Friday, October 28, 2011

Using the Hannibal Lecter Principle to understand the Republican candidates

Two female Mormon cannibal crickets  feeding on a third (Wiki Commons)
I used to write a “lowly paid” column about ethics for a nominally unaligned online newspaper that turned out to be right of Genghis Khan’s center. In short order, the “opportunity” had turned into a nightmare in which I had to field excessive and abusive commentary from that organization’ core constituency, right-wing zealots who make Ann Coulter look sane and balanced, and some of the more gormless right-wing writers on the site itself.

No matter. Perhaps those articles have enlightened someone, which was my intention to begin with, not―lord knows―getting rich on the internet via pay-per-click.

In those columns, I dealt with ethical concepts, one of which was touched upon by Matt Taibbi in his recent Rolling Stone article about his first glimpse of a presidential wannabe, Rick Perry: The Best Little Whore in Texas. Wrote Taibbi:
…voters who want to know who Rick Perry really is would do well to remember the advice of noted political analyst Hannibal Lecter, who instructed Jodie Foster about the serial killer she was tracking in The Silence of the Lambs. What does he do, Lecter asked, this man you seek? He kills women? No, that is incidental. Don't look at what the man does, look at what he is.
That should be the AHA! moment in American politics. Taibbi looked hard at what Perry is, although I think we all know what he is from his escapades in governmentally sanctioned murder, that is, capital punishment with no more thought given to it than swatting a mosquito. Does one really need to know any more to decide that this man would not be a good leader for an ethical population, positing that there is still something of an ethical population left?

Think about it: We might all have known sooner what George W. Bush might do to the nation had we simply applied the Hannibal Lecter Principle early and often.

By their idiocy shalt thou know them
Dubya was famous for little except being the son of a one-term president, talking his friends into buying him a baseball team by trading on the accident of his birth, and for putting record numbers of inmates to death, as well as mocking one of them in public. This was a kid the righteous would have shunned in the school yard. This was a kid your parents would have told you to keep well away from. This was a kid the local cop on the beat, had Geroge been born into a working-class family, would have been keeping an eye peeled for and cracked over the head with his nightstick with some regularity. This wasn’t, however, the boy your parents warned you about; your parents wouldn’t have bothered, thinking he was so no-account that no self-respecting teenage girl would touch him with the proverbial ten-foot-pole despite his loot.

How did intelligent grownups miss this? Why did Americans not apply this rather simple ethical litmus test, the Hannibal Lecter Principle, to little George? A good question. But perhaps the answer is to be found in two things: human decency and America’s checkered past.

Human decency? How so? The same parents who might tell their kids to keep well away from troublemakers also often impart the necessity of giving the benefit of the doubt. That’s one possibility.

Another is that George was at pains to present himself as an ordinary guy. None of us ordinary guys wants to think we are as decidedly unempathetic, as vicious, as gormless as George certainly appeared to be. So we studiously ignored all that. Still, the smirk should have been a clue. Various online dictionaries define the expression as, “An affected, often offensively self-satisfied smile,” or, “a smile expressing scorn, smugness, etc., rather than pleasure.” That’s George. And we didn’t get it. Republicans still don’t get it, except those who DO get it. Those who do? Mainly, they’re named Koch. Or Rove. Or Cheney. Or they are the great untutored, a/k/a the Teabaggers, so blind they will not see, so fearful they dare not look in a mirror.

Goat or sheep?
But that’s water under the bridge. More to the point: How can we quickly get to the heart of who the current Republican front-runners might be? Simple. Assess them for who they are, not who they say they are.

Perry is easy. He’s got a squinty smile that reminds me of nothing more than a guy on the Strip in Vegas trying to cajole people into a casino where he promises a lot for virtually nothing. In short, a sleazoid. Scummy. Probably washes his jockey shorts once or twice a year whether they need it or not…just so he has a loud silk tie to set himself off with.

Romney. Who knows? Who cares? He comes out of the Mormon tradition of straight-laced, unforgiving followers of the greatest manmade religion (well, they ALL are, but you know what I mean…it doesn’t say Latter Day Saints for nothing) until EST. Trust him? Not bloody likely. First, he’s too rich to be normal. Second, he flip-flops almost daily. Third, did you know neither women nor blacks can be full members of his native church? Enough said.

