Monthly Archives: October 2014

THE PLAGUE

“The Plague” written by French existentialist  Albert Camus, should be on everyone’s top ten bucket list to read before dying. Written in 1947, it takes place in an Algerian port city, similar to the one Camus grew up in Algeria. Oran to be specific. At the time Algeria was a French possession, and would not achieve independence until the early 1960s. The Plague deals with issues that were central to French philosophy during WWII years; namely existentialism, the absurd, and humanism. Although the story is ostensibly about infected rats emerging from the city’s sewers and dying in the streets, and then how the disease spreads to the human population who also start dying in large numbers; it is said to actually be an allegory about the horrors of WWII. The basic message of The Plague is that the world, and, indeed, the universe, is often senseless and indifferent to human suffering, which is unceasing and torturous. If you don’t believe so, think of a parent’s worst nightmare-which is the loss of a child. A nightmare they can never recover from. Nevertheless, Camus believed we should always fight the good fight against all this suffering, as the doctor fought unceasingly against the disease in The Plague. Although, in the end, that battle will inevitably be lost. Remember, this book was written shortly after WWII with all its horrors of concentration camps and death; so pessimism concerning the human condition abounded everywhere, especially in Europe. Camus did fight in the French underground and got to see the horrors of war up close.

In a godless, absurd, and uncaring universe, Camus made the case that compassionate humanism was the only rational course for human existence. I was thinking about “The Plague” recently, especially with its latest outbreak concerning the Ebola virus, with the death and destruction it has already caused, and it reminded me of my misspent youth immersed in French existentialism. I have written before about my dalliance with humanism and existentialism when I was in college in New York, and how I had three close friends with the same interests. About how the four of us would work after school during the tax season for an accountant named Herman Lord, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The four of us read virtually all the works of French existentialists such as Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, Andre Gide, and others. Like the French writers, we fancied ourselves to be atheistic existentialists in a cold and indifferent world and universe. Thus, the irony was not lost on us that we went to work for a man named Lord. When we came into his office, we would profusely bow with great flourish, and refer to him as The Lord. One day he finally lost his temper and yelled that if we didn’t cut that shit out, the four of us would be looking for a new job immediately. We still went on referring to him as The Lord, amongst ourselves, if not to his face. After all, it seemed like destiny that us 4 atheists would wind up working for The Lord.

As I’ve said, his office was in the Bed-Sty section of Brooklyn which was virtually all black at the time. It was the Brooklyn equivalent to Harlem. But this was the mid-1950s, when New York, and indeed, the rest of the country was still peaceful and the crime rate was low. Often I would be the only one in the office, (besides the client, of course), and not lock up until about 9:PM. Usually, my car would be the only one parked on the street. Yet I never had any fear for my safety, or for my car being ripped off. Even my mother, who was a professional worrier, never had a concern about my working nights in Bed-Sty. So how did it all turn so violent as we moved into the 1960s. Cities burning often repeatedly, crime surging, massive illegal drug dealing and usage, huge demonstrations and protests, relentless poverty, inner-city rat infested slums, unpopular and unnecessary war, and a host of other ills burst upon the American scene. It seemed that the relative tranquility we experienced during the 1950s was, indeed, an aberration.

And so it was, as the facade of a peaceful American society papered over huge social and political problems. Blacks were routinely segregated and treated as semi-slaves in the South. There were huge gaps in wealth between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and even between men and women. Minorities were fed-up with being relegated to inner-city slums, as well as dealing with Jim Crowism. The war in Viet-Nam, started because of our neurotic fear of communism, would go on to take close to 60,000 American lives as well as hundreds of thousands of Viet-Namese. And the plague of violence that spread across America after the 1950s, would, over decades, go on to infect the rest of the world, that is today caught up in Islamic-terrorism. We swallowed a healthy dose of that terrorism on 9/11 and in terrorist strikes on American soil since then. But large chunks of Northern Africa and Asia are currently subjected to the terrorist plague of almost daily beheadings and massive killings. And the beat goes on.

Albert Camus died in a car accident in Algeria in 1960. I would like to believe that he would have appreciated the absurdity of such a hugely important literary figure dying in such a mundane manner. My friends and I grieved over his death as if we had lost a parent. A major voice for reason  and sanity and compassion in the human condition had abruptly been silenced. We were now truly alone in an indifferent and uncaring universe. How frightening is that.

