Friday, August 31, 2012

That's Not Your Pancake

Hey look!  You made a pancake.  That is an impressive flapjack, friend.  Did you grow the wheat?  Thresh it?  Mill it into flour?  Did you then mix it in a bowl you made with clay from the earth in your backyard and fired in a kiln crafted from stones you gathered and stacked?  With eggs from your own hens and milk from your cow, fried in butter you churned and melted in a cast iron skillet you forged in your woodshop, cooked over a wood fire from the tree you felled last autumn with a handmade axe?  Yep, that is an impressive flapjack.  Shit.  You’re out of syrup?  Guess you’ll have to run to the store.  Now it’s not really your pancake anymore, is it?  You had a little help.  How about we just ignore that part.  You built it.  You should be proud of your pancake and your desire to consume it all by yourself.  No one helped you make that pancake.  Why should you offer anyone a bite?  

We Built It.  The mantra of this week’s Republican National Convention.  An expression with roots in a philosophy known as Objectivism, coined by an author in the 1930’s named Ayn Rand.  Let’s talk Objectivism, the platform of those financing today’s Republican Party.  Let’s have a short exercise in contrast between Ayn Rand and the Bible, the platform of many of the candidates and voters of today’s Republican Party.  Most obviously, an Objectivist would say that you made that pancake all by yourself and it's yours to do with as you wish, while Jesus would probably point out the resources that were provided to you which were not of your own making. He would encourage you to enjoy the pancake, but to give thanks for it, too. I’m not the first to wonder how the Tea Party manages to reconcile these two opposing philosophies into one agenda.  Though I might be the first to imagine Jesus and Ayn Rand watching tv and having a beer together.  We’ll get around to that.

The primary tenet of Rand’s Objectivism is self-love.  Love yourself above all others.  Satisfy your own needs, your own desires.  Get yours.  You own it, even deserve it, purely through the desire to have it and the shrewd cunning to achieve it.  She denounced social services, denounced charity as a measure of morality, denounced loving anyone who wasn’t worthy.  

“This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before...The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of spirit.”   -Ayn Rand  

She sounds fun, right?  Sure, she was a cold-hearted bitch with little regard for irrationality or love or any of the things I consider to be my reason for living, but I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. I'm just suggesting that if you're looking for a candidate who promotes your idea of "traditional family values," maybe an Objectivist is not your man.

How does the Bible answer Rand? And how many times?  He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. -Proverbs 14:31

Jesus and Rand would both be appalled to see the essentials of their teachings being twisted in the manner they are today.  I believe she would be the first to slap Paul Ryan in the face for his manipulation of her philosophy to fit his own agenda.  He is certainly not an Objectivist purist.  Having admitted in 2005 and again in 2009 that her writing shaped his basic political and economic mentality, he backpedaled in a recent interview saying that he just really likes her writing, but rejects her philosophy.  

Really?  I’ll be honest, Congressman Ryan, I had my own fling with Ayn Rand when I was in my post-adolescent I-listen-to-Velvet-Underground-and-I-borrow-art-from-the-university-library-and-I-read-philosophical-smart-shit-and-I-know-how-the-world-really-works phase.  To my credit, I never wrote a manifesto and I never-ever-ever said I liked a metal band for their music but not their words, nor an author for her writing but not her ideas, you douche.  I read a bunch of Ayn Rand, and while I appreciated the introduction to her thinking, I thought she was a totally hack writer, not much better than Jackie Collins in terms of her shitty use of allegory.  But I guess if you require your whole staff to read The Fountainhead for the benefit of lines like:

“She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists, pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades. She twisted her head back. She felt his lips on her breast. She tore herself free…She fought like an animal. But she made no sound.”

then super.  Your retraction ought to make Ayn Rand and Jesus alike happy, anyway, since your attempt to merge Objectivism (to appease the Koch brothers $100 million investment in your candidacy) and Fundamentalist Christianity (to appease the Tea Party voters) is like trying to put a saddle on an eel.  Slippery.  Impossible.

I should confess that at the same time I was reading Ayn Rand in my leisure time, I was studying comparative religion for several thousand dollars a semester.  It was a little like teleporting from a lush rainforest to Siberia, then back again, every time I shifted from the tenets of Catholicism to Rand to Hinduism to Rand to Judaism to Rand.  Here were the people of faith, people of charity, people who used art and music and fables and rich storytelling to communicate that faith, and here was lonely old Ayn Rand, looking for a way to justify self-love and the preservation of one’s wealth as the highest form of enlightenment a human being can achieve.  It simply fell flat.  Even for me, who is merely a witness to religions rather than a participant in any of them.  

This week when Jesus and Ayn Rand were watching Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention on the big screen at Buffalo Wild Wings, they sat together in stunned silence as he postured himself as a disciple to both and neither of them, picking and choosing the bits and pieces of their lives’ work that would make him a more favorable candidate in the eyes of the American people while still making good with the guys who bought his candidacy.  

