Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Godfather Reality

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Godfather_puppetmaster.jpg

Last week, the two-time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler was brought up as an unassailable hero who minced no words, and told the truth, especially about war.   In his classic anti-war pamphlet “War is a Racket,” he explains that war profits only a small few, while many others pay the ultimate price.

There’s a quote that is easily found online, and in it, Butler sums up things quite well:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

There is no question – war is a  racket, and a dirty business indeed.  There may be times when going to war is the absolute and unfortunate last resort, but too many times it is the first thing that comes to mind, especially for people who don’t have to do the fighting.   Smedley Butler isn’t the only who who thought warlust wasn’t a brilliant idea; General William Tecumseh Sherman (of the ‘scorched earth’ March To The Sea) fame wrote:

I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers … tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.

Coincidentally, after writing about Smedley Butler last week, two people made it known to me that they’d never seen the classic film “The Godfather.” Now, if you have any better than passing knowledge of organized crime, that movie bears the same relation to the criminal underworld as Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” has with the US Senate.   Read the World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime for a sometimes gruesome description of the folks who inhabit that world.

“The Godfather” saga is a moral tale, and it had an enormous impact on moviemaking (and on the Mob, interestingly enough), but the more real-to-life version is more like “Goodfellas” or “The Sopranos”; mundane, messy, and filled with horrific and nasty things.   There is one scene in the movie, however, which captures a hint of the “war is a racket” mentality:

Michael Corleone:I’m working for my father now Kay. He’s been sick, very sick.

Kay Adams:But you’re not like him Michael. I thought you weren’t going to become a man like your father. That’s what you told me.
Michael Corleone: My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man who is responsible for other people, like a senator or a president.
Kay Adams:You know how naive you sound?
Michael Corleone:Why?
Kay Adams: Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.
Michael Corleone: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

This last line sums up a great deal of truth, and is one of the most illuminating quotes from the film. Powerful people do get others killed, either directly or indirectly, and it is naive to think otherwise.   Because of Westphalian sovereignty and the monopoly of violence, the people who do these things (the “pezzonovante”, the “.90 calibers”, the “big shots”) rarely are punished for these actions.   Various transgressions, such as the drumming up of support for the Iraq war under false pretenses, and then executing an illegal invasion might be opposed by the international community, but nothing happens to those who commit their nation to the warpath.

Questions:

  • “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” are both fascinating and well regarded films, and tell of either idealized or graphically realistic versions of a particular subculture.  What pair of films do the same for art, war, sport, or academia?
  • There are many films which show the horrors of war; which ones show the behind-the-scenes machinations which lead to these atrocities?
  • “The Godfather” had a huge impact on Hollywood, but ironically, on the Mob as well.   Are there any films that have changed, guided, or influenced the subculture that they’ve tried to portray?   Could this effect be used for good?
  • After our high tech and interconnected society starts to falter (either quickly or slowly), the chance of violence to affect us personally will probably go up significantly. It may only be then when people start to realize how that violence is not trivial, and is not something you’d wish on anyone. The nature of the modern world, where things such as violence, hunger, and pollution have been mostly abstracted away, disconnects us from reality.  Is it possible to prepare for these eventualities, and reconnect with reality?  Can it be done without experiencing them directly?

 

 

 

 

Unassailable

SmedleyButler.jpeg.jpeg

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smedley_Butler#/media/File:SmedleyButler.jpeg (Public Domain)

The above is a picture of General Smedley Butler, USMC.   If you haven’t heard of his amazing story, definitely take a look.   What should raise your eyebrows isn’t that he was a two-time Medal of Honor winner, but that he came out firmly against war and the use of force in his classic War is a Racket.

It seems odd, that someone who has studied (and participated in war) should come out so strongly against it, but it is folks like these who need to be listened to the most.   These aren’t armchair pacifists or hawks, but people who have ‘walked the walk’ and have learned about the world the hard way.   At some point, they realize the hypocrisy and insanity of their own world, and speak out against it.

Rich people who warn against inequality and realize that torches and pitchforks may be coming; former white supremacists who preach peace and understanding; master teachers who show how modern school is built to control populations; former gang members who come out against the endless cycle of violence; military folks with long service records who caution against military “adventures” abroad; bankers and investment advisors who try and tell us how unsustainable the market has become.  In my view, these folks are generally unassailable, because their message is based in a reality that most of us won’t (or wouldn’t) want to experience.  By speaking out, they usually give up a great deal of fortune, fame, and fawning praise, to only be scolded and told to shut up.