 

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AMERICA’S FAUX DEMOCRACY

In 1931, humorist, vaudeville performer, and radio personality, Will Rogers made the following statement: “Congress is so strange; a man gets up to speak and says nothing; nobody listens; and then everybody disagrees.” And he must have been peering into the future when he also made the statement that: “America has the best politicians that money can buy.” I wonder what he would have thought of the dysfunctional, hyper-partisonship that exists in Congress at the present time. We could use someone with the wit and humor of a Will Rogers to cope with our ongoing destructive political system that is virtually non-functioning in the year 2014. I bring this up now because the elections for many Governors, Congressmen and women, Senators, etc. takes place in a mere 2 weeks from tomorrow. For those of you that believe that election time shows that we have a real democracy in this country- all I can say is – how quaint, how deliciously naive that thinking is. An examination of the facts might disabuse you of that notion.

The first thing to realize is that election results in this country are mostly decided by the people that fail to show up at the voting booth, rather than those that take the time to cast their ballots. In a presidential election year, perhaps 55%-60% of eligible voters might show up at the polls. In a non-presidential election year, however, such as 2014, only about 40%-45% bother to vote. The rest are too busy keeping up with the Kardashians. This year all the pollsters are predicting large Republican gains in both the House and Senate. It is universally predicted that the GOP will take control of the Senate so that both houses of Congress will be under Republican domination. The reason- Republicans are much more motivated to vote against anything Barack Obama stands for, and that, of course, includes voting against Democratic candidates. On the other hand, it appears that most minority voters, including blacks, Latinos, and Asians  who turned out in such large numbers in 2008 and 2012 to elect Obama to the presidency twice, will mostly stay home this year. It seems they’re quite disappointed with the way events have turned out under Democratic leadership. Without an especially heavy turnout of blacks and hispanics, Democratic prospects this year are doomed. A classic example of how the non-voting public, which will be a majority of the population this year, determines election outcomes. In Australia, all eligible voters are required by law, to cast their ballots in each election. After all, isn’t that each citizen’s civic duty? A similar law in this country might improve the democratic process we’re supposed to have, but really don’t.

Next up is the considerable role that money plays in the voting process. The hit Broadway show, “Cabaret,” has a song that says “money makes the world go around,” and this is especially true in the political arena. Anyone with political aspirations from dog-catcher on up to president, knows that it will take huge cash infusions to make that goal come true. Multi-millionaires and billionaires continue to pour heavy donations into their favorite political candidate’s coffers, which then buys all those obnoxious and annoying political ads we’re subjected to on television during each election season. Sadly, too many people base their voting decisions on these ads which are at best a collection of half-truths, outright lies, and pure bunk. I wonder if our founding fathers envisioned that the election system, which is supposedly the heart of the democratic process, would turn out in this fashion. Most of these rich donors usually pour their cash into the Republican kitty; but the Democrats have a few rich partisans too. Whichever candidate can out spend his or her opponent usually wins the election. In fact, political cash intakes are often an end-game in itself. Each week, reports come out about which party is ahead in collecting the most donations. The winner usually gets the prize of buying the desired public office. All of this could be obviated if voters ignored all political advertising. and did their own research in deciding who to vote for. But, good luck with that scenario ever taking place.

Another factor in our so-called democratic process is voter suppression. It didn’t take long for those controlling our political system to realize that if they could prevent people who are likely to vote for the opposing party, from voting in the first place, that would be the key to winning elections. In olden days, almost every Southern state had enacted poll tax and written exam legislation, that effectively prevented most blacks and poor whites from casting ballots. That legislation was finally overturned, but the devious will always find alternative methods to achieve their goals. Today voter suppression takes the form of voter ID legislation that has been enacted in almost every state controlled by Republicans-the so-called red states. Since many poor blacks and hispanics, who usually vote Democratic, often lack picture ID, they are denied the right to cast a ballot. Sadly, the Supreme Court has upheld most of these voter ID laws, which have effectively kept the red states redder than ever. So much for democratic principles.

There are, of course, other anti-democratic traditions on-going in this country. The electoral college, which is comprised of 535 men and women, out of a U.S. population of about 312 million, gets to decide who the president will be. Al Gore found this out the hard way in the year 2000, when he was elected president by popular vote, but the electoral college gave the office to George Bush. The fact that elections take place on a Tuesday, when most people have to go to work or school; and in November when there is likely to be rotten weather in most northern states also suppresses voter turnout. I wrote a previous piece on how much saner it would be to hold elections in the good weather of September or early October, and on the weekend when most people are home. Other examples abound but I think you’re getting the picture.

So like a faux handbag, or a faux Rolex timepiece, America’s supposed democratic process looks real- until one examines it up close.

