Topics

A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Conspiracy of Fools

Enron, greed, and capitalism

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) I’m about half way through Kurt Eichenwald’s mammoth book on the rise and fall of Enron, the American energy giant that imploded at around the same time as the collapse of the Twin Towers, bringing down thousands of corporate investors and private shareholders, and erodingKurt Eichenwald if not eliminating any remaining confidence in the US banking and business complex. Conspiracy of Fools is an astonishingly readable book, given the depth of detail into which Eichenwald goes and the sheer breadth and scope of Enron itself and the cautionary tale he tells regarding its history. Far from being of interest only to business wonks, Conspiracy of Fools goes in painstaking detail, through the creation and astonishingly rapid success and growth of Enron; it charts its course by telling the story in much the way a police or legal procedural fiction would be written. The story of Enron is told as John Grisham would have written it, if he could have imagined perfidy and greed on the scale that is reported here.

The enormous cast of characters includes the senior executives of Enron and its subsidiaries, enron_logopartner corporations, institutional investors, and auditors; but it also includes some of our favourite characters from non-fiction. We cross paths with minor characters including Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George H.W. Bush, and George “Dubya” Bush during our immersion in the labyrinthine, yet oddly incestuous world of corporate finance and energy exploitation.

The odd thing though is that, although Enron was created as an energy corporation whose initial core business was the owning and operation of oil and gas pipelines and the production of electricity, as the story builds momentum, the reader can’t help but realise that the actual business of the corporation is incidental to what the executives and board of directors actually do at their desks and conference tables and golf courses. At this level of corporate activity, business is business, and the actual product or service in which the company specialises is almost completely irrelevant; doing deals is what they do. Any kind of deal. And the corporation, once it is successful, becomes a place where the very senior executives are doing deals, not for the benefit of the shareholders, but for themselves. They need the corporate structure, its access to capital, and the confidence of its shareholders in order to operate, though, and that’s where the unbelievable greed and breathtaking absence of ethics comes in. The principals of Enron, from its inception, were using accounting legerdemain to ensure that Enron hit quarterly and annual revenue and growth targets, despite their having done very little to actually increase revenue.

In 2000, Enron’s books showed 111 billion dollars in revenue and, before its bankruptcy, was named by Fortune as “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years. Enron was the darling of the corporate world and attracted the best and the brightest and the greediest. Within the corporation, by the end of its run at the pinnacle of the capitalist world, there were personal fiefdoms, there were corporate CEOs, CFOs, and COOs who not only managed their own part of the company but were chief executives as well of subsidiaries and private companies. At times these executives were doing deals with Enron and engaged on both sides of negotiations between Enron and their own companies. This led to situations where someone could collect an enormous fixed personal bonus if the negotiations culminated in an advantage for Enron, or, if the negotiations went the other way, a huge personal profit

Jeff Skilling Enron COO

Jeff Skilling Enron COO

as the main shareholder of the corporate entity on the other side of the deal. Annual personal incomes of more than 20 million dollars plus huge bonuses were not at all uncommon. And much of this money was paid out of Enron profits that were largely illusory. The money had been created out of thin air.

The methods and techniques by which value was created were many and very esoteric; the criminals at the heart of the deception were brilliant at the arcane mechanisms of Wall Street. With that expertise, and the cooperation of their auditors and investment banks they manipulated their own books to show greater and greater profits and to see the share price rise so their stock options would be more and more valuable. As one reads Conspiracy, one is struck by how clearly the most occult practices of corporate financing are explained; nevertheless, it is likely to be over the heads of most non-expert readers. It doesn’t matter, though; Eichenwald is so familiar and comfortable with his subject that the book rolls along like an absurdly complex and engaging thriller. A simple example of how to create value out of thin air should suffice to give the sense of how these guys operated. Here’s how to do it:

Let’s say you and I are each the CEO of our own publicly traded company. We have no significant assets or cash. But you have a cat that I like and I have a dog that you like. I offer to sell you my dog for 1 million dollars. You agree to the price and offer me your cat at a million dollars. I like it; we do the deal. We can now report to our shareholders that we have just increased our asset base to

Andrew Fastow Enron CFO

Andrew Fastow Enron CFO

$1,000,000 from nearly nothing; we’re entitled to huge bonuses. Kick that kind of deal structure up by a few orders of magnitude of complexity and of financial value and you have an idea of the cynicism and greed of the players. It doesn’t matter that we’re not a pet trading company, it’s the deal that counts. You can see where we could go from here. We now each have an animal that we can prove is worth a million dollars and that can be borrowed against; whose future offspring we can sell now, gambling that the price of cats and dogs will increase; at the same time, we open another company (a hedge) and bet that the value of cats and dogs will decrease from the million-dollar mark (“shorting” in Wall Street jargon) and guarantee huge profits either way. It’s brilliant and it’s completely unethical and each incremental step to the multi-billion-dollar frauds was just on the dividing line between questionable and illegal.

What’s fascinating about the trajectory of Enron is that almost everyone involved in the fraudulently conducted businesses operated very slightly over the line; each tiny step brought them deeper and deeper into the dark side. As they succeeded in creating value out of nothing, they became so big, that, out of fear of losing Enron business, banks, auditing firms, and politicians found their own ethics being stretched to accommodate ever increasingly outrageous financial sleight of hand. What’s fascinating is how accumulating money justified the most egregious behaviour and how there never seemed to be an upper limit on how much these young business giants felt they had to have. Almost any one of them could have cashed out long before the collapse and had a tidy, ill gotten, nest egg of tens of millions of dollars. But like gambling addicts, they had to keep going back for another roll of the dice and a bigger slice of the pie, even though they had to know that sooner or later the whole house of cards had enron birdto come crashing down around their ears.

Lay headline

Ken Lay Enron CEO

Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald is a fascinating and very readable deconstruction of perhaps the greatest business swindle in history. The knowledge of how Enron bilked its shareholders and the public out of billions of dollars, ought to make us angry enough to demand to know why Wall Street continues to operate on the same principles of business with a few minor regulatory tweaks here and there. Although the very top echelon executives paid an enormous price – jail sentences, millions of dollars in penalties – very little was done to address the system that made this all possible. Knowing that all this took place before the financial meltdown seven years later has to make us ask why on earth a massive shakeup that could have prevented the mortgage market collapse wasn’t undertaken.

And then we see the answer. Remember the years between 2001 and 2008? Yup…the years of Dubya.

ENDITEM…

 

Anti-theism…sign up here…..

Peace, love, and religion….

Pagun

 

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA –I have frequently and vocally described myself as an anti-theist (distinct from an atheist who simply disbelieves in any gods, an anti-theist actively condemns, reviles, ridicules, and would like to see the abolition of all theologies). I have also received death threats and hate mail for expressing those views.

 

Most of the anti-theistic essays I wrote have aroused the ire of true Islamic adherents who range from wishing me dead to cobbling together an apologetic argument for a religion of war and conquest into being, in fact a religion of peace. For the record….both the Quran and the hadiths are clearly, overwhelmingly documents that adjure the followers of Islam to slaughter non-Muslims, to dominate the world, and to follow unquestionably leaders of their religion who have no status except that which they claim for themselves. Islam is a religion of violence. Only the relative poverty of its people has stopped it from being a far more dangerous cult than it currently is. And it is currently the most dangerous cult of fanatics on Earth.

