And Yet Again: Black Friday

It’s time for my annual “Black Friday” post, as per the past couple of years! If only those with ears could hear!!

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate since we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas once again. The more things change the more they stay the same! I have added a few pithy comments to this version.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that begins before Thanksgiving [Halloween?] is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation at a time when the theme should be “peace On Earth.” If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy, tighten the purse strings. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket; when you retire move somewhere where the taxes are lower. The real issues, like the spread of nuclear weapons (25,000 world-wide at last count) and the damage we are doing to the environment in our determination to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we presumably celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities. But we won’t.

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Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.

Peace On Earth?

[This is a somewhat modified post I wrote just before Christmas in 2011.  I will simply add my best wishes to all for a very happy holiday — and urge that we continue to hope there can be peace on earth and good will among men and women.]

 

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited by their wealthy bosses who did little actual work. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that has echoes in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: there are still those who are aware that there are the few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund and they go way back. The difference between the two is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Joe Hill has blinders on: all issues are black and white, the poor are good and the wealthy are evil. There are no shades of gray.  Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. And while there are many good and decent people on this earth, our urge to violence seems ever at the ready: quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we turn up the sound on our TVs as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies in the name of American “freedom.” There’s a bit of Joe Hill in many of us it seems: would that we could take a page out of Lund’s book.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. He puts me in mind of the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot who tries mightily to live a good, Christian life in a world filled with greed, deceit, and animosity. It is small wonder that idealists often becomes cynics in their old age. With this in mind, while I sincerely wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing our navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel in the end pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the fat-cat bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Nor would they today (did I hear someone mention Walmart?). Sometimes it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace; however, it would be a good thing for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund urging “reasonable cooperation” — especially if we are at all serious about “peace on earth.”

Peace On Earth?

[This is a blog I wrote just before Christmas in 2011. The more I consider the state the world is in at present the more I think these thoughts somehow express what I want to say best.]

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited and treated as slaves. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that still echoes in the Occupy Wall Street movement: there are still those few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund, and he is another Swede, just like Joe. The difference is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Hill has become bifurcated in his thinking: all issues are black and white. There is no gray. But Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. They give us food for thought while quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we sit back quietly as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies, we are told.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. And while I wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I do recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing the navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Some times it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace. But it would do well for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund — especially when we are given to mouthing platitudes about “peace on earth.”

Counting Medals

The original Olympic Games dated from the eighth century. Legend has it that the games were initiated by Hercules after completing his many feats of strength and courage to thank Zeus. They were held during a “Sacred Truce. . . and no war between the Greek city-states ever prevented them from being held.”* The games involved various athletic contests such as wrestling, boxing, running, horse racing and the immensely popular chariot races. While they were intensely competitive they were praised by Plato for the refreshment and “wholeness” they bestowed on every participant. All hostilities were halted during the games — which was no mean feat since the Greek city-states were a bellicose group. “If states [that were] engaged in hostilities failed to lay down their arms for the duration of the truce a heavy fine was inflicted, its size calculated according to the number of troops involved.”*  The point is that the Games were regarded from the beginning as a time of peace and fellow-feeling among a group of people who had trouble getting along most of the time.

Contrast that with the modern games which have now a Summer and a Winter phase and involve more sporting events than anyone can possibly remember and pit one nation against another to see which can accumulate the most medals (“We’ve got more than you do: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” ). As mentioned, there was always an element of competition, but it used to be among athletes and not among nations — or even the city-states — though there was doubtless some pride involved when a local man did well.

This is not to say that in today’s Olympics friendships are not formed and dialogue opened among athletes from different countries — all to the good. In addition, the athletes themselves enjoy what has to be a most remarkable educational experience — win or lose. And the athleticism is truly extraordinary. But the modern version of the Olympic Games reveals sharp contrasts with the original version.

The Olympic Games never involved professional athletes who were paid to participate –at least not until very recent times. To make matters worse, today’s athletes are beholden to their sponsors. Recently the I.O.C. had to employ extreme measures (in the spirit of the Olympics, I would think) to forbid the athletes from using social media to promote the products their sponsors are selling.  But — led by the U.S. athletes — the Olympians are incensed, as a recent story attests:

LONDON – American athletes risked disqualification by leading a revolt against the International Olympic Committee on Monday and its draconian laws of forbidding competitors from using social media to promote their sponsors.

