by God's will appear to most people as fortuitous...'it is possible, never-the-less, to seek illumination from heaven for some at least limited understanding of the workings of Providence. Indeed, Calvin believed that only the secret Providence of God which watches out for the protection of the human race can explain at all why human beings- encumbered by such iniquity as they are- have so far failed to totally destroy one another.' While faith and careful attention to the Gospel message are crucial to such illumination, he wrote, 'we should also have the prudence to apply ourselves to what God has done in History and to other notable judgments left in writing, not only Holy Scripture.

[ To my mind] this is perhaps the greatest and most lasting contribution of John Calvin's theology to the Protestant Reformation and the benefits it has provided human society since its inception in the sixteenth century, however much it has been subsequently plagued by an overconfidence in the certainty of human knowledge (rigid doctrine, lapses in strict adherence to scientific methods and political ideology) and the barbarisms of popular culture. Americans in particular seem monstrously possessed by the willful desire to ignore or erase 'the lessons' of history and the notable judgments to be found therein, as reflected in part but not wholly by the persistence of fundamentalist religion.

Thus, after ten long years, I have found the form in which to introduce a comprehensive summary of the works of John Calvin as suggested by William J. Bouwma's John Calvin; A Sixteenth Century Portrait ( Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1988) and some other equally interesting books.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interview with Hooman Majd by Nieuw Amsterdam

Hooman Majd: Most average Americans, if they only follow the news on Iran the way it is presented, wouldn't even know that there is a parliament, wouldn't even know that there are three branches of government in Iran, like America: there's the executive; there's the legislative, which is the parliament; and there's the judiciary.  And they are independent, those three branches, but most people wouldn't know that. . . .
Iran today is still, despite everything that has happened, probably more democratic than Egypt.  No American would ever think that, nor would it occur to them that here in Egypt you have a president who has been a president for 28 years.  Egypt has a state of emergency law that has been in effect since President Mubarak took over, where a gathering of more than five people is illegal. . . . 

So, Iran today, even today, as bad as it can be in terms of freedom, is still probably a lot more free than some other countries -- certainly more free than Saudi Arabia, which is a big ally of ours, an ally of the United States, which is selling them $60 billion worth of arms. . . .  Most people don't think it [Saudi Arabia] shouldn't be an ally. . . .

In terms of fearing Iran, I think it's overblown, and I don't think we should fear Iran as much as we do. . . .  No matter how much you despise the government of Iran or even the political system of Iran, the truth of the matter is that Iran tends to be very realistic and very practical when it comes to national security. . . .

If you were to rely only on the media to understand Iran, or even some books that were written by people who are very against the Iranian regime, then you would come to that conclusion that Iran is an absolute dictatorship on the level of, let's say, North Korea.  The truth is of course it isn't, for anybody who goes there, but, again, because most people don't have the opportunity to travel there or immerse themselves in the culture, they don't get that opportunity to see that we are restricted by how the media portrays Iran -- particularly the American media, but to some degree the Western European media as well.

Sanctions are always something that governments like to do so they can say they've done something.  Look at the American embargo of Cuba -- 60 years now, and nothing has happened.  Sanctions on Myanmar, Burma -- nothing has happened there.  Sanctions don't really do anything to a government, and certainly they don't force a government to change, in my opinion.  They didn't work in Iraq either with Saddam Hussein.  They only end up hurting ordinary people.  They also tend to decimate the middle class.  The middle class is what makes up civil society.  So, even if you believe in human rights -- your biggest concern is human rights and not the nuclear issue, and you want to support civil society, you want to support opposition to Ahmadinejad -- if you impose sanctions, you are actually hurting them, hurting them directly in their livelihood, the way they do business, the way they live, and their living standard.

Take away those threats, take away that pressure, and you don't give the government an excuse to crack down all the time on the opposition by saying that it is part of, you know, a Western plot to overthrow the government or the Western pressure to undermine the Islamic Republic.  That's the view in Iran: that the American government can't stand the Iranian government, has not been able to stand it since the hostage crisis in 1979-1980, and they are just looking for a way to punish Iran.  So, that's the view.  Doesn't help.

Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran and The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Fountainhead by Anne C. Heller

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

In one form or another, Ayn Rand had been daydreaming about Howard Roark all her life. In figure, he is tall, thin to the point of gauntness, and almost always rigid with creative tension, although in repose he can be as supple as a cat. He possesses moral certainty and self-confidence, even to the point of insolence. Like Zarathustra, he welcomes the difficulties that propel him beyond the ordinary, drab humanity to the formation of new values. He is single-minded in pursuit of his goal. Nothing can shake his self-esteem and he has no desire to convert others to his creed. He would 'walk over corpses to be an architect but no matter what inducements or penalties he faces he won't compromise his architectural vision by a single pilaster. Rand calls him 'the noble soul par excellence,' paying homage to Nietzsche's definition of a hero as 'as soul that has reverence for itself.' He is the archetype of the creator in a dissipated world.

Familiar to Rand as his ideal character was, not the least because she thought it resembled her own, Roark did not provide the first germ of the idea for The Fountainhead. His glossy, callow schoolmate and opposite number, Peter Keating did. Rand like to tell the story of how she conceived of Peter Keating, who gave the novel its original title, Second-Hand Lives.

In 1931 or 1932, while she was still living on North Gower Street and clerking in the wardrobe department of RKO, she became fascinated by her next-door neighbor, Marcella Bannert, the young women who had helped her to place Red Dawn at Universal Pictures. Marcellas was an executive assistant to David O. Selznick, at the time RKO's chief of production, and she was ambitious. Every day the Russian emigre observed the American go-getter, admiring her obvious drive but disliking almost everything else about her, including her choice of career and the impression she gave of being a Hollywood climber.

One day, to pin down the differences between them, she asked the woman to explain what she wanted to achieve in life. Marcella had a ready answer. If nobody wanted an automobile, she would not want an automobile. If some people had an automobile and others didn't, she would want an automobile. If some people had two and others had only one or none, she would want two automobiles, and so on. And she would want people to know that she had more than they did.

The conversation was a revelation to the 27 year old Rand. By her standards, Marcella seemed not to want anything for herself. Rand's goal was to create a fiction of ideas out of her experience and extraordinary gift for imagining and reasoning. Marcella merely wanted to outstrip the Jones. The prickly young moral philosopher's judgments about people were based on whether they shared her values and 'sense of life.' Marcella appeared to have no values except those derived from other people; she prized what they prized and wanted more of whatever they had, evidently to fill an emptiness inside.

Although some people might have called Marcella selfish because she set her sights on luxury and status, Rand didn't look at it that way. On reflection, she saw that the young woman was actually 'selfless' in the sense that she had no authentic self with which to desire or create anything that was hers alone. Marcella's quality of selflessness, or lack of passionately held ideas and values, explained why she and so many other people Rand knew conformed to apparently meaningless conventions. It gave her the key to a problem that has puzzled her since childhood: why people who were so much less intelligent and passionate than she was treated her with such unfriendly indifference or even malice, seemingly because of her gifts. Pondering her conversation with Marcella, Rand concluded that her resolve to do and think what she wanted, so different from what others seemed to want, challenged the premises of their existence. Not only was she a genius surrounded by mediocrities, she also possessed a moral independence and integrity that the others did not. To some degree, she shamed them merely by living.

Marcella's admission stirred a broader revelation. It explained the psychological source of what she called 'the collectivist motivation', by which she meant the drive to see the meaning of life outside oneself. Collectivists hunger for an all-knowing deity, an altruistic purpose, or a dictator to tell them what to do as a fig leaf for their own inadequacy and emptiness, they love what is average and 'selfless' and fear what is exceptional, original, and has to be created by the self. Such people live by others' choices. They exist at second hand. The absence of an authentic selfishness – that is, a desire to live according to one's own principles, based on the action of one's own mind – this, she decided, was what the Bolshevik mobs, Russian Orthodox votaries, and ordinary Americans had in common.

And so Peter Keating was born, with the soul of a second-hander. Vain, affable, dependent on his popularity for self-respect, and without specific talent, he enters into the book in a mild state of adolescent self-inflation and ends in a frightening and irreversible moral decay . 'He was great; great as the number of people who told him he was great. He was right; as right as the number of people who believed he was right. He looked at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them.' As she began to outline The Fountainhead, Keating became the emblem of all that Roark is not.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Poems

This is one of the earliest Christmas poems I've been able to find, by Robert Southwell (1561-1595); somewhat reflective of the intense religious controversies of his times, well before the appearance of that icon we've come to know as Santa Claus!

