Of Brutal Binaries and Scale-tipping

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Forget binaries.  Who’s tipping the scale?

W.J. Astore

Citing the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh in particular, Andrew Sullivan claims that America is a land of brutal binaries.  On the surface, his idea appears sound.  Scratch the surface, however, and the idea breaks down.  The problem is that “brutal binaries” sell. They grab attention. They serve to mobilize.  They excite the base, the partisans, people who love to bicker.

But the notion that every issue is reducible to a binary, a 0/1, on/off, win/lose, is most often simplistic and misleading. Perhaps we should think not of computer binaries but of scales.  Entities with power put a finger (or more) on the scale to tip things in their direction. Even as they do this, they claim the scale is equally balanced for all or even tipped against them.  In short, we need to think not about either/or or on/off binaries, but about who has the power – and what they’re willing to say and do to keep and extend it.

Again, my point is to avoid binary computer-speak. The notion I’m 100% right, you’re 100% wrong.  Those who describe debates as “binary” leave no possibility for change or compromise. They see only unbridgeable divides. This is a satisfying notion to the powerful, for they don’t want change. They want to keep the status quo because it profits them. They’re happy to see Americans bickering and fighting and shouting — even as they quietly reap the profits.

So I despair of America’s so-called binary debates. They divide us, distract us, and make us angry. We shake our heads in despair, thinking there’s no way to reach “them,” the other side in the “binary” argument. The truth is different.  Polling data suggests Americans are far more in agreement than we are in disagreement (consider wide support for a higher federal minimum wage and for universal health care), but all we hear about is the divisiveness. Again, this serves the powerful. They’re happy to see us fighting over the scraps as they feast on the choice cuts.

Rather than shouting at each other, Americans need to work together in good faith.  Forget the false binaries, America.  The world is rarely a 0/1, I win/you lose, black/white place.  Even when the scales are tipped, as they so often are, there is common ground.  We’ve found it before – we will again.

The U.S. Postal Service: Ripe for Privatizing?

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W.J. Astore

I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service.  Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.

First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit?  Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service.  But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?

Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).

Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on.  When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.

Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit.  Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking.  Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.

There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy.  Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits.  Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?

In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.

People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service.  While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.

To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education.  We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.

A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it.  A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example.  It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.

What do you think, readers?

On Love

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My Aunt Mary, on the left, with a friend

W.J. Astore

In Memory of My Aunt Mary (died 2012)

When I was in CCD and preparing to be confirmed at St. Patrick’s Church in the late 1970s, our teachers tried to teach us kids what “love” is.  We were asked to give definitions.  As teenagers, we came up with the usual definitions of romantic love, all valentines and holding hands and smooching.

No, our teachers explained, love should be selfless.  It’s not about you.  Love is about giving without expecting anything in return.

Throughout her long life, Aunt Mary demonstrated that kind of love.  She gave to her own mother, caring for her as she aged.  She gave to her sister Corrine through her struggles.  She gave to her brother Gino.  She gave to us all, and she did so with generosity and goodness and grace.  She gave without expecting anything in return.

She loved.

So, if my old CCD teachers asked me today for a definition of love, my answer would be a simple one.  “ ‘Love,’ ” I’d say, “is my Aunt Mary.”

Aunt Mary blessed our lives for 94 years.  Let us give thanks to God that she was with us for so long.  And let us all learn from her shining example the true meaning of love.

Trump and Noxious Notions of Masculinity

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W.J. Astore

A friend recently sent me a passage from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) that resonated with me.  It comes when the main character journeys deep into the future.  He muses about what kind of human beings he will face:

What might not have happened to men? What if cruelty had grown into a common passion? What if in this interval the race had lost its manliness and had developed into something inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful? I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness–a foul creature to be incontinently slain.

Writing in the late Victorian era, Wells put a heavy stress on manliness that is decidedly unfashionable today.  Yet his description of manliness is interesting: he contrasts it to men who are “inhuman, unsympathetic, and overwhelmingly powerful.”  For Wells, true manliness taps humane qualities; it values sympathy; it resists being consumed by a will to power.

And it struck me that in men like Trump, a portion of the dystopic future Wells envisions in The Time Machine is now.  For Trump, being “manly” is about acquiring power, commanding obedience, forcing other men to submit while grabbing pussy whenever you can.  It’s a noxious notion of masculinity, an unsympathetic, even an “inhuman” one.