 

Lest my readers mistake the forgoing for pure anti-Islam rhetoric, I will point out that I abjure all god-based religions equally (Islam is just currently doctrinally the most violent and dangerous). The other, non-god based religions are relatively harmless and just stupid.

 

To support my equal-opportunity disapprobation of (primarily and most distinctly) the three Abrahamic religions that have held on till today and continue to destroy lives and to pervert reason, logic, and humanity, I will quote at length from an American Member of the Supreme Court.

 

Antonin Scalia is a devoutly Catholic and highly respected Jurist who is at this moment the longest serving member of SCOTUS (The United States Supreme Court), the highest, most exalted level of jurisprudence on what prides itself on its humanity, was founded on a separation of court and state, and at which final justice is to be found in what sees itself as the most just country in the history of the world. He was appointed by then President and evangelical Christian and Alzheimer’s sufferer Ronald Reagan.

Judicial AND religious logic

I quote at length from a speech given in Chicago, in 2002:

 

This is not the Old Testament, I emphasize, but St. Paul….[T]he core of his message is that government – however you want to limit that concept – derives its moral authority from God…Indeed it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral…I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life in exchange for the next?….For the non-believers on the other hand, to deprive is to end his existence. What a horrible act!

 

The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it but the resignation to combat it as effectively as possible. We have done that in this country (and continental Europe has not) by preserving in our public life many visible reminders that – in the words of a Supreme Court opinion from the 1940’s – “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”….All this I say, is most un-European and helps explain why our people are more inclined to understand, as St. Paul did, that government carries the sword as “the minister of God” to “execute wrath” upon the evildoer.

 

Had “Islam” been substituted for Christian, and St, Paul exchanged for some Islamic prophet, I would suggest that the person who gave that speech would have been pinpointed by a drone and eliminated along with his audience…in the name of national security. There probably wouldn’t even have been any discussion at the executive level had the audience been members of a mosque….in any country including Canada….had the audience not been the students at The Chicago Divinity School.

 

The Archetype of Christian Hatred

Religion is evil. It preaches evil. It perpetuates evil.

 

It is a blight and its adherents should be treated as delusional. They are the very definition of dangers to themselves and others.

 

…enditem…

Why Snake Plisskin Was Glad To Escape From New York

Why private enterprise won’t save a country

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – One of the mainstays of the conservatives’ argument for their political stance has always been that governments are incompetent at running anything at all and that necessary services are best provided by the private sector. The argument continues to point out that competition among service providers guarantees a lower price per unit, innovation in the industry, and a higher level of expertise in the specific field under consideration. 

It is a persuasive argument and one that relies heavily upon the economic theory of Adam Smith, an 18th Century Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer in the field of economics as a serious field of study. In its highly simplistic and overly unsophisticated interpretation, the Adam Smith principal theory, seen as common sense by conservatives, runs like this: if corporations were allowed to run unfettered by law and without interference by government, those corporations would compete on a level playing field and the best would succeed, while those that were inefficient or that sold their goods or services too expensively would fail…the cream would naturally rise to the top; prices would remain as low as is consistent with a corporation’s making sufficient profit to thrive, the product and services would continue to improve as a corporation would necessarily need to stay technologically and socially competitive to maintain an edge. 

I should clarify that the foregoing is the underpinning of the law of supply and demand. Businesses which supply a service or product for which a demand exists are likely to survive; moreover as the demand rises, the price they can charge for it does as well; if the supply increases, the price drops. In its simplicity and uncluttered inevitability, Smith’s principle is elegant, even beautiful. Even stated as simplemindedly as that (any formulation of greater subtlety or of more profundity is generally lost on those who wish to formulate political theory from this primary economic theory) the law of supply and demand is a great rule of thumb. 

It is so simple, however, that any inclination to derive a comprehensive theory from those fundamentals is destined to encounter some entirely predictable difficulties when the subtleties of the theory come into play. Moreover, there are very few politicians indeed who could explain Adam Smith economics with any greater depth or subtlety than I have just done, and many would be baffled by the complexity of even the foregoing. Nonetheless, conservatives who have never heard of An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of The Wealth Of Nations are constantly demanding that government adhere to its principles as though they were holy writ. But then we already know that studies have shown that conservatives are generally not as intelligent as they think they are, or as smart overall as liberals.

 

The result is that governments are constantly privatising services that should be government run. Rick Santorum, for example, a serious[sic] Republican candidate for the US presidential nomination actually proposed that any service that was provided by government and could also be found to have a private provider on the Internet ought to be disbanded and given to free enterprise to run without interference, unfettered by nasty old government constraints. 

Even centrist governments try to appease the Smithians out there by privatising everything they can get away with. It sometime works. Not always. The British Columbia Ferry Corporation was privatised, for example. For British Columbians, I need say no more. For the rest of you, I don’t imagine you care very much, but if you should, the research is easy. 

Here in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, I recently ran across yet another example of the failure of private enterprise to provide better service than even a fairly incompetent government department. What you need to know is that although we tend to lean to the left here, the province, indeed the country, has its share of adherents to conservative principles. Sad but true. The result is that many of our provincial governments are peculiar hybrids of more or less efficiently run government services and outsourced private industry contracted to provide some of those government services. In this case, our much vaunted public health service has contracted out the bulk of the laboratory work required by physicians. Your doctor is concerned about your chronic fatigue? The first thing she’ll do is send you out for blood work, check your glucose, thyroid, iron, and all those other levels for abnormalities that could be detected in a a blood analysis. The labs that do this work are private and contracted to the government. 

By and large these labs run reasonably well. The doctor gives you a requisition for the analyses she wants done, you take it to a nearby branch of the company and a trained technician takes the sample, and others perform the tests with the results being sent to your physician in a just a day or two for simple stuff and a little longer for tests that need culture done. Recently they’ve even added a website with which one can register and access their own easy-to-read reports; they’re presented in a simple way that tells you what the normal or expected values are, what yours are, and the percentage of variation from the norm. When you next see your doctor, you are in a position to ask intelligent questions. 

These labs all used to be run on a drop-in basis. But, as this province and particularly this part of BC, has a high percentage of retirees, these labs do a thriving business. Consequently, in an effort to reduce waiting times, they’ve introduced a system whereby you can call for an appointment. Let me give you an example of the overhyped efficiency of private enterprise as demonstrated by these labs. 

I registered at a local one this morning to have some blood drawn. Seeing the crowd in the waiting room, I approached the receptionist and asked if I could make an appointment for a later date as this looked ominous as hell. Certainly, I was told; I would, however, have to call in as they were not set up to take them personally. I found this strange but complied. So I sat in the waiting room and using my cellphone, I phoned the appointment line. It was answered by the very same receptionist I was sitting ten feet from and by whom I had been told I couldn’t book an appointment in person. Looking her directly in the eye, me on my cellphone and her with her headset, she looked at her computer screen and said that despite the enormous demand, she could accommodate me in about two weeks, would I prefer morning or afternoon? While I had her on the phone and we were conversing while looking at each other across a crowded room, a patient left, a soft bell chimed, she looked at a number on her screen and called my name. I had waited eleven minutes. It was my turn.

 

Complain to the government about the idiocy you encounter in those situations and, after they’ve stopped laughing, they suggest that you speak to the company’s customer service department; they are, after all, a company and not a government service. Can you even begin to imagine the depth of faith I will have in the results when I see them? Can you imagine how much lower it would be if we privatised whatever agency oversees the testing protocols of laboratories like that one? If we simply let them compete unfettered by government interference? 