Burning Babe

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, though scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed,
As though his floods should quench his flames, which with his tears were fed.

"Alas," quoth he, "but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts, or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood."

With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

A Visit from St. Nicholas is unquestionably the most famous Christmas poem of all time:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads...

First published anonymously in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823, it was reprinted frequently thereafter with no name attached. A Visit from St. Nicholas is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and the tradition that he brings toys to children. Prior to the poem, American ideas about St. Nicholas and other Christmastide visitors varied considerably. The poem has influenced ideas about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus beyond the United States to the rest of the English-speaking world and beyond. (

Clement Clark Moore eventually acknowledged he was the author and included it in an 1844 anthology of his works. But some scholars have questioned his account, thinking perhaps Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a New Yorker with Dutch and Scottish roots, is the chief candidate for authorship, if Moore did not write it. Livingston was distantly related to Moore's wife. In support of this theory is Moore's other Christmas poem, a slightly different take on the whole affair:

'Old Santeclaus'

Old SANTECLAUS with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.

Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.

Where e’er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother’s ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

Paradoxes make us think don't they? Today A Visit from St. Nicholas is the form into which most modern satirical Christmas verses are poured, often in the spirit of Old SantaClaus. Here are some of the best examples I have found.

A Politically Correct Christmas Poem

Twas the night before Christmas and Santa's a wreck...
How to live in a world that's politically correct?
His workers no longer would answer to "Elves",
"Vertically Challenged" they were calling themselves.
And labor conditions at the North Pole,
were alleged by the union, to stifle the soul.

Four reindeer had vanished without much propriety,
released to the wilds, by the Humane Society.
And equal employment had made it quite clear,
that Santa had better not use just reindeer.
So Dancer and Donner, Comet and Cupid,
were replaced with 4 pigs, and you know that looked stupid!

The runners had been removed from his beautiful sleigh,
because the ruts were deemed dangerous by the EPA,
And millions of people were calling the Cops,
when they heard sled noises upon their roof tops.
Second-hand smoke from his pipe, had his workers quite frightened,
and his fur trimmed red suit was called "unenlightened".

To show you the strangeness of today's ebbs and flows,
Rudolf was suing over unauthorized use of his nose.
He went to Geraldo, in front of the Nation,
demanding millions in over-due workers compensation.

So...half of the reindeer were gone, and his wife
who suddenly said she'd had enough of this life,
joined a self help group, packed and left in a whiz,
demanding from now on that her title was Ms.

And as for gifts...why, he'd never had the notion
that making a choice could cause such commotion.
Nothing of leather, nothing of fur...
Which meant nothing for him or nothing for her.
Nothing to aim, Nothing to shoot,
Nothing that clamored or made lots of noise.
Nothing for just girls and nothing for just boys.
Nothing that claimed to be gender specific,
Nothing that's warlike or non-pacifistic.

No candy or sweets...they were bad for the tooth.
Nothing that seemed to embellish upon the truth.
And fairy tales...while not yet forbidden,
were like Ken and Barbie, better off hidden,
for they raised the hackles of those psychological,
who claimed the only good gift was one ecological.

No baseball, no football...someone might get hurt,
besides - playing sports exposed kids to dirt.
Dolls were said to be sexist and should be passe.
and Nintendo would rot your entire brain away.

So Santa just stood there, disheveled and perplexed,
he just couldn't figure out what to do next?
He tried to be merry he tried to be gay,
but you must have to admit he was having a very bad day.
His sack was quite empty, it was flat on the ground,
nothing fully acceptable was anywhere to be found.

Something special was needed, a gift that he might,
give to us all, without angering the left or the right.
A gift that would satisfy - with no indecision,
each group of people in every religion.
Every race, every hue,
everyone, everywhere...even you!
So here is that gift, it's price beyond worth...


Drunk Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house,
There were bottles and butts left around by some louse.
And the best fifth I'd hidden by the chimney with care
Had been snatched by some bum who had found it right there.

