April 07, 2007

The desperate search for silver linings

In a conversation recently, I remarked that Bush's 8 years in office constituted 1/9th of what we used to think of as a typical American life span of 72 years. It was a depressing thought: for many Americans, about 11% of their entire lives will have been spent enduring the consequences of this terrible mistake. For those who don't reach even this modest milestone, for those whose lives are cut tragically short (say by a roadside bomb in Anbar province), the fraction is larger. For thousands of those soldiers, in fact, the ratio might be one year of Bush for every three years spent on Earth. The lesson is stark: electing someone this bad as President has a tremendously powerful impact on the course of your life. The effects are not something you shoo away with a flick of the hand. We live with them, and we'll live with them a long time after (finally, mercifully) he gets the hell out of the White House.

Can any good come out of it? I remember that practically the very day he seemed to have been "elected" in 2000, my very first thought was that the world had just lost its last opportunity to deal effectively with global warming. I've written before that my familiarity with the subject of CO2 concentrations in the troposphere began with reading I did in Hawaii in the late 1960's. It struck me then as it strikes me now that of all the environmental imperatives, climate change because of CO2 build-up was the most inexorable, the most dangerous, the least impossible to ignore safely. Yet Bush ignored it, in favor of temporal, venal considerations, with a myopic (and evil) callousness that exceeded even the pessimistic predictions of how indifferent he would be. So any hope has to be tempered by the realization the window of opportunity may have closed. When the largest polluter (and "moral" leader) on Earth increases its CO2 production for eight years, and fights tooth and nail against international cooperation as a reflection of the anti-social tendencies of one small man in charge of that polluting machine, it's hard to be sanguine. You can't just keep throwing away long stretches of time where you do nothing. The IPCC report yesterday was devastating. It should make you sick to read it. The living world is in mortal peril, and the danger zone keeps getting advanced as the evidence around us keeps popping into sudden view.

Yin and yang. After eight years of Bush, maybe the United States will become a constructive force again simply because his presence forced us to take honestly into account the "shadow side" of our national personality. You can't really miss it now, unless you're an empathy-deprived jerk like the guy in the Oval Office. Jung would counsel us to perform a countrywide integration. We don't have a good-intentioned, freedom-loving democracy to "export" anymore. Get serious. We invaded a country and set in motion 650,000 deaths by violence, and then fought all serious attempts to count the number so the damage could be assessed. We take innocent people from countries we happen to be invading, peasants sold to us by bounty hunters, and deliberately lock them up at the eastern end of Cuba so they'll have no Constitutional rights. We torture them and drive them crazy, for no reason at all. We tell their lawyers the people we've tortured confessions out of can't testify about the torture because it's a "state secret." We lock up Americans in American military dungeons and hold them without charges on the basis of Presidential fiat. The central government spies on Americans without warrants. We pull people off the streets and send them to foreign countries because we know they'll be tortured and abused. We piss on the Kyoto protocol and every other decent international attempt to save life on Earth, then lie about substituting something else in its place.

If we honestly come to terms with all of this, we may start getting over ourselves. That could be the silver lining. Bush will go on forever with his particularly rancid form of megalomania, but we don't have to do that, too. Instead of spending $2 trillion on a war that is not only not necessary but will result in massive blowback, all under the delusion of "doing something good," we can find the $1.5 trillion deemed necessary to rebuild the American infrastructure of roads, public transportation, bridges and schools. We can cooperate with the international community and ask for its help with rogue terrorist elements. We can submit ourselves to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (sorry Bush, Rove, Cheney and Rumsfeld - if you want to read some history, try the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution). We can dispense with the deranging notion of American Exceptionalism and accept ourselves for what we really are -- humans like other humans, with good and bad parts, who must examine their intentions to discover their true purpose, and proceed with the humility appropriate to the precariousness of life.

