What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about the Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process, pareidolia, that leads people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
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But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

We also tell stories in order to influence others’ behavior–to get them to adopt the story we’re telling as their own. This is how advertising works, for example. The advertiser gets you to believe a story about how you will be sexier or smarter or prettier or more successful or of higher status if you just buy the product with the new, fresh lemony scent. And it’s not just advertisers who do this. Donald Trump sold working class Americans a fiction about how he could strike deals that would make America great again because he was such a great businessman, one who started with nothing and made billions. The coach tells a story in which her team envisions itself as the winners of the Big Game. The woo-er tells the woo-ee the story of the great life they will have together (“Come live with me and be my love/And we shall all the pleasures prove”). And so on. Successful cult leaders, coaches, lovers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, politicians, religious leaders, marketers, etc., all share this is common: they know that persuasion is storytelling. The best of them also understand that the most successful stories, in the long run, are ones that are true, even if they are fictional.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to influence others’ behavior,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

 

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

Posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

It’s about Time (a Catena)

creation-web-version

  

A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )

Albert_Einstein_Head

No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Why Is Christianity So Weird?

Imagine for a moment that you have never heard of Christianity. Seriously. Try this. A little thought experiment.

A missionary comes to you and says, “Here’s the deal. There’s this all-powerful guy in the sky, and he created everything, including the first humans, Adam and Eve. These two were immortal and never had to work. Everything they needed, the guy in the sky provided because he has magic powers. He can make stuff just appear–poof, stars; poof, Earth; poof, a garden.”

The missionary continues: “Unfortunately, Adam and Eve committed a terrible sin, one so horrific that when I tell you about it, you won’t believe how horrible it was. On learning about the sin, the guy in the sky said, ‘Somebody’s gotta pay for this!’ So, he condemned the two of them to death and told them that henceforth, they would have to work all their lives to sustain themselves. But this sin was so horrible that it wasn’t enough that Adam and Eve pay for it. No. ALL their descendants were also condemned to labor and death. And then, most of their descendants, when they died, would roast in flames, not for a day or a week or a month or a year to sixty years, but for all eternity.” 

And you thought $150 speeding tickets were severe!

The missionary pauses before delivering the punch line: “What was the sin so terrible that it demanded lifelong labor and capital punishment for everyone who would ever live, not to mention all the roasting in fire? Well, you won’t believe how bad this was: Adam and Eve ate a fruit they weren’t supposed to.”

I know, right? Terrible. Just terrible.

But it doesn’t end there. He continues: “After a while, the guy in the sky started thinking that maybe he had been too harsh. But ALL people still needed to be punished for this horrendous crime. So, he decided to send his own son to die in a breathtakingly excruciating way, and if people believed in him and followed his teaching, then they could escape the eternal roasting part of the punishment. So, just hard labor and capital punishment. A good father, he was. I bet you wish you had a Dad like that! ‘What? I gave you one rule, to pick up your socks, and you disobeyed me. Death to you! Remember, though: it could be worse!’ This is why we refer to the guy in the sky as ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’ Because he’s so good to us.” 

Of course, if you had never heard this story before, you would think it absolutely bonkers. The story clearly reflects the extreme patriarchal moral system of a people running around in the desert 3,000 years ago. It would surprise and shock you that that anyone, today, in the 21st century, would believe it. You would be aghast that 2.382 billion people, today, think, yup, that’s the way it was.  

So, how did this kooky story come to be? Well, here’s a greatly abbreviated story of the story:

The Bible 

As the immensely learned Yale Biblical scholar Christine Hayes puts it, the Bible is not a book; it’s a library. The earliest parts of it were written sometime around 1500 BCE. However, the oldest surviving manuscript of any of it dates to about the 2nd century BCE. So, the books that make up the Bible were copied and passed down for many centuries. And they underwent a lot of change and editing over those centuries. According to Jewish and Christian tradition, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, were written by Moses. So, a single author. However, based on linguistic and other evidence, scholars have figured out that there were at least four different editor/author groups who pieced together these books from previous sources—the so-called Yahwist, Eliohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly editors.  

The books in the Old Testament are religious writings from a pastoral people living in the desert—the Hebrews. The oldest of these, by date of composition, is NOT Genesis, the book that tells the Hebrew origin myth. The oldest parts of the Bible, by date of composition, are parts of the books of Amos and Isaiah. Now, the most interesting contribution of the Hebrews to world mythologies is monotheism— belief in a single, all-powerful God. Everyone else, worldwide, believed in multiple Gods (with the exception of one brief flirtation with monotheism during the reign of the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten). So, that’s quite a spectacular innovation (though toward the end, Hindu and Greek religion were tending in that direction, too–see the Chandoga Upanishad and Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion). If you look at the oldest parts of the Bible, however–at the parts produced at the earliest times–it is clear that the early Hebrews also believed in multiple gods. They just thought that their god was the best and most powerful among a bunch of gods belonging to other peoples. The book of Kings, for example, tells the story of a competition held between the priests of the Canaanite god Baal and Elijah, a prophet of the god whom the Hebrews variously referred to as YHWH, El, Adonai (meaning “Lord”), and Ani Hu (meaning, in Hebrew, “I He,” or figuratively, “I am”). The Name of this god was considered so holy that it could only be spoken once a year by the Hebrew high priest. At any rate, in the competition between Elijah and the Baal priests, the god Baal is able to perform quite a lot of magic, but Elijah’s god performs more powerful magic. There are many other examples of this in the older texts in the Old Testament. The early Hebrews were not monotheists, though they did, most of them, usually, think that their god was the greatest, most powerful god. (A lot of the stories and invectives in the Old Testament are about backsliders worshipping other gods.) Monotheism developed among them.  

Being a library, the Old Testament contains a lot of peculiar material. It includes (in Genesis) a couple different and contradictory origin stories and a myth of a universal flood borrowed from prior Sumerian myths, a lot of laws (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus), a collection of praise songs (Psalms), a collection of wise sayings (Proverbs), a Persian erotic love poem (The Song of Solomon), what appears to be a translation into the Hebrew idiom and belief system of a Greek play (Job), screeds against wickedness (Jeremiah), apocalypses (Daniel), and lots and lots of histories and genealogies and biographies. A few interesting tidbits: 

In one of the two contradictory origin stories in Genesis that were patched together to create the beginning of the narrative, God separates a primordial water into those of the heavens and those of the Earth. The ancient Hebrews believed that the Earth was flat and that the sky was a firmament held up by pillars at the ends of the Earth. This firmament held back the waters that made up the heavens. This cosmology was common to most, if not all, of the peoples of the ancient Near East. The Hebrew word used to describe these waters that god separated into the ones above and the ones below is Tehom—a variation of the name Tiamat. In the Sumerian epic the Enuma Elis, which is far older than anything in the Bible, Tiamat is the primordial serpentine sea goddess who existed at the beginning of time. So, this is a borrowing from Sumerian belief. This is a clue, btw. The texts of the Bible were written at differing times by differing peoples and reflect the views of and influences upon the peoples of those times. When Christians today read some unlikely notion in a text written by ancient pagans, they say, “Well, that’s how people back then thought. They thought that the sun was a fiery chariot that rose into and traversed the sky because they didn’t know about stars and nuclear reactions within them.” But when they read about separating the waters of the heavens from the waters of the Earth, they say, “Well, that’s metaphorical or symbolic.” No, it’s what people in the ancient Near East believed. They thought that the sky was a dome, a firmament, with water behind it. Ancient texts, whether they be Egyptian or Hebrew or Chinese or Mayan or anything else, have to be read in their historical context. They were produced by people using the concepts and beliefs available to them in particular times and places, and many parts of them (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) are ancient superstitions and morally repugnant (or should be) to a modern mind.

