Monthly Archives: May 2013

MUDDLING THROUGH LIFE

Throughout the history of mankind, there has been a fairly constant portion of the populace that has lived either extremely well, sort of average, or rather poorly. The percentage of people in these categories rarely varies. For example, in today’s population about one to perhaps five percent of people at the top live lavish existences. In most cases, genetic inheritances have conspired to endow these people with either great mental or physical attributes and talents. Exploiting these talents has usually opened the gateway to fabulous riches and great fame. The time period that one lives in is also a prominent factor. For example, if Michael Jordan, who made hundreds of millions of dollars because of his great athletic abilities, had been born a century ago, when there was no basketball, he might have wound up working in a steel factory, or some other menial job that required strong physical endurance. Same with all the new computer geniuses who have become recent billionaires. If they lived a hundred years ago when the greatest technological advance was the electric light, it’s doubtful they would have been rolling in the riches they now enjoy. Sometimes one is fortunate enough to inherit great wealth, which also puts them in the top 5 percent. I’ve always maintained that no amount of hard work or careful planning can ever replace sheer, dumb luck. In any event, these top 5 percent usually live conspicuously materialistic lives by owning great mansions, often overlooking breathtakingly beautiful oceans or other bodies of water, as well as expensive cars, yachts, jets, etc., and often go globetrotting around the world. But does it necessarily make them happier people? Not all the time as we shall see.

Then there is about another 10-15% of the populace whose lives have turned out quite badly. Either because, again, of genetic or environmental circumstances, their lives have gone downhill almost from the start of their earliest years. Many wind up as petty, or serious criminals, trying to make a living by stealing, peddling drugs, gunrunning, or through other illicit means. Some are killed even as teenagers or people in their twenties. Many wind up in jail, often for long periods of incarceration. Or if they’re petty criminals, they often spend much of their lives in and out of prisons. Life in jail is about as bad as it can get while still being alive. Cooped up in a tiny, semi-private cell, eating bad food, often with little or nothing to do for years on end; it doesn’t get much worse than that. Sometimes people’s lives turn out badly through no fault of their own. The loss of a loved one; for example, a parent losing a child, will quite often lead to some very bad results. Like drowning one’s sorrows in drugs or alcohol. Others suffer because they’ve inherited or experienced great physical traumas or mental debilitations. Like long-term depression that send people into a deep abyss that they can’t climb out of. Or PTSD often experienced by active or ex-military because of battlefield events; but also because of being victims of violent crime such as rape. I recently read a rather jolting statistic. About 25 active or retired military A DAY, commit suicide, often because of post-trama-stress-disorder. Do the math and see what that equates to in a year.

So there you have about 20% of the populace either living sumptuously or badly. The rest of us 80% are somewhere in the middle. And often our lives consist mainly of muddling through on a day-to-day basis. There are the upper affluent classes, usually populated by those with high-paying careers; i.e. doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, engineers, stock brokers, successful business owners, computer hardware or software designers, etc. And then there are those toward the lower end of the totem pole such as the people behind the cash register at your local 7-11 or other like retail establishments; or those driving trucks hundreds of miles and then having to schlep heavy boxes off these trucks. But there are equalizers. Those with highly paid and successful professions often have to be able to cope with tight deadlines or other  stressful business pressures that lower paid individuals seldom face. A bad decision or  the inability to smoothly work with the boss can cost one his or her job. Should that happen the loss of income or prestige can also drive one to suicide. When the 1929 stock market crashed, affluent stock brokers found that the total loss of their material wealth to be unbearable; and some threw themselves to their deaths out of the windows of Manhattan skyscrapers.

Thus, a unique aspect of the human condition is that fame and fortune are not necessarily a guarantor of ones mental well-being. It all comes down to what’s going on in one’s brain. Yes, living in a lavish mansion and being able to view a picturesque waterfall from the bedroom window will do a lot more for one’s sense of well being than having to spend one’s days in some inner city, rat-infested slum. But that’s only part of the story.  Consider that several pop culture figures that achieved unbelievable wealth and adoration from screaming fans, nevertheless, wound up doing themselves in. Such as Elvis, or Marilyn Monroe. To say nothing of Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. All of whom, for one reason or another, sought out death decades before their time was up. All of whom had achieved what billions of people on this planet wouldn’t even dare to dream of. Maybe the grass isn’t always greener in the other guy’s backyard.