My pals: guys and gals had been poured into their beds
To wake in the morning with hungover heads.
My mouth, full of cotton, dropped down with a snap
Because I was dying for one wee nightcap.

When through the south window there came such a yell,
I sprang to my feet to see what the hell...
And what to my bloodshot eyes should I see
But eight drunken reindeer caught in a tree.

Way in 'mongst the branches was a man in a sleigh.
I saw it was Santa, quite oiled and tres gay.
Staggering nearer those eight reindeer came
As he burped and hiccupped and called them by name:

"On Whiskey, on Vodka, we ain't got all night!
You too, Gin and Brandy, now all do it right.
Clammer up to the roof; get the hell off this wall!
Get going you rummies, we've still a long haul!"

So up on the roof went the reindeer and sleigh,
But a tree branch hit Santa before he could sway
And then to my ears, like the roll of a barrel,
Came a hell of a noise that was no Christmas carol.

So I pulled in my head and cocked a sharp ear.
Down the chimney he plunged, landing smack on his rear.
He was dressed all in red, with white fur for a trim.
And the way Santa swayed, he was tanked to the brim.

The sack on his back held nothing but booze,
And the breath that he blew nearly put me to snooze.
He was both plump and chubby and tried to stand right.
But he didn't fool me; he was high as a kite.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work
And missed half the stockings, the plastered old jerk.
And laying his thumb on the end of his nose,
He fluttered his fingers as he quoted prose.

He sprang for his sleigh at so hasty a pace
He tripped on a shingle and slid on his face.
But I heard him burp back as he passed out of sight:
"Merry Christmas, you lushes, now really get tight."

The Night Before Christmas in Brooklyn

Twas the night before Christmas,
Da whole house was mella,
Not a creature was strirrin',
Cuz I had a gun unda da pilla.

When up on da roof
I heard somethin' pound,
I sprung to da window,
To scream, "YO! Keep it down!"

When what to my
Wanderin' eyes should appear,
But da Don of all elfs,
And eight friggin' reindeer!

Wit' slicked back black hair,
And a silk red suit,
Don Christopher wuz here,
And he brought da loot!

Wit' a slap to dare snouts
And a yank on dare manes,
He cursed and he shouted
And he called dem by name

"Yo Tony, Yo Frankie,
Yo Vinny, Yo Vito,
Ay Joey, Ay Paulie,
Ay Pepe, Ay Guido!"

As I drew out my gun
And hid by da bed,
He flew troo da winda
And slapped me 'side da head.

"What da hell you doin'
Pullin' a gun on da Don?
Now all you're gettin' is coal,
You friggin' moron!"

Den pointin' a fat finga
Right unda my nose,
He twisted his pinky ring,
And up da chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh,
Obscenities screamin',
Away dey all flew,
Before he troo dem a beatin'.

Den I heard him yell out,
What I did least expect,
"Merry Friggin' Christmas to all,
And yous better show some respect!

Don't believe in Santa Claus? Ogden Nash has got an warning for you!

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus

In Baltimore there lived a boy,
He wasn't anybody's joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies' reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked No Admittance.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn't any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying "Boo!" at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
"There isn't any Santa Claus!"

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.
Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
"Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn't any Santa Claus!"

Slunk like a weasel or a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
"There isn't any, no there's not!"
The children wept all Christmas Eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared to hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.
What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of "Don't," and "Pretty please."
He howled, "I don't know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!"

"Jabez," replied the angry saint,
"It isn't I, it's you that ain't.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn't any Jabez Dawes!"
Said Jabez with impudent vim,
"Oh, yes there is; and I am him!
Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't"---
And suddenly he found he wasn't!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.
All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donder and Blitzen licked off his paint.

We should all want to be home for the comfort, joy and communal celebrations of Christmas but Necessity sometimes makes it impossible. This poem by Robert Louis Stevenson captures the pathos of such situations to near perfection.

Christmas at Sea

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . "It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

White Christmas by Robert William Service has the homecoming angle on 'the sad story' of Christmas:

My folks think I'm a serving maid
Each time I visit home;
They do not dream I ply a trade
As old as Greece or Rome;
For if they found I'd fouled their name
And was not white as snow,
I'm sure that they would die of shame . . .
Please, God, they'll never know.