One of the reasons that Adam Smith economics may be good economics but is not necessarily a foundation for good government is that people aren’t corporations. Corporations go bankrupt if they can’t outdo the competition; without help, people die. We have government precisely because competition weeds out the weaker; as human beings we are here to ensure that failure to produce most efficiently the latest widget doesn’t mean that you will starve to death. Government is there to take up the slack when Smithian economics works.

 

There is a place for government in our lives. Government is what separates us from the beasts. If we have a bitch about government, we change the government. For that is the one and only fundamental question of political philosophy….  “How do we replace an unpopular or incompetent government with the least turmoil?” “Should we have a government at all?” is the question of an idiot. 

…enditem…

Social conscience or socialising

Helping out

Pagun

 

Volunteers

Jefferson Airplane

Songwriters: Kantner, Paul / Balin, Marty

 

Look what’s happening out in the streets

Got a revolution got to revolution

Hey I’m dancing down the streets

Got a revolution got to revolution

Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet

Got a revolution

got to revolution

One generation got old

One generation got soul

This generation got no destination to hold

Pick up the cry

Hey now it’s time for you and me

Got a revolution got to revolution

Come on now we’re marching to the sea

got a revolution got to revolution

Who will take it from you

We will and who are we

We are volunteers of America

 

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – My wife Yolanda first came to Canada on a visitor’s visa. We had come to care for my parents who, we had just discovered, had both contracted Alzheimer’s and were very quickly getting to the point where they could no longer care for themselves. Neither of them was the type who would thrive in a care home, and my mother particularly, simply denied, despite the obvious symptoms, that the disease had any effect on her at all. At any rate, for Yolanda who was born and raised in Indonesia, the idea of institutionalising one’s parents is and was unthinkable. We left JJ temporarily in the care of her parents while the wheels of adoption ground slowly, with us greasing them regularly with cash infusions from Canada while we took on the responsibility of reorganising my parents’ lives to reflect the reality of their disease. 

Given that shortly after our arrival my mother was also diagnosed with a terminal cancer, the job of caring for two elderly and very strong-willed people was extraordinarily taxing. Nevertheless, there was a fair amount of time when the actual presence of both of us was not necessary. Yolanda desperately wanted to become acclimated to the Canadian way of life in preparation for JJ’s eventual arrival, so she would have loved to have had a part time job for the experience. Unfortunately until her Permanent Residence status was granted, she was here on a tourist visa which precluded her being employed. But one of the things about Canada that really made an impact upon a Southeast Asian newcomer was the way community organisations filled needs that no other institutions could or would. So in the time that she could be spared from the cooking, cleaning, medicating, massaging, shopping, and just sitting with my elderly and dying parents, she volunteered at a local charity where she would improve her idiomatic English, push the agenda of the charity, and of course, help others. 

She flew back and forth to Indonesia to spend time with JJ and to ensure that the paper chase was continuing apace, but whenever she was here she divided her time between caring for my parents and volunteering at that charity. And when my parents mercifully passed away, and we went back to Southeast Asia, then finally returned with our little boy and settled in to begin the Canadian chapter of our lives, that charity offered Yolanda a paid position. Having a valid visa that permits her to work, and given that most of my work can be done from home, and the fact that we had spent well into the six figures in “gratuities” to corrupt officials in the last few years, she was happy to take the job. 

So, I do the cooking, cleaning and yard work, I take JJ to pre-school and swimming lessons and Yolanda works at the charity. I try to get as much writing done as I can, but my book is on hold – there is no way to find the hours needed for the sustained concentration such an endeavour demands – and I spend a lot of time with my four-year old. 

Now what Yolanda is discovering in her work at a charitable organisation is something I had discovered years ago, but had never really put into perspective. 

Most charities and NGOs have volunteers whose work is critical to the success of the organisation. I have volunteered on many occasions; Yolanda was a volunteer before she became a staff member at her organisation; we are both aware of the value of the contributions made by unpaid but dedicated volunteers. But all volunteers are not created equal. There are as many reasons to volunteer for a charity or NGO as there are volunteers. And for some organisations, if you are involved in management, you can spend as much time screening applications to volunteer as you do screening employment applications or carrying out any other human resource function. 

Among the motivations for volunteering to do charitable work, the wish to help others predominates. The work of the charity itself attracts those who, for whatever personal reasons they might have, feel an inclination to provide their time and skills to support the cause. But there are other reasons someone might choose to take an unpaid job. 

In some instances, as was occasionally the case when I was a director of a marine environmental organisation, the work itself was sufficiently exciting that it attracted those who wished to participate. There were occasions, such as the sinking of a decommissioned military vessel to form an artificial reef, when boaters were required to form a cordon around the demolition area and to observe and record the sinking, and then later for SCUBA divers to inspect and video the newly formed reef. We had plenty of volunteers. 

Some people volunteer because they are young, have some education, but wish to fill out their resume with some experience and perhaps earn a solid reference or letter of recommendation. Some volunteers are project specific and simply dedicated to the task. A city park spring clean- up, the search for a missing child, disaster relief; all these bring out one-shot volunteers who really care and are usually willing to work hard to get the job done. 

But where you run into trouble is when you have a group of elderly people who have actually paid attention to one of those idiot magazine articles with a title like “Five Ways to Stay Vital in Your Golden Years”. Anybody who has even a casual relationship with journalism knows that those kinds of articles are acts of desperation and usually assigned to whatever halfwit can use Google and has the bad luck to wander by the editor’s desk too close to deadline and not looking sufficiently overworked. “Eight Fat Burning Junk Foods”, “Six Unmistakeable Signs Your Significant Other is Cheating on You”, “Five Easy Steps to a Great Sex Life”. It’s hard to believe, but somebody out there not only reads that crap; there are people who believe what they read. And one of the results of people taking that crap seriously is that some elderly people believe that Way #3 to stay vital in your Golden years is for you and a friend to volunteer for a local charity. 

Fortunately Yolanda’s degree is in human resources, so she is able to weed out the readers of those articles and keep her volunteer pool populated by people who genuinely want to help and who expect to work. Very little can be as undermining and even fatal to a charity or NGO as a volunteer base of people who are there as an alternative to forming a book club or a weekly bridge game. 

All too many volunteers who fall into this category have an exaggerated sense of just how much is owed to them for the sacrifice they believe they’re making; too many of them seem to believe that as volunteers they don’t need to put any effort into their assigned tasks unless the spirit moves them; some even take it upon themselves to patronise and push the paid staff around. It takes a virtuoso exercise in diplomacy for a staffer to direct this kind of volunteer; it is nearly impossible if there is a group of these volunteers “working” together. These volunteers see their time spent at the charity to be primarily for the purpose of socialising, perhaps to remain vital in their golden years. Other, better chosen volunteers, see their function as to advance the purposes of the charity for which they have volunteered. Many of them complain that they find the gossip sessions, lack of focus on the tasks at hand, and disinterest in the aims of the organisation to be demoralising and counterproductive. Many staffers tasked with supervising volunteers end up leaving the organisation, citing problems including: the difficulty of directing the work of people who don’t feel any obligation as they are not being paid, and moreover have never worked for a living; the difficulties in rescheduling because those volunteers don’t show up as scheduled; the amount of time spent trying to get volunteers to understand the importance of the task at hand as opposed to the social aspect of the job. The contributions of these, the wrong kind of volunteers, should be rejected by any organisation that really intends to be around for the long haul. Volunteers should be screened with the same thoroughness with which a good HR person would select a candidate for a paid position. 