So maybe, the option that most of us live by on a day-to-day-basis, that of muddling through with the problems of life, of living from paycheck-to-paycheck, of putting off from one day to the next whatever we can get away with, etc. isn’t such a bad deal. Kind of reminds me of a poem written by the 1920s poet, Edward Arlington Robinson. The poem was called “Richard Corey” who was a fabulously wealthy individual living in a town populated by poor blue collar workers. He lived in a great mansion on the hill but was always the epitome of politeness and courtesy to all the town’s folk. He would never fail to tip his hat to the ladies and inquire about their well-being. All the town’s people were so envious of Richard Corey, especially when comparing him to their meager, hard-scrabble lives. The ending lines of the poem go as follows:

So while we toiled and sweated, and cursed our daily bread; Richard Corey went home; one calm summer night; and put a bullet in his head.

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SCANDAL

Roughly 40 years ago, President Richard Nixon was running for re-election against what turned out to be a weak and ineffectual Democratic opponent named George McGovern. All the polls, at the time, showed that Nixon was comfortably ahead and would win an easy re-election. (He eventually carried 49 states and won in a landslide.) Not withstanding Nixon’s large lead in the polls, a group of low level Republican hacks decided that they would break into Democratic campaign headquarters and steal whatever campaign information might be available, in order to further help Nixon’s re-election efforts. Being the original gang that couldn’t shoot straight, these idiot hacks were caught in the act by the D.C. police. The Democratic campaign headquarters they broke into happened to be located in a newly-built, apartment-house, condominium complex known as Watergate. It was a very pricy  establishment located on the banks of the Potomac, in Washington D.C.

Since Nixon had nothing to do with okaying this break-in, the sensible thing to have done, would have been to denounce these hacks, state that the White House had no role in authorizing the break-in, and offer that the perpetrators would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Had he done this, the so-called Watergate scandal would have never taken root or blossomed, and Nixon could have completed his presidency on a high-note. But although Nixon had achieved major accomplishments during his first term, (ending the Viet-Nam war, establishing diplomatic relations with Communist China, creating the Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, etc.) he possessed one fatal flaw. He was highly paranoid. He believed he was beset by enemies (the opposition) who were out to “get him.” This led to him creating “enemies lists” of people who he would try to destroy before they could destroy him. By sending IRS agents out to hound them, for example.

Because of Nixon’s paranoia, he and his White House staff decided to cover-up key facts about the break-in. Like who authorized it in the first place, and where the cash had come from to fund the operation. At the time, there were 2 young reporters at the local newspaper, the Washington Post, who were assigned to the political beat and were eager to prove their chops, named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Hence, these two reporters dug deeper and deeper into the White House coverup of the events surrounding the break-in at Watergate. They developed an inside source at the WH who kept feeding them never-before revealed facts. They called their source “Deep Throat” (after a famous porno movie that was in the theaters at that time) in order to protect his identity.  There were also Senate hearings and other investigations on-going, and  the Watergate scandal grew larger by the week. Key WH aides were forced to resign in the wake of the scandal. Finally, when it was obvious that Nixon himself would be impeached and removed from office by Congress, Nixon resigned the presidency. The only president in the history of the Republic to be forced out of office. Woodward and Bernstein were lauded across the country, for the greatest act regarding the written word since Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 commandments. In the 40 years since, every reporter, or anyone who has ever worked in the media, has dreamed of achieving similar fame by cooking up another Watergate. But it ain’t gonna happen; or at least it’s highly unlikely. Sometimes you just can’t replicate the original.

This all became relevant because, here, in the first-half of 2013, the Obama administration has suddenly been hit by 3 significant scandals, which has many Republicans and other assorted Obama-haters licking their chops in anticipation that Obama, like Nixon before him, can be forced out of office. (Of course, should this happen, it would only result in Joe Biden becoming president, who the looney-tunes right-wingers despise even more than Obama. If that was possible.) These scandals have, like Watergate, all resulted from the stupidity of Administration officials, so lets take a look and see what’s there.