After their expulsion from the garden, Adam and Eve have a couple sons, Cain and Abel. They find wives among the people of the world and marry. But alas, the text contains no explanation of where these other people came from. Mark Twain suggested that maybe some other god pulled off a different Creation “over in the next county.”

Genesis 6:2-4 contains the wild story of the Nephilim—ancient giants. The story goes like this: “The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they choose. . . There were giants (Nephilim) in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” God’s sons: Wow. Those Earth girls are hot. This story is much elaborated in the trippy and fascinating Book of Enoch, also known as The Book of the Watchers and the Book of Parables, which is not part of Western Catholic and Protestant Bibles but is considered part of sacred scripture by Ethiopian Jews and Orthodox Christians. There are many such apocryphal texts, or apocrypha—ancient Hebrew sacred books that didn’t make it into Western Bibles. There are also a few differences in what books are included in the standard (canonical) Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments. 

The flood narrative—the one about Noah—was picked up from other Mesopotamian cultures as well, the Sumerian Epic of Ziusudra and the Babylonian epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh. There are many precise parallels among these stories. 

The Book of Exodus contains the Hebrew myth of the origins of the Jewish people, including a long narrative about a Hebrew captivity in Egypt, plagues visited upon the Egyptians, an Exodus from Egypt by the Hebrews, led by Moses, wanderings in the desert, and the eventual capture by the Hebrews of the city state of Canaan. But there’s a problem with the story of the captivity of the whole of the Hebrew people in Egypt. It didn’t happen. The Egyptians kept records of everything that was of such a scale. Outside the Hebrew Bible, there are absolutely no written or archaeological records of a Hebrew captivity in Egypt, though there were Hebrew slaves who lived there. But the story provided an exciting origin tale in a time before history, as we know it, had been struggled out of the murk and fancy of myth and legend. 

The Song of Solomon is a Persian erotic love poem that weirdly got incorporated into Hebrew scriptures. It contains the only mention of fellatio in the Bible: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat beneath his shadow with much delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”

One of the oddest and most interesting books of the Bible is The Book of Job. It appears to have been a Greek play (it has the exact same structure as a standard Greek play, a structure otherwise foreign to ancient Jewish literature), translated into a Hebrew idiom and with Hebrew mythological characters (God, Satan) substituted for the Greek ones. 

The early church fought a lot about what books from the Hebrew and Christian traditions were worthy of being made canonical (part of the official scriptures). More about that below. But eventually, in the 3rd century BC, a standard Greek translation of all the books considered canonical by the officially sanctioned church was made by seventy scholars working under the direction of the Christian King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt. This first complete Bible was called the Septuagint, or work of the seventy. In the next century, St. Jerome produced the first complete Latin Bible, a translation of the Septuagint known as the Vulgate. So, what we’ve ended up with is the result of rewritings and combinations and compilations and copies of copies of copies of copies translated into various languages over many centuries in days before printing and science and history proper existed. No possibility of error there! LOL. 

I’ll leave out the rest of the tour of the Old Testament. The point is that the parts of it were written and rewritten and pieced together from older writings and oral traditions and borrowings from various cultures by different people over some 1,500 hundred years, and there are many different versions of these books, most lost or surviving only in fragments, and there are major differences between various texts of the same book. In addition, there are literally thousands of contradictions between and within the books, as one might expect. 

The Christians 

Yeshua of Nazareth was a radical, revolutionary Jewish rabbi, or teacher, from a provincial village, not an official teacher connected to a particular priestly organization. The texts that tell his story have many issues, which I’ll discuss below, but it’s possible by careful thought about these to piece together what might have actually happened, as many actual scholars of this ancient literature (as opposed to apologists for it) have done. This fellow, Yeshua, taught that all people were sons and daughters of god, that people would be judged by how they treated the least among them, that a Messiah (not himself) was coming very soon, that this Messiah would overthrow the existing order, that in the new order, the rich and powerful would become the lowest of people, the lowest of people would become the highest, that the Messiah would establish a paradise on Earth called the New Jerusalem, and that the disciples that Yeshua had gathered around him would rule in this paradise. It’s little wonder that the Romans, who ruled over the Hebrews at that time, with help from the Jewish authorities, put the radical Yeshua to death three days after he entered Jerusalem and, while doing so, mocked him as “king of the Jews.” 

In the hundred years or so around the time of the life of Yeshua of Nazareth, there was an explosion of religious cults. These included cults of the deified emperors, Roman household cults, the various so-called mystery cults (of Demeter and Dionysus and Cybele and Isis), the cult of Sol Invictus, various versions of traditional Greek and Roman and Egyptian paganism, Mithraism, Manicheism, and many vastly differing versions of what would become known as Christianity, with their differing scriptures not found in modern Bibles. 

The earliest texts that are found in the New Testament are letters written by St. Paul. The earliest gospel in the Western Bible dates to about 70 years after Christ died and is based on a lost gospel and on oral traditions. None of the four currently accepted, or so-called “canonical” gospels were written near the time of his death or by the people to whom they are ascribed. So, there was plenty of time, in this era when news came by word of mouth, for mythological accretions to attach themselves to the executed rabbi’s story.

Many Christians would be surprised to learn that in addition to the gospels (narratives of the life of Jesus), acts (stories about the lives of Jesus’s disciples, the apostles), and epistles (letters) in the New Testament, we have over two hundred other gospels, acts, epistles, collections of sayings, and other Christian writings from the first two centuries CE. These include works like The Infancy Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Marcion, The Apocalpyse of Peter, The Acts of Pilate, the Epistles of Barnabas, and many others. In the first couple centuries after Christ, there were literally hundreds of vastly differing “Christianities,” with vastly differing scriptures and differing belief systems. Among these early Christian sects were a great many Gnostic sects that differed in the particulars of their beliefs, but all agreed that there was not one god but two, a bad god and a good god. The bad one, according to the Gnostics, created the sinful, fallen world and is the guy spoken of in the Old Testament writings. They taught that Jesus preached the gospel of the good god and that believers could be saved by rejecting the bad God (the Rex Mundi) and the sinful world he created and by gaining knowledge (Gnosis) a) of the good god and b) of how to live properly (typically through abstention from pleasures of the world). Two excellent sources of history and explication of these many early Christianities are Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities and Hans Jonas’s The Gnostics. You can find a great many of the sacred texts of these lost Chrisitanities under “Christianity,” on Sacred-texts.com. You will also find there a few modern forgeries that pretend to be ancient texts, like The Essene Gospel of Peace, which was cooked up by a Hungarian who ran a free love and vegetarianism cult in Baja, California in the 1940s. Scholars can spot one of these modern forgeries quite easily from the anachronisms and linguistic errors in them.

In 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine was headed into a major battle and, before it, had a vision. One of the two surviving stories of that vision says that he saw a cross in the sky and the words, “In hoc signo, vinces”—“In this sign you will conquer.” Constantine legalized Christianity and (eventually) himself converted, and so Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. And he called a council of bishops to Nicaea (in what is now Turkey) to come up with an official doctrine for the Church. Constantine was sick of the various factions fighting in the street, established one as the official religion, and gave the Church leave to exterminate, ruthlessly, competing “heresies.” But Constantine hedged his bets. He built temples to the Christian god AND to Sol Invictus. LOL. And he was baptized only on his deathbed. 