These bits and pieces of advice for NGOs and for charitable organisations are of increasing importance as we see the political right flexing its muscles and persuading governments to abandon citizens who are in need. More and more people are reliant for some basic necessities of life upon charities and upon NGOs; these organisations are not frivolous, nor are they unneeded. They are not just needed but they are also needful; they are needful of all the volunteer help they can get. So while this essay is a piece of advice for HR people in those organisations, it is also a plea to those who are considering volunteering.

As deadline looms and I am the hardest assed editor I know, I’ll assign myself the following piece of quasi journalism:

 

Five Lousy Reasons to Volunteer

 

1)      Because it gets you out of the house and you get to meet new people

2)      Because it increases your self-esteem

3)      Because you’re bored

4)      Because there’s no gardening to do during the winter

5)      Because the bridge club kicked you out for gossiping too much

 

If anybody feels like fleshing that list out a little and submitting it to an editor, I can almost guarantee its publication somewhere.

….enditem…

 

The Further Adventures of Snake Plisskin

The Cave

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – In TheRepublic, Plato recounts a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon, that has become known as the Allegory of the Cave. The allegory is crucial to Plato’s philosophy as it outlines the basic metaphor from which the seminal theory of the Platonic forms is drawn. It is also critical because it explains the underpinnings of Socrates’ understanding of the baffling (to Socrates, at any rate) statement of the Oracle of Delphi that the wisest of mortals was, in fact, Socrates. Socrates spent the better part of his career as a philosopher trying to disprove the Oracle’s declaration because, in his own judgment, he was utterly ignorant; he knew that he knew nothing. 

Briefly, the story that forms the allegory goes like this: Imagine prisoners who have been kept chained in a cave their entire lives. They face the wall of the cave and all they can see are the shadows cast on the cave’s wall by objects that pass behind them and in front of a fire. They come to believe that the shadows they see are, in fact, the whole of reality. Socrates then compares a philosopher to a prisoner who breaks out of his confinement and sees the world beyond the cave, and experiences the wonder and vastness of the world. 

This, Socrates eventually concludes in Apology when he explains his life to the people of Athens before he is put to death, is what the oracle meant when she said that he was the wisest mortal; that he, unlike the prisoners, was aware that he knew nothing. 

This came to mind recently when I was asked to chair and moderate a discussion on Canada’s military’s role nationally and internationally. The subject of the discussion is irrelevant, but what is relevant is that I when did this little gig, it was an increasingly rare venture outside of the cave. 

For months now, I have been living inside that cave Plato described. My work consists of caring for a small boy who spends three mornings a week at preschool and the rest of the time under my direct observation. During that time, I write and read and research as much as I can, and other than the occasional speaking engagement, a brief conversation with a neighbour or delivery person forms my entire interaction with society; genuine conversation begins and ends with my wife…and Internet forums. Yolanda is at work (she is employed by a charitable organisation) for the bulk of the day, so I have recently spent more time than is entirely healthy exchanging thoughts and ideas with other denizens of the ‘Net. This, I felt, was useful because it would keep me in touch with the world, help me stay abreast of social trends, and maintain a finger on the pulse of the world of which I still assumed I was a part. 

My assumption was wrong. I was not staying in touch; I was retreating into the cave and chaining myself up with the other prisoners. I was not seeing the world anymore; I was watching the flickering shadows on the cave’s wall and mistaking them for reality. I was actually losing touch with what defines us as a civilised society. Stepping back, I start to get a glimmer of how people in constant communication with thousands of people all over the world and with total access to news, as it happens anywhere on the planet, can be utterly alienated. I even start to get a sense of how that isolation and alienation can breed and nurture damaged people like Adam Lanza. I get that sense because so many of the keyboard warriors that spend their days lurking behind fictional registered personas are clearly disturbed and, being utterly unfettered by society’s direct disapprobation of truly offensive behaviour, feel free to express ideas and thoughts that ought to have them committed to at least thirty days of court ordered psychiatric observation.

 

When I was a university teacher; when I worked in newspaper, magazine, or even business offices; when I hung out in hotel bars with colleagues; when I routinely attended conferences and conventions; I had ample…perhaps even too ample….opportunity to exchange views, to explore ideas, to determine how others saw things. There was open, social, and informed discussion of news, of politics, religion, education, business, society in general; I was outside of the cave and I was seeing and participating in the wonder and vastness of the world. 

But inside the cave, seeing nothing but the flickering shadows on the computer screen, we can become deluded into believing that we are experiencing, even participating, in the real world; we’re not. We can participate fully and robustly in news discussion forums and we can contribute to dedicated chat rooms, even serious minded ones, but if we think that is anything more than a pale analogue of full, genuine human interaction we are as deluded as the chained prisoners who believe that shadows are the whole of reality. 

I suspect that is largely because of the anonymity that the Internet can offer. In the real world; in the cocktail bar and the coffee room and the faculty lounge, society imposes a degree of accountability on people for what they say, how they say it, and to whom they say it. That is entirely missing on the Web. Certainly the virtual world is developing its own protocols and rules of acceptable social behaviour; nevertheless, the Internet, compared to human society as an historical reality, is very young. It has the social strictures of a daycare centre without any supervision. 

The result of this is a kind of Lord of the Flies existence in the cyberworld.  It has broken up into factions and there are pockets of refinement, decency, and intelligent discussion. These are hard to find, however, and they are generally either moderated, which slows down and inhibits the free flow conversation or they require one to jump through hoops to register and this tends to encourage groupthink and its resulting reinforcement of preconceptions. By and large, the easy-to-use news forums are inhabited by the scrapings of the barrel`s bottom. There are thoughtful, intelligent users, but they tend to get shouted down, ganged up on, bullied, and derided by the keyboard warriors for whom calling people names passes for an exchange of ideas. If the people who dominate these forums had – in the real world – the courage and bellicosity they affect online, the outside world would be reminiscent of Manhattan in John Carpenter`s Escape from New York. 

These general consumption forums (Yahoo News forums are perhaps the most obvious example) are trolled by ignorant, illiterate buffoons who love to trash any post that doesn`t express a political viewpoint to the right of Genghis Khan. The most prolific posters are passionate subscribers to every crackpot conspiracy theory; they are racist; they are astonishingly ignorant of history, science, and current events that aren`t reported by Fox “News”; the height of their wit is to refer to the US president as “O`Bammy”; they take it as an established fact that he is a Muslim communist Kenyan who conned all the “liberidiots”, as they refer to anyone who sees things differently from, say, Adolph Hitler. 

Because I, and anyone for whom I hold any real respect, don’t take cheap shots and hide behind anonymity, I make it possible, even fairly easy for people on forums I frequent to identify me. It helps me avoid the temptation to sink to the level of the common denominator and it maintains a faint shadow of the kind of constraint imposed by normal societal interaction. But given the level of ignorance and pugnacity of those posters, combined with my inclination toward hardcore liberalism, perhaps that is a mistake. 

I have had a thoughtful interlocutor call my four-year-old son JJ a “nigger”; I have had the same lowlife refer to my wife Yolanda as a “nigger whore”. This for no other reason than that he disagreed with my views on gun control and  took the time to look me up online, research me and discover that my wife and child are insufficiently white to suit him. 

It shames me to say that this scum is a Canadian. I have been similarly disparaged by people from other countries, but this one affected me because since we have been in Canada, my family has never, not once, been subjected to overt racism. But without societal constraint, this filth gets an airing and, worse, gets equal or greater play than those who abhor bigotry. It becomes seen by the dwellers of the Internet cave as a legitimate and widespread viewpoint. 