Scandal No. 1: Benghazi. This one has been festering since last September when our Ambassador to Libya and 3 of his protectors were murdered by terrorists in Benghazi. First of all, the Ambassador should have been in Libya’s capital, which is Tripoli, instead of war-torn Benghazi. Seems he was there to check up on some CIA covert operation. In any event, the criticism of the Benghazi fiasco is two-fold. The first is regarding the fact that there was insufficient troop or Marine protection for the Ambassador in Benghazi, and calls to send in the cavalry for rescue operations after the attacks had begun, went largely ignored by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and, obviously, by the President himself. Secondly, after the 4 had been murdered, the Administration had put out a false narrative, stating that a YouTube video critical of Islam had so inflamed the local crowd, that angry mob actions were responsible for the murders. Clearly everyone in the Administration knew that the murders occurred due to carefully crafted terrorist attacks. So people were asleep at the switch beforehand, and put out idiotic comments after the fact. But if stupidity and lack of foresight were impeachable offenses, every president since since George Washington would have had to be removed from office. Early in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s first term, 241 U.S. Marines stationed in Lebanon were blown up by terrorists one night, while they were asleep in their barracks. Should we go back and retroactively impeach Ronald Reagan, because people in his administration were similarly asleep at the switch.

Scandal No. 2: The IRS Fiasco. Seems that certain IRS offices were giving Tea Party and other right-wing political groups a really hard-time when they attempted to establish tax-free statuses for their organizations. Yes, IRS agents should not be targeting anyone for their political affiliations. Extremely stressful to have IRS picking you out of the line-up for special attention, especially when it regards one’s beliefs. But the larger question is why the government is giving tax-free status to any political organization-be they right-wing, left-wing or in the center.Tax-free status should be limited to genuine human or animal charities and maybe religious organizations. No wonder we’re so broke. It’s time to stop these piece-of-crap political groups from raiding the U.S. treasury.

Scandal No.3: The AP E-mails. The Government had an informant on the inside of a major terrorist group planning some dastardly acts against the U.S. Someone in the Administration leaked his name to the Associated Press, who in an act of total and unbelievable stupidity, printed all of this, thereby jeopardizing the life of the informant. I feel so much safer now that this info has been made public. The Attorney General’s office has been trying to find the source of this leak by secretly delving into AP e-mails. Perhaps not the smartest thing to do, but certainly understandable given the circumstances. Nothing really much here that resembles another Watergate.

So there you have it: three supposed scandals meant to drive Obama from office, or at the very least, prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency in 2016. As I said before, looney-tunes Republicans are drooling over the prospects of either, or, both happening. Stay tuned to this channel to see how these on-going sagas play out.

 

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LIVING OSTENTATIOUSLY

The wife and I went to see “The Great Gatsby” over this past weekend. This is about the fourth iteration Hollywood has produced of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel. Overall, I would rate the movie, maybe a B-. There was lots of glitter and glitz, as the movie tried to capture the flamboyance of the 1920s. Lots of  ostentation, great costuming and hair styling, and great ornate design work in the mansions that housed the over-the-top partying that occurred among the rich and famous of the 1920s. But the movie came up short on substance. Indeed, it seemed to be glorifying the very flamboyant life-style that Scott Fitzgerald was condemning in his novel. Which was the phoniness, boredom, cynicism, and lack of purpose that existed among the upper crust at that time. And likely still does to this day.

The story takes place in one of the great mansions built by one of the ultra rich, (a rather mysterious fellow named Jay Gatsby) in the Hamptons on Long Island. One must have millions piled on top of millions just pay the property taxes levied on one of these properties; and today the Hamptons are still considered one of the top playgrounds of the rich and famous. Back in the 1920s, the rich would throw huge, lavish parties in these mansions to distract themselves from the lack of meaning in their lives. Daisy, who is Gatsby’s love interest, at the outset admits she’s bored and cynical about everything in life. So what better distraction than to throw huge, lavish parties, with bootleg booze flowing like the River Ganges, lots of ear-splitting music, and continually doing the Charleston to wile away the blues. This type of superficiality  and shallowness is the essence of Fitzgerald’s condemnation. New money often made in the in the booming stock market or through selling bootleg liquor, vied with old money ( you know, guys like the Rockefellers, Morgans and Carnegies, etc.) to see who could garner the most attention and publicity for living ostentatiously. Today it’s more the style to keep this type of ostentation under wraps. Too many bad guys around that would like to get in on the action.