So, by that accident, one of these 1st century religious cults became the dominant one, and it happened to be one of the many extremely different versions of Christianity that then existed. If not for this ONE GUY, Constantine, we might well all today be warning people that sex was the work of the Rex Mundi or attending ceremonies to consecrate our Senators into the priesthood of the sun god Sol Invictus or leaving offerings at little shrines to Poseidon down by the sea.

An early Christian father, Ireneus, made the list of the official gospels, leaving competing gospels from other Christian sects out, and with them all those “heretical” ideas. Poof! A lot of vastly differing Christianities disappeared.

The life of Jesus as it ended up being told in the four gospels that became part of the canonical Bible made Jesus not a teacher or prophet but the Christ, or anointed one, the promised Messiah of the Jews. And those gospels picked up and repurposed lots and lots of ancient religious motifs from the ambient and varied religious cultures of the first couple of centuries CE–for example,

that he was crucified on a cross (a story told in myths of such gods as the Egyptian god Horus; the Phrygian, the Indian Krishna, The Chaldean Crite, the Phyrgian Atys, the Mesopotamian Dumuzi/Tammuz, the Celtic Hesus, the Orissan Bali, the Tibetan Indra, the Nepalese Iao, the Indian Buddha Sakia, the Persian Mithra, the Greek Dionysus, the Caucasian Prometheus, the Norse Odin, and even the Mexican Quezalcoatl);

that he was a god who took the form of a man and then ascended into heaven (a story told of many gods and men become gods, far too many to list here);

that he died and was resurrected (a central concept of many ancient fertility and solar religions but also found in later polytheistic religions; examples of the latter include the Mesopotamian Inanna and Dumuzi, the Egyptian Osiris and Horus, the Canaanite Baal, the Phrygian Attis, the Greek Dionysus and Adonis and Persephone, and the Roman Mithra);

that he was born of a virgin and at the winter solstice (Tammuz, Osiris, Horus, Attis, Mithra, Heracles, Dionysus, Adonis, Sol Invictus);

and so on.

Of course, the miracles (raising the dead, the multiplication of food, healing the blind and lame and deaf, and so on) and the driving out of demons are found in folktales and myths worldwide from very ancient times, far predating Christianity.

What god was born of a virgin, was attended by shepherds, walked on water, had twelve followers, performed miracles, was referred to as The Way and The Truth and the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God and The Word, was executed along with two thieves, was resurrected and ascended to heaven? Well, the first of these we know about would have been the Egyptian Horus, who had been worshipped for thousands of years before Jesus was born.

Diocletian, a Roman emperor who ruled 19 years before Constantine became sole emperor, waged the most intense of many wars of the Roman state against Christianity. He famously had Christians thrown to lions in the Colosseum. Legal documents from Diocletian’s time show the Romans charging Christians with such crimes as holding orgies, eating babies, practicing sorcery, flying through the air, and using the evil eye. When the Church gained power because of Constantine, it adopted these charges verbatim to go after the pagans. That story is interestingly told in Norman Cohn’s fascinating history of European witchcraft scares, Europe’s Inner Demons.

The first few centuries of the Church’s existence was dominated by pursuit of heretics—stamping out competing Christian belief systems and the scriptures that taught them. But fortunately, many of those competing early Christian scriptures survive. As I mentioned above, even in the recensions in the official Bible, traces of what were probably the actual teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth survive. These include a) that a Messiah (or Son of Man) was coming very soon (within the lifetimes of those then living), b) that this person would establish a New Jerusalem right here on earth, c) that Yeshua’s disciples would be leaders in that new order, d) that the poor would be exalted and the rich struck low. He was a revolutionary and radical. See Bart Ehrman’s textbook The New Testament for more details. No wonder the Romans, with help from a faction of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, killed him and mocked him as “King of the Jews.” They were making fun of the revolutionary idea that in the New Jerusalem to come, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” that beggars would be emperors and emperors would be beggars.

When the church first got around to creating a standard, canonical Bible, they left out of the text a lot of Jewish and early Christian writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. A lot more than they put in. In other words, Christianity could have been VASTLY different from any of the versions of the religion that we are familiar with today, different in its scriptures, its practices, its dogmas and doctrines.

My favorite of the noncanonical books–the early Christian writings that didn’t make it into the Bible–is The Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of Yeshua’s sayings, supposedly compiled by his brother, Didymos Judas Thomas (Thomas is the Greek version of the Aramaic word for “twin”). Aramaic was the language spoken by Yeshua. In the book of John, in the canonical New Testament, a group of Jewish religious leaders known as the Pharisees want to trick Yeshua into uttering blasphemy so that they can condemn him to death. So, they go to him and ask why he dares to call himself the son of God. Here’s Yeshua’s reply:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? (John 10:32)

He is referencing one of the Psalms from the Old Testament, ascribed to King David:

I have said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ (Psalm 82:6) 

In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua says, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky are above you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish are above you. But the kingdom is not above or below. The kingdom is within you and all around you.” 

The bishops whom Constantine called together in 313 CE to create a creed for the newly established official Christian Church couldn’t have any of that! How could they control a people who were themselves divine? How do you wrangle gods? submit them to an authority? And Constantine and those bishops were all about creating a Church that would be an instrument of command and control. They wanted to make of it an instrument of power and of themselves, the holders of that power. And that’s exactly what they did.

St. Augustine and the Official Doctrine of the Church 

So, for the first couple of centuries, things were still a little vague among Christians, and there were many upstart heresies. Then, however, along came St. Augustine. He wrote two important books: The highly readable Confessions (an autobiography) and the interminable doorstop called The City of God (a discussion of the fall of Rome that also lays out Augustine’s theology). Here’s the deal with Augustine: He was a sex addict. He loved to go to the brothels and did so frequently, but this made him feel ashamed and guilty. So, he decided that this compulsion he had must be due to Original Sin, inherited from Adam and Eve, that could only be washed away by faith in the Savior, Jesus, who died to wash away that sin. This notion, that all babies are born in sin and deserve hellfire for all eternity because Adam and Eve ate a fruit they weren’t supposed to, became the official doctrine of the Church. 

Augustine was one sick fellow. But he loved and pleased his mother, Monica, from whose name we get the name of the city Santa Monica.

But the sickest thing of all was not Original Sin business, that stuff about babies being born with sin. It was that the Church taught that the world as a whole, babies included, was evil and you couldn’t make it better, however much you tried, but should wait, instead, for pie in the sky when you die–the doctrine of Contemptus Mundi. So much for the establishment of the New Jerusalem, the Earthly Paradise! This insidious notion, in fall its forms, has poisoned possibilities for human flourishing, in the West and elsewhere, for millennia.

OK, I’ll pause there. But you pretty much know the rest of the story. The Church, under the banner of the Prince of Peace (what a tragic irony is there!), raped and pillaged and murdered its way across the globe over many centuries, degenerated into major factions that fought interminable, bloody wars against one another out of which the modern nation states were born, and pretty much made a mess of everything until modern secularists struggled out of the darkness of ancient superstition into the light. Now, in the United States, in 2021, an Extreme Court is attempting to give states leave to foist fundamentalist Christian theocracy on all of us all over again.

Answer to the original question, why is Christianity so weird: It’s a particular historical amalgam of a lot of really ancient superstitions.

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion | Leave a comment

On the Dobbs Decision: It Can Happen, It Is Happening, Here

I’ve never liked the term unenumerated rights because the point is not whether they are numbered but whether they are expressed, so until now, I have avoided it in my comments on this decision. But that’s the standard legal term and what the decision is about. Thus this post.