April 06, 2007

Einstein's Joke

Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was that it was so comprehensible. I would not presume to think I could get inside Einstein's brain, even for a moment, and figure out what he meant. There is simply too much room in there, and I would quickly get lost. Maybe something that is incomprehensible is the idea there have been human beings so smart they could imagine new rules governing all of reality, while holding down an unrelated day job, and then proceed to prove, mathematically and rigorously, that the rules are right. Such minds, so very few in number, exist at the far, far, far right extreme of the bell curve of human intelligence. I have been amused at times by the efforts of others to explain to me how smart Einstein was. I think such efforts simply demonstrate that we're uncomfortable with the incomprehensible; the only person who could even approximately explain how smart Einstein was is Einstein himself. Because everyone else must explain Einstein's intelligence in terms which they understand, and their explanations are subsumed in the greater set of Einstein's own understandings, which include subtleties and connections which only he could comprehend. After Einstein, physics veered increasingly toward the heuristic, into quantum physics, for example, which presents many fun paradoxes without actually describing phenomena that humans can understand or explain convincingly. A fortiori the quasi-mystical formulations of string theory.

This is only a hunch, but I think Einstein intended his comment as a cosmic joke. I have never heard anyone else say that, although his comment is widely quoted. It's taken at face value, and usually in terms that suggest humans should congratulate themselves on their mastery of the basic laws that govern all physical phenomena, at least at the macro- (larger than subatomic) scale. A mastery adumbrated by Richard Feynman's very subtle observation that it is remarkable that the real world can be expressed in the abstract symbolism of mathematics: why can we quantify reality?

It's overused, the idea that there is a deep and subtle connection between "Western" physics and Eastern mysticism, particularly Zen subjectivity. But I think that's the heuristic (the word is handy today) approach best suited to getting Einstein's joke. We think there is an essential congruence between the reality conveyed to us by our sensory apparatus and the rules for comprehension we have devised because we mistake our perceptions for reality. Einstein was saying, if you ask me, that it is impossible for humans to surmount this essential limitation in our conception of the universe; thus, our comprehension is itself the main obstacle. We cannot get beyond that comprehension. Of course our highly-developed ideas about the workings of the universe strike us a complete understanding of everything; those ideas simply reduce to mathematical formulations what we're able to see, which isn't the same as reality at all. Einstein was not saying humans should congratulate themselves on their epic discovery of the true nature of reality. He was hinting that we're the eternal prisoners of illusion.

Einstein's Joke: no setup, no premise, no punch line. I guess he was a genius comedian, too.

April 04, 2007

A lesson from the Bard

"who steals my purse steals trash, . . . But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him, / And makes me poor indeed." Shakespeare, Othello.

Thinking way back, most of us can probably remember Bush in his 2000 campaign, wherein he presented himself as an honest cowpoke on his way to Washington to restore honesty and decency, a kind of prep school Matt Dillon who would make short work of all this Clinton-era lying and politicking. A mere six years and two months after his inauguration, the charlatan disgracing the Oval Office is barely recognizable as that simulacrum of common decency created by Rove's PR machine. Such startling reversals ought to make us deeply distrust a couple of things.

One is that bane of the McLuhan Age, the media artifact constructed from sound bites and imagery. For many Americans (though never for me), Bush's affected pose as a no-nonsense executive with a constructive agenda, and a low tolerance for partisan bullshit, closed the sale. Even his inability to speak grammatically correct English was seen in endearingly positive terms.

The second thing to worry about is not so technology-dependent. The Shakespeare quote above is from Iago, the arch-villain of Shakespeare's great tragic meditation on the nature of duplicity and jealousy. Iago - the liar, the manipulator, the wounded narcissist, the false friend, the betrayer - goes so far as to defend his "reputation" for integrity as his most valuable personal asset. Thus, to further his evil designs, Iago dons the cloak of the righteous as part of his scheme of ingratiation and betrayal, and the vain (and vulnerable) Othello buys it hook, line and sinker.