Scott Fitzgerald’s life is an interesting story in itself. Like many artists, he enjoyed only the very modest of successes during his short lifetime. Being a heavy drinker with health problems, he died of a heart attack at the tender age of 40. “Gatsby’s” success as a great American novel wouldn’t be realized until well after he was gone. In that, he joined a large list of artists, writers and composers who often died penniless, with the greatness of their works not recognized until well after their deaths. Van Gogh is a prime example. In any event, Fitzgerald’s life was often overshadowed by his flamboyant wife Zelda. She came from Southern money, and gave drinking and partying a whole new dimension. The Fitzgeralds were part of the American expatriate group of artists living in Paris during the 1920s. These included Hemingway, of course, as well as Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Salvatore Dali, and several others. Besides trying to become famous for their works, the expatriates were known for their heavy drinking and partying. Not as lavish as those parties in the Hamptons, but quite legendary in their own right. And chief among the heavy drinkers was Zelda Fitzgerald . She and Scott had a tempestuous marriage and eventually separated. Zelda was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and spent many years in and out of mental institutions. She also died at a fairly young age, in her 50s, I believe. If you’re interested in capturing the flavor of what life was like among the expatriates, it’s shown in a movie that came out several years ago- Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”  A really, really good movie compared to this current version of “Gatsby.”

Compared to life today, the 1920s were almost an era of serenity. It was after the conclusion of WWI and America quickly dis-armed and went back to being an isolationist nation. After all, being surrounded by two large oceans would preclude us from getting into any further foreign entanglements, or so the thinking went. About the biggest worry on people’s minds was wether Babe Ruth would break the home run record by hitting 60 homers in one season, which he did in 1927. Both business and the stock market were booming. Prohibition was in effect which made obtaining and drinking bootleg liquor that much more fun. The roadways began to proliferate with that new-fangled invention, the automobile, which was made famous by Henry Ford’s Model T. There was lots of cash to be made in the stock market since everyone knew that stocks could only go one way, and that was up, right? The Government did virtually nothing, but who cared? Everyone was doing so well. Calvin Coolidge was President for 6 years in that decade, and actually cut the Government budget by  the time he left office. ( I wrote a previous piece about Silent Cal’s tenure as President if you’re interested in more detail.)

And then one day, this great American dream of peace and prosperity evaporated like the morning mist. The stock market crashed in 1929, and people’s lives, by the tens of millions, were virtually destroyed, almost overnight. People were jumping out of buildings to their death, as mind-numbing poverty slowly oozed over the nation, and covered the landscape. They stopped doing the Charleston in the Hamptons. Even in foreign affairs America’s dreams of being an isolationist nation began to disintegrate, as the twin evils of Hitler’s Nazism in Europe, and Japan’s militarism in the Pacific, marched ahead with unstoppable relentlessness.

Today there are those that would like to to return American society and Government back to those simpler days of the 1920s. When one could make a fast buck in the stock market and live flamboyantly with great ostentation. Who wouldn’t want that. But it’s never going to happen. The Tea Party movement which made such a big splash in 2010 has delusional dreams that somehow the clock can be set backwards. But life now has become so much more complex and complicated, that going back to the days of Silent Cal is a monumental pipe dream. The war against terrorism is an example of today’s complexities. Besides we all know how well life turned out the way it was lived in the 1920s.