Another interesting passage I came across this week appears in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity (1980). The main female character in that book, a Canadian economist by the name of Marie, muses about the men she’s encountered in government employ, at the highest and most secretive levels:

Oh, God, she loathed them all!  Mindless, stupid men.  Playing with the lives of other men, knowing so little, thinking they knew so much.

They had not listened!  They never listened until it was too late, and then only with stern forbearance and strong reminders of what might have been—had things been as they were perceived to be, which they were not.  The corruption came from blindness, the lies from obstinacy and embarrassment.  Do not embarrass the powerful; the napalm said it all.

And again it got me thinking of Trump and men like him.  Trump is all about his “instincts.”  He doesn’t bother to read or study, and he sure as hell is not a listener.  And he lies and lies just to stay in shape.

But Trump is less cause than symptom.  America produced him, and voters voted for him.  Roughly one-third of Americans continue to say they support him, irrespective of his serial lying, serial infidelity, and his greedy and grasping policies that favor the richest few over the poorest many.

As Marie said in The Bourne Identity, America has too many “mindless, stupid men.”  Men whose ideas about masculinity are defined in opposition to that of H.G. Wells’ concept.  Men who are driven by power, who think being manly is about suppressing any sympathy for those less fortunate, men who are proud to be “tough” by being inhumane and nasty.  “Empty souls,” as my wife succinctly said this morning.

Jacinda for President!

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Trump, America’s very stable genius, doing what he loves

W.J. Astore

My wife perceptively notes how the USA is sliding backwards.  Racism has new vigor even as science is rejected, e.g. climate change denial.  A woman’s right to choose is under attack.  Immigrants once again are openly subjected to prejudice and scorn.  Diversity of views and efforts at inclusion are rejected as so many exercises in “political correctness.”  Unions are being weakened and the working poor are attacked as lazy and irresponsible.  Life expectancy for many is declining, mainly due to suicide, opioid and other addictions, and illnesses related to poor eating habits and obesity.  War is perpetual and violence is never-ending.  Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer, a sign of “greatness,” at least to Trump and his followers.

Sexism, racism, prejudice, ignorance, scapegoating, the privilege of rich white men to say and do whatever they want: this is “greatness” to Trump.  The embodiment of fat cat privilege, Trump rides about in his golf cart and swats balls at his various “resorts.”  Indeed, America’s hard-working president, who said as a candidate he’d have no time for golf or vacations, has spent one-third of his presidency on vacation.  Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, Democratic officialdom is looking backwards, not forwards.  The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) idea of progress is to bring a lawsuit against Russia, the Trump campaign, and WikiLeaks for the 2016 election.  This act will “fire up the base,” or so leading Democrats appear to think.  But it’s really sour grapes, a loser policy conducted by pols who remain out of touch with the pressing concerns of ordinary Americans (you know, things like health care, a living wage, and other issues associated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign).  If only America had a true Labor Party instead of a DNC that mirrors the Republicans while lacking their focus and ruthlessness.

Let’s face it: America needs a new leader, a fresh start, an unapologetic progressive, someone who’s smart but who also possesses empathy.  Someone on the side of workers; someone like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand.

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PM Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand.  Yes, she’s pregnant and taking maternity leave after she gives birth.

Roughly half Trump’s age, Jacinda Ardern represents the future. Intelligent, principled, committed to her people, Ardern is refreshingly honest and frank. Imagine, for a moment, a truly progressive woman as president of the United States, one who has the courage of her convictions, one committed to fairness and equity in society, one untainted by big money, even one who’s unabashedly pregnant and who supports maternity and paternity leave for parents.

She’s got spunk too.  When she first met Trump and he had a snide remark for her, she replied that masses of people didn’t take to the streets to protest when she was elected.  As my Kiwi friend put it, “It’s the ability of Jacinda to not only represent her own party but pull together alliances that is impressive. Not only an arrangement with the conservative ‘New Zealand First’ party but also the Greens.”  She brings people together for the greater good — making concessions when she has to.  What a quaint concept.

America could use a woman like Jacinda Ardern as president. If only my Kiwi friends would let her emigrate! (Yes, sadly, she wasn’t born here so she couldn’t run, but let a man dream, dammit.)  Perhaps Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will emerge as America’s Jacinda in 2020; aligned with Bernie Sanders, Gabbard has moxie as well as military experience.  But I wouldn’t bank on it.  The DNC, still with its collective head up its ass, isn’t seeing the future too clearly.

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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii

My Dad’s Silver Dollars

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:

“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”

“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”

After my dad died, these coins passed to me.  One is from 1922, the other from 1924.  I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War.  And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.

When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?

On Mercy

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Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

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Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?