Sunday, March 30, 2014

Call The Midwife: The Possibility of Transcendent Good

Click on this image to Enlarge: It's Worth It

There is no reason "Call The Midwife" should have survived more than one season, at least in America. It has no murders, no hot sex, no car chases, explosions, intrigues, no wickedly delicious villains, no "role model" male hunks, no dashing males at all, no rich people living out lives of fantasy, no flashy cars, no dazzling apartments. 

There is simply post World War II London, which is poor, scruffy, downright squalid, with kids running and playing in dirty streets, families living in tenements with communal bathrooms which reek, dockworkers who get drunk and sometimes beat their wives, children suffering from disease and neglect.  

And yet...this is a mesmerizing rendering of time and place, suffused with values of sympathy, kindness and well meaning, values which guide people who do not have a lot to give, materially, but who give what they can in kindness.

The series presents one of the most remarkable characters Mad Dog has ever met: The head nun who runs the midwifery program, who is so thoroughly kind, wise and intelligent, but who is no Pollyanna and certainly the likes of such an authority figure has not been seen since the early twentieth century.  Imagine a heroic figure who is: A. A nun B. A nurse in charge C. Immensely competent.  No Nurse Wratched this. No Hip Lips Hoolihan. Nothing flashy, nothing dramatic, just simple decency. Mad Dog is in love, unrequited as that must remain.

The greatest wrenching struggle in season one was the decision of one of the nuns, a midwife, to leave the order and to marry the doctor.  Her pain was palpable but not overdone, and her joy at her new life of love was thrilling.

Each character, from the awkward, over sized Chummy, who hails from the upper class but finds meaning and happiness among the poor, who discovers that life as a housewife and mother simply is not enough, and so returns to the calling, and that's what this show depicts better than any before it--the nature of a a calling. 

The whole point of the pre medical running of the guantlet  in college was, and still is, to separate the "dreamers" from the hardcore realists who know that a career in medicine is not for those who are primarily driven by love of humankind but by the spirit of engineering, which places highest value on how things work and how they dysfunction, not on the reaction of human beings to that dysfunction.  Kind hearts are weeded out, unless they are attached to disciplined, tough minds.  Of course, the people doing the weeding out in the undergraduate colleges are not physicians and have only imagined what qualities doctors really need. 

But, for anyone who chose medicine, or nursing, because it appealed as more than a job, "Call The Midwife" brings back all those feelings, which, it turns out, in the end, are nothing to be ashamed of.

From a policy point of view, the depiction of the early history of a system of socialized medicine is fascinating, because it so clearly portrays the modest expectations of the physicians who worked in this healthcare system, none of whom expected great financial reward or even prestige. They enjoyed the social status comparable to a much esteemed auto mechanic--important when you have an emergency, but not someone you invite to the club. There would be no place for Frederic Brandt, the cosmetic dermatologist to the stars,  on "Call The Midwife." He would be the anti-Christ on this show.

What is also apparent is what made the British socialized medicine system so superior to the American for profit system:  Midwives, nurses visited patients where they lived, did so systematically, after deliveries, after hospitalizations, to be sure follow up care was delivered, which was important because less was done in the hospital; patients were sent home earlier and recovered there, which was better for the cost to the system, but also better for the patients.

Well into the 1970's, patients were kept in American hospitals for weeks, for services which could have been rendered at home with less cost and less risk.  While politicians and American health care gurus extolled the high quality of the American system, no real, objective, scientific data was gathered to assess the difference in outcomes between American hospitals and British hospitals.

In Britain in 1972, if you were admitted to hospital with a bleeding gastric ulcer and you had bled down to a certain level of anemia, you got one or two units of blood and were put to bed.  In America, you were pumped full of fifteen units of blood, with an intern following you through the night, doing hourly blood levels and calling in the surgeons for consultation and if you passed that 15 unit mark in 24 hours, you were hauled off to surgery. 

In retrospect, filling that inner tube with so much volume, may have increased the pressure on the weak spot and exacerbated the bleeding. And the hepatitis and other blood borne pathogens conveyed with all those units of blood was no advantage to the patient, in the long run. So the Brits, with their more hard headed and less-is-sometimes-more approach were likely practicing superior medicine than their gung ho American colleagues.  In American medicine, for the second half of the 20th century, "aggressive" was a positive description and "passive" a pejorative.  This worked well for profit driven American health care, but not so well for the patients or for the nation as a whole.

But in America, any consideration of limiting what you might do for a patient has always been met with cries of "Death Panels" from the thundering ignoramuses of right wing radio, and you can always play on a visceral reaction to the word "rationing" from the American electorate. That, too,  works well for the bottom line of many health related American industries. 

Just as America keeps building submarines and fighter jets and bombers which the military no longer has any use for because it's good for a Congressman's district, just as we keep vast military bases open because a Congressman wants those jobs in his district, we indulge in misspending in healthcare in areas which do not improve the public health,  because each project fattens someone's bank account.

When we fund a military hardware system we don't need, that's not welfare, that's keeping America #1.  When we spend money on keeping an ninety year old alive on a respirator for 6 weeks, that's just the world's best medical care. 