Extreme conservatives have always HATED the legal theory of there being unenumerated (not specifically stated) rights implicit in the general concepts of the Constitution because they believe that they should have the power to impose constraints on others’ private lives. No, you cannot, if you are a woman, control your own reproduction (contra Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey). No, you cannot marry across racial lines (contra Loving v. Viginia). No, you cannot use contraception (contra Griswald v. Connecticut). No, you cannot smoke marijuana. No, you cannot sell sexual services. No, you cannot sleep with someone of the same sex (contra Lawrence v. Texas). No, you cannot marry someone of the same sex (contra Obergefell v. Hodges). No, you cannot adopt a gender identity different from your biological sex. No, you cannot bring water or food to someone standing in line for hours to vote. And so on.

And that’s the larger point of the Alito decision. It is not just a decision about abortion rights. It is a template for decisions about this AND other unenumerated rights. Even as it overturns Supreme Court precedent on abortion, it serves as a precedent for overturning an entire body of law based on unenumerated rights, and if you actually read the decision (how many have?), you will find that it was carefully written to lay out IN GENERAL the theory for overturning that body of law and its associated rights. The decision is revolutionary and is meant to be.

Lest anyone think I am exaggerating about the scope of this decision (beyond abortion), let me quote from it:

“Respondents and the Solicitor General also rely on post-Casey decisions like Lawrence v. Texas . . . (right to engage in private, consensual sexual acts) and Obergefell v. Hodges, . . . (right to marry a person of the same sex). . . . These attempts to justify abortion through appeals to a broader right to autonomy and to define one’s concept of existence prove too much. . . . Those criteria, at a high level of generality, could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like. . . . None of these rights has any claim to being deeply rooted in history.” [Earlier in the opinion he argues that being deeply rooted in history is one of the acceptable arguments for an implied but not explicitly stated right.]

So, there you are. He lays here the groundwork to throw the legality of homosexuality and gay and lesbian marriage back to the states.

My dear friend Greg Brozeit, who is fluent in German and a profound scholar of modern German history, has made the point that the now extremist Republican Party in America–the party led by the man who wanted police and the military to SHOOT BLM protestors and unarmed asylum seekers–intends to seize control in this country and impose fascism and that in order to do this, it will have to establish a legal framework that enables that. It will use the law to clothe fascism in traditional American garb. And you accomplish that end by getting the right judges in place and passing the right laws and getting the imprimatur of the courts on those laws–ones that eliminate in one fell swoop whole bodies of rights under the law and give the state the power to use its monopoly on violence to ensure that those rights are not exercised. So, in Germany, you couldn’t have the Nazi government without the Enabling Act and its imprimatur by German courts. We are Germany in 1932.

So, beyond simply women’s reproductive rights, as important, as essential as those are, there is this more general problem with the Alito decision. It is a plug-and-play boilerplate for eliminating the whole body of law related to unenumerated rights and thereby eliminating those rights. You might think of it as a kind of Bill of anti-Rights. It is a revolutionary document, akin to a revised, fascist Constitution for a new, Trumpier American government, a far more powerful coercive state.

As Diane Ravitch wrote after the leak of the Dobbs decision, abortions will continue; they will just be a lot more dangerous.

Women will die because of this. And many others (along with their allies) will be imprisoned. Several states already have laws or ones under consideration or that will be triggered by this decision, that will pay vigilantes to go after these people, that will charge people who have abortions and those who perform them with murder, that will criminalize ordering or selling abortifacients and going out of state to get an abortion or helping others to do these things, that will use various coercive means to track women’s reproductive state, and so on.

Again: abortions will continue. They will just be a lot more dangerous.

About half of all abortions are now done with pills, specifically, with the abortifacients mifepristone and misoprostol.

One way to think of the Alito decision is as a jobs-creation program for the illegal drug cartels.

And a whole body of laws recognizing various liberties, based on unenumerated rights, will disappear and be replaced by coercive command and control by a fundamentalist, nationalist, fascist state.

What happens when the Repugnicans gain control of all the reins of power–the House, the Senate, the Extreme Court, and the Presidency? Well, Alito, Thomas, and their ilk are extremely backward and out of touch and so have no idea what they are about to unleash. There will be a lot of pushback in the streets. And the nationalist state will respond with violence, which will create more backlash, in a negative feedback loop (this didn’t happen during the IQ45 maladministration only because Milley, Esper, and even Barr, after tentatively fielding his own little green men, told Trump, “No.”

So, what is the Alito decision all about? Well, it begins laying the legal framework for the end of democracy. The other pillar of that framework is, of course, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It is by means of decisions like these that the now minority party in the U.S., the Greying Old Party (GOP), rises phoenixlike from the ashes it has made of democracy. Or, to change up the metaphor, fasten your seatbelts, extreme turbulence ahead.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Sex and Gender, Trump (Don the Con) | 17 Comments

Ukraine and the U.S.: A Tale of Two Republics

In literary studies, a foil is a character who stands in contrast to another character, thereby throwing the qualities of the other character into sharp relief. I’d like to share an example, which I’ll call, “A Tale of Two Republics.” 

A Republic Fights for the Right to Govern Itself Democratically 

In 2013, the overwhelming majority of members of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted to support the signing of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement as a step toward EU membership. In all, 315 of the 349 Ukrainian MPs voted in favor of this. Instead, the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that it was going to suspend preparations for signing the agreement and pursue closer ties with Moscow. In November, protests against this turn toward Russia broke out in the capital, centered on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. These protests came to be known as the Euromaidan. These protests intensified through February of 2014, included takeovers of government buildings, and ended with President Yanukovych’s Berkut Secret Police killing 100 protestors. Shortly after that, the Rada called for a replacement interim government and new elections. Yanukovych fled to Russia. The Rada then voted 380 to 0 to remove Yanukovych from office. 

That, folks, is what democracy looks like. 

In February and March of 2014, masked soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms but with Russian weapons, invaded the Southern Ukrainian territory of Crimea, on the Black Sea. These Russian “little green men” seized the territory and declared it a part of Russia. This place was strategically important to Russia because of the port city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In March of 2014, Russian separatist uprisings, supported by Russian troops and equipment, occurred in the Eastern Ukrainian oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas. Russia increased its involvement, eventually sending in what it called a “humanitarian convoy,” consisting of troops and artillery. In other words, an invasion. Russians have been conducting their “humanitarian” killing of Ukrainians in Donbas ever since.  

Then, in 2022, Russia amassed some 170,000 troops on three borders of Ukraine while claiming that it had no intention of invading the country. So, of course, it invaded the country, in keeping with an imperialist screed written by Tsar Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which basically says that Ukraine isn’t a real nation and that Russia has the right to rule it and much of the rest of Eurasia, including former client states of the Soviet Union. And what we have seen since these aforementioned Crimes of Aggression under International Law is breathtaking brutality on the part of the Russians—shelling of homes, apartments, hospitals, schools, farms, shops, and workplaces; the reduction of Mariupol, a city of almost 500,000 inhabitants, to rubble and ashes; widespread coldblooded murder and rape of Ukrainian civilians; use of weapons prohibited by international law; forced deportations to Russia of Ukrainian citizens; and so on—in short, widespread and various War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. But what is most spectacular in all this, is what we’ve seen from the Ukrainians: a courageous response on the part of a brave and disciplined Ukrainian army and stiff, united resistance by ordinary citizens sufficient to repulse Russia’s attempted seizure of the capital, Kyiv. Ukrainians will have long, long memories of this.