So, when I recently stepped into the real world for a gig that involved listening to average people’s views and guiding a discussion of them, I dreaded the prospect and was concerned that they couldn’t pay me enough to have to listen to the garbage to which I would undoubtedly be subjected. And that was my surprise. The average people at the discussion were reasonably well informed; they were respectful; they listened and disagreed without derision. Some were smarter than others, and some had views that I couldn’t possibly share, but they were expressed rationally, if passionately. I was outside of the Cave. 

The real world is a better place in some ways than the virtual world, because people have to live together. As long as it means only that one doesn’t gratuitously ridicule others or deliberately hurt people, political correctness apparently has its place. Society imposes a requirement that we don’t callously and deliberately abuse one another, because we can’t simply step away from our keyboard to avoid the repercussions. 

People aren’t as stupid and venal as one would believe if one were to make an analysis based solely on what one could glean from the Internet. Outside of the cave there is a world of people of all sorts, there is wisdom, there is kindness, there is courtesy. The bad things are certainly there as well, but unlike inside the cave, or Carpenter’s New York, they don’t predominate. 

I have to get out more.

 

…enditem…

 

 

 

 

Life on the run

Joseph Anton: A Memoir

Salman Rushdie

 

Alfred A. Knopf, Canada
Copyright 2012
636 pages

 

Reviewed by: Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – One instinctively wants to like Salman Rushdie; moreover, one is inclined to open one of his books with a predisposition to like his work. His remarkable life story has the effect of inclining people in general, liberals in particular, secularists especially, and liberal anti-religionist writers like your faithful correspondent most of all, to want to celebrate his work and show solidarity with him in his struggle against religious fundamentalism and its associated violence.

Everyone who lived as a sentient being through the last several decades is familiar with at least the broad strokes of the Rushdie saga. Rushdie is the British author of Indian descent who wrote a book, The Satanic Verses, and published it in the UK during the regime of the Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. The book was deemed by some Muslims to be offensive and an insult to Islam, and was brought to the attention of various Muslim leaders, including the Ayatollah. The book was banned throughout Islam; violent protests against its publication were staged; people died in the furor. So fashionable was the condemnation of the book, which most Muslim protestors proudly acknowledged they hadn’t read, that in February 1989 Khomeini issued a fatwa (an Islamic religious decree) that declared anyone who killed the author a religious hero and guaranteed entrance to paradise. The Ayatollah backed up the fatwa with a million dollar bounty on Rushdie’s life.

The British government determined that the threat to Rushdie’s life was serious, and the intelligence services caught wind of plot after plot to assassinate the British author, raising the level of protection necessary to Level 2, one level below that required by the Royal family. Rushdie went into hiding at government expense and for the next several decades lived with a special highly trained and (in Britain!) heavily armed detail of bodyguards. He led a peripatetic existence, moving from one rented (by a surrogate) house to another and never went anywhere without his protection team preparing for his arrival, much as they would for a visiting head of state.

Looked at from one perspective, the events that are described in the pages of Rushdies’s memoir, Joseph Anton, could form the outline for several novels and perhaps make up the raw material for dozens of meditations and dissertations on Rushdie’s central focus, the nature of religious intolerance. It was with the anticipation of my four year old on Christmas morning that I approached Rushdie’s latest and most personally revelatory book. On that basis, it’s only fair to say that my son had a better Christmas than I did.

Since a memoir is intended to be self-revelatory and is an invitation to the reader to examine and make judgments about one’s character and personality, one can’t help but ask, as one reads a celebrity’s self-analysis, whether one would personally like to hang out with the author. Rushdie succeeds in persuading this fellow liberal anti-religionist author that he would rather undergo an unnecessary colonoscopy than spend the same amount of time socially with Salman Rushdie.

There is no question that Rushdie is a profoundly gifted author; his Booker prize for his second novel, Midnight’s Children, was entirely deserved and The Satanic Verses, his fourth, was a powerful and deeply insightful novel. Rushdie is certainly entitled to the honours that have been bestowed upon him before and since the fatwa was issued; his acknowledgement as a public intellectual is earned and far from being only ceded as the result of his abrupt catapulting into the public eye.

Nevertheless, Rushdie, the person, comes across as self-absorbed, egocentric, whiny, ungrateful, and insufferable.

It is important to Rushdie that we all recognise his superior intellectual capacity and he rarely pauses in his campaign to keep us reminded of his brilliance and wit. From his recounting of his experience at one of Britain’s premiere “public” schools, Rugby, in Warwickshire and the racial discrimination to which he claims he was subjected, to his recounting of social evenings with high-profile luminaries of today’s arts and letters, he is focused entirely on letting us know that he is above the mundane concerns of mere mortals and is aloof from daily non-intellectual life. (One of the games he and his fellow men and women of letters apparently enjoy playing is the serial suggesting of alternative, less successful titles for great literary works. Snag 22, he offers, doesn’t have the resonance of Joseph Heller’s title. Moby Richard was improved in the second draft. They also like to point out that some great works might have been entitled differently had today’s publishers been the final authority; Hamlet, they suggest, would have been retitled The Elsinore Ultimatum and Romeo and Juliet, the Verona Sanctions. I can’t remember if that last one was one of his, one of his friend the late Christopher Hitchens’ or one that popped into my mind, but you get the idea. An amusing game, and frankly, one that cracked us up as undergraduates in campus pubs.)

The memoir reads like an ingrate’s list of complaints about the amenities offered at a resort to which he was given a guest pass. He acknowledges in a patronising sort of way the dedication and thoroughness of his personal guards…men and women who would have taken a bullet for him regardless of his merit as an intellectual, but bitches that the government was reluctant to pick up the tab for the various charter flights he needed to take to destinations all over the world where he was invited to attend awards ceremonies and to receive various honours and honorary titles and degrees. And of course the list of honours is cited in excruciating detail.

The title of the memoir is derived from a code name or alter ego he developed during his underground years. He chose Anton as the first name of Anton Chekhov, one of his favorite authors, and the Joseph is derived from Joseph Conrad, the Polish turned British author who was remarkable, among other things, for being such a successful writer in his second language, as English is Rushdie’s second language, lest we forget. As the book plods on from mansion in the Cotswolds to townhouse in London, from one television appearance in Australia to another book reading in New York (at all of which he arrives in motorcades of Presidential proportions), he begins to distinguish between himself, Salman Rushdie, and his publicly known persona to whom he refers as Joseph Anton. He even derisively describes his long suffering bodyguards as referring to his alter-ego as “Joe”, because to him it demonstrates their lack of class; he misses the fact that they most likely referred to him that way precisely because of his overweening superiority and pomposity.

Salman Rushdie is deservedly recognised as one of the finest authors in the English language of the last fifty years. What he fails to take into account in his rosy self-assessment, however, is that his fame, much of his name recognition, and good number of those awards, some of which he derided and contemptuously refused were not simply recognitions of his skill and talent but rather benefits bestowed largely because of the fatwa…not the quality of his work. To suggest that he is a far, far better known writer than he would have been on his merits alone is not to disparage his abilities but to recognise the realities of fame and celebrity.

While I find a great deal of sympathy for the indignities he suffered as a result of his cocoon-like existence, while it is easy to pity him for the loss of freedom, the restraints upon his movements, and the anxiety for his life and the lives of those close to him, I reserve some sympathy for those of us who forced ourselves to keep reading until we were finally able to close Joseph Anton: A Memoir.