Questions:

  • Who are some other more unassailable critics who have come out against the core beliefs of their own worlds?
  • Who in your own field has impeccable credentials, but speaks out against the central tenets of your profession?
  • Many of these folks would have been fine if they had just kept their mouths shut and collected a paycheck.  What makes someone “turn” on their own career and/or fellow practitioners of their art?

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving a shelf empty

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boltless_Shelving_175kg_1800x900x450_(Blue).jpg (CC-BY SA 4.)

One of the tricks of not accumulating too much stuff in any portion of your life is to ‘leave a shelf empty’.  Like a gas, “stuff usually fills the place available for its retention,” so deliberately deciding to leave some places empty allows for temporary imports of artifacts, in the ebb and flow of your life.   It’s not a perfect thing, but it does tend to help keep an eye on the tendency to accumulate and fill up your home/office/shop with things and “valuable” stuff.   This doesn’t mean you can’t fill up the shelves from time to time; the trick is to keep the average amount of stuff at X%, where X isn’t over 100.

The reasoning for this is obvious; you can handle natural variations in inputs and outputs as life proceeds.  Likewise, it is good to keep some cash on hand in a separate bank account, or try to keep a bit more than one-quarter tank of gas in the car.  When you live always on the edge of your limits, no matter what they are, and for whatever good intentions you have, situations can come up which can sink the entire enterprise of your life.  At the least, they can make existence really miserable for yourself and others.   This is essentially engineering a bit of resiliency in your world.   Also, if you are living to the edge of your limits, the chance that you can help others in a crisis is also diminished considerably.  That’s the real hard and unfortunate part, and essence of this post.

This all bounced around my head when hearing that the temporary protected status of over 250,000 Salvadorans was being revoked at the end of 2019.  This status was awarded in 2001, and TPS status can be renewed between six and eighteen months at a time.

As much as I try to keep up on the news, it was surprising to me.  I know the US did let people in during crises, but to renew temporary protected status for a particular group of people for over fifteen years seems quite problematical, on many levels.   In reading up on the TPS Wikipedia entry, it maintains that “temporary protected status does not provide a path to permanent resident status (green card) or United States citizenship.”  So, if you are here temporarily, there really isn’t a way to stay here legally once the “temporary” status is lifted.   These folks bought houses, got long term jobs, had kids (who were now US citizens), and essentially were integrated into American life, but legally, were only here temporarily.

And, here in lies a bit of the “full shelf” problem, and some issues of cause and effect.  Lots of crises happen around the world, and it is natural that we should want to help folks.  What is a bit damning is that some of these crises around the world are caused by our own country, and Central America is no exception.   The original reason why the folks from El Salvador came to this country is because of the 2001 earthquakes, but it may be that the dismal response of the government is what caused the local response to be so horrible.  If you may recall, our involvement with El Salvador goes back a long way, and if they couldn’t get their act together, part of it might be due to the mess we created.

Stuff like this reminds of me of the reason why being generous/giving foreign aid can be in our own best interests.   Having poor countries anywhere (where the rule of law is far more absent, people live in serious physical want, and dictators run free) eventually boomerangs on us.   In some ways, it is like the Buddhist bit about “selfish unselfishness.”  If you want to end the cycle of rebirth, (or at least give yourself a better shot at not having unpleasant events happen to you – karma isn’t perfect, fair, or understandable), the best selfish thing you can do for yourself is be relatively… unselfish!

There are some countries that have serious political problems that we can’t fix easily.  My own guess is that countries closer to us are easier to help, and we’ve got a far freer hand to ameliorate suffering locally than do so halfway around the world.   Taking in more folks closer to home seems like a reasonable thing.   Concurrently, we’ve got to address some of these deeper issues.  How much money have we put into fixing El Salvador?   Salvadorans are sending a lot of money from the US back to El Salvador; wouldn’t it be better if they were back there, in a more stable, safe, and prosperous country, sending money to the United States in trade?  What if, in the not-so-distant future, we were to need help from these countries?   When another crisis erupts in the world, will there be pushback against TPS for other refugees/immigrants?