But go back and look at England in the 1950's and 1960's, watch "Call The Midwife,"  and see where a really intelligent system came from, as it emerged from a relatively impoverished economy, which required political leaders make difficult choices, and which set a medical system on a better course than the one our own profligate system careened down.

After World War II, America was booming and we spent like drunken sailors on all sorts of things--military contracts, health care, roads, shopping malls. The Brits did not have that luxury. They had to plan with discipline. 

What they got was a healthcare system which is not perfect, but it is lean and effective. What we got was the best for the upper 10% and dismal for the rest.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hobby Lobby: Forgone Conclusions

Hobby Lobby Upright Citizens 

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse et al
The Supreme Court has heard the arguments about whether a company which must offer health insurance to its employees must offer forms of contraception its owners consider forms of abortion.

Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts will vote to allow the owners to do as they please, to deny IUD and Plan B coverage to their employees. 

Justices Sotomayer, Ginsberg, Kagan and Breyer will vote to insist that company owners follow the law of the land, and will not allow the owners of this company to impose their religious beliefs on their thousands of employees.

Justice Kennedy, as usual, will get to decide the case.

One wonders why we bother to hold this circus of oral arguments before the nine justices when the votes of eight of them can be counted from simply reading a synopsis of the case.  Why not just present to Justice Kennedy and let the others mail in their votes, get out for some fresh air--go for a walk along the Mall.

Of course, this case would not ever have arisen if we did not have a health care system tethered to employment. Why should your employer be able to tell you what sort of contraception you should use? Where did employers get that mandate to be the parents of their employees?

Employer based health care insurance began around the time of World War II, when there was a worker shortage and companies needed something to entice workers beyond salaries--wage and price controls were in effect, so they could not simply raise wages.

The Republicans would not allow a "government option" when Obamacare was being formulated. 

So now we are stuck with two Southern Baptists who believe a fertilized egg is a human being and if there is an IUD in the uterus and that zygote cannot implant and gets flushed out with the next menstrual period, that's abortion.

It doesn't matter that IUD's may not actually work that way; it's possible they prevent the sperm from working their way up to the egg and finding the target egg, but that's of little consequence since it is not important what some scientists think--all that matters is what the Greens, who own Hobby Lobby think.

If the Greens believed Whites and Negroes should not drink from the same water fountains or use the same bathrooms, and if that is their deeply held religious belief, then Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts would say, "Amen."

Justice Scalia, always quick with the absurdest analogy, the scathing hypothetical, posed the problem:  "Suppose the government was approached by animal rights activists who felt the method of kosher slaughter is inhumane?  Would the government tell all the kosher slaughterhouses they could not kill their beef in the kosher way, as they have done for thousands of years? Would the kosher slaughterhouse have to set aside the religious standards by which it operates because the government has a rule about animal cruelty?"

Well, actually, if the slaughterhouse was slaughtering human infants, or virgins, as a ritual sacrifice, the government should probably exercise its power to prevent that religious practice, Justice Scalia. You want an absurd what if, see you and raise you one better.

It is curious the court is comprised of five Catholics and Four Jews. Of course, one of the Catholics is relatively liberal. There used to be a "Jewish" seat on the court. May have been time when Catholics were excluded or subject to a quota. But for a country which is overwhelming Protestant, we have an odd complexion to the court.

The fact is, Obamacare, as flawed as it is, is lifting off. The Republicans broke its wings, plucked many feathers, and tried to wring its neck, but somehow, there are now citizens who are insured and an insurance industry which was betraying its customers for years, with fine print, pre existing condition clauses, rules which eliminated all but those who didn't really need health insurance, and now those sleaze ball insurance companies  have been brought to heel. 

But the Republican Party will likely sweep into control of the Senate and the House based on marketing. They will exploit the gullible, as always, and the weak minded shall inherit the dearth. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

College Athletes: Employees? Well, Duh!

Mad Dog begs the reader's forgiveness, but what part of obvious do you not understand?
Is the football player who signs a contract to accept a "scholarship" to a college, which guarantees him room, board, access to the facilities, coaches, travel and all the means to perform for the institution not an employee? 

When he is injured, unable to play, to perform his duties and he is discharged from the team, loses his "scholarship" and "let go" is he not "fired" from his job, without compensation, not to mention workers comp?

It does not take much personal experience at college to see the nature of the employer/employee relationship. There may be some peculiarities to the "student athlete"  relationship, which may more closely resemble that of an apprenticeship, but these kids are working for the college, generating billions in TV, sports paraphernalia income for the college. They have essentially a financial relationship with the institution, and whatever classroom education they get is a perk. But, for the most part, they have no time for "college life." They are at work, going over films with the coaches, lifting weights with their training coaches. Their time belongs to their employers. They are like those Chinese factory workers who live in dorms next door to the factory. They are working nights and weekends and days, too. There are no off seasons. They train year round.

Most college basketball players never graduate because with a 30 game schedule and travel and the lack of academic achievement or ambition of most college basketball players, classroom experience is simply irrelevant to their purpose for being on campus. 