…enditem…

Surgery with a blast

Drone strikes

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA –The recently uncovered internal memos discussing the US administration’s policy governing the use of “drones” are deeply unsettling.

The memos and the white paper they discuss are part of an ongoing internal discussion of the use of unmanned drones which can be targeted to strike specific people from a great distance. The US has been using them for over a decade now to seek out and kill strategic targets in both the war in Afghanistan and in the apparently interminable and far more loosely defined “war on terror”. Under Obama’s watch, drones have become the weapon of choice for prosecuting wars and for enforcing US doctrine wherever they are deployed. So fond of drones is the current administration that ten years ago the US military deployed 50 drones. In 2012, it launched 7,500.

Drones, once they have been programmed, can be flown from afar, either by following its internal programming or robotically by a distant ground-based operator (whose training, apparently, consists of hours of video game practice). Drones have been used extensively to take out individuals without the necessity of sending in an assault force or even a SEAL team. Although they are described as surgical in their operation, they are surgical in the way that a leg can be amputated by strapping a stick of dynamite to the affected limb and detonating it.

(It is the indiscriminate destruction and potential collateral damage that made a human strike necessary to take out Osama Bin Laden. In the political climate that exists in the US during Obama’s presidency, a drone strike followed by an announcement that Bin Laden was dead would have been greeted with howls of derision and a flood of accusations of lying by the administration. Let’s not forget that Obama’s opponents invented “birthism”; they are now claiming that photograph of the President shooting skeet at Camp David is doctored; they have even accused the administration of having “faked” the Sandy Hook massacre. Obama needed a corpse. Blood spattered rubble simply wouldn’t do.

That assassination actually was surgical.)

Drones, in contrast to a genuinely surgical strike, take out a great number of civilians – women, children, non-combatants – as collateral damage; they also destroy property

Collateral damage: “OOPS!”

including businesses and vital services. But drones only kill others and only destroy property outside of the continental US. Sending in a drone strike is much simpler and much less expensive than mounting a human military operation. It is so much less costly and less dangerous (to the aggressor, anyway) that drones are now the go-to weapon among US military leaders. They don’t replace a single weapon; they replace an entire task force.

Compare the human and financial cost of mounting the raid on the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Once the target was acquired, the raid entailed: the logistics to transport the Seal Team and its backup to the launch point, the risky flight of the team in its helicopters across a sovereign nation, the equipment, the extraction, the ship on the Red Sea and all its personnel. At the kill zone there was the risk to the SEALS themselves and their transport team. Under other circumstances a single drone strike could have accomplished the mission’s objective, with no risk to American lives and at a fraction of the cost.

From a cost management perspective, drones make sense; both in financial terms and in terms of human lives. Human American lives, anyway. A little tough on those on the business end of a drone strike, but no US Marines are getting slaughtered in a full frontal assault, and even Navy Seal’s lives are not being risked. Only foreign strategic targets (and some unfortunate collateral damage) get hurt.

Except that the memos indicate that it is the considered opinion of the administration that the US has the right to deploy those drones against American citizens. Apparently, using Bush era rationalisation for executive authority, this government believes that it is within its rights, “upon reasonable suspicion” of a person posing an “immanent threat” to US interests, to summarily execute him (and anybody standing nearby) by use of a drone. The memos also disclose that “immanent threat” need not refer to an identified specific action against a specific US interest or target, or at a specific time. What “immanent” means, therefore, is hard to say. Indications are that, like when Humpty Dumpty employs a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.

It is disconcerting that in the name of efficiency and cost cutting, it is apparently part of the doctrine that a US citizen can be accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed as part of a military decision. This has been done, for example, when the military targeted two US citizens, a father and his 16 year old son as terrorists. There is little question that the two had joined Al Qaida and were indeed critical components of a developing terrorist plot. The drone took them out and ended that particular immanent threat.

The concern is the denial of due process. Who among us is comfortable with an opaque system

Unnamed military officers replacing due process?

in which unnamed military officers employing a confidential set of criteria can decide to kill a US citizen? Those of us from other countries have even greater cause for concern because the doctrine also allows these strikes to be made in other, non-belligerent, even allied countries, if someone in the Pentagon determines that the target warrants it.

The White House is still scrambling to answer the inevitable questions and has not yet come up with a coherent explication of the doctrine, its legal justification, or any assurances to those of us who are very concerned that this, in contrast to the near continual Republican accusations, is a genuine case of presidential overreach.

Along with gun control, the deficit, the debt, immigration reform, and electoral reform; the ball is in your court, president Obama.

…enditem…

 

 

The Pagun Principle and the Internet

A meditation on the Internet and crap

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – My recent foray into the heart of darkness of the Internet news forums has left me with a lingering depression. As I have already described, what passes for news commentary and discussion among the general public is, by and large, nothing more than a cringe-worthy collection of childish name calling and venomous exchanges of insults. What is even more worrisome is the inclination to unbridled bigotry, expressed as racism, ageism, sexism, and pretty much any other “ism” you can name or coin. In an effort to come to terms with the malaise with which this observation has left me, I have done some meditating on the subject. 

The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m inclined to dismiss the notion that the cause of the ignorance and low intellectual standards is the Internet itself. Although many social critics spend an inordinate amount of bandwidth bemoaning the negative influence of digital technology and the virtual universe that is nearly universally accessible, I can’t subscribe to their view. The Internet is just too vast, too broad, and too varied to make generalisations about what can be gleaned by exploring it. It is a repository of virtually unlimited knowledge and opinion with intrinsic value that ranges from the sublime to the repugnant, from the enlightened to the astonishingly stupid. All of it is, to all intents and purposes, equally and instantly available and which nuggets the digital prospector chooses to extract is up to the individual. 

The Church was actively opposed to the explosion of literacy that was precipitated by my distant ancestor Johannes Gutenberg when he introduced printing to Europe, because it was thought that the average person shouldn’t be exposed to ideas that should be the exclusive purview of the clergy and the aristocracy. Nevertheless, there was only a period of about 150 years between the time Gutenberg printed his first book for a Europe, in which virtually everyone was illiterate and the time of Shakespeare, when even the lowliest trades and craftspeople read for pleasure. 

The Internet has had and will continue to have a similarly profound effect on today’s society; moreover in Shakespeare’s time as in the current era, the Pagun Principle[1] applied as universally as it does to the Internet and everything else today. Nevertheless very few of us would choose to go back to the general illiteracy that was the pre-Renaissance world. And ask anyone who bemoans the vacuity of the worldwide web whether they would like to do without email, Wikipedia, Google, or Facebook. 

No, the Internet doesn’t make people stupid; it just gives stupid people more exposure. And if you give a large number of truly stupid people a stage, they’re going to fight for the microphone; part of the stupid syndrome is a compulsion to outdo one another. But when you give them that heady combination of a platform and a vast audience, and then you add anonymity, it’s a gnarly mix. You will have literally millions of people whose parents’ last words were, “Hey, guys! Watch this!” competing to see who can be more offensively stupid while still being able to hide their excesses behind plausible deniability. 