I suppose humans are simply genetically programmed to accept, at the conscious level, the superficial portrayal of probity and noble purpose. We want to believe it, and the pathological personality relies upon this human gullibility for the success of his schemes, which depend upon the manipulations of emotion where other, normal people use the honest attachments of emotion to fulfill their own needs. Good people do not want to live their lives in a state of guarded anticipation that some new acquaintance, a man seemingly so honest, so forthright, so well-intentioned, is actually a mendacious, cold, merciless, soul-dead conniver, with an anti-human and anti-Earth agenda, who takes pleasure in the infliction of torturous pain on humiliated enemies, who loves the sulfurous stench and bloody carnage of battle. How could half the American people get this guy so wrong? How could 30% of the American people continue to do so?

Well, it really did happen, right here in the United States. There's a line from another exceptional piece of art that's brought to mind as the end of the Bush nightmare hoves into view. In "The Lives of Others," the German film about the Stasi of pre-Glasnost East Germany, the persecuted playwright Georg Dreyer can at last confront, after the fall of the Wall, a Stasi minister who ruined Dreyer's relationship with the love of his life. After the minister callously brags about the power he once enjoyed, Dreyer walks away with the line, "And to think that a man like you once ruled a country."

April 02, 2007

Veto This, L'il Georgie!

President Bush and Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin appear to be on a collision course that seemed always fated to be, ever since Feingold's commendable attempt to censure Bush for his systematic violation of the Fourth Amendment (and for Bush's routine commission of felonies connected therewith) arising from the warrantless spying conducted by the National Security Agency. Senator Russ was able to corral only three other senators to take this principled stand along with him (Leahy, Harkin and Boxer). With the success of the 2006 elections, certainly other senators would join him now, such as Bernie Sanders of Vermont and probably Sherrod Brown of Ohio. It is in the nature of principled leadership to await the arrival of stragglers who take principled stands as soon as it seems safe to do so. Thus, Hillary Clinton, et alia, will be along as soon as the public opinion polls tell them it's time to be a hero.

Not so Russ. He has always done things his own quirky way, a way which would have appealed to other troublemakers like John Adams, Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It would be difficult to find someone with a past history more different from our spoiled, petulant, lazy President. The grandson of Jewish Russian immigrants, Feingold grew up in Wisconsin, attended public high school, earned a B.A. at UW-Madison along with admission to Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes Scholarship, earned a second bachelor's degree at Oxford, and then graduated from Harvard Law School. While Bush pretends, in his usual fraudulent way, to be an American success story, Feingold is the real thing. Feingold has always played by the rules, and then some. His successful legislative campaigns have, in the main, been supported only by individual contributions from Wisconsin residents. It must disturb him profoundly to watch a man like Bush, who casually disgraces the Constitution, the rule of law, and America's good name, carry on as if he were a real President.

Bush is now threatening to veto the Iraq bill-in-waiting from Congress. Full of his customary bombast and tempestuous bullshit, Bush pretends that his concern is for the troops he has stranded in Iraq, on a suicide mission, for the last 4+ years. Without funding, he storms, the troops will have to remain in Iraq on longer tours, with substandard armor, etc. This is Rove & Cheney whispering in his ear, of course. Bush must never, never, never say the obvious thing, which is that running out of money means his new job is to get all the troops home safely with the cash on hand.

Enter Senator Feingold, who is ready with new legislation to help Bush focus on the obvious. His follow-on bill to the one Bush says he will veto is a model of elegant concision:

(c) Prohibition on Use of Funds - No funds appropriated or otherwise made available under any provision of law may be obligated or expended to continue the deployment in Iraq of members of the United States Armed Forces after March 31, 2008.

There you have it, Georgie. The end of the line. You argue that the American people will know "who to blame" for the predicament of the U.S. soldier in Iraq, in that steely manner that represents your best impersonation of a tough guy. Part of your shtick, maybe, is to be intentionally ungrammatical, just to sound tougher. Although with you, how would we know?