These are people who REALLY care about democracy, about ruling themselves, who are willing to lay down their lives for it, who will fight to the bitter end for their right to rule themselves. As U.S. General Keith Kellogg has noted, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” We should remember the grandmother who took out a Russian drone by heaving a jar of pickles at it. A hero.

A Republic Looks at an Attempt to Overthrow Its Democratic Governance, Shrugs, and Turns to See What’s on Netflix

How very different is our case. Imagine if, ten years ago, someone had told you that a president of the United States would make several different, parallel attempts to overturn a democratic election, including trying to get the Supreme Court to overturn the election results and ask the state legislatures to vote instead, claiming with zero evidence that ballots were changed or invented and that voting machines were rigged by Venezuelans, asking states not to certify their election results, asking state election officials to “find” additional ballots, illegally setting up slates of “alternate electors” in various states, asking the Vice President not to certify the election results, inciting a mob to attack the Capitol to stop the certification of the election, and that that guy–the one who committed such treason–would then walk away from having done this scot free and go live like a rajah and play golf and continue to be the kingmaker for his party. Further imagine that after over 60 failed court cases attempting to overthrow the election and after being told by his own Attorney General that there was zero evidence of fraud in the election, this guy would continue to push the utter lie that the election was stolen from him and that 80 percent of the voters in his party would believe this. If I had invented this scenario for a novel, it would have been too ludicrous, too unbelievable, to pass muster. But here we are. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy is on tape saying, right after January 6th, in a call with Liz Cheney, that he was going to ask Trump to resign. He KNEW. He KNEW how serious this was, that it was treason by a sitting president. And then McCarthy simply lied, denied that he had said such a thing, until the tape of his statement was released. 

[Insert Leonard Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows” here.]

All the “little guy” idiots who participated in Trump’s attempted coup are speedily being tried and sent to prison. Meanwhile, all the suits who orchestrated the Cuckoo Coup, including the big suit, are immune, a race of seemingly invincible supermen and superwomen (if you can imagine superman with orange skin, blonde troll-doll hair, a paunch, tiny hands, a malignantly narcissistic ego, and a tiny little mouth spouting big, big lies about a stolen election). So, clearly, we have two systems of justice, and Donald Trump, the Teflon Don 2.0, continues to get away with things, as he always has, right out in the open, knowing that he is rich and powerful enough that he can do whatever he wants in the middle of 5th Avenue or on the Capitol grounds in broad daylight. 

Over the entrance to the Supreme Court are carved, in marble, the words “Equal Justice under Law.” The fact that Donald Trump and his co-conspirators have not been prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States makes a joke, a complete joke, of those words. Clearly, in the United States, if you are rich and powerful, you can get away with anything. One law for you and me. Another for people like Donald Trump. 

And clearly, unlike the Ukrainians, we don’t care enough about democracy to do a thing about some evil _______’s attempt to overthrow it. 

The Sad Summation 

The Ukrainian people are showing us every hour of every day, right now, what it really means to care about democracy and rule of law. What signal does our inaction against Trump and his co-conspirators send to the rest of the world? Well, this continued inaction in response to the attempted coup shows that democracy and rule of law in the United States are negotiable, depending on how wealthy and powerful a particular individual happens to be. You know, as in Putin’s Russia. 

Slava Ukraini!

Heróyam Slava!

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 5 Comments

How to Become an Expert on Military Strategy and Preparedness

Too bad we don’t have a stable genius like Donald Trump in the offal office right now, given the war in Ukraine. He is soooooo well informed! Here, a blast from the past, Trump talking to NBC reporter Chuck Todd when the former was a candidate in 2015:

TODD: “Whom do you talk to for military advice right now?”

TRUMP: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great, you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows, and you have the generals.”

So, “see a lot of great, you know, . . . watch your show and all of the other shows,” and you will totally understand this whole military thing.

This is the man (I’m using the term loosely) who became Commander in Chief of the most powerful country in the world.

Posted in Humor, Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 1 Comment

What George Orwell Had to Say about Alternative Facts Universes like Those of Putin and Trump

We live in an open society, and so it is relatively easy for Putin to embed agents (e.g., Maria Butina) and recruit assets here to spread his “truths.” Because we are awash in agents and assets (witting and unwitting) of Putinism, we must be correspondingly vigilant about calling out their ******t. I am sick of reading, as Putin bombs theatres full of women and children and turns Mariupol into an ashpit, posts by some American extremists on the left and the right who stupidly and shamelessly repeat and amplify transparently false Russian propaganda about its “special military operation.” These invariably contain some variant of a call for us to “consider Putin’s equally valid point of view.” My blood boiling at the idiocy, complicity, and moral bankruptcy of such a call, I felt compelled to write this note.

Here is Putin’s fav fascist, imperialist philosopher, Alexandr Dugin, clarifying what “truth” means in Putinese (I transcribed this from a BBC interview):

“Everything is relative, and we need—we, in Russia, realize that we could use Postmodernity to explain to the West that . . . any truth, is relative, so we have our own special Russian truth that you need to accept as something that maybe is not Europe truth. . . . I think that now the situation is in Syria for example, if the United States continue[s] to view itself as unipolar power, it says, “No more Assads, “and Europe repeats, “No more Assads,” and other civilization says, “Stop. Let’s have Assad.” And after that there are, very easy, our nuclear and military power beside, uh, behind Assad. So, and that is serious, and if you are boss, you could not let the other decide, if you really are boss, decide what you are to do in this conflict, and Russia says, “No. You are not boss. You are not any more boss.” That is very serious. There is multipolarity, and behind us is, there is nuclear weapon, and that I will to defend for example the little case of Assad—defend Assad. Not because we have so much interest there. That is the situation of who rules the world. That is the problem, and only war could decide, really, who is the boss. . . . It is serious. Very serious. Because we are seriously going to show and to confirm that we are entering to a multipolar world and the situation in Syria, in Ukraine, and anywhere else, that’s only the case to prove that. We don’t want that, but we understand that if we are not ready to pay ALL the price for that, we could not get it. . . . Postmodernism teaches us to understand, and also sociology. I am sociologist as well, and the total fact, according to Durkheim, the founder of sociology, Emile Durkheim, that total fact is the fact that the society believes. . . . The truth is the question of belief, and Postmodernity show[s] that every so-called truth is a matter of belief, so we believe in what we do. We believe in what we say, and that is the only way to define the truth. The truth is a matter of belief.”

In other words, if people believe something, it’s true. If they believe it absolutely, it is total fact, you know, as in totalitarianism. This is, quite seriously, what Dugin is asserting.

2 + 2 = 5. Why? Putin says so. And if you dare disbelieve this, he will have you shot or poisoned or thrown out of a window like those doctors who opposed Putin’s Covid policies.

The West thought it was bringing Russia into the fold of modern nations, extending respect and friendship, engaging in cultural and scientific exchanges and partnerships, doing brisk trade, but all this while, Putin saw everything in his paranoid KGB/FSB, breathtakingly backward medieval strongman way, as conflict to be waged clandestinely through propaganda and payoffs and poisonings and openly through violence and threats of violence, over who is to be the Krestniy Otets, the Big Boss. What is “truth”? All the silly fights over this through the years! It’s whatever the Boss says it is:

Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine. Ukraine is run by Nazis. Russia and Ukraine are one people belonging to a Greater Russian Empire. (See Putin’s historical fantasy and imperialist screed “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”) Ukrainians long to be liberated. (from themselves?) They will greet us with flowers. (Uh, no.) I had to do this because I don’t want this NATO country on my southeastern border. And so on. All of these are absurdities. Some are delusions.