That plausible deniability is also protective colouration for people to embrace their inner bigot. Deep in many people’s id there seems to be a vicious hate-filled sociopath longing to have both an audience and anonymity. The Internet provides that unique combination. While historically it was possible to publish vicious hate literature anonymously, that required money and professional printers and distributors and booksellers willing to go out on a limb and be complicit in the subterfuge; there had to be some perceived merit or a strong consensus to gather those people and maintain secrecy. We don’t need to imagine how much of a stampede there would be if an inestimably large audience could be found by someone with no money, no supporters and nothing but deep-seated insecurity and hatred (and computer access to the ‘Net from his mother’s basement) with which to work; we can see it every time we log on to Yahoo News. 

And that insecurity and hatred of the world doesn’t just seep out, it bursts out like the pus from the pimples those pathetic losers pop on their screens between vicious posts. While the anger is real, the alienation genuine, and the bitterness authentic, I don’t – I can’t – believe that the venomous racism is anything more than a desperate expression of angst and a desire to instill a similar anger in others, a wish to outrage the world that they feel has rejected them.

One has to feel a certain sense of pity for the poor pathetic losers who troll the sites, disrupting and annoying so that they can finally feel as though they matter. As Willy Loman’s wife pointed out, attention must be paid. In their case, they demand it, and they get it. 

But it occurs to me, as I think more about the truly ignorant and distasteful trolls who spew their bizarre fantasies on the web, that some of them are just taking advantage of their anonymity to say things that really are in character for them, but that they know are just wrong. They know that saying that the president of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim in the real world would have them treated like gibbering idiots; but they don’t like him and to their minds that’s indistinguishable from any harebrained negative aspersion that pops into their mind. The Internet gives them a forum for expressing that idea – moreover there are enough others like them that they can find people to agree with them. Then the stupid gene kicks in, they

try to outdo each other in the passion with which they express the idea, and in the intricacy of the conspiracy they invent to explain it. 

My real concern is the democratic nature of the Internet. While democracy is the only theory and practice of governance I could support, the downside in the virtual world is that it gives the ridiculous as bully a pulpit as it does the sublime. Equal time is given to the thoughtful, perceptive commentary and to the viciously stupid and hopelessly ignorant. Even worse, because the Pagun Principle applies here, the second category of contributions more often than not garners greater support. 

But distasteful and depressing as the abysmal standards of discussion and even thinking are in the public forums of the Internet, it occurs to me that it’s time I started to look at the “net the same way I do the world outside my windows. That is, apply the Pagun principal fairly. I know that 90% of the people I will pass on the street, or who will share a subway car, or enter a shopping mall are, to put it reasonably, crap. They will be gullible, venal, narrow-minded, bigoted, unthinking, clueless trend followers. They always have been and that percentage is a universal constant. And yet somehow we all manage to get through the day without going postal. I think that’s because we are discriminating in the real world as to whom we chose to engage. (For example, I know for a fact that the people reading this are emphatically not among the 90%…if they were they would have given up in disgust long ago; in fact they wouldn’t have found their way to this site in the first place). We choose to associate on any real level with those who do not fall into that 90%. 

That we are less discriminating when it comes to the digital world can easily be seen when you compare what passes for friendship in the two realms. Most people can’t claim to have more than a dozen real friends. Oh, they might have dozens, even hundreds of acquaintances, people they know and like to spend time with, colleagues, teammates, etc. But real friends? On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to have 500 or more “friends” on Facebook. 

So maybe if we accept that we need to ignore the 90% and focus more on that 10% that we eventually run across, then nurture the relationships, return to the websites, discuss on those sites courteously and thoughtfully, we might become inured to the vast wasteland that is the virtual landscape.

That doesn’t make me feel much better somehow.

…enditem…


[1] The Pagun Principle:  90% of everything is crap

I have seen the future, and it’s murder…

Loonies, and teabags, and prayers…oh my!

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Since it is now true that most people in North America use the Internet as their primary source of news, I’ve been trying to take the pulse of the Internet surfing public. To that end, I’ve been following news commentary on Internet news providers like Yahoo; I’ve even posted a couple of comments on a sampling of news stories to get a sense of the level of news discussion in which the general public engages. I’m here to tell you that if I have seen the face of the future, we’re in for a rough ride.

A few weeks of using the most popular Internet portals for daily news and commentary is a sobering experience. In the first place, the editors at Yahoo, to use the most popular source as an example, don’t seem to draw a distinction between news and commentary; click on a headline and your chances of opening an opinion piece by one of Yahoo’s bloggers is about the same as getting a Canadian Press, or Reuters, or other newswire piece. I have no idea how Yahoo chooses who is to be one of their contract bloggers, but they certainly have strong opinions, with, it seems to me, a right leaning predisposition. This is fair enough, of course; unless of course it is run without clearly acknowledging that the opinions expressed are personal views and not news reporting. Imagine if my opinions in the posts on this site were run without being distinguished from news! Even I would object to an unbalanced, partisan op-ed – like most of my pieces – being run under a news headline on the news section of a news site.

I won’t even bother going on about the preponderance of celebrity gossip, gotcha photos of “celebrities” I have never heard of since I don’t watch reality shows, and intensive analysis of the wardrobe choices of virtually anyone who has ever had a picture taken. There is no need to click on those headlines, and to maintain one’s self respect, one simply doesn’t.

I’m not even going to spend time bemoaning the wretched quality of the reporting and writing of the actual news they run between their lists of “10 things Men Hate About Women” and “12 Foods That Will Reduce Stress”. Let us just say that the content of the news logs is supermarket tabloid level and the form is barely literate.

But for a glimpse into the heart of darkness that seems to be at the centre of the Internet surfing experience, you need to follow one of the interactive threads provided for readers’ commentary after each piece. Now that can be truly frightening. A casual or even a serious look into these threads reveals a subculture dominated by vicious, hate-spewing, intolerant, uneducated, right wing bigots. If you want to challenge this observation, just pick a Yahoo News story on any high profile issue. Make a mild comment that suggests tolerance, or compassion, or human decency, then sit back and watch the replies come flooding in.

Is it just me, or does this guy look like Reagan?

I read a piece on Hilary Clinton’s release from the hospital after she was treated for the blood clot she incurred when she recently fell; I commented that I was happy she had recovered and hoped that she was in renewed good health. The very first comment that was posted was a carefully thought out discussion opener. I quote it verbatim: <<Pagun, your a scrotum sucking Liberal %$#@*& who needs to be frickin shot. You and every other *&^%@#$ dont understand freedom or democracy!!!>> (No, my interlocutor wasn’t sparing my sensibilities with that collection of symbols…Yahoo apparently runs an algorithm that censors unacceptable words. Perhaps to avoid racist comments it won’t let you post the word “white”. This led me to read one of my own posts after it was cleansed and I found that I had referred to the President’s dwelling as the @#$% House).

Apart from the clear stupidity in the response to my somewhat innocuous comment, there is a worrisome undercurrent that runs through the Internet news forums. The right wing violent rage is palpable and it manifests itself in outbursts of venom at the slightest hint that someone may hold a differing point of view on even the least contentious issue. For the right wing, it seems, it’s not enough to disagree with Hilary’s politics; it’s not enough to resent her bitterly; it’s not even enough to despise her; they have to wish violent death upon anyone who even treats her with a modicum of courtesy.

Imagine the fun if you comment favourably about the @#$% House’s proposals for gun controls. Since I post comments using my “Pagun” handle, it’s fairly easy for even the none-too-bright trailer trash to find this website; one mild comment supportive of the need to reign in the gun violence in the US and I was inundated with death threats apparently intended to persuade me that they were from responsible gun owners. I know they were responsible gun owners because they told me so, and then promised to use their assault weapons to <<*&^%#$  shoot (my) mother&^%$*  Liberal  &^%$  off and teach (me) about being a real man>> since I am <<a frickin fudgepacking %$#& hole>>.