Eventually, Robert Gates, General Petraeus, other military leaders with their heads screwed on a lot straighter are going to break ranks with W and begin to utter the obvious. No money means no war. It doesn't mean the soldiers are "stranded." It means the stupid misadventure in Iraq comes to an end, and Bush's presidency with it. Harry Reid has signed on with Feingold, as have Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders. This is the real deal; if they see it through, they'll stuff this punk once and for all.

Santo, Ma Non Troppo

I'm concerned about the alacrity with which the Vatican is pursuing the canonization of John Paul II. It appears that Benedict and the Cardinals are falling prey to that modern malaise of cheapening time-honored awards of distinction by succumbing to society's inability to delay gratification. You see it everywhere these days, from the habit of awarding Oscars for life-time achievement to directors still in the active phase of their careers to the recent spectacle of the near-canonization of Ronald Reagan, where his celebrants counted on a mass collective amnesia to make us forget Reagan had wood chips where the human brain is supposed to be. People just can't wait anymore. Everything is rushed, even in something as timeless as religion, thus robbing even sainthood of its divine luster.

"Santo subito!" the delirious crowds outside St. Peter's Basilica shout. JP2 needs sainthood, right now, say his Catholic fans. The Vatican hastens to comply. They're putting the finishing touches on an "investigation" of his life, something you think they might have worked on, you know, before he became Pope. But you can't be too careful when you're talking about making someone a saint, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "a person officially recognized, esp. by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on Earth." They don't want JP2 up there in the Sanctified Hall of Fame and then discover some bastard son living in the suburbs of Krakow, or maybe a previously overlooked letter from JP2 to an SS commandant letting him know where the local shul is meeting. That would never do. But when they take extraordinary steps like waiving the "five-year requirement" (that's where it does sound like a Hall of Fame) and beating the bushes for miracles, they invite this kind of disaster. They've got one miracle in the hopper already. Sister Marie Simon-Pierre of France (really now: Sister Mary Simon Peter - was that ordered up from central casting or what?) claims her Parkinson's cleared up two months after John Paul II, also a Parkinson's sufferer, expired. They need one more, since there can hardly be any doubt about that first one. I mean, come on: Sister Marie's Parkinson's clears up two months after JP2, who just happened to have the same disease, died? If you've got a problem with that, I don't want to hear about it, and neither do the Cardinals.

Although: maybe they've done enough to fast-track JP's installation and ought to take their time. Delve into this Sister Marie thing a little more penetratingly, and make sure she's on the level. Publicity seekers are everywhere, and surely if the last decade or so has taught us anything, it's that Catholics sometimes yield to the most human of vices. Cynical as it may seem, a thorough investigation could reveal some alternative interpretations, such as: Sister Marie never had Parkinson's; it's a notoriously difficult disease to diagnose and is often confused with other motor neuron maladies. Or: maybe the L-Dopa kicked in. Or: maybe the idea of JP2 interceding on her behalf gave her a temporary dopamine rush that got her motor neurons working again. Uncharitably, this last might be called a placebo effect. Maybe her disease, blessedly, is in a state of remission. Sticking with the five-year rule would allow us to make sure, and not have to go through the embarrassing process of canceling the miracle and opening up the application process again.

But I must admit it: JP2, as one of his first gigs on the Other Side, may have put in a good word for Marie Soeur. I mean, why the hell not? In which case, His Holiness is halfway home. Given the standards of rigorous proof required, the Cardinals will soon shake another miracle out of those voluminous sleeves. I still think, all things considered, that the honor would mean more, the canonization would be more Canonical, if they waited the five years and looked for miracles with a little more star power. You know, as they say in the Biz, "legs." I'm dubious, of course, that such a salutary course will be followed, that the Cardinals will set the tempo at allegro, ma non troppo. Santo, molto prestissimo, it is. A world hungry for heroes, even mythological ones, demands no less.