I clean the paint from off my face,
In sober black I dress;
Of coquetry I leave no trace
To give them vague distress;
And though it causes me a pang
To play such sorry tricks,
About my neck I meekly hang
A silver crufix.

And so with humble step I go
Just like a child again,
To greet their Christmas candle-glow,
A soul without a stain;
So well I play my contrite part
I make myself believe
There's not a stain within my heart
On Holy Christmas Eve.

With double natures we are vext,
And what we feel, we are;
A saint one day, a sinner next,
A red light or a star;
A prostitute or proselyte,
And in each part sincere:
So I become a vestal white
One week in every year.

For this I say without demur
From out life's lurid lore,
Each righteous women has in her
A tincture of the whore;
While every harpy of the night,
As I have learned too well;
Holds in her heart a heaven-light
To ransom her from hell.

So I'll go home and sweep and dust;
I'll make the kitchen fire,
And be a model of daughters just
The best they could desire;
I'll fondle them and cook their food,
And Mother dear will say:
"Thank God! my darling is as good
As when she went away."

But after New Year's Day I'll fill
My bag and though they grieve,
I'll bid them both good-bye until
Another Christmas Eve;
And then . . . a knock upon the door:
I'll find them waiting there,
And angel-like I'll come once more
In answer to their prayer.

Then Lo! one night when candle-light
Gleams mystic on the snow,
And music swells of Christmas bells,
I'll come, no more to go:
The old folks need my love and care,
Their gold shall gild my dross,
And evermore my breast shall bear
My little silver cross.

I conclude with two of my favorite ('dark') Christmas poems.

A Christmas Ghost Story by Thomas Hardy

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies--your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.

Behold, as Goblins Dark of Mien by Robert Louis Stevenson

Behold, as goblins dark of mien
And portly tyrants dyed with crime
Change, in the transformation scene,
At Christmas, in the pantomime,

Instanter, at the prompter's cough,
The fairy bonnets them, and they
Throw their abhorred carbuncles off
And blossom like the flowers in May.

- So mankind, to angelic eyes,
So, through the scenes of life below,
In life's ironical disguise,
A travesty of man, ye go:

But fear not: ere the curtain fall,
Death in the transformation scene
Steps forward from her pedestal,
Apparent, as the fairy Queen;

And coming, frees you in a trice
From all your lendings - lust of fame,
Ungainly virtue, ugly vice,
Terror and tyranny and shame.

So each, at last himself, for good
In that dear country lays him down,
At last beloved and understood
And pure in feature and renown.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

This is the end of my story. I have heard nothing of Larry, nor indeed did I expect to. Since he generally did what he proposed, I think it is likely that on his return to America he got a job in a garage and then drove a truck till he had acquired the knowledge he wanted of the country from which he had for so many years absented himself. When he had done that he may very well have carried out his fantastic suggestion of becoming a taxi driver: true, it was only a random idea thrown across a cafe table in jest, but I shouldn't be altogether surprised if he had put it into effect; and I have never since taken a taxi in New York without glancing at the driver on the chance that I might meet Larry's gravely smiling, deep-set eyes. I never have.

War broke out. He would have been too old to fly, but he may be once more driving a truck, at home or abroad; or he may be working in a factory. I should like to think that in his leisure hours he is writing a book in which he is trying to set forth whatever life has taught him and the message he has to deliver to his fellow men; but if he is, it may be long before it is finished. He has plenty of time, for the years have left no mark on him and to all intents and purposes he is still a young man.

He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit, and that by himself following with selflessness and renunciation the path to perfection he will serve as well as if he wrote books or addressed the multitudes.

But this is conjecture. I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men.

Larry has been absorbed, as he wished, into that tumultuous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world's confusion, so wishful of the good, so cocksure on the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so trustful, so cagey, so mean, and so generous, which is the people of the United States. That is all I can tell of him: I know it is unsatisfactory; I can't help it.

But as I was finishing this book, uneasily conscious that I must leave my reader in the air and seeing no way to avoid it, I looked back with my mind's eye on my long narrative to see if there was a way in which I could devise and more satisfactory ending; and to my intense surprise it dawned upon me that without the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliot social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to from nine till six everyday; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; and Larry happiness. And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our hearts of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.