 

 

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BATTLING THE PLAGUE

Man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man throughout the thousands of years of recorded history is, of course, legendary. Tens, if not hundreds of millions of people have been butchered by evil tyrants and bloodthirsty despots. But there has also been hundreds of millions of deaths, to say nothing of untold misery, that has occurred during these same thousands of years that cannot be blamed on mankind’s nefariousness. These deaths are on God’s watch; and they’re due to nothing more than infectious diseases that God has somehow has decided to inflict on the human race. (Also on animals, to a somewhat lesser extent.) They are known as plagues, and while some have been brought under control or wiped out altogether, others are still alive and vigorously plowing a path of destruction through segments of today’s population.

So let’s start with an all-time favorite on the disease hit-parade that goes back to biblical times. Namely leprosy. Leprosy is a bacterial infection, discussed at length in both the old and new testaments, that causes alarming human disfigurement. In it’s worst form, leprosy causes hideous and mainly facial sores along with lumps and bumps and skin lesions. It also produces muscle weakness and numbness in the hands, arms, feet and legs because of nerve damage. In ancient times, no one, of course, knew what caused leprosy; but everyone who was not infected knew they didn’t want any association with those considered to be lepers. So leper colonies were often established where those that were infected could be shipped off to spend their remaining days with other fellow lepers. A leper colony often resembled a collection of the zombies that are portrayed on the TV show, “The Walking Dead.” Except if you were part of the aristocracy. Then you were permitted to wear a facial mask that hid the terrible disfigurement that had become your face, and stay at home in one of your castles. Even then, the top one percent had their own special privileges. Certain kings throughout Europe were known to be lepers, but were allowed to reign, as long as their face was covered by a pleasant-looking, smiling mask.

Leprosy exists to this very day, usually occurring in warm or tropical climates, but is easily curable by antibiotics. About 100 cases a year are recorded in the United States, usually in the South or in Hawaii. Keep in mind, however, that antibiotics have only been around since the end of World War II, or less than 70 years. So all the millions that were infected with this hideous, disfiguring disease prior the the advent of antibiotics, had nothing to look forward to except being herded off to leper colonies for an early death.

The next charmer that would make everyone’s top ten list on the disease hit parade, has to be the bubonic plague, or the black death as it was often known by. This is another bacterial infection, usually spread by rats or mice living in a city’s water or sewage system. Fleas can also transmit this disease to humans. Once people are infected, they can spread the disease quite rapidly to everyone they come in contact with. This disease causes high fevers, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, and red spots on the skin that usually turn black. Hence, the black death. The first recorded deaths from the bubonic plague were in China in the 1330s, A.D. But since China had extensive trading businesses with most European countries, it didn’t take long for the disease to spread throughout Europe. It spread with ferocious speed, quickly claiming thousands of victims. The Italian writer, Boccaccio, said its victims often, “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.” While the disease was usually dormant during the winter, it rose with fury each Spring, as fleas became active again. Over a 5 year period, an estimated 25 million people, or about one-third of Europe’s population at the time, had succumbed to the bubonic plague. It didn’t start to peter out until about 1600, A.D. Today, the black death still exists in small numbers, but is also curable by treatments of antibiotics.

Another all-time favorite has to be tuberculosis  or TB. It usually attacks the lungs and results in convulsive coughing spasms. It’s caused by inhaling the air that has been expelled  by one who is infected. Curiously, not everyone who possesses the TB microbe actually experiences tuberculosis. If one’s immune system is strong enough, one can avoid coming down with the disease. The TB bacteria can live in your body without ever making you sick. But if one’s immune system is compromised, the disease will likely take hold. And then it’s a very nasty business that can only be cured with a high-potentcy antibiotic regimen that can last for months. Millions through the ages have died from TB and it’s still highly active in our present day society. Of course, there are many other infectious killer diseases that I could mention such as small pox, which has largely been eradicated at this time, to influenza, which killed millions during World War I, but is controllable today through vaccinations.

Which brings us to the infectious disease du jour, the Ebola virus. Unlike bacteria, which science has been able to destroy with the invention of antibiotics, there is no comprehensive remedy for a viral infection. Such as the common cold. Thus, a highly infectious virus such as Ebola, can ravage through large populations, killing its victims at will, with no way of stopping it except for quarantine. The trouble is that viruses are so tiny compared to bacteria, that medical science has not been able to come up with effective remedies. Already several thousand people in Africa have died from the latest outbreak of Ebola, and it has now spread minimally to this country. Sadly, most African countries already suffer from mind-numbing poverty, and have neither the sanitation or quarantine means to contain a nasty killer like Ebola. Yes, countries around the world, including the U.S., have pitched in to attempt to quarantine this killer microbe, and will probably, eventually succeed, but not before a few thousand more people will likely die.

