Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.

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The Master Negotiator

A recent article, parts of which I will attach below, tells us all we need to know about what sort of president this man would make — if we didn’t know already. He is beyond ignorant, because he has no idea how ignorant he is.

Donald Trump gave an interview this week [on CNN] all of his potential supporters should watch. In his own words, Trump lays bare the very reasons why he would be such a disastrous choice for president. . . .

Trump proclaims his familiar boast that he is the best deal-maker ever and the best negotiator ever, and that the Obama administration completely botched the negotiation with Iran. And then Trump graced us with an inside account of how he, as a master deal-maker, would have negotiated the agreement with Iran and obtained a much better outcome for America.

Primarily, Trump would have spared America from having to pay $150 billion to Iran. (I won’t quibble with the dollar amount even though it is likely inaccurate).

As Trump explained, he would have said to the Iranians:

“Fellas, we [as America] owe $19 trillion [in debt]. We’re a country that has no money. We can’t give you the $150 [billion dollars].” The Iranians would have said, “But we want it!” And Trump would have responded, “We can’t give it! We don’t have it! We don’t have it!”

Trump would have stood his ground and absolutely refused to pay the $150 billion. At that point, the meeting would have broken-up with no agreement. But then, two days later, the Iranians would have folded by calling Trump and saying, “Let’s make a deal.” Iran would then have agreed that America would not be required to pay the $150 billion.

Wow. Now there’s a genius negotiator for you. What an amazing display of virtuosity.

Unfortunately, however, there is one little problem with Trump’s entire analysis. And this problem is that the $150 billion was, in fact, readily available. The reason it was readily available is because all of this money actually belonged to Iran, not to America. This was Iran’s own money. This was Iranian money that America had seized and frozen. It was never American money. Not one penny. American money was never at stake. Rather, America was simply returning Iran’s own money that America had seized and was holding in frozen accounts pending the resolution of the sanctions against Iran. [Italics added]

Trump obviously had no clue that this money belonged to Iran. Trump was utterly ignorant about the facts of the deal. Yet this did not prevent Trump from spouting off and denouncing the deal to the American public. This is classic Trump. Even though he may appear to some to be authoritative, the truth is that his demeanor is superficial and he actually has no idea what he is talking about in substance.

One gets the idea that “all of his potential supporters” would agree with him, unfortunately. That’s a huge part of the problem.

In any event, when this man opens his mouth I have the notion that we are all watching a Saturday Night Live sketch. Surely, it’s funny. No? If not it borders on the insane. The man is from Wonderland. He reminds me of Humpty Dumpty except that he isn’t that funny. I fear he is not funny at all and we are not watching a comedic sketch. This is the Trumpet’s reality show. It’s time he took a bow and left the stage. Enough is enough.

Pity the Farmers

In reading the NRDC publication “onearth” recently I was steered to an online essay by Ted Genoways about the plight of the small farmer. As one who lives in the farming belt in Southwest Minnesota and who knows how the small farmers struggle against the unfair competition provided by the giant corporations, I found this article of special interest. As you travel in this area you see the sad, abandoned farm houses and countless groves being bulldozed to make room for more plowed fields and bigger yields — all signs of the corporations at work.

With the current drought that affects 65% of the farmland in this country predicted to continue, one wonders if the small farmers can survive. Indeed, one wonders if there will be food enough to feed a burgeoning world population. As the Sierra magazine reported recently two-thirds of the U.S. Wheat crop has been impaired by drought and U.S. corn and soybean production has fallen below consumption levels for the first time in 38 years. Further, “Drought will cut world wheat stocks by 13 percent in 2013. . .The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that low grain stores this year leave ‘no room for unexpected events.'”

And yet the corporate farmers in this country are making record profits, thanks to government subsidies as Genoways explains:

. . . Of the $277.3 billion allocated for farm subsidies from the expansion of the program in 1995 until last year, roughly 75 percent of the money went to the top 10 percent of farmers. If you expand to look at the top 20 percent of farms, nearly 90 percent of the allocations are accounted for. In real dollars, that means that the average corporate farm receives more than $31,000 per year, while the average small farm receives less than $600, in a typical year. And nearly two-thirds of American farmers collect no subsidies at all. In years of crop failure, Big Ag actually makes out even better, because of the way the subsidies are calculated. Indeed, if trends from past years hold true for 2012, the top 20 percent of recipients will garner an average of more than $45,000 from the government, compared to less than $1,000 for the remaining 80 percent.