[ Originally, I thought the movie, starring Bill Murray as Larry, could have done a far better job by following Maugham's script more carefully but upon re-reading the book it seems that the paradoxical impositions of the narrator are indispensable, and almost impossible to represent effectively in film. In the book Larry is a kind of cipher ( empty, zero point) from which all the other characters draw their substance- The story of Suzanne Rouvier is one of the most interesting- and effectively satirical- in the book but owing to her almost incidental relationship to Larry, very difficult weave into the ABC of a typical Hollywood plot-line, and therefore, of apparent necessity, left entirely out of the movie. Many characters and scenes in the book have no place in the movie, or are misrepresentations of the author's intent. Characters and scenes in the movie are not found in the book etc. I think it is important to point this out, at least from an historical point of view, since when the book was first published in 1943, it instantly became a best seller, a surprise even to the author himself, who considered the narrative a much too personal and critical nature to achieve commercial success. Perhaps an explanation lies in a certain war weariness that overtook the American people in 1943-44 and made them exceptionally receptive to a kind of introspection and self-doubt upon which they have engaged only in very rare instances in the rest of their especally self-satisfying history. Zizek's formula: “First as Tragedy (the book), then as Farce ( the movie, though not intended as such)” applies very well in this case.]

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Status Quo America by Various Authors

“You have to realize that what they ( The Republicans) are trying to do is to roll back the Enlightenment, roll back the moral philosophy and social values of classical political economy and its culmination in Progressive Era legislation, as well as the New Deal institutions. They’re not trying to make the economy more equal, and they’re not trying to share power. Their greed is (as Aristotle noted) infinite. So what you find to be a violation of traditional values is a re-assertion of pre-industrial, feudal values. The economy is being set back on the road to debt peonage. The Road to Serfdom* is not government sponsorship of economic progress and rising living standards, it’s the dismantling of government, the dissolution of regulatory agencies, to create a new feudal-type elite.”

-Michael Hudson, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who has advised the U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Latvian governments as well as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, and who is a former Wall Street economist at Chase Manhattan Bank who also helped establish the world’s first sovereign debt fund.

*[The Road To Serfdom refers to the book by Friedrich August Hayek CH (8 May 1899 – 23 March 1992). an Austrian-born economist and philosopher best known for his defense of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist thought, one of the main intellectual props of American conservatives. However, while The Road to Serfdom is "a war cry against central planning," it appears to include a lukewarm support for a free market system and laissez-faire capitalism, with Hayek even going so far as to say that "probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some neo- liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all of the principle of laissez-faire capitalism".In the book, Hayek writes that the government has a role to play in the economy through the monetary system, work-hours regulation, and institutions for the flow of proper information; "there is no reason why...the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance."]


"Health care per se is not a market; if you draw a supply-and-demand diagram for health care there is no quantity to put on the horizontal axis and no price to record on the vertical axis. It is not a commodity that is bought and sold at a given price on an open market. Proposals to introduce market forces in health care are largely concerned not with the provision of health care itself but with the provision of health insurance.

The intrinsic costs of providing insurance are relatively low. There are no expensive inputs to purchase, no uncertainty of design or technology to be concerned with. The major inputs are personnel and computing capacity. There are few major issues of innovation; unlike the rapid changes characteristic of medical practice, the service of providing insurance to pay for them does not evolve rapidly. A successful private insurance company follows an ancient formula; it stratifies its clientele by risk class and charges premiums adapted to each class. The most successful companies are generally those that manage to exclude the riskiest clients.

Public universal health insurance schemes like Medicare do not evaluate risk. Since they are universal, they do not need to. Therefore, they save the major cost of providing private health care insurance. They pay their personnel at civil service salary scales and are under no obligation to return a dividend to shareholders or meet a target rate of return. Insurance in general is therefore intrinsically a service that the public sector can competently provide at lower cost than the private sector, and from the standpoint of an entire population, selective private provision of health insurance is invariably inferior to universal public provision.