Bachmann. Derivative, without the Alaskan creds. Dismissed.

Who’s left? Well, that is, who remains on the right as a viable candidate? Santorum?
The most interesting thing about Santorum is his name. Except of course that business of Mr. and Mrs. Santorum bringing home their premature stillborn child to introduce the poor dead wee thing to the living children, and then sleeping with the stillborn overnight. Creepy. At best.

There’s the Intelligent Design thing he’s fond of, speaking of oxymorons.

And there’s the dodgy bit about in-state or out-of-state tuition for his kids at college, and maybe his claiming a false residence…all of which perfectly fits him to ring in on immigration, since he has been involved in living in one place and reaping benefits from another. The only difference between him and the Mexicans seeking a better life, the ones he wants to fence out or shoot? Money, and crossing state, rather than national, boundaries. In short, no difference to speak of. A hypocrite.

Leave our history in the dust, please
Leaving the fascinating subject of assessing political candidates’ aberrant psychology via the Lechter method, there’s still America’s checkered past to bring to the discussion, however, as a way to explain how Americans can be so foolish about whom they elect.

America was settled by the following groups:

  • Puritans, whose fundamentalism knew no bounds (you may recall that they determined whether a woman was a witch by dunking her, head and all, into a pond. If she drowned, she wasn’t a witch);
  • Criminals, sent by His Majesty to the colonies where they could serve out their terms in misery and then be let loose to populate a captive land mass, and:
  • Adventurers, out for gold regardless of how they got it, mainly by raping virgin forest, killing native inhabitants, wiping out herds of valuable beasts and finally being granted large tracts of that wilderness by a monarch or two grateful for the riches they sent home in tribute.
Can spirit trump genetics and history?
And therein lies our national inability to see the unethical forest for the immoral trees; we are not too many generations removed from those who pillaged the nation to create it. At some level, perhaps, we realize we are one with them, one with either the criminals sent to the Georgia penal colony, or the patroons that gobbled up the Hudson Valley, later morphing into Robber Barons of a different sort. Or Puritans who begrudged every human any joy and regarded all compassion as weakness, and had a few squirrelly concepts about cause and effect as well. Seem to fit?

There were a few decent folk―the founding fathers, for the most part―among them. But too few to make a dent in the gene pool of the populations enumerated above and change the character of most of their descendants. Many of us understand that, while we carry those unfortunate genes, the world―physically, spiritually―has advanced and it is no longer necessary to act in accordance with our unfortunate history, but rather in accord with the ways in which a decent, compassionate, brave and free people would want to behave.

Until we do this―until we elevate whatever innate decency somehow survived our brutalized and brutalizing history―we will remain ill-equipped to practice the Hannibal Lecter Principle and recognize perfidy and worse when we see it. Unless we surmount our history of vicious individualism and trade up to benign individuality, we will be doomed to deal with the George Bushes the gene pool pops out so disgustingly often.

Monday, October 24, 2011

One insult too far: America’s class war, one prole at a time

Bush as Moronic Scion of the Moneyed Class
All through the 2000 campaign and up to Sept. 11, 2001, the corporate media depicted Bush as an affable, tongue-tied bumbler — the kind of guy Joe Six-pack would like to have a beer with — turning a blind eye to his dark underside. It mattered not that he stocked his illicit administration with the worst of the worst: John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Gale Norton, Paul O'Neill, Harvey Pitt, Thomas White, John Negroponte, Otto Reich and convicted Iran-contra felon Elliot Abrams who received a 1992 Christmas Eve pardon from George W.'s father. Click here for whole story. (Bev Conover, Online Journal)

For many of us raised in lower middle-class families, our aspirations to moremore wealth, more recognition, more luxury, more acceptance by the upper classwere sated somewhat during the nation’s economic good times. We were able, for a minute, to forget that we really were one pay check or contract from the streets, as our parents might have been but for unions. We were able, for a minute, to pretend to be part of the beautiful people, however we defined the term.

This, friends, is another mea culpa which I hope will be instructive to those who fail to support OWS (Occupy Wall Street) in every possible way. I am, I think, very much an Everywoman in this, or if not Every, at least Verymanywoman.