There aren’t any easy answers to any of these issues; as always, they are at their core more predicaments than problems.   Alleviating suffering is a good thing, but we’ve got to do something about the root causes of that suffering.  In order to keep a few ’empty shelves’, we can’t let our generosity be stretched to the limit, or else when the next crises erupts, we won’t be able to help, either due to political or reality based reasons.  In the long run, we’ll probably do more good.

Questions:

  • What can we do to prevent this sort of mess in the future?
  • What is the limit of any countries’ generosity?
  • How many people should any country take in as refugees or under a “temporarily protected” label?   How do you calculate this criteria?  If the number is X million, what happens if the number is 1.5 X, 2 X or 5 X?
  • Immigration reform is a big can of worms, but how would we “keep a shelf or two free,” so that we could help new folks come in when they need immediate refuge?
  • How can we “fix” countries we’ve “broken?”
  • What is the calculus for accepting refugees, permanently or temporarily, especially when we’ve created their refugee status?

 

 

 

 

The names of things

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commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Thesauri#/media/File:Thesaurus.jpg CC-BY SA 3.0

Last weekend, the topic of naming children came up.    In theory, you should be able to name your children whatever you want to; however, there can potentially be real side effects that accompany your child’s name.   The one that was introduced to me a while ago was that the exact same resumes with only differing names that might belong to African-Americans had substantially less callbacks than ones with more common names such as John or Mary.   It’s the kind of study that is easy to replicate, and easy figure mathematically… and incredibly mind blowing.  It reminded me of an instructor (who was Jewish)  who said that names are very important; he told of us a discussion with his wife (in discussing possible baby names).   When she claimed, “it isn’t that important,” he wryly commented, and yes, completely in jest,  “What if we were to name our kid… Adolf?  One wonders if a study on more ‘revolutionary’ names like ‘Che’, ‘Fidel’, or ‘Mahatma’, more ‘preppy’ names like ‘Chip’ and ‘Ambrose’, or names like ‘Rand’ (associated with Rand Paul, or Ayn Rand, although her name was not the inspiration for his) would find.

Names are important, and it can be unfortunate that so much can be caught up in them.  Think of all the folks who were named Adolf, just before the Second World War broke out, and the impact that might have had on their lives and careers.  The name has take a nosedive, for sure, in baby namings.  A quick search on names of other infamous people from history turns up some striking statistics (who knew that there were actually people given the name Genghis?).

As noted before here, this naming problem was discussed most directly by (Saint) George Carlin, in his bit about euphemisms; most notably about soldiers and their stressful experiences in battle. In the Great War, it was called ‘shell shock’; in the Second World War, it became ‘battle fatigue’.  In Korea, ‘operational exhaustion’, and in Vietnam, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’.   Euphemisms can dilute the meaning of really important things such as ‘shell shock.’  As Saint Carlin stated, maybe more vets would have gotten help if they had named their experience as ‘shell shock’ rather than a multi-syllable and hyphenated ‘disorder’.

Likewise, in the midst of an incredible cold snap throughout the United States, there are folks who bring up the term ‘global warming’, and simple minded jokes about how “we could sure use some more of it.”  Climate scientists have at least caught on, and begun using names like ‘climate change’ or ‘climate chaos’.  Although the long-term net effect might actually be warming, the term ‘global warming’ has stuck, and a lot of time has been spent backpedaling trying to get that term out of the ‘meme pool’ (analogous to the ‘gene pool’).

Given that we’ve got really gargantuan environmental, economic, and ecological crises on the horizon, what sort of names would be more appropriate, to alert people to their seriousness?   Terms like “irrational exuberance”, “negative outcomes”, “negative equity”, or “racially motivated” might mean the same thing as “crazy”, “bad”, “broke” or “bigoted”, but they tend to soften the edges a bit, and perhaps that isn’t a good thing.

We are faced with a lot of predicaments, not problems or ‘issues’.   How we face them depends a great deal on language, and we’ve all got to speak more directly.   It isn’t easy, since we tend to not to want to hurt people’s feelings, but speaking plainly (Dutch Uncleism!) could be a start.   It would great to find a Dutch uncle for America, but until then, we could start by being Dutch uncles and aunts more locally.     This doesn’t mean you should be cruel.  In my mind, a true Dutch uncle (or aunt) says what needs to be said out of real love and concern, and for the sake of not wasting time or resources.   A Dutch uncle or aunt should want you to succeed, or at the very least, make the most of what you’ve got.