Private health insurance companies would not exist except for their political capacity to forestall the creation of universal public systems, backed by their almost unlimited capacity to sow confusion among the general public over the basic economic facts. Liberals who support anything less than a common, public insurance pool have no argument. They are simply tugging their forelocks and bending their knee before the bastion of private power...not even offering another another glass of the proverbial liberal small beer.

The reliance on private insurers makes universal coverage unaffordable."

James K. Galbraith,Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and at the Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. -


"Consider this: it is not unlawful for a United States bank to receive funds derived from alien smuggling, fraud, racketeering, handling stolen property, contraband, environmental crimes, trafficking in women, transport for illegal sexual activity, slave trading- and many other evils....Can this really be true?...

I could not believe it at first, and I checked. But it is true. The only catch is this the crimes must be committed abroad. U.S. anti-money laundering laws involve a long list of prohibitions on proceeds from crimes- including the above- committed at home, but a very short list for those committed overseas. Welcoming dirty money is profitable for American companies, and it helps fill the current-account deficit. And Europeans, it seems, are hardly better behaved... but how big is the problem?

Try this for size. the OECD reckons that about half of all the world's cross-border trade involves structures for concealing money, involving about 70 tax havens (the French call them 'fiscal paradises"), as corporations and rich individuals shuffle profits around to avoid taxes and for yet more nefarious reasons. Assets held offshore by rich individuals, beyond the reach of effective taxation, equal one-third of global assets- or $11 trillion, conservatively estimated, costing governments over $250 billion a year in tax revenues. This is more than twice the global aid budget for developing countries. The Cayman Islands (pop. 45,000) claims to be the world's fifth largest financial center. A U.S. Senate report estimated - when the problem was smaller- that up to a trillion dollars is laundered through banks each year, half of it through U.S. banks.

There are basically three forms of dirty money. One is criminal money: from drug dealing, say, or slave trading or terrorism. The next is corrupt money, like the late former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha's looted oil billions. The third form, commercial money- what out finest companies and richest individuals hide from our tax collectors- is bigger. The point- and this is crucial- is that these three forms of dirty money use exactly the same mechanisms and subterfuges: tax havens, shell banks,shielded trusts, anonymous foundations, dummy corporations, mispricing schemes and the like all administered by the "pinstripe infrastructure" of mainstream banks, lawyers, and accountants.... U.S. Treasury officials told Raymond Baker that in a good year they caught 0.1 percent of illicit inflows into the country- a 99.9 percent failure rate.

In this parallel secret universe the world's biggest and richest individuals and firms- News Corporation, Citigroups, and, yes ExxonMobil-can quite legally cut themselves loose from pesky full taxation and grow explosively, leaving smaller competitors, who pay their full dues along with the rest of us, choking in the dust. This undermines the very notion of capitalism: the big companies;' advantage has nothing to do with the quality or price of what they produce. If you are worried about the power of big global corporations, don't always attack them directly, but attack bank secrecy instead.

Much of the problem could be eliminated with a few well-aimed legislative strokes. One might make it a criminal offense for U.S. Banks to receive proceeds of overseas slavery, say, or credit fraud. Another might forbid banks from operating in jurisdictions where they are protected from foreign tax and judicial authorities. There are others. What is missing is political will.

One adversary will be what Eva Joly* calls the "media-industrial complex"- news outlets that themselves shuffle huge profits around tax havens to avoid taxes.

- Nicholas Shaxson; associate fellow with the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London].

*On 7 June 2009, Joly was elected as a French member of the European Parliament on the Ile de France "Europe Écologie" list, on which she was 2nd to Daniel Cohn-Bendit. She is chair of the Committee on Development.

Joly will most likely run for president of France, election 2012. As of Oct. 2010, she is a nominee with in Europe Écologie ("Green party") to be their candidate for the upcoming election.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Invisible Gorilla by Chabris and Simons

The authors made a short film of two teams of people moving around and passing basketballs. One team wore white shirts and the other wore black. They asked volunteers to silently count the number of passes made by the players wearing white while ignoring any passes made by the players wearing black. The video lasted less than a minute. After it was over the subjects of the experiment were asked to report how many passes they'd counted. It didn't really matter. The pass-counting was intended to keep people engaged in doing something that demanded attention, they weren't really interested in their pass-counting ability. The authors were actually testing something else.