 

 

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OF PATRIOTS AND SCOUNDRELS

Most or all of you probably never hear of Major General Edwin Walker. He fought in WWII and then in the Korean war, and as I indicated, rose to the rank of major-general. But he was heavily invested into deep right wing politics, which at the time, (late 1950s to mid-1960s) meant being virulently anti-communist, and preserving Jim Crow racist segregation laws that existed throughout the South, and to a lesser extent in the North. In September, 1957, the courts decreed that segregation in the Little Rock Ark. public school system was unconstitutional, and ordered the schools to be immediately integrated. The man that was Governor of Arkansas at the time, a delightful chap named Orval Faubus, was thoroughly racist and a firm believer in segregation. So when 9 black school children tried to enter what was then an all-white high school, Faubus ordered out the Arkansas national guard to block their entry into that school. After trying for 18 days, unsuccessfully, to persuade Faubus to reverse course, President Eisenhower ordered federal troops into Little Rock to escort the 9 black children into an all-white school. Leading those federal troops was General Walker. Although, as I’ve said, he was a staunch believer in segregation, he was, nevertheless, forced to obey his commander-in-chief’s orders. With that, a major hole in the wall of segregation that the South had erected, was blown open. Of course, the white population of Little Rock were beside themselves in fury at the forced school integration; and Faubus described the federal troops as an army of occupation.

Although being forced to command the troops that led the way to successfully integrating Little Rock Central High, Walker never changed his segregationist views. He became prominent in the John Birch Society, which was not only a virulently anti-communist organization;  but also a strong advocate of racial segregation. They believed that segregation was God’s will, so that anyone opposing segregation was obviously a godless communist or communist-sympathizer. In the early 1960s, after being accused of trying to indoctrinate his troops with John Birch Society propaganda,  Walker left the Army and began making political speeches around the country. He called Eleanor Roosevelt and former President Harry Truman communist sympathizers. He flew the American flag upside at his Texas home to demonstrate that the U.S. had been taken over by commies and pinkos with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Then in 1961, the courts ordered that a black man named James Meredith be allowed to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi, (Ole Miss.) The Governor of Mississippi at the time was Ross Barnett, who made Orval Faubus seem like a mild-mannered pussy cat.

Barnett went on a fiery, speechmaking tour throughout the state, with Edwin Walker at his side, denouncing the evils of integration, and the big, bad federal government that imposed such evils. After all, the Feds actions were clearly unconstitutional; a violation of states rights enumerated in the tenth amendment. States rights became the rallying cry for allowing the South to maintain its segregationist laws. Sound familiar? Aren’t states rights kind of what the tea party looney-tunes, and far right politicians like Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum are speechifying these days. In any event, there was a drumbeat of how states rights and the constitution were being violated because the walls of Jim Crowism seemed to be crumbling. Edwin Walker went throughout the country giving speeches about how godless communism was taking over the country with advent of integration. The sad thing was that he drew crowds numbering in the tens of thousands or more, all wildly cheering virtually everything he said. He ran for Governor of Texas, but even that deep Southern state rejected his craziness. He died in 1993, declaring to the end that godless communism was destroying America. Oh, and James Meredith was eventually admitted to Ole Miss, which further led to the destruction of Jim Crowism in the South.

This is sort of a long-way around of coming to the point, which is the National Rifle Association convention held in Houston, TX last week. The same sort of right-wing whackoism that was on display around 50 years ago regarding violation of the 10th Amendment’s states rights, was similarly on display at the NRA convention regarding the Feds violation of the 2nd Amendment regarding the right to bear arms. The parallels are remarkably eerie. Over 70 thousand people purportedly attended this convention to hear speaker-after-speaker denounce the Federal government for trying to pass some mild legislation that would prevent people with serious mental problems from obtaining firearms. Why this legislation was just a ruse to confiscate guns from honest, god-fearing gun-owners. Everyone there knew that Barack Obama would personally give the order for the military to roll their tanks down every street in the nation; and go door-to-door confiscating everyone’s firearms. That would leave all the honest folk defenseless against all the bad guys out there who apparently had no trouble at all obtaining guns. But the NRA, which is now supposedly 5 million strong, vowed that they would never allow this type of unconstitutional heresy to occur. Any politician supporting any type of gun control would be made to pay dearly, come election time. And, of course, chief among the speakers denouncing these supposed 2nd Amendment rights violations, were Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin. What’s that old saying-the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1775, British poet, philosopher, and essayist Samuel Johnson, issued the famous statement that-“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Watching the antics going on at the NRA convention, one couldn’t help but think that did he ever hit the nail on the head.

 

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