There is the famous story, which dates back to the 1960's about Lenny Moore, a terrific running back for Penn State who was called upon in class by the professor. Moore did not answer; he just stared at the professor. "Uh, Mr. Moore, I asked you a question."
To which Moore responded, "My name is Lenny Moore. I carry the ball. I don't answer no questions."

What Moore was expressing, of course, was his pique with the regulation which in those days required he actually show up physically and attend a certain number of classes, which, in his case, was absurd.   His presence in the classroom was a lie fashioned by bureaucrats. He knew why he was at Penn State and so did everyone else, and going to class had nothing to do with it.

Even the Ivy League is not exempt, although, the Ivies could reasonably argue they could qualify as exceptional,  because they do not offer "scholarships" with cash amounts stated. What they offer is "financial aide" packages for "needy" athletes. But let's examine an anecdote about how this may play out.  

Mad Dog's son was a highly recruited high school wrestler and he was brought to campus by the wrestling coach at Columbia. (Princeton and even the venerable University of Chicago sponsored similar visits to their campuses.)  At Columbia, the coach told the group of hopefuls, "The only places you need to know how to get to are the gym and the library. At the Ivy League, you actually have to pass your classes. But your job is to wrestle and to stay eligible."

In the admission office, Mad Dog talked to an admission officer about another wrestler who had preceded his son. The admissions officer smiled and said, "Well, we were happy we were able to work out the aide package" for this wrestler. And Mad Dog thought, well, that's interesting: This wrestler they were talking about came from Potomac, Maryland, where he lived in a McMansion. His father was an orthopedic surgeon. Both parents drove Mercedes. Somehow, this wrestler, a child of privilege, qualified for "financial aid," which in the Ivy League has to be based on financial need.

Mad Dog's son wound up at Vanderbilt, where he had some football players on his dorm hall. He said he never saw them. They were always at practice, travelling or working out. Vanderbilt's student athletes were, in many cases, actually students, but they had demanding jobs. They were on work study. Of course, their opponents in the rest of the SEC did not have the burden of classwork to distract them, which may explain why Vanderbilt was never very competitive in football.

Duke brags about the high graduation rate of its basketball players, but none of them are engineers, pre medical students or students in any demanding academic area. How could they be, given their work schedule?

It has not always been so. When Mad Dog was recruited to wrestle at Brown University in 1965, he arrived to find that organic chemistry labs were held Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and the wrestling team traveled on Thursday afternoons. So Mad Dog withdrew from the wrestling team. Nobody said a word.

In his dorm, which had a high percentage of athletes, were football players who were engineers, chemistry and physics majors. Several starting football players were pre medical students. One is now chief of Urology at the National Institutes of Health. The starting quarterback is a radiologist.  Brown's football team was competing in those days against Brian Dowling and the professionals at Yale and Harvard and Dartmouth and Brown rarely won a game.  Ultimately, the football coach was eased out and a new regime came in and won more football games, but the physics majors disappeared from the roster.

Those are the worm's eye view stories. From the eagle's eye view, you have only to look at the numbers of players on basketball and football teams who never graduate, whose highest hope is becoming professional athletes, who cannot read, or read much, at the money spent on facilities, travel, coaches' salaries and at the income from football, basketball, and, in the northeast, from hockey to see plainly enough that university sports programs have nothing to do with students, academia or scholarship. As Gordon Gee, the former president of Ohio State remarked, when he was asked whether he would fire the football coach for some transgression, "I'm more worried about him firing me."

The Europeans, the Japanese, of course look at our stadiums our universities in wonder.  What does a stadium at the University of Michigan, with 100,000 fans waving maize and blue banners have to do with a university? To them, it all looks like soccer hooligans. A football team at a university to the rest of the world makes no more sense than an automobile plant turning out Iowa State trucks. In some ways, the truck plant, which would require engineering and business school expertise would make more sense to the core mission of a university than a football team.

But, once again, in America, we have a fantasy--the "student/athlete"--marketed and sold, the Big Lie. And everyone is making so much money (except the workers) for anyone to want to speak the truth--the Emperor has no clothes. He's buck naked. Just don't tell the NCAA. The folks there have big salaries to protect.

Or, as Upton Sinclair observed, years ago: "It is difficult to bring a man to understanding, if his income depends on not understanding."

Here, in America, where the almighty dollar rules, academia has been poisoned. 
Even outside the offices of the football and basketball coaches,  academics have been perverted by the pursuit of money. Professors are bought and sold and their "expertise" and opinions are for sale. Professors get a base salary, but that's not where their real income derives--they are off campus "consulting" most of the time.  "Star" professors get "loans" for summer homes and for mortgages. And what makes them stars? Is it the quality of their scholarship or the effectiveness of their own personal marketing stratagems? 

Even at the university medical schools, the effect of money has contaminated the academic work.  Drug company money supports medical school laboratories and publications carry studies sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. 

And what does academia have to sell?  Unbiased truth, one might say. Harvard's emblem says "Veritas."  But Harvard, all of them, have sold out. "Whose truth?" you ask.