Heady times on the East Side
As much as I hate to admit it, we attended church in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and not just any church, THE Episcopal Church in Manhattan, St. Thomas. It is beautiful, a French Gothic cathedral nestled amongst the international boutiques of Fifth Avenue. We lived nearby, on the WEST side. Still, it was only an eight-minute walk. (Later, we moved on up to the East Side, still one contractwe were freelancersaway from living in a packing crate over a warm, if odiferous, sewer grate, like the wheezing fat woman who slept in hers beneath the buttresses of OUR church.)

We loved the church. It was hard not to. The Rector was a supremely well-educated, well-connected and absolutely rigorous Englishman who seemed to appreciate our slightly off-kilter reactions to things, our willingness to serve, and our ability to use the proper fork.  He appointed us to all sorts of thingsus being me and my second husband. We were happy; it seemed we had been accepted, and all we had to do was genuflect and contribute.

The music was world-class, too. What a church! And there, we met one of the many clergy on staff and his family. They lived on the East Side, a bit farther from the church, and light years away from living in a packing crate over the sewer grates at St. Thomas. We became friends, spent Christmases together, visited each other’s houses when we moved out to Darien, CT….still one contract away from living in a tent on the Goodwives River, which flows amongst mansions of historic value and stunning beauty. 

We were renting one of those places, a falling-down one. You could see ground if you were vacuuming in the ground-floor sitting room and got close to where the walls met the ancient floorboards. Beetle damage, we later learned. We might be able to afford to buy the house at its fire-sale price, about $250,000, but repairing it to livable standard would cost twice that. We could live in this historic home in frozen misery, but could never have afforded to bring it up to snuff. So we moved on. One frozen winter in the epicenter of American snobbery was sufficient, and the promise of Reagan’s trickle-down economy seemed to have frozen in the pipes.

Ashes to ashes
Years and years and years passed. And behold, a dim-witted psychopathic son of one of the nation’s self-proclaimed best families became president. And I became seriously annoyed. No, incensed. I decided the least I could do was include one of Dimwit’s many blunders as a sort of mini-bio at the end of my emails. I lost a couple of clients over it, but then, I really didn’t want to write stuff for insurance companies…although I was a lot less than a whole contract away from living under the trees on smelly Western Run in Baltimore, the skunky trickle that passed for a river behind the formerly luxury apartments I lived in, alone.

One day I got an email from the clergyman. It said that he could well understand how “you people” could disdain the heroic president but if I cared to continue to be “childish,” I needn’t correspond with him in future.

Oh dear. What had happened to our friendship? They had moved, too, to the far West and rented out their Manhattan townhouse to pay the death duties on the $6.5 mil it was worth, as it wasn’t theirs: they had been freeloading on a parent for decades.

It took me precisely 4 seconds to figure out what had happened. We had been no more than amusing house pets to our rich friends. The Rector had once remarked to my husband that he was glad we were friends with the rich couple. We didn’t understand it at the time; in retrospect, we decided it was so that they could be kept in touch with normal people, people who couldn’t sell a priceless Ashcan School painting they didn’t like to pay private school tuition for their kids. This beat working, you see, becauseanywaythey really didn’t know how to actually work.

So I wrote back, immediately. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but I can tell you, it was not apologetic. I basically torched the sucker, verbally, which was the least I could do after a few decades of being the house pet of the moneyed class, now that I understood. My friends, of course, applauded my action. We had a lot of fun for a while with the word childish, bandied about at odd moments, and with the phrase you people as well.

Trickle-down blew up in my face
How did all this happen? If I had written best-sellers instead of being a journeyman journalist, would I have appended the moronic statements of George W. Bush to my emails as I did? Would I have felt differently if I were a resident of the aeries of the rich and not a late royalty check away from living outdoors beneath the spires of a church that served the moneyed classes of New York so very, very well?  My emails were a possibly pathetic attempt to convince at least one more person of Bush’s unsuitability to lead so much as a walk down the street, never mind a huge, rich, populous nation into endless, lower-class-eating wars.

George W. Bush was deemed suitable because he was of the class of my former friends, those who don’t need to work, which is a good thing, because they don’t know how. And a good part of the rest of the nation was fooled by him, attracted by the thought of being one with him by voting for him, and not realizing that in actuality, they were house pets. 