Consider the last one: Ukraine is not a NATO country, and even if it were to become one, NATO is a defensive alliance. Never since Russia became a nuclear power has it had legitimate reason to fear being invaded by NATO or the West. That’s just crazy. And if Russia were to annex the whole of Ukraine (something it seems to have thought it could do in a three-day Blitzkrieg), THEN Putin would have several new NATO-member-country borders that he didn’t have before along the southeastern portion of his new, family-sized Greater Russian Empire in the making–new borders with NATO members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania.

All the pretexts for this barbaric, brutal invasion (which is a violation of Article 2 of the UN Charter and of the Articles of the Rome Statute forbidding Acts of Aggression, Crimes against Humanity, and War Crimes) belong to an Alternative Facts Universe and not to this world.

Here’s Kellyanne Conway, then counsellor to Putin’s dog, Trump, channeling Dugin: “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and our Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave alternative facts,.”

Wannabe Krestniy Otets Don the Con Trump lives in an Alternative Fact world inhabited only by himself and his admirers (perhaps even one where he doesn’t have a foreign handler), a world where any nasty, un-Donadlish realities are Fake News. I imagine this conversation between Putin and his dog, Donald:

DON THE CON: So, what should I call the new social media network?

TSAR VLAD: Well, in the old days, we called the Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda.

DON THE CON: OK. Pravda. Crazy name, but OK.

TSAR VLAD: No, no, Donald. Pravda is “truth” in Russian

DON THE CON (thinking hard): Hmmm. OK. OK. I see. We’ll call it “Truth in Russian.”

TSAR VLAD: No, Donald. [turns to National Security Director Patrushev] Take Donald away and explain this to him. However long it takes until he understands.

Stalin used to take his senior people, after work, back to his dacha just outside Moscow for a drinking party that would last until the wee hours. And there he would play a favorite game. He would say something ludicrous and ask people’s opinions. And each would fall over himself to agree. Then he would say, “That’s idiotic,” and say the opposite. Then, he would point to someone and say, “What do you think?” And that person would tremble and try to figure out what he was supposed to think. And then everyone would know that this was the next one of them who was going to be arrested, tortured in the basement of the Lubyanka Prison, extended a chance for reprieve, forced to confess on state TV, subjected to a show trial, and then killed. It is this precise Stalinist/Putinist technique that George Orwell describes in 1984, when O’Brian tells Winston that The Party is not satisfied with confession and groveling from those arrested for Thought Crime. No, it wants perfection. It will make people see that 2 + 2 is 5. It will make them love Big Brother. And then, when they have reached this state of perfection, when they are completely aligned, servile, harmless, it will put a bullet through their heads.

Putin, Trump, an entire political party in the United States–all are trying to usher in a post-truth, Alternative Fact world, a world where the facts are whatever Glorious Leader said they were today. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. This is not a war. It’s a special military operation. Biden stole the election. CRT is digging up your flowerbeds. Go back and listen to Ted Cruz’s slimy grilling of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Watch his body language. He doesn’t believe a word of what he is saying. But truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is power, winning.

“You’re gonna win so much, you’ll get tired of winning.” –Donald J. Trump

NB: Someone commented on this essay, asking whether I was “advocating for a new McCarthyism.” I emphatically am not. That ought to be obvious. I am advocating for the lying, criminal, reptilian little blin imperialist Chekist and thief to stop murdering Ukrainian babies and grandmas and pregnant women and hapless Russian conscripts who were told by said Tsar Vlad that they were going to “participate in exercises.”

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch Responds to Putinist Trolls

Please read this moving piece by my candidate for Greatest Living American, Diane Ravitch. As she so often does, she nails this. Dr. Ravitch writes:

As regular readers know, I have received and posted several comments complaining that I don’t write posts showing “both sides” or “different sides” on Ukraine. They disapprove of my support for Ukraine and my criticism of Putin.

In some cases, the commenters have included links to articles or videos claiming that Putin had no choice but to invade Ukraine because…he felt encircled by NATO, or he needed to protect Russians in Ukraine, or Ukraine is overrun by Nazis, or some policy analyst warned that NATO’s expansion would provoke Putin. Other commenters claim that I should not post anything sympathetic to Ukraine unless I post equally sympathetic commentaries about places where the U.S. brutalized the local population or where other nations are suffering.

Let me explain. This is my blog. It is not CNN, FOX, MSNBC, or a network station. The articles I post are my choice.

My choice is to demand that Putin stop the war that he launched against Ukraine. Stop the killing of Ukrainians and Russians. Stop the targeting of civilians. Stop the bombing of civilian shelters and hospitals and evacuation routes.

I oppose this unprovoked war. Those who excuse and rationalize it are, wittingly or unwittingly, supporting the war. And they are supporting Putin. One comment, which I chose not to publish, claimed that the war was “provoked” by Ukraine. Rubbish. Another said that Ukraine is run by Nazis. Rubbish. Another said the war was created by Russophobes. More rubbish. NATO accepted ex-Soviet satellite nations because they asked to be admitted. NATO didn’t pressure them to apply. They wanted protection from Russia. Ukraine requested membership in NATO but the request was tabled, probably to avoid antagonizing Putin.

The nations of the world should have the right to choose their own government and not to be ruled by a puppet regime. Russia took a sharp turn away from democracy when Boris Yeltsin chose him as his successor. He has a long history of killing or imprisoning his critics and competitors. Now he has none, and he engineered passage of a law that keeps him in power until 2036. That’s almost half a century of one man rule. The usual words for such regimes are “dictatorship,” “authoritarian,” “totalitarian.”

For thirty years, the West has encouraged ties with Russia. The goal of the West was to integrate Russia into the global economy and promote healthy relations between Russia and the West. By his invasion of Ukraine, Putin severed the past thirty years of steady efforts to build ties with the West and to turn Russia into a normal nation that does not threaten its neighbors or threaten the world with nuclear war.

I will not post defenses of Putin. If you want to defend his actions, write a letter to the New York Times or the Washington Post. Or follow the tweets of Marjorie Taylor Green, Madison Cawthorne, and the other members of the GOP’s Putin caucus.

One man surrounded the borders of Ukraine with nearly 200,000 troops. One man lied and said he had “no intention” of invading Ukraine. One man ordered the troops and jets and warships to attack Ukraine. One man gave the order to reduce Ukrainian cities to rubble and trap civilians who had no water, no heat, no food.

Putin.

In my view, he is a megalomaniac, an imperialist, a man without a heart or a soul. He is Stalin reborn.

I will no longer post comments defending Putin’s cruel and unprovoked war. I will no longer give space to those who say he was afraid of being “encircled” by NATO. This gives him permission to invade Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, even Poland and Hungary.

I have no obligation to post “both sides.” I don’t post both sides of the campaign to privatize public schools. I don’t post both sides on issues of racism or book banning or other issues that, in my view, are clear cut.