Questions:

  • What other terms would you replace in our modern lexicon, that are destroying our ability to recognize problems?   What are some more classic ‘thoughtstopper’ or ‘gentle criticism’ (gentlecrit?) euphemisms, and their antidotes?
  • What current euphemisms are doing a great deal of damage, or hiding a lot of reality?
  • How do you change the use of a euphemism, to something more realistic?
  • There is an antonym for euphemism; it is called dysphemism, but this refers to a vulgar turn of phrase (axle grease instead of butter – I never heard of that!).  What is the in-between of euphemism and dysphemism?   Obtudoism?  Or is having such a word adding to the problem?!
  • My guess is that shorter words are generally less euphemistic, thoughts on that?

A new pledge

buddha_us_flag.jpgcommons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Buddha#/media/File:Buddha_1251876.jpg (CC BY 3.0)
US Flag, in public domain

Over the holidays, there was some flack given to me regarding my thoughts on the current US Pledge of Allegiance.   It’s a pretty simple thing:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

… but for me, it smacks of blind obedience, rather than a rational and thoughtful pledge of one’s allegiance to an idea.   It is drilled into you when you attend US public schools, and it doesn’t make you think at all.   You pledge allegiance, and the why or how isn’t even mentioned.   The bit about ‘with liberty and  justice for all’ is also a bit of a joke, considering that a great deal of justice in America depends on how much you can afford to pay.  The Republic is more of a plutonomy, as the folks at Citigroup have soberly noted (you can still find the memo, by a bit of searching around; Citigroup has tried to erase traces of it, but it is out there). The Pledge is also a recent thing; invented by the (socialist!) Edward Bellamy in 1892, it was designed to instill loyalty to the country’s flag and by extension, the country.

The problem with this pledge, though, is it doesn’t really cut to the core of what the country is about.   Pledging allegiance to the country, especially when the country has lost its bearings, seems to me the wrong tack.  What we really want is something that reminds us that a) we are all in this together, and b) that we are citizens of a nation governed at its core by the Constitution,  and c) we aren’t perfect, but certainly are doing our best.  Check  out the Oath of Allegiance, which naturalized citizens recite:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

Not only is it more clear about what it means to be a citizen, it (the act of specifying allegiance) was something that was recognized very close to the founding of the Republic (1790), even if the wording has been modified and codified over the years.

This oath is very similar to the oath that enlisted servicemembers take when they join the military:

“I, (state name of enlistee), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Officers take this one:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.[1]

In all three oaths, direct reference to the Constitution is made.  The Pledge has no mention of it, and perhaps that’s what bugs me.   As a natural born citizen, no such oath or statement has ever been required.  We are to pledge allegiance to the flag, not to an idea; you don’t even need to know that Constitution exists, or know what is in it.  Yes, there is the bit about ‘the republic for which it stands’, which might obliquely refer to the Constitution, but appears to be a bit of a stretch.

A while ago, the possibility of a new Magna Carta was written on this blog.   In a similar vein, we may want to tweak or entirely replace the pledge itself, so that the Constitution’s importance is more magnified, and more prevalent in our civic outlook.  A new pledge should also remind us that we aren’t perfect, but are trying to at least “hit the center of the target.”   Something like this might work:

I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, for it represents the Constitution, with our rights and responsibilities as a united and free people.  No nation is perfect, yet we strive for as much liberty and justice as humanly possible.

In some ways, this new pledge, with the recognition of our imperfect nature (but our striving for perfection!) would be along similar lines to that the Buddhists:

Though the many beings are numberless,
I vow to save them.
Though greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly,
I vow to cut them off.
Though the Dharma is vast and fathomless,
I vow to understand it.
Though Buddha’s Way is beyond attainment,
I vow to embody it fully.

The version above is from here.

It may seem strange, that this new, proposed pledge asks more of our citizens, but blind obedience and pledges aren’t what we need.

Questions:

  • What would your version of a new Pledge of Allegiance look like?
  • What key elements would you include?
  • Shouldn’t we acknowledge the Constitution, our rights *and* responsibilities, *and* our imperfectability?
  • Others have discussed alternate pledges; this one of government workers to the citizenry.  What do you think about that?