Hand in hand with this extreme intolerance is an inclination to politicise virtually everything. A woman stabbed her husband and two children to death; the first response in the midst of the that tragedy and the overlapping mourning of the children who died in the Sandy Hook school massacre? <<Now Obammy’s gonna want to take away knives from law obiding citizen’s>>

Something I am learning is that there are two categories of people, according to the audience who chooses to engage in public news analysis on the Internet. If you say anything vaguely positive about environmental efforts you cannot escape your categorisation as: a gay, hippy, Marxist, unemployed, welfare sucking, intellectual, abortion pushing, gun-hating, deluded, atheistic, anarchist. And on the other side, if you are a fiscal conservative, you find it necessary to espouse unfettered civilian access to weapons of war, killing the poor, rejecting all science, Christian fundamentalism, life beginning at conception, eating the whales, drill and frack in Banff, pave the forests, torture prisoners, invade every annoying country, and arm teachers. No middle ground; compromise is failure; shout the others down and deny their right, not just to an opinion, but to live.

My journey through the muck of the lowest common denominator on the web was profoundly depressing. I know there is more out there; I also look at genuine sites with actual news and therefore actual discussion, and I am sometimes refreshed by the thoughtful comments and I’m occasionally inspired by the insights found there. What is depressing is that such reasonable discussion is hard to find whereas the easily accessed surface stuff would embarrass Jerry Springer. This seems to me to be a perfect example of what I used to call The Pagun principle when I taught critical thinking to first year university classes: Ninety percent of everything is crap. 

And, judging by the level of stupidity of the content of the Internet news and those who weigh in on it, that principle needs to include people. Yes, as Leonard Cohen put it, I have seen the future and it is murder.

…enditem…

 

 

The Dysfunctional Congress

The enemy within

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA — It’s no secret that the Republican Party of the United States is at the moment a dysfunctional, shambolic sideshow. The 112th Congress of the United States was by orders of magnitude the most useless Congress in recorded history and the recently sworn in 113th is poised to break its record. The last Congress passed fewer bills than any other congress since a record has been kept and most of those bills were either routine business or harmless ones like naming federal libraries. True to its avowed policy of obstructing any presidential initiatives, the Senate, where the Republicans hold a minority, has seen more filibusters than at any other time in American history. The Republicans, for whom democracy is a flexible concept, routinely filibuster routine bills, forcing a delay and requiring a supermajority for passage – effectively deadlocking the legislative process.

For four years congress thwarted every good faith attempt to govern the country, relying on their obstructionist strategy to derail any success of the Obama presidency, figuring that the American public was so ignorant that it would blame the president for the failure of the legislature to perform according to the oath of office taken by its members. The first term election should have disabused them of that notion. Congress enjoyed lower approval ratings than serial sex offenders while Obama decisively won a second mandate.

Clearly then, the appropriate course of action for the Republicans is to shift gears and begin to do their jobs as elected legislators, right? Well, a rational person would think so. Since that restriction clearly eliminates today’s Republicans, they did the opposite…they doubled down on their obstructionism.

Before we were two weeks into the new year, the Republicans had pushed the country over the fiscal cliff by refusing to negotiate with the president on a deal that would involve a slight tax increase on their beloved top 1% income earners

My suggestion the the Republican caucus in Congress

in the country. The economic catastrophe was only averted by delaying the hard decisions for a few months and a patch was applied. Then, just to ensure that their hypocrisy and recalcitrance didn’t go unnoticed, they refused to hold a vote on an emergency relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy. When the uproar forced their hand and a watered down bill was brought to the floor, only Republicans voted against it; among those Republicans were twenty congressmen, each of whom had introduced a bill to provide federal disaster relief for their own districts in the past. Each of those bills was passed and signed into law. Most of those bills were passed unanimously. Now they’re entrenching themselves to fight gun control legislation that is so palpably common sense that even a majority of NRA members support it.

Nevertheless, the Republican radicals have decided to open up a new front in the war on democracy. Now they have discovered that they can abuse their power as senators and representatives and prevent the president from governing by obstructing his choice of cabinet members.

Historically, the process of selecting a cabinet has simply been a matter of the president appointing the individuals he believes will be suitable advisors and surrogates to implement his policies in the major branches of government. Congress then has the responsibility of approving the appointees after doing some due diligence to ensure that there is no legal or overwhelming moral reason to deny them a position.

Like much of the system of US government, this procedure has been perverted by the ideologues in the Congresses that have been in place during Obama’s administration. Following their game plan of obstructionism, the Republicans now start to object to potential cabinet members simply because it will impede any initiative the president might want to implement. Not content with subjecting appointees to a brutal inquisition at the oversight hearings, the Republicans start their campaign not just before the hearings, but before the appointments are even announced.

Susan Rice, the Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Ambassador the U.N. was vilified in the right wing press and by the radical Republicans, starting with John McCain, still looking for payback after losing his presidential bid. She was effectively driven from the field of potential cabinet appointments on the speculation that the president might be considering her. McCain, who had previously self-immolated when he chose Sarah (I can see Russia from my house) Palin as his running mate and vice-presidential candidate, actually called the brilliant African American young woman “not very bright”….and he said it with a straight face.

Now the agenda is to take each one of Obama’s appointees and subject them to an inquisition that is expected to be grueling and humiliating. Every aspect of their private lives will be scrutinised, every statement ever made by or about them will be examined for departures from orthodoxy, and they will be subjected to the most inane and invasive personal questions by people who are on record as despising them. In some imaginary Republican universe apparently the country is better off if every advisor and surrogate the president wants is chased out of Washington.

Until this group of political visigoths wielded power, the president was always presumed to have nearly absolute discretion over his selection of a cabinet; the cabinet had to work with him and implement his policies to his specifications and satisfaction, after all. That’s why the formality of Congressional oversight isn’t called an investigation…it’s called a confirmation hearing. Oversight was in theory and in practice a safeguard intended to eliminate the clearly incompetent and to prevent cronyism.

This is in contrast to Supreme Court Justices who also are appointed subject to Congressional oversight. Even they have generally been given the benefit of the doubt, with the exception of Justice Bork, a Reagan appointee, who was exposed during the hearings as a rampant racist and denied the appointment. But it is to be noted that a Supreme Court Justice is appointed for life, and actually has the power to rule on the constitutionality of congress’s laws, presidential executive orders, and is the absolutely last court of appeal for the most serious matters ever brought before the bar. Cabinet members, in contrast, are only in place as administrators of presidential policy and their term expires with the president’s. Nevertheless it provides a way to sabotage the government’s effectiveness and that, to this Congress, is like a big, fat, crystal rock to a crackhead.

There are three fundamental legs the governmental tripod in the US: The Supreme Court, Congress, and the Executive Branch. This Congress has already rendered their own branch ineffective and has caused their own approval ratings to plummet to depths previously unheard of. At this writing, approval for congress is at 14%; that is lower than the approval rate for sex offenders, cockroaches, Lyndsay Lohan, or syphilis. Now they’re working to undermine the Executive Branch by preventing the president from having as his senior staff the people of his choice for entirely partisan and in many cases, spurious reasons.

It remains to be seen what these white collar terrorists will do when they are given an opportunity to vandalise the Supreme Court.

…enditem…

css.php