We can debate lots of issues. But I will no longer tolerate defenses of Putin and his war of choice. Please don’t waste your time or mine by posting comments justifying Putin’s war. I will delete them, and you will go into moderation where I can delete them before they appear.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

An Existentialist Perspective on Russia v. the West

This is an excerpt from a PBS interview with the profound, learned, witty, altogether brilliant Russian political scholar and former member of the Russian Duma Ekaterina Schulmann. It’s from a series called The Putin Files. I say that this is an Existentialist perspective because Existentialism is all about individuals being self-creating and, ultimately, responsible for themselves. (For my very brief introduction to Existentialism, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2019/03/18/existentialism-in-five-minutes-bob-shepherd/)

MICHAEL KIRK: One of the things we know from talking to people close to President Putin is that he feels strongly that the United States has been involved in fomenting and causing things from the early color revolutions all the way up. What is your perception of the United States’ involvement and whether that argument works?

EKATERINA SCHULMANN: Of course, I can’t know what is passing in the heads of our decision makers. I have heard this rhetoric, of course, time and again, from many people on the top levels of our hierarchy—our power hierarchy. From my point of view, it’s some sort of psychological disorder called external locus of control, if you know the term. It’s the situation when a person thinks that everything that happens to him or her is determined by some external agent. It’s a very bad thing, because it makes you lose your existence as a real person. It makes you exist only as a focus of others’ wills. This is the strange and phantasmagoric picture of Russia today as painted by the state media. What is Russia? She is something that is threatened from the outside. And if there is any threat from the inside, this is also because of somebody external or some external will. It could not be more absurd. It’s absurd in itself, but it’s specifically absurd in case of Russia, which is a bigger, complex society, whose problems and victories and achievements and defeats are all determined by internal reasons, by internal factors. So, again, it couldn’t be more—more stupid.

MY COMMENT Applying this to Russia’s influence on the United States, I would make the following observations: Yes, Trump has long been a Russian asset. The extent to which he is aware of this is unclear, but certainly, he willfully ignores his own usefulness to Russian bad actors. And yes, Russia waged an extensive social media disinformation and misinformation campaign to get Trump elected. And yes, the United States, being a free and open society, is awash in Russian assets and agents who foment right-wing disruption among gun nuts and white nationalists. And yes, all that contributed to the recent resurgence of the overtly and covertly fascist right in the United States—to things like Trump’s making people feel that it is again OK for them to be out about their explicit anti-immigrant and anti-black racism. But here’s the thing: Putin and Putin’s dog, Trump, would not have been successful in fomenting racist strife in the U.S., in bringing millions of racists out of the woodwork, IF THEY HADN’T BEEN IN THE WOODWORK TO BEGIN WITH. We must ourselves assume responsibility for this stuff. Fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious fundamentalism, extreme nationalism, opposition via state violence to protest and dissent and a free media, personality cult politics—these are all fundamental tenets and modi operandi of Putinism and official state policy in Russia today, and yes, Putin has worked hard to export this evil to the US. But he found fertile ground for all of it here, alas, and that’s what we need to worry most about—about stopping OUR extreme right. We must not see ourselves as victims but as agents, and we must concern ourselves most with those right here among us who are agents of all these evils. There are positive signs, if one looks at the beliefs and values of our youth. But before they come of voting age, there is a big danger that the fascists will seize control here, in 2022-24, and undo the voting rights that are our bulwark against them. We have met the enemy, and he is us, said the Pogo possum. I would amend that only to say, “he is some of us.”

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | Leave a comment

A Middle Way: Socialism, Capitalism, and Social Democracy 

NB: This is very rough. Something I threw together for a young friend. But I thought I would share it anyway.

It’s valuable, when staking out a position, to play the Devil’s Advocate—to take the opposing point of view and present it as strongly as you possibly can. Why? Because such an exercise raises real issues with one’s own position, ones that commonly require one to make modifications.  

I wrote a piece a few years ago called something like “It’s Time We Progressives Started Using the S Word to Describe Ourselves.” I thought of this as a bold choice because the S word, Socialist or Socialism, is to many Americans a derogatory term on the level of, say, Satanist. Here was my thinking: Right-wingers hurl this term as generalized invective, even if they haven’t a clue what it means. The same thing was once true of the term Puritan. It dates to the late sixteenth century, when it was used by Catholics and Anglicans as a pejorative term to describe Protestants who wanted to remove the last vestiges of Catholicism from the established English Church. Henry VIII had disbanded the monasteries and seized Church properties and created a new Protestant Church of England, or Anglican Church, with himself, rather than the Pope, at its head. Some Protestants didn’t think that the Anglicans had gone far enough. They wanted an end to fancy ecclesiastical vestments; to the hierarchy of Cardinals and Archbishops; to ostentatious and expensive places of worship, with their gold chalices and stained-glass windows and elaborate artwork. They wanted local, congregational control over the ministry, and they wanted people to be able to read the scriptures for themselves, in vernacular translations. In other words, they wanted to purify the Church even more. They were scorned as Puritans but took the label on with pride, and in the late 1640s, they effected, in England, what is known as The Puritan Revolution, beheaded the king (Charles I), and established rule by Parliament, with Oliver Cromwell at its head. My argument in that essay was that we folk on the left side of the political spectrum in the U.S. should follow the model provided by the Puritans and accept the label Socialist with pride. 

Socialism and Communism 

Now, playing the Devil’s Advocate, we should look at the best possible case that we can make against Socialism. But before we can do that, we need to understand what Socialism is. There were many Socialist movements and experiments before Karl Marx, but Marx and his partner Friedrich Engels were the people who did most to establish a systematic theory of Socialism. So, let’s start with them. Their theory of Socialism was so transformative as to merit a new name—Communism, which they borrowed from previous Socialist uprisings and, in particular, from the workers’ revolution in France in the late 18th century that led to the establishment of the Paris Commune. Here’s the Marxist theory in a nutshell: 

Key to the Marxist critique of Capitalism is the Labor Theory of Value, which states that the value of something comes mostly from the labor applied to it. Take some sand, apply heat to it, pour off the melted silicon and leave behind the impurities, stretch and fold it, and you end up with glass. Sand is almost worthless. Glass is quite valuable. Its value comes from the labor applied to the raw materials. The Capitalist—the one who owns the mine or the factory—is someone who is able to marshal Labor and ownership of Capital, that is, of resources like raw materials and tools, to make products. The Capitalist makes profits by buying cheaply and selling dearly, in competition with other Capitalists. In the extreme case, he (The Capitalist was almost always a he) eliminates the competition entirely or almost entirely. He becomes a monopolist. The Capitalist, Marx argued, steals the bulk of the value produced by laborers. The value of the product—the glass—over and above what workers are paid is called Surplus Value. Contrast this with artisanal craftsmanship, in which the laborer keeps the value of his or her own work. If I am a medieval goldsmith or cooper (a barrel maker), I keep all the value of the labor applied to my raw materials—gold or wood. In other words, Capitalism is theft from workers of this Surplus Value.

Marx and other Socialists looked around them at the society created by the industrial revolution—by the creation of mills and mines—with its breathtaking inequities and exploitation (twelve-hour workdays, child labor, horrific working conditions, poverty wages, etc.) and theorized that INEVITABLY, this horrific system would break. Capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction. Eventually, in modern, Capitalist, post-agrarian societies, the exploited working class, the Proletariat, would rise up against the ownership class, the Bourgeoisie, and take over the means of production. Marx was a materialist, and he saw economic forces as deterministic. Following this inevitable Communist revolution, workers, not Capitalists, would own the means of production. And that’s what Socialism means. It’s worker ownership of the means of production. Now, according to Marx, after the inevitable Communist revolution, there would be a practical need to organize economic affairs to the benefit the workers, what others, including Engels and Lenin, called a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Marx is vague about how government immediately following the Communist Revolution is supposed to occur, but this period of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, with leaders operating in the interests of workers, would eventually evolve into a classless society that would take from each according to his or her ability and give to each according to his or her needs. (One form this classless society might take would be Syndicalism, in which independent groups, or syndicates, of workers would own and operate via democratic processes, their own factories, mines, and other production centers.) In the meantime, until that classless society was realized, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat would act to ensure that everyone’s basic needs, for housing, food, healthcare, education, etc., were met.  