Halfway through the video, a female student wearing a full-body gorilla suit walked into the scene, stopped in the middle of the players, faced the camera, thumped her chest, and then walked off, spending about nine seconds on screen. After asking subjects about the passes, they asked the important question: “Did you notice anything unusual while you were doing the counting task?”...”Did you notice the Gorilla?”

Amazingly, roughly half of the subjects in the study did not notice the gorilla. The authors repeated the experiment many times, under different conditions, with diverse audiences, and in multiple countries but the results were always the same. The failure of half the subjects to see the gorilla goes by the scientific name of “inattentional blindness”. People look at something but don't see it because it is unexpected and their attention is focused on something else.

What prompted the authors to write this book, however, was not inattentional blindness, a known and easily recognized phenomena, but the surprise people showed when they realized what they had missed: they were shocked! When shown the video again some even suspected that the authors had included the gorilla in the second production but not the first. On the other side of the coin, those subjects who saw the gorilla on the first viewing could hardly believe others had missed it!

The author's elaboration on this theme, the unjustified confidence people have in their own cognitive abilities and its implications, throughout the rest of the book. It is the cause of many accidents; on land, on the sea and in the air. Humans have a hard time dealing with the unexpected, especially when they are concentrating on specific, detailed and routine tasks. Neither is there any evidence that people should be confident of their ability to perform many tasks at the same time with any competence. They also consistently over-rate their ability to make sound and successful judgments when dealing with large and complex masses of data. They often infer causation when circumstances only demonstrate coincidence and correlation, and they tend to be excessively confident in those inferences. The less competent people are in performing a given task- playing chess for instance- the greater their confidence that they perform competently tends to be. Regardless of demonstrative cognitive ability the more confidence people show in their judgments the more likely it is that other people will believe and follow them.

One of the most striking implications of the effect of this over-confidence in our cognitive abilities presented by the authors concerns our criminal justice system, especially the undue weight given to eye-witness testimony by prosecutors and juries. In fact, mistaken eyewitness identifications, and their confident presentation to the jury, are the main cause of over 75% of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence. Among other inconvenient discoveries , experiments have revealed that the more detailed the description a witness gives of a suspect to police in writing, the less likely it is that she/he will correctly identify the real perpetrator in a visual line-up.

The authors cover a wide range of damages caused by the various mis-perceptions and fallacies associated with over-confidence and love of confidence in our and other people's cognitive abilities- from Wall Street to Main Street. They go into how this tendency is used by advertisers, public relations and pseudo -scientific experts to wring every possible dollar out of the consuming public with such techniques as technobabble, nuerobabble and brain porn.

In conclusion the authors admit that their message is negative:

“Be wary of your intuitions, especially intuitions about how your own mind works. Our mental systems for rapid cognition excel at solving problems they evolved to solve, but our cultures, societies and technologies today are much more complex than those of our ancestors. In many cases intuition is poorly adapted to solving problems in the modern world. Think twice before you decide to trust intuition over rational analysis, especially in important matters, and watch out for people who tell you intuition can be a panacea for decision-making ills.”

But we also have an affirmative message. You can make better decisions, and maybe even live a better life, if you do your best to look for the invisible gorilla in the world around you. There may be important things right in front of you that you aren't noticing due to the illusion of attention, do not automatically assume you're seeing everything there is to see. You may think you remember some things much better than you really do, because of the illusion of memory, so try to corroborate your memory in important situations. Recognize that the confidence people express often reflects their personality rather than their knowledge, memory or ability. Be wary of thinking you know more about a topic than you really do, and test your own understanding before mistaking mere familiarity for knowledge. You won't think you know the cause of something when all you really know is what happened before it or what tended to accompany it. You'll be skeptical of claims that simple tricks can unleash the untapped potential in your mind, but you'll be aware that you can develop phenomenal levels of expertise if you study and practice the right way.

When you think about the world with an awareness of everyday illusions, you won't be as sure of yourself as you used to be, but you will have new insights into how your mind works and new ways of understanding why people act the way they do. Often, it's not because of stupidity, arrogance, or lack of focus. It's because of the everyday illusions that affect us all. Our final hope is that you will always consider this possibility before you jump to a harsher conclusion."