It just gets worse. Not only do nations vie with one another to pile up the largest treasure in medals of all colors but we now must also have mounted anti-terrorist weapons on tall buildings and increased security lest someone repeat the horrors of Munich 40 years ago. The air is tense, even electric. In a word, the games are no longer about a time of peace amid the chaos of everyday warfare, but an extension of that warfare onto the court and the field of play — which is no longer play at all, but a contest to see who can get the most gold. Symbolic? I suppose so. But also sad.

The athletes, for the most part, seem to have the idea. To a large extent they exhibit the true spirit of the Olympic Games as the Greeks envisioned them. But the things that separate the ancient Games from the modern ones are the crass commercialism of the latter and the exploitation of the athletes by their corporate sponsors, N.B.C. television, and the countries that send them for the purpose of boosting national pride. But most distressing is the fact that these countries refuse to lay down their arms — even for this brief period — putting me in mind of Handel’s Messiah which asks the probing question: why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why indeed.

_____________________________________

*Michael Grant: The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Macmillan Co.).

Toothless Tigers

The situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. It is estimated that the government has been responsible for the death of at least 14,000 of its citizens. A recent story tells of the attempts to “broker” a peace settlement between groups that hate one another, a nearly impossible task. The story reads, in part,

GENEVA (AP) — An international conference on Saturday accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan that calls for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, but at Russia’s insistence the compromise agreement left the door open to Syria’s president being part of it.

The story gives us a sense of the futility of this agreement: But even with Russia’s most explicit statement of support yet for a political transition in Syria, it is far from certain that the plan will have any real effect in curbing the violence. A key phrase in the agreement requires that the transitional governing body “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent,” effectively giving the present government and the opposition veto power over each other.

In a word, neither side will agree to the agreement: one side wants Assad to remain as President, the other will not agree to any settlement of which he is a part. The U.N. sits in the middle attempting to get the two sides to agree to something (anything!) while all the time they know full well it will not happen. As one who has always advocated reason and restraint and who hates war and bloodshed, this situation is most disturbing. It would seem that increasingly violence is the only thing many people understand and an international group that lacks the power to back up its agreements is indeed a toothless tiger. The members can meet and come to a compromise of sorts, but the people in the streets will continue to kill one another. It’s not a new story, but it is unsettling to say the least.

Leibniz told us long ago that this was the “best of all possible worlds,” and he thought he had argued his point convincingly. But it takes a giant leap of faith to accept his argument. That was a leap Voltaire could not take and he ridiculed the notion in Candide — which he wrote after the earthquake at Lisbon killed thousands of men, women and children. There have been worse catastrophes and now that war includes war against civilians as well as combatants — a situation all civilized countries agreed would not happen when they signed the Geneva Accords — the earthquake seems a minor event. And, of course, our government, which signed those agreements, is very much a part of the problem sending drones into residential neighborhoods to “take out” known (or suspected) terrorists. Doesn’t this make us the terrorists?

One wonders where we have come and where this will lead. The world needs an international group with effective sanctioning powers and a world court with punitive powers as well. I am not an advocate of power except in the case that it will invariably lead to the resolution of conflict involving innocent victims. And I have always supported the idea of the United Nations: it’s important that people come together to discuss their differences. But I recognize that a debate society that makes agreements they cannot get the parties to buy into is not what the world needs in times of trouble. This is certainly the case in Syria. As the above story says in its final paragraph, The United Nations says violence in the country has worsened since a cease-fire deal in April, and the bloodshed appears to be taking on dangerous sectarian overtones, with growing numbers of Syrians targeted on account of their religion. The increasing militarization of both sides in the conflict has Syria heading toward civil war.

It does seem that the only thing people understand in the end is power. If people will not even sit down together then might does, in the end, make right. I cannot accept that even though it appears to be the case. Perhaps that is my leap of faith.

Peace On Earth?

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited and treated as slaves. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that still echoes in the Occupy Wall Street movement: there are still those few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where a friend, one of the few Joe Hill has, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund, and he is another Swede, just like Joe. The difference is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Hill has become bifurcated in his thinking: all issues are black and white. There is no gray. But Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. They give us food for thought at this time of the year when we talk about peace on earth while quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. And while I wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I do recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing the navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the bosses would have sat down and listened to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Some times it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace. But it would do well for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund — especially at this time of the year when we are given to mouthing platitudes about “peace on earth.”