So programs designed to save family farms are, instead, helping big business out-compete them, and eventually gobble them up, all while using their dollars and political clout to push for larger subsidies and more protection — big beef and pork producers are currently trying to get into the act — as agribusiness lobbyists in Washington cloak their efforts in the guise of defending small farmers.

So while the small farmers struggle and see their farms being swallowed up by the corporations the rest of us ponder a future with diminishing food supplies as the globe continues to heat up, droughts continue to reduce farm production, and Big Ag goes to Washington to make sure the subsidies continue. Surely, this is a formula for disaster.

Given the present state of the economy the government may not be able to bail out the corporate farmers much longer. But more to the point, not even the large corporations will be able to produce food on the scale required to feed growing numbers of hungry people if the drought continues as predicted. In addition to the greed and short-term thinking that motivates the corporations, we must add the undeniable fact that climate change will soon affect our lives in ways it is difficult to imagine, as a recent story on Yahoo News pointed out:

“What we’re going to experience is unprecedented in human history in terms of the type of climate we’re creating for ourselves,” Hanemann tells The Daily Ticker. “The rate of warming has increased maybe five times what it was in the early part of the 20th century. The earth is getting warmer faster.”

Meanwhile Congress continues to hand out subsidies to Big Ag and repay favors to fat-cat contributors while it ignores climate change, threatens to cut social programs for the needy, and gropes about blindly in the Wonderland caucus race we call party politics. Something has to give.

What Are Teachers Worth?

A couple of days ago mindfulstew posted an excellent blog advocating a starting salary for teachers at $100,000. As expected it generated considerable heat and a good deal of light. I felt compelled to comment of course. But then it occurred to me I had already addressed the topic on June 5th in a blog I called “Pay The Piper.” So in order to support “stew’s” blog I am re-posting it here. I do think $100,000 a bit high, but I think $50,000 is a reasonable starting salary when states routinely start teachers out at half that much. Surely we must start paying our teachers what they are worth if we are to pull our educational system out of the gutter where it lies ignored and pathetic. My claim is that our democratic system hangs in the balance.  In that spirit, here goes my re-post:

When I first started college teaching back in the Dark Ages I taught logic at the University of Rhode Island. One of my tasks was to go from Kingston to Providence once a week to teach an adult extension course in logic to hard-working adults who were trying to get a college degree after work. On the way I picked up one of the students who was the Chief of the Jamestown Police and we had some interesting talks driving to Providence and back. He complained a number of times about the format of the New England Town Meetings where citizens met on a fairly regular basis and discussed and voted on the pressing issues of the day. His frustration usually centered around the fact that the people wanted such things as improved police and fire protection but they didn’t want to raise their taxes. In a word, they wanted to hear the tune the piper played, but they didn’t want to pay him.

We still do that on both a state and a national scale, don’t we? We want something for nothing: we want a good educational system but we don’t want to have to pay for it. In Wisconsin recently the citizens of that great state attempted to break up public employee unions on the grounds that it will save them tax money and at the same time they are outspoken in their criticism of the job the public employees do — especially the teachers. Give me a break! Are we really that stupid?

I think it was Churchill who said Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. I gather that he was poking gentle fun at the folks who run around like the creatures in the caucus race in Wonderland trying to figure out how to make things work; Churchill knew that the process, while flawed, is the best humans have come up with. Plato preferred philosopher Kings, but there aren’t many of them around these days. And it’s not clear philosophers would make very good kings anyway!

But it is the case that a well-educated citizenry is of central importance to any democratic system. If the people are not well informed, how can they make intelligent choices? George Eliot dealt with this question in her brilliant novel Felix Holt, Radical at a time when England was struggling with the issue of extending suffrage. How can we expect people who know very little about the world around them, who are daily forced to work with their hands instead of their heads, to make informed decisions? Felix wrestles with this question throughout the novel, and it is a very important question. Our founding fathers wrestled with it as well and I am not sure we have answered it yet.

We had better figure out how to make it work, however, or future historians will conclude that our democracy was a failed experiment. Ours is not a pure democracy, of course, but it requires enlightened, well-educated legislators and leaders — and a citizenry educated well enough to separate the fraud from the friend. As stated, in any democracy the entire experiment hinges on an educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson knew this, of course, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. If people are unwilling to spend money to have their young well enough educated to become informed voters in a democratic nation then the experiment will indeed have failed. We really must pay the piper.