So a politician stood behind a podium and lied and contradicted himself while a crowd of people wearing stupid hats cheered. Looks like business as usual.  But there is something important to know about this year's election that is different than 2008.  In January, 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that corporations can spend as much on political advertising as they want.  There are no limits on how much they can invest in any candidate for any office in America.  Corporations have the same first amendment rights as people.  For a bone-chillingly accurate prediction of how this decision would play out (and is), see Keith Olbermann’s commentary that evening.  As my friend Jeremy said, then he looked a little hysterical and paranoid.  Two and a half short years later, he looks like a soothsayer.  Imagine a world where corporations, not people, elect lawmakers.  Think elections can't be bought?  Look closely at the 2010 elections that followed this ruling and the correlation between who had the most money for campaigning and who won the ticket.  Now look at who funded the campaigns.

“Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are.”  -Mitt Romney

I wouldn’t feel so skeezed out by this concept except that the corporations who are taking full advantage of this decision have acted so swiftly and effectively (wonder why Mitt Romney's energy plan doesn't include any mention of developing clean technologies, cuts funding to those already in place, and pushes for more drilling, more fracking, more blowing the tops off mountains?  who owns the dirty technologies in this country?  the dudes who are contributing millions of dollars to his campaign, that's who.)  What they need is a working class who is incapable of the sort of critical thought that would foster new innovations and revolutionize their industries.  What they need is to slash spending in public schools, cut off women's rights, make us stupid enough that we will wander into the witch's kitchen and accept whatever candy she offers, unaware that we are being made fat and stupid and ready for her ovens.

Among these corporations and the men who run them, there is a true adherence to the philosophy of self-love above all other, and the promotion of the delusion of a rather large group of people that they themselves are solely to credit for their status and achievements, that is their pancake.  I know people who think like this.  I even love some of them.  They think they got where they are purely by their own virtue.  

This is a position entirely void of grace.  

It overlooks the loan that your parents gave you for the down payment on your first house, which you then flipped for a hefty profit.  The car that someone let you use to get to work when yours was broken, or the public transportation you took to get to school.  The fact that when you turned the faucet on, there was clean water to drink.  (And if in fact you walked to work and saved the money to put down on that house and engineered the pipes and plumbing that drew the clean water into your glass, will you at least admit that someone, somewhere along the way, taught you to read and how to perform basic math functions which later lent themselves to the skills you now employ for profit at work every day?)  Everyone who experiences even a small measure of success had a leg up getting it.

Yes, you’ve worked hard.  And yes, you deserve to benefit from that work.  But let’s give credit where it’s due.  Someone else worked before you and shared their talent and innovation and profit with you.  That means you, Koch Brothers.  You inherited Koch Industries from your father.  You didn’t build it, you spoiled, rotten, bratty turds.  And now you want to take the ball and run with it?  That’s not your ball.  

And that’s not your pancake, either.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Paws and Hooves and Common Ground

There are fewer than one hundred naturally occurring elements on this planet.  How many fewer depends on your definition of “natural” and whether or not you count the weirdo outlier elements whose isotopes are so unstable that they can’t really be depended on to show up on time for the party, if they show up at all, without a little help from a highly skilled chemist.  The point is, fewer than one hundred elements comprise everything you see around you.  Take a look around.  Chemically speaking, this is a mind boggling fact to consider.   Don’t leave!  I’m not going to get all blah, blah, science.  I just wanted to make that quick point because I find it so remarkable that there are so few elements that make up so very many very different things.  Countless different things, really.  Gajillions.  Fewer than a hundred elements into a gajillion-gajillion combinations that make solids, liquids and gases?  That’s an amazing ratio of relativity, right?  It makes a seemingly complex planet seem manageable, even simple.

Now consider that every living thing on this planet (except some bacteria that has a number for a name and NASA can’t even make sense of because it lives in arsenic, and nothing can live in arsenic) is made up of six of those: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.  Whether you believe in intelligent design or strict biological evolution, you have got to geek out on that a little bit.  Every life form from the teeny-tiniest amoeba to the largest mammal, all the plants and animals in every environment, follows the same very narrow channel of DNA.  You have more in common with the mold growing on the cheese in the back corner of your refrigerator than you do with your television or your car.  But what matters to human beings is what we feel connected to, and it’s oh so very easy to overlook the obvious similarities between ourselves and the natural world, and to shun our connectivity to it.  Make a habit of that, and it becomes even easier to decide we have nothing in common with each other, either.