As I said at the outset, tyrants throughout the ages have killed hundreds of million of people. That one is on man. But killer diseases that have killed more millions, that one is on God.

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THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE

People have told me that I focus too heavily on all the corrupt and dysfunctional behavior in our society and the world at-large, and not enough on finding solutions to all the myriad of problems I’ve identified. Of course, in almost all instances, the solutions lie in applying a rational, common sense approach toward resolving these issues. But rationality and common sense are often too much to ask of people mired in delusional wastelands, or caught up in the philosophy  of opposing any meaningful change in their lives, or in society as a whole. The way it’s always been has to be the way it always will be, without exception. Life is so much more uncomplicated if we just follow the old traditions, no matter how non-sensical they may be. In any event, I thought I would offer up some solutions to what seem to be intractable deficiencies in the way we go about spending the few short years we have on this planet.

Lets start with the presidency. No matter how corrupt and dysfunctional you may view politics in this country, there is no denying that the President of the United States is the single most powerful person in the world. This is true whether you love or hate politics, or whether you make the sign of the cross to ward of being involved in the political system, as one would try to ward off a vampire attack. The President is the ultimate leader, not only for this country, but for the entire world population. It would, therefore, seem prudent that the process for choosing this person would be well-thought out and highly rational. Instead, just the opposite is true. We have a system for presidential candidate selection that would make any third-world, banana republic blush in shame. First of all, we have essentially a 2 party system that has been hopelessly compromised because of special interest groups. The Republican Party caters to the agenda of religious fanatics, (they call them evangelicals in this country. Sounds so much better than looney-tunes, bible-thumpers.) Also to big money interests in business and on Wall Street. While the Democratic Party is beholden to labor organizations like the teachers unions, and to environmental extremists. These groups represent supposedly the base of each party, and are never to be offended, especially in an election year. There are some third party candidates; but they never seem to garner any traction, and usually wind up getting less than 1% of the vote. And sadly, a third party, beholden to no special interest group, is just what this country needs.

Next comes the party selection process. This would appear to be crucial since one of the two people selected by each party will wind up being, as I’ve said, the most powerful person on the planet. Unfortunately, the selection process has turned out to be a farce almost beyond description. Each party has, what are called primaries, with the earliest one being in January for an election that won’t take place until early November. The small state of New Hampshire used to hold the first primary in February; but then, the even smaller state of Iowa decided to jump the gun. Iowa holds what is called a caucus in January so it can be the first one diving into the political swimming pool. A caucus is where a tiny fraction of the state’s population meets in somebody’s house, or perhaps a school room, and votes on their preference for their party’s nomination. It’s considered a lot if 1 or 2% of the state’s populace bothers to vote in the caucus. Nevertheless, it gives the winning candidate a leg up for winning future primaries and caucuses, at least as far as the media is concerned. Next comes the New Hampshire primary, where also a small number of people turn out to actually cast ballots in an election booth. If a certain candidate wins both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, they’ve garnered huge momentum going into the rest of the primaries, at least as far as the media is concerned. As a result, it’s often likely that that each party’s nominee has the nomination just about locked up before any of the larger states such as New York, California, or Texas hold their own primaries. How irrational.

The sane way would be to have national primary day in late June or early July, whereby all states would vote in either party’s primary on the same day. And instead of being held on a Tuesday, when most people have to be on the job, hold the vote on a weekend when most people are off, or don’t have school. Wouldn’t that be a lot more logical. You might even get better quality candidates this way. But one can almost hear the howls of protest should such a plan be proposed. Especially from people in Iowa and New Hampshire who would lose their special shining spotlight in the primary process. Can’t have this new-fangled thing called sanity entering our political system.

While we’re at it, lets change the time of the actual presidential election to perhaps early October. When the November timeframe was specified in the Constitution, the U.S. was almost exclusively an agricultural society. Our framers believed that by early November, all the crops would have been harvested on American farms, and farmers would no longer have the chores of bringing their produce to market. Today, only 1% of the population is engaged in agriculture. Isn’t it time to change election day to a period when mild weather prevails. We only get about a 60% turn out for a presidential election and far less in a non-presidential election year. Really  bad weather often arrives by early November, at least in Northern states, which further inhibits voter turn out. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have elections in September or early October when there is generally good weather, and have them on a weekend, when people don’t have the excuse for not voting because they had to go to work. I believe you would see much larger voter turn outs. So what are the chances of seeing these rational, common sense reforms being enacted into reality. Probably, between zero and minus zero.

I had planned to write about other major areas of American and world-wide dysfunctional practices that could be changed by simple, common-sense ideas, but I feel my energy level beginning to wane at this point. It’s that senior thing again.

 

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