The sponsor's truth.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Obamacare and Republican Chutzpah

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse et al

The best definition of the quality of audacity which is captured in the word  "chutzpah" is the man who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court,  on the grounds that he is now an orphan.

This is pretty much what the Republicans have engineered with Obamacare. They murdered the only real healthcare bill which would have solved the problem of healthcare in this country--that is, a "government option" or simply put, Medicare for all.  Having cut the democrats off from that road, the only path left open was a sort of gerry rigged private insurance company scheme in which private insurance would still be purchased, but with all sorts of government requirements to be sure nearly everyone who wants to be covered can get covered, and most of it is still routed through employer provided insurance. 

And now the employers are howling, at least the employers who fancy themselves "religions" who just happen to have employees. So the Catholic church which runs a hospital which employs a thousand people, 800 of whom are Baptist or Jewish or Muslim or atheists, refuses to pay for any insurance policy which includes coverage for contraception for their non believer employees, because the Church opposes contraception on religious grounds. They don't object to hiring non Catholics as employees--they couldn't run their hospitals without them--but they object to allowing those non Catholic employees to behave like non Catholics.

Of course, what the Church is really saying is, "If you work for me, you have to follow my rules."  In the dark past, that meant that employers who felt blacks should not mingle with whites could have a rule that blacks use "colored" bathrooms at work--it was part of the employer's belief system, part of his religion, and if you wanted work at his hospital, you had to put up with that. 
But the arguments get more difficult--what if, as Justice Scalia suggested, the government responds to objections from the animal rights lobby and tells a kosher slaughterhouse it cannot kill animal by slitting their throats, as the kosher procedure demands?
The counter to this is, well there the government would be targeting the practices of one religion, not making a rule to apply to all.

But each carve out for a "religious exception" in the Affordable Care Act is simply a pathway to death by a thousand cuts, and the Republicans are gleeful in their pursuit.

None of this would have boiled up, had the Act simply said, "Okay, Medicare for all." 
Then, no employers would have a fight to pick with the government because health insurance would not longer come from employers; it would come from the government. 

But politics is the art of the possible, and a Medicare for all simply did not have the votes. 

When Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, the American Medical Association cried "socialized medicine!" and all the right wingers cried creeping socialism, the end of Western Civilization and the first step down the swift slide to a socialist, cradle to grave welfare state, just like Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and all those leftist European governments which provided healthcare for their people.

Johnson signing Medicare into law 
 Now, of course,  ask any doctor what life would be like without Medicare and he or she will laugh or shudder or look blankly at you because nobody can really imagine life without Medicare. 

But here we are--the Republicans are raging because the law they bludgeoned the nation into accepting is causing an uproar because it forces the private sector into doing things it doesn't want to do, that same private sector the Republicans forced to include in the health care law.  The Republicans have maimed the program and now they complain that it is getting blood all over the fine linen. 
Oh, spare me.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Crimea, Russia, Putin and Why Should I Care?

Mr.Vladimir  Lenin

Doesn't he LOOK Russian?

A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at either end.
--Soviet aphorism

Mad Dog is the first to admit ignorance when it comes to Russia, Russian history and the current events in Crimea.  His self education has begun with the entertainment, semi true history series, "Reilly, Ace of Spies," and is now augmented with Wikipedia, which was not available when "Reilly" first aired in the early 1980's.  But, from this, admittedly, pop history version of the background, Mad Dog has to ask:  What business is it of his, or of America or of Britain or Germany if Russia bear hugs Crimea or even all of Ukraine?  
In fact, Mr. Putin has remarked, with unusual candor, "Ukraine isn't really a country, you know."  That remark might be applied to Iraq and a variety of other countries whose boundaries were drawn by men in drawing rooms in London, Paris and elsewhere who then retired for cigars and brandy to their men's clubs. 
Reilly playing in Russia
 Taking the cynical point of view, which one absorbs from "Reilly" this is not about the people living in these places but more likely about resources, like oil, gas, pipelines and things that spell "Money." Even before, but certainly during the Russian revolution, Britain, the United States, France and Germany all sent agents to Russia to gain control there, but were defeated by the sheer size and complexity  of Russia and the impossibility of influencing events and behavior of that large grizzly bear by sending in fleas and mosquitoes. 

Having learned from Napoleon, the Western powers were timid and chastened by prior experience. They didn't want to risk sending armies, but they were happy to send in assassins, spies, agents provocateur which was low cost, lower risk and eminently deniable and would never appear in children's history books, which, after all, constitute the sanitized fantasy which nations teach their children.  So, the "great powers"  plotted low risk plots to depose or assassinate Lenin, once it became clear Lenin was not going to allow Russia to continue in the World War One carnage. 

Lenin accepted Germany's dismantling of large parts of the Russian empire to preserve his own revolution and his grip on power in Russia. The Allies wanted him out and wanted someone (Reilly) in to get Russian troops to open up an Eastern Front. 
The real Reilly shot dead in Russia
So, there is a long history of America and Britain and Germany trying to manipulate Russians, happy to expend Russian lives for British profit.

And if you are going to talk about past behavior of Britain, France and Germany--well, don't get Mad Dog started. Do the word "Empire" ring a bell?