I was thinking about this in terms of the divisive state of the populace, what with it being an election year and all.  I don’t get too hyped up about presidential elections, assuming that by the time a dude gets his name on a ticket of that magnitude, he’s probably been bought and sold by someone much more influential than myself.  Don’t give me shit for this.  I still vote.  I’m observant of my civic rights and responsibilities, I just don’t get emotionally attached to the idea that any of them are going to tell me the truth.  I am, after all, the general public, and my head would probably explode from the gravity of that truth.  So lie to me.  I like it.  Don’t leave!  I’m not going to get all blah, blah, politics either.  I’m just noting that it’s interesting that we can become so divided over ideological issues that we feel entirely chemically and genetically different from others inside our own species.  This becomes especially apparent every four years.  

If I was a statistician tasked with charting any basic character trait of a sample populace taken from any number of random locations on the planet, I would likely find a predictable cluster of any trait (kindness, lust, compassion, greed, whatever) in the middle and a few random outliers, which I would then disregard as anomalous to my study.  Put simply, the super-rich, the people we hold to be the most powerful... they’re outliers.  Some among us may aspire to be like them, but they are not of us.  The same can be said for the zen masters, the highly spiritually evolved, the most thoughtful human beings on the planet.  So I’d have to take the Koch Brothers and Thich Nhat Hanh out of my sample survey.  Fuck those guys.  They don’t count.  Again, some of us might aspire to be like them, but we’re not, so let’s deal in the reality of commonality for the sake of the median.

What’s left upon disregarding the super-greedy-super-rich and the spiritual masters is a core group of people who probably have more in common than they think, but whose ideologies might deceive them into thinking that they don’t.  As an example, I probably have some stuff in common with Sean Hannity, but when he talks, I simply cannot hear him.  I find his approach to be entirely off-putting, and I don’t understand a fucking word he’s saying.  So I don’t listen.  I ignore him.  I pretend he doesn’t exist.  Since he only exists on television, that’s easy enough to do.  But what about the people around me who I can’t turn off?  If I was a sociologist, I might have some really interesting, in-depth analysis about how to get along with people, how to communicate, but then I’d be all blah, blah, communication model, and you would leave.  Instead, I’m going to talk about my pets, and what I’m learning from them about how to find common ground.  

For the purpose of this social study, I’m going to disregard the outliers: the chickens and the parakeet.  They don’t count.  The parakeet is out because it is a highly evolved zen master who lives in a cage up high, meditating loudly and occasionally enduring bouts of intense starvation-induced enlightenment when we forget to feed him for a few days.  The chickens are out because they are the Koch Brothers of this property, demanding tax exemptions and maintaining social disconnectivity from the rest of the animals because they consider themselves to be the real producers around here, and they’re pretty sure the gears would grind to a halt if not for their three eggs a day.  (Don’t tell them that corn and apple cores don’t rain down on them from heaven simply because God thinks they deserve it.  It would shatter their bitchy little egos.)  

That leaves our median of the dog, the cat and the goat.  

The affection between those three is evident, but they just can’t seem to figure out a way to communicate.  Here are some sample interactions:

Dog to Goat: I would like to get to know you better, if you would please stop ramming me with your very hard head and turn around so that I could give your ass a sniff...
Goat to Dog: Wham!!  You are a goat like me, yes?  We are the same.  Wham!!  Why aren’t you bouncing? Wham! Wham!
Dog to Goat: Stop bouncing.  I just really need to sniff your ass.  Hey!  Stop ramming me with your very hard head...

Dog to Cat:  You’re home!  I missed you.  Let’s play tackle!  Let’s play chase! No, tackle!
Cat to Dog: Fuck off.
Dog to Cat:  You’re home!  Hey you guys, hey goat, hey everyone, the cat is home!!

Cat to Goat:  I would like to rub against you.
Goat to Cat:  Wham!!  You are a goat like me, yes?  We are the same.  Wham!!  Why aren’t you bouncing? Wham! Wham!
Cat to Goat: Fuck off.

What’s amazing to me about this dynamic is that they repeat these same interactions about fifty times a day and they haven’t given up yet.  Sound familiar?

That’s meant to give you a little hope.  The fact that we haven’t given up on the conversation, as maddening as that conversation is, has to mean something, right?  George Orwell might disagree with my approach to this analogy I think, but he was a little cynical.  While I haven’t seen much progress in communication among the three of them, I am impressed that they still try.  They might never really line up, but they take comfort in each other.  Sometimes when the goat is feeling especially needy (needy baby goats are really loud, and if you’re trying to convince your city commission that making them legal would be a super idea, you should probably keep yours quiet) and the rest of us want to go inside and have peanut butter and crackers and watch Peppa Pig, I make the dog babysit on the patio for a while.  Usually when I come back out I find the three of them, the dog, the goat and the cat - who is there voluntarily - all not getting along while they take comfort in their shared space, blissfully unaware of their mutual chemical elements.

You're doing it wrong.  So are you.  Let's try again in five minutes.  Okay, see you in five.

Maybe it's too much to hope that we might reach this advanced level of social interaction, especially in an election year, that we might 'not get along' as well as these three, but it's something to strive for.