But this rich owner, unlike the people I allowed to keep me in ignorance for too long, was abusive. After a small taste of fresh milk, Americans of every class but upper were to be treated not only to the toe of a boot, but to the added abuse of all Bush’s cronies, conspiring together because, suddenly, they didn’t need the house pets anymore. House pets became expendable, more trouble than they were worth. And so, now, those house pets are camped by the river, looking for a way to regain a place even in the shadow of the house, somewhat protected from the elements, if not the coveted place at the rich man’s fire.

It is pitiful. It is as pitiful as my supposed friendship with the Swell Family was. The swells of every stripe have revealed themselves as false friends, as those who will kick the house pet out into traffic as soon as the house pets become troublesome, think for themselves, or understand that there is not one single thing their government has done since George W. Bush moved into the mansion that was not insulting and designed to make everyone not of his lofty strata live in sewers and eat shit.

Frank Rich penned a recent, well-reseached and lengthy column in the New York Times about class warfare. Read it here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Old-Time Religion: What the Baggers ain't got

Disclaimer: I am not a follower of any religion, although I count myself among those informed by the Episcopal rubric which dependsmore than most, I thinkon a common-sense approach to the valuable insights and teachings of a very important Jewish rabbi of antiquity, Joshua Ben Joseph of Nazareth. One of his mentors, Joseph of Arimathea, is thought by many to have taken Joshua to southwest England to study with druids, a reasonable thought considering the mysticism that permeates the teachings of Joshua Ben Joseph. And contrary to the beliefs of the uniformed, there was abundant trade between the southern Mediterranean and the British Isles back then.

St. Benedict of Nursia (Fra Angelico; Wiki Commons)

It is a shame that the religious right knows so little about religion. From their actions, it seems doubtful that most Tea Baggers have ever heard of The Rule of St. Benedict. It might surprise the Tea Baggers that both St. Benedict and the Gospels they claim to love encourage socialism. For example, Acts 4:35 notes that, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need.” Sounds socialist to me.

The early monasteries, particularly those in Ireland as chronicled by Thomas Cahill in his book How The Irish Saved Civilization, were the western founts of learning for hundreds of years. The monks, in all that time, must have figured out a thing or two. With or without the ‘god parts,’ the Rule of St. Benedict, venerating as it does a sober, sanctified, charitable, wisdom-bearing approach to daily life in a coherent community, might well be a road-map for a modern approach to otherwise almost insurmountable problems, the problems of lack of work, lack of health care, lack of food and clothing, lack of respect for others. In short, charity in all its guises. If only the “godly” right wing recognized the Rule, or any part of it.
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (The New Testament, King James version, Matthew 22:37-40)
The best Benedict, whose Rule informs thoughtful lives today
St. Benedict (a far cry from the current Pope of that name) was a Roman Catholic monk of the sixth century who set forth the totality of ways monks were to behave and the manner in which the self-sufficient monasteries were to be run. In times of economic stress, it would seem his Rule might have much to say to modern populations. The thrust of the Rule was to care for others before self. There are at least half a dozen specific instructions which, if the right-wing pseudo-Christians knew their importance and attempted to follow them, might change the landscape of current political discourse in the US.

Those few important rules are:
  • To relieve the poor
  • To hate no one
  • To visit the sick
  • Not to be arrogant
  • To guard one’s mouth against evil and vicious speech
  • Not to abandon charity
Those are among about 75 rules in all, including the ten commandments as the very first ones. But perhaps the one I like best of all is the last of those six, as it covers all the rest.

Charity begins…one hopes
Abandoning charity is the very thing the pseudo-Christians who inhabit the right-wing of political America have done, and done very nearly completely. A rundown, rule by rule:

Relieve the poor
The right wing does not wish to relieve the poor, especially not if those poor come from afar (like Mexico, for example), rather than within their own state at best, or the nation if they must be that generous. If they must. Not by choice. Never.

Hate no one
Far from hating no one, they seem to hate just about everyone. They hate them so much that foolish men like Herman Cain can, with a straight face, tell people that if they don’t have a job, it’s their own fault. Inanely, he can tell them that in an economy that fails by a good ten percent or more in providing jobs for all workers.

Visit the sick
Even if one or two Baggers occasionally visit people in the hospital, they do not, for all intents and purposes, visit the sick.  These days, visiting the sick might be taken to mean providing for the care of the sick, since medicine is far to complex for most of us to do anything ourselves except provide ways for professionals to attend to the problems.  They seem to have taken a vow of ignorance regarding understanding the true horror of a large community lacking universal access to health care.