There is also a long history of America dominating its own neighbors, even annexing territory. America trumpeted its "Manifest Destiny," provoked wars of "liberation" to bring freedom and American industry to island peoples, and to use them for profit. 

  But now America condemns Russia for behavior which is not essentially different from what America has always done.  America, after all, annexed part of Mexico and that is now called "Texas."  From Mad Dog's perspective, we are still suffering the consequences of that. Mad Dog would gladly give Texas back to Mexico, and Mad Dog would sweeten the deal by throwing in South Carolina and a high draft choice, maybe Arizona, although, it must be admitted Mexico may not regard South Carolina as sweetening the deal. 

  If Mr. Putin looks to America's experience with Texas, he might think again about Crimea.

Did the United States not invade Panama in the later part of the 20th century, dig a canal through it in the early part of that century, invade Grenada, take Cuba away from Spain, (and the Philippines, too), and mess around in Nicaragua and any other Caribbean island we coveted?  

So Mad Dog says: Render unto Russia that which is Russia's. Heaven help them. Sure as shooting, nobody else will.

Now, Mad Dog anticipates Secretary of State Kerry will reply (perhaps not on this particular blog, but elsewhere) that while America has been a bad boy in the past, we now have found religion and we are for "self determination" for all the world's people--the way we valued self determination for the Vietnamese. When we value self determination for a people, that has, in the dark past, often involved dropping bombs on them, and agent orange and Coca Cola and Big Macs.  We, as George Carlin noted, whip a little American industry on them, and pollute their water and air.  Lucky them.

Mad Dog is no Russian o phile. Russia is a riddle within a riddle, (Churchill) but it has as long and nasty history as any nation on earth, with a particularly rancid history of antisemitism  not to mention the Stalin years where whole populations were starved and thousands, maybe millions deported, shot, and otherwise treated unkindly.

On the other hand, their history looked pretty wonderful in the opening ceremonies at the Olympic games. And they can be remarkably funny, in a dark sort of way.

At any rate, if they want the home of Chernobyl, the lovely port city on the Black Sea and a few gas lines, Mad Dog would say, let 'em have it. None of it is worth disrupting a single American military family in deployment. 


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Scott Brown: U.S. Senator from New Hampshire?

Francis Underwood

“What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them they will do anything you ask.”
--Francis Underwood, House of Cards

Scott Brown wants to go back to the U.S. Senate, this time representing New Hampshire. If he wins, New Hampshire would be represented by two Republicans in the Senate, likely giving the Republicans both houses and ending any hope of President Obama being able to do much of anything in his remaining time in the White House. 

Karl Rove is salivating. The Koch brothers are sending millions to Brown's campaign.
All that stands between this dismal prospect and fruition is the New Hampshire voter.
United States Senator Jeanne Shaheen

It must be admitted, in terms of how we assess candidates for political office, Brown has the advantage from an "image" viewpoint: He is, as the lingo goes, an "attractive" candidate.  Even that stalwart Democrat, Maud of Hampton, has noted he is good looking.
He also has that most appealing of all characteristics:  A dark past. He says he was sexually abused by a camp counselor, mistreated by his several step fathers--his mother was married three times--and he was arrested as a youth for shop lifting before finally straightening out and attended Tufts and then BC law.

Brown will play on his wayward, dark past. As that most canny of all politicians, Francis Underwood, from South Carolina has noted, his constituents worship at the church of humility. Underwood always positions himself to be more humble than thou, and his constituents love him for it. He arrives with all the pomp and circumstance of a United States Representative and then throws himself on their mercy--and soon has them eating out of his hand.
Mr. Brown will do that same thing in New Hampshire. It will have wide appeal here, because, outside of the Seacoast, there are substantial populations of voters in the Granite state who burn with resentment at their "betters." For these voters, there was no chance of staying in school beyond high school, not when you come from a family of eight children, and your father drives a truck and your mother works at Walmart and your high school teachers think coloring maps within the lines is the highest form of academic achievement.  For many voters, their options were going to work after high school, or going into military service. 

Mr. Brown "served" with the National Guard in Afghanistan, albeit for only 2 weeks. He is something of a dilettante soldier.
Beefcake, Lightweight Brown

As a senator from Massachusetts, he had enough sense to realize he had to represent a liberal state from a reactionary party, so he voted for a Democratic jobs bill and spoke the words of bipartisanship: He voted for allowing the morning after pill to be given to rape victims to prevent pregnancy (implantation) thus risking the wrath of the Republican hard liners who would say a fertilized ovum is a human being and the morning after pill prevents that human being from finding a home in the uterus.

So, he was not the most right wing of the right wing party.
On the other hand, he talked the Republican talk, blaming the poverty stricken for their own poverty--they are poor because they are lazy, don't want to work and are deserving of their poverty. That is the fundamental doctrine of the fundamentalist Republicans, and Scott Brown embraces it.

Some have argued we need more Republicans like Susan Collins in the Congress, to help the Republican Party move away from the ultra right position it currently embraces. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth. That same argument is always advanced in the face of very extreme political parties:  There were no "good" Nazi's. Those who remained silent, who joined the party to change it from within, who excused their membership as an attempt to be in a position to moderate extreme positions found themselves being part of the problem, co opted by the villainy which sucked up the moderates.  The venomous snake also has muscles and bones and a nervous system, all of which function to put the snake into position to strike and to sink its venom into its victims. Those nerve, muscle and bone cells are no less a part of the snake than the venom.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Worst Form of Government Possible: Except for All The Others

Plaice Cove, Hampton, February

Scott Brown will try to take Jean Shaheen's seat in the United States Senate this Fall. The man who wore pink leather shorts on his first date with his wife may just win.  Now Mad Dog  has nothing (much) against a man who wears pink leather shorts, as long as he wears them on a first date, but really, is this lightweight going to waltz into a seat in the United States Senate because enough ignoramuses in New Hampshire, who have not been personally hurt by Obamacare will vote for Brown, because they have heard Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and the whole chorus of Tea Party hyenas howling how terrible Obamacare has been for the unnamed, mostly imagined masses?

Hampton, March Storm 

And the Democrats, good as they are at managing and parsing date about the electorate, are facing obliteration because they have not managed to get out from behind their computers and make a visceral connection with the electorate, which is to say with Joe Sixpack and Josiah Whitebread Yankee, who reads the Manchester Union Leader or Foster's, if he reads any newspaper at all, but mostly he just listens to Greta and company on Fox News.

Clearing a Driveway on Garbage Collection Day

Mad Dog loves his adopted state. He has real affection for the cynical Yankees who are his neighbors, but he despairs of their lack of sophistication when it comes to Washington and their place in the global marketplace.

He despairs, that is, until he thinks back to his experiences canvassing door to door last election for President Obama. Wandering up a driveway, toward a house, with all the wrong indicators in place--work van in the driveway, American flag hanging out front, dead deer strung up from a branch on a nearby tree, Country music blaring from a radio as the man of the house, with a half drunk six pack of beer next to his truck, and he is deep over the front fender, working beneath the hood of  his truck.  He finally notices Mad Dog , when he is  about three feet from him. Mad Dog looks  around for the Pit Bull dog, who he knows will be bounding out from behind some shrub, hungering for Mad Dog's vital organs. 

Mad Dog is wearing his  "Obama" hat.

The weekend mechanic is holding a wrench like a bludgeon, and he looks at Mad Dog's  hat and at his clipboard, which Mad Dog  holds as a shield.

He says, "I can guess what you want."
"Just want to ask if you are planning to vote Tuesday."
"Yeah, I'll be there," he says. "Wouldn't miss it."
"Fine," Mad Dog  says and turns to go.
"Don't you want to know who I'm going to vote for?"
"That's okay," Mad Dog saya. "I just have to check off I've talked to you."
"Obama," he says, looking at Mad Dog  from the corners of  his eyes.
"Really?" Mad Dog  cannot help blurting. "Hasn't been an easy first term."
"I figure with the shit sandwich they handed him, and no help to eat it, he deserves some more time."

So there you have it.  Independent thinking in Hampton, New Hampshire. Doesn't show up at the polls often enough, far as Mad Dog is  concerned. But it can happen. Maybe it will happen this Fall, if lightning can strike twice in the same town.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Lies We Live By: Redeployment

You say you want the truth?  Whose truth?  We all live by lies, some more than others, but for every truth there are two lies. 

To be politically correct, one must always begin by saying, "I honor your service," and "The brave men and women who have borne the burden of this war."  And, "He is serving a greater cause."  And "He is fighting for his country." And, she is "fighting for freedom, for us, for our freedom over there."

There have been wars which should have been fought because they brought down evil--the Civil War of the United States 1860-1865, and the war against Hitler. In those wars, Mad Dog likes to think, he would have served, even though that might have meant obeying orders from incompetent officers who had conceived breathtakingly stupid approaches to fighting the enemy. 

But in his lifetime, Mad Dog has seen only unnecessary, stupid and unsuccessful wars against Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, part of a cycle of unending war fought for a filthy web of reasons, profiting the few at the expense of the many.

In "Redeployment"  a book of short stories about American soldiers in Iraq, the fighting men and women of the U.S. forces are deployed and re deployed, as the rest of the country goes shopping, pays little more in taxes and never has the war hit home in the form of a neighborhood kid returning in a body bag.

The narrative about what an injustice this is--that only a few serve--has been used to shame us into taking action, and is meant to say, "Look how heroic these people who fight for us are, while the rest of us go about our fat, self indulgent lives."

And what are these soldiers actually doing? Are they awakening every morning saying to themselves, "I am going to defend America today?"  For many soldiers, war was the greatest adventure of their lives. It was terrifying. It was risky. But like driving fast and drunk, it was fun.

War took them, to exotic places, and put guns in their hands, where,  in the immortal words of  Private Joker of "Full Metal Jacket, "I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people, of an ancient culture...and kill them."

Which is not to say American soldiers walking down an Iraqi street have the same level of blind lethality and rage their fathers had in Vietnam, but the experience is similar in the sense these young Americans are dropped into a strange planet and they are armed and there to kill.  On his helmet is penned, "Born To Kill," and in the case of so many young men and women who see no viable financial options in life, they are indeed.