It is unthinkable that a monk or even those who worked as lay people in the monastery, or even travelers or visitors would be turned away by the monastery’s infirmarer. No abbot worth his salt would have tolerated such a state of affairs. 

Whether health care consists of the herbs and leeches of the middle ages, or the sophisticated diagnostic equipment and medications of today, it is intolerable that a cohesive communitythe United States, for instanceshould not provide care for its members.

It is unchristian, for one thing. For another, it is just plain stupid. A community with a number of sick members and no help for them is asking for contagion and plagues, a breakdown of work life, a diminishing of the community sooner rather than later. Sick people can worship neither God nor mammon; sick people cannot build  a community that serves all, and they  cannot expand that community and help others. Failing to care for the sick is, at any level since contagion may affect all equally, just plain stupid.

Do not be arrogant
The Tea Baggers are arrogant in the extreme.

Without any visible powers of discernment, without benefit of a belief in anything except their own short-term gain, without a frame of reference to the historical failures and successes of the universe in human terms, they nonetheless think their self-referential desires should determine how a community/nation runs. In their arrogance, they believe others to be less worthy than they. Among those they regard as less worthy, they include younger people, artists and craft workers, the marginally self-employed, the low-paid, those they see as lazy, the infirm, those of other beliefs, those of other colors and backgrounds ad infinitum. The Baggers are, indeed, the Philistines of our age, denigrating culture, art, and most of all, spirituality.

Guard against evil and vicious speech
They do not guard their mouths against evil and vicious speech. Indeed, the celebrate and heap honors upon those who might be chosen as role models for how NOT to live a thoughtful, Christian (or Jewish or Hindu, etc.) life. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, to take two sterling examples, trade on their own arrogance in consigning to perdition any person who disagrees with them in the least trifle. Vicious hardly begins to describe Coulter’s speech; evil is inherent in almost every opinion Limbaugh utters. And yet, they both think they are good Christians. I doubt they’d want to debate that with St. Benedict. Although I’d love to watch them try.

Charity: The idea that giving…in every way…is better for everyone than taking
The religious right in America has abandoned charity, in the particulars above and many more. Charity is far more than giving your old clothes to the Purple Heart. It is far more than putting a dollar in the collection plate during the one day a year you go to church, hedging your bets against the possible actual existence of god. It is more than refraining from commenting on your friend’s horrible new hairdo. It is more than passing by a Mercedes with a man slumped over the wheel and doing nothing because, “Hell, he’s rich; he can just dial for an ambulance on his own cell phone.”

Charity is the practice of finding out what help you can render, and doing that. Period. The Jews call it a mitzvah, a good deed. Not a deed done for your own good. It must be selfless, and doing it anonymously is a plus. It includes donating to causes you believe in; it also includes praising others for donating to causes they believe in even if those causes are not yours. Baggers have bashed me for supporting animal rescue organizations before human-oriented ones, forgetting that by giving us dominion over the animals, as their god said, we are also given responsibility for them. They fail to understand that by donating to any helping organizationwhether it is people or animals being helpedone is increasing the net supply of kindness in the world, decreasing the net experience of suffering, and actually attending to their god’s business.

Baggers just plain fail to understand, because they fail to empathize. They fail to embrace charity at its most basic. How do the supporters of draconian anti-immigration laws know what an illegal immigrant might have faced at home? They don’t. Worse, they don’t care to know. They insulate themselves from the suffering of immigrants, as well as the jobless and those who need medical care they cannot get. Their arrogant is clear in the ways in which they wrap studious ignorance around themselves like an impenetrable cloak.

No illusions
I have no illusions that one Tea Bagger will recognize himself or herself in any of this; I have no illusions that a Tea Bagger will read it. So I am preaching to the choir. 

If I were a Christian, I might chide myself for saying it is not likely the godless religious fundamentalists will take any of this to heart. So it’s a good thing I’m not a Christian, though I don’t imagine I can say that with impunity. I expect, actually, to be pilloried from both the right and the left on this, no matter how many times I insist that I am actually an existentialist informed via an Episcopalian background, and leavened by a soup├žon of intense exposure to the ideas and community of classical Judaism.