Duty, honor, country.
They are fighting for "freedom."
But, really, are these men and women fighting for your "freedom" and mine?  Are they fighting for their country?  Sad to say, Mad Dog cannot buy that. They are fighting as mercenaries and dressing up their decision in patriotic terms. The American soldier enlists because it's the best job and the best career he or she can find. These soldiers fight out of self interest and they say, and we say and their generals and Congressmen say they are fighting for "freedom." That's really a deep insult to the idea of fighting for freedom. The 20th Massachusetts fought for freedom in the Civil War.

Today's American soldier is fighting for a paycheck, fighting for himself, for respectability and, as too many learn, they are doing it all for chump change. It's a business, like the merchant marine. You go abroad, you come home and you go out again. It's a job. 

Which is not to say, on some level, the American soldier does not believe that by taking orders he is fighting for freedom, serving his country, but as Thoreau observed long ago, mindless marching off to war is not serving your country: Thinking serves your country. You serve your country by acting to prevent young men and women from being swept up into the military, told they are fighting for freedom. Whose freedom?
How free are the soldiers who fight for freedom? Are they not trapped by a paucity of economic and financial options? 

If we never fired a shot in Iraq would a single American be less free? Less safe?

"Full Metal Jacket" the movie based on "Short Timers" documents how typical, feckless American boys are transformed into green, mean, killing machines and what happens to them as a result.  There have been other depictions of this experience, and "Redepolyment" is a part of that line.

What Mad Dog has seen is this:  You are born into a family of eight children. Your parents cannot provide for the education of all these children. They were in the same boat themselves. Your father, if you and he are lucky, was gainfully employed, drove a truck, worked for the state or for Walmart. Your mother went to cosmetology school and works as a cashier at Seven Eleven. You got through high school, looked around and by far the most money you could make, the best promise for ongoing employment is the Army or the Marines, or the Navy if you have Navy in the family or Air Force if you grew up in near Pease.  Not only that, you can take a leap up in respectability, if you get yourself into a uniform. Your girlfriend's parents look at you differently now.

So off you go, to fight for the Koch brothers and for all those American voting districts where they make weapons systems,  which the government wants to close but which are so much part of the economy, Congressmen keep those factories going, and the forts and bases open--It's Undershaft's truth: There is too much money in weapons and war to close it down.

So are you fighting for freedom or for wealth?

At your funeral, they will say the words: "Duty, Honor, Country."

Shakespeare had Falstaff look at a bloated, rotting corpse and say, "There's honor for you."

That they are sold lies is nothing new. It is necessary, even. How do you get an eighteen year old to carry a gun, to fire it at someone, to go back out the next day even when he's seen his friend's head blown off? You train him. Duty, honor, country. What you are doing is good. This is the best thing you have ever done in life, the best thing of which you are capable.  A lie you can fight by.

This is why Slim Charles tells his chief executive, in "The Wire:"
"I mean, shit, it's what war is, you know?  Once you in, you in it. If it's a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight."

Even during World War II, how did the kid in Brooklyn know that Hitler was killing children in concentration camps? Before the Civil War, how did the farm boy know that Simon Legree  was chasing down the slave woman across the ice floes--how did anyone know what was the representation of reality, of truth? Was slavery "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or the contented darkies singing "Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot," as they happily worked the cotton fields of Tara?  How do you get the truth, when truth is the first casualty of war?

As for "Duty," well now you are talking about a contract.  You sacrifice something to get something.

And "Country," well, our country fought Hitler, fought a bunch of Nazi thugs who were trying to cleanse Europe of dirty, dark, non Aryan vermin. But we fought the racist Nazis with an army which segregated Black men from white men, because, Heaven Forbid, those Black men contaminate the white troops. Back home, in America, in Alabama and Mississippi white men were lynching Black men, and raping Black women while   Black brothers and fathers,  in uniform, flew airplanes, dug ditches, died and burned alive for their country, for honor and to do their duty. 

Duty, honor, country, all true. 

Whose truths? 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Paul Ryan and The Hammock Theory: The Poor Deserve Their Fate

"We don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives."
--Congressman Paul Ryan 

As Paul Krugman points out in Today's New York Times, encased in this sentence are actually two bedrock Republican beliefs:  1. Antipoverty programs breed complacency. 2. The failure of the poor to work as much as they should is what traps them in poverty.

Krugman is correct about what Ryan is saying, but there is more to Ryan's beliefs. This is a belief system Ryan, his fellow country club Republicans, the Koch Brothers, my own colleagues at work who are white bread Republicans, my former Southern neighbors, teachers and gentry all embraced because they needed to embrace it. They all loved Ronald Reagan because he could dismiss the poor and their suffering with a shrug of his shoulders--"There will always be poor," Reagan said, and he let his voice trail off, stating quite unmistakably the part of the sentence he did not have to speak: And there is nothing any of us can do about them, for them. They are not our problem, and we should not feel guilty about their suffering while we eat well, drive expensive cars, enjoy several lavish homes and dream vacations. 

This is simply an echo of what White people used to say about Blacks when Mad Dog was growing up: They are poor because:  1. They are lazy  2. They are stupid 3. They are happy being poor and have no ambition. They are not our fault.

Of course, the rich and the dominant need to feel this way.
They cannot believe they were born on third base and they must believe they deserve all the good things they have earned , that they won their success fair and square, by hard work and that the flip side is the losers lost fair and square. So, as Mr. Ryan and Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell and every last Republican in Congress would have you believe what we have in America today is the undeserving poor and the deserving rich.

As the Republicans see it, America is a just society, and everyone here gets his just desserts. If you work hard, you prosper. if not, you starve, unless those Democrats start giving away money to the undeserving poor, start trying to redistribute the wealth in some unfair way.

This rationale has been used to justify cutting back on food stamps for the poor: If you feed them they will breed. Of course, anyone who looks at the farm bill is struck by the enormity of government hand outs to farmers, most of whom have never wielded a pitch fork or bailed hay, most of whom are large corporate executive types in expensive suits,  who get paid by the government for not growing or raising stock at times, or  they simply hand off their losses to the government when things go poorly.  

Then there are the subsidies for oil companies, for all sorts of companies:  The system boils down to  rich people paying to elect Congressmen and Senators who then vote billions to support the businesses and incomes of those same rich people. 
We have the best Congress money can buy.

Of course, we have all learned about the working poor, who work two or even three jobs a day and cannot make ends meet and, until Obamacare, could not possibly afford health insurance. But now giving them health care just encourages them to breed, don't you know?

The solution to providing for the needy among us is to allow individual rich people to give to charity--so it is the wise rich who deserve who should be saved--or, another solution is  allowing rich people to make enough money they can afford to hire the undeserving poor. Of course, with the advent of technology, the richest companies often employ very few people--we no longer have an economy of mega factories employing thousands of workers. That sector is shrinking rapidly into a dot.

What's a Democrat to do?  About all we can do is every time a Republican opens his mouth about the deserving rich and the undeserving poor is to call him or her on it. We have to stand up and say, "Oh, so the poor deserve their poverty because they are lazy and probably just not bright enough? Is that what you are saying?  And the rich deserve their wealth, not because they've bought themselves a rigged system,  but because they are genetically superior, and they work harder and are more deserving?  Voters, if you believe that, vote Republican."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

America at High Noon

One of the alluring aspects of the story of St. George and the dragon is the individual, solitary effort of St. George. The dragon had been a real problem and the elders  had been unable to solve it--giving up their young women to the dragon.  But St. George, without having to organize any group, without having to think about regulations, simply rode out on his horse and dispatched the dragon. One man: problem solved.
It's a story we have told in different forms through the ages:  Gary Cooper, at High Noon, has to face the gang of killers alone. Ultimately, he has to rely on himself, as every man in this life does. In the end, we are all alone. We come into t he world alone and we depart alone. The solitary soul. Odysseus may travel with companions, but in the end, he is washed up on his home shore alone.

In the real world, however, at least in the 21st century,  what one man can accomplish alone, is limited. Dragons who can be killed by a single knight on horseback are now few and far between. Most really important problems today cannot be solved by a single brave man, of great resolve and strength.  They require lots of people and lots of organization.
Ulysses S. Grant solved the greatest problem of his age, but not alone. He was single minded, but he did not act alone. 
He would show up at the tent of a subordinate general, his eyes fastened on the tops of his own shoes, kicking dirt, shoulders hunched, listening to the subordinate's explanations of his problems, why his army could not move from its current position, but the soldiers watching the conversation always knew: When Grant showed up, there would be fighting soon. 
The fox is very clever and knows many things; the hedgehog is not so clever, and he knows only one thing, but he knows it well.  Grant knew one thing: He had to engage the enemy, to keep in constant contact, to keep the pressure on Lee and Lee's army. He knew that territory, arms, supply lines, cities--none of that would win the war. He knew his one objective was to meet the enemy army and destroy it. 
After the war, one of the great Southern generals was asked how the Army of Northern Virginia had been brought to defeat. What logistical problems, what economic problems, what strategic problems had led to defeat?  "I think the Union army likely had something to do with it," he said, in the end. 

Grant was the force which drove that army.
But that took other people, organization, getting people to  swing into action.
Reading Raffi Khatchadourian's  long, excellent article in the New Yorker  (March 3), the long, complicated, push to develop a hydrogen nuclear plant which could produce an inexhaustible supply of energy for everyone on earth, out of abundant hydrogen, one has to appreciate how much working together, as frustrating and inefficient as it may be, is the only way to achieve really enormous goals. 

Albert Einstein did not make the atomic bomb in his garage. A large group of men did that. 

For all their insistence that government is the problem, the Tea Party, Joe Sixpack, the heart and soul of the Republican Party have cleaved to one, central idea: We do not need each other; we do not need group effort. It's really every man for himself in this life and that's the way it ought to be.

It's a seductive idea, especially in income tax season. But it is a bankrupt idea.
The fact is, solitary confinement is no joy.
We do more and do better in groups. 
We just don't like to admit it.