Marx’s method is often called Dialectical Materialism. The phrase comes from the German philosopher Hegel, who posed a method for philosophy called the Dialectic, which involved a Thesis, an Antithesis, and a Synthesis. In Marxist theory, material causes (the discontent of exploited workers under Capitalism) will inevitably, deterministically bring about change. The negation of workers’ rights in the appropriation of the value that they create will inevitably bring about the negation of the negation in the form of the workers’ revolution. The process will be as follows: Capitalism (thesis), Class Struggle and Communist Revolution (antithesis), Dictatorship of the Proletariat Leading to a Classless Society (synthesis).  

The Rightwing Critique of Marxist Socialism 

The rightwing critique of Marxist Socialism, and in particular, of the Marxist Leninism that took root in Russia, is basically that it’s either a cover story for dictatorship or is hopelessly naïve and doesn’t reflect or embody an understanding of human nature and of economic forces. Here, I will make the right-wingers’ case and try to do this as charitably as is possible. 

A Dictatorship of the Proletariat, or any Socialist government, will inevitably be disastrous—will become a totalitarian state and eventually fail, because of five fundamental issues: 

Self-Interest Leading to Totalitarianism. Despite its utopian aims, a Dictatorship of the Proletariat will put a few people in power. Power would become even more concentrated than in a Capitalist society, in this case, in the hands of those supposedly acting in lieu of and for the benefit of the workers. Because it is human nature to act in one’s own self-interests (a fundamental Capitalist tenet), the new leaders would exploit workers even more than Capitalists did, and be, in effect, just plain dictators. Welcome to the new boss, worse than the old boss. And this is what happened in Russia. By the time of Stalin, one leader was in effect a monarch. This is the process that Orwell satirizes in Animal Farm, where the pigs, having created their version of National, or State, Socialism, writ small, issue a degree that “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (Oddly, in contradiction to Marxist theory, the Russian revolution occurred in an almost entirely pre-Capitalist, feudal, agrarian state rather than in a Capitalist industrial one. The Communist revolutions that Marx predicted for actual industrialist, bourgeois societies like Germany and Great Britain didn’t materialize [pun intended], for reasons we’ll look at later.)  

Insufficient Information for Wise Decision Making. A distant government will not understand local conditions, conditions on the ground, and so it will make stupid decisions, ones based on incomplete understanding. Individuals—dictators of any stripe—are simply too stupid and too ignorant (stupidity and ignorance are distinct but related attributes). So, for example, the attempted collectivization of farms in Stalin’s Russia for the benefit of workers in general led to massive famine and tens of millions of deaths.  

Lack of a Built-in Mechanism for Self-Correction. In Capitalist societies, competition in free markets leads to several kinds of self-correction. If farmers produce too much milk, demand will be less than supply, and prices will drop because some farmers will sell their milk more cheaply rather than write it all off. Some farmers will turn to other work, and supply will stabilize to meet demand. If farmers are producing too little milk, demand will drive prices up, and this will encourage others to go into dairy production. So, market processes that are smarter than individuals are operate automatically to ensure that prices and supply are roughly at optimal levels. The self-correcting mechanism of the market is what the British economist Adam Smith described in his bible of Capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, as the “invisible hand.” This mechanism for automatic self-correction is disastrously absent in National Socialist states, with their price-setting and production-setting and government monopolies on production.

Substitution of Dictatorial Law and Regulation for the Self-Correction Mechanisms of the Market. In a free society, market forces lead to stability—to equilibria. So, for example, in pre-industrial America, it was an advantage for families to have a lot of children—more hands to work the family farm, but as people moved to cities and the society became industrialized, having more children became a burden. The government didn’t step in to ensure that those extra children were clothed and fed, so people simply stopped having as many. This is a natural means of population control, freely adopted. But in a Socialist or Communist society in which the basic needs of all children are met, free riders (see below) can have as many children as they want to have without having to worry about whether they could meet the needs of those children, and to fix the free rider problem, the government has to step in and start dictating how many children people could have, as China did with its One Child Policy. In such ways, totalitarian dictates supplant automatic, market-based self-correction.  

The Freerider Problem, or Lack of Incentives. Socialist governments operate equitably in workers’ interests—e.g., to supply them with basic necessities such as jobs and healthcare and housing and food. But if government is going to make sure that I have a job for life and free healthcare and a roof over my head and food in my belly despite what I do—if I am going to be equal to others in what is provided to me, no matter what I do, there will be no incentive for me to work harder. This is known as the free rider problem. In a Capitalist system, each person has to work hard in his or her own self-interest, and the society as a whole ends up benefitting from that. Friends I’ve had who lived in the former Soviet Union always tell stories about how nothing worked, how everything was shoddy, badly made or badly implemented. Sure, you had free healthcare, but the doctor had no incentive to treat you well, for he or she was a sole provider—you didn’t have an option—and that doctor was going to take home the same paycheck regardless of whether he or she gave a damn about giving you the treatment you needed. This is the problem that George Orwell satirizes in 1984, when Winston is trying to smoke a Victory Cigarette, produced by The Party. The cigarette is so badly made that Winston has to hold it tilted upward and draw on it hard because otherwise, the tobacco will fall out the end of it.  

A Middle Way 

So, all that might sound like a pretty damning indictment of Socialism, but bear in mind that what I have just described is what happens in National Socialist states. Remember that Socialism is accurately defined as WORKER ownership of the means of production. By that definition, the Soviet Union, in which the GOVERNMENT owned the means of production, was NOT a Socialist state and, in fact, no Socialist state has yet existed! 

At this point, I would like to pose a question: Why did the Communist revolutions that Marx predicted, that he considered inevitable, not occur in modern Capitalist nation states like German, Great Britain, and the United States? The answer, of course, is that those states passed laws to ameliorate the worst excesses of Capitalism: child labor laws, protections of workers’ rights to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, universal public education, workplace safety regulations, Social Security, national health systems (in the U.S., Medicaid and Medicare), and so on. In other words, Capitalism saved itself from itself. 

In the United States, however, wealth and income inequality have skyrocketed. Since the mid-1970s, wages have remained almost flat while productivity (the amount of value produced per worker) has increased by 80 percent. Where did all that Surplus Value from increased worker productivity go? Well, it went into the pockets of the ownership class. That’s why, right now, at a time when food and housing prices are soaring in the U.S., sales of luxury goods like yachts and 400-thousand-dollar watches are soaring. The U.S. still has not joined the rest of the civilized world in implementing single-payer national healthcare, and millions of Americans go without proper medical and dental care. A quarter of children in the U.S., the richest country in the world, live in poverty and suffer food insecurity. And all these problems continue to get worse. What’s to be done about all this? 

Well, we can follow the Nordic Model and adopt a Social Democratic system. (I use the term Social Democracy instead of Democratic Socialism in approval of the policies of the German Social Democratic Party, or SDP). In the Nordic Model, followed by countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany, self-correcting market mechanisms, incentives, and competition still operate, but equity is ensured by high progressive taxation coupled with superb social welfare programs funded by those progressive taxes.  

I’m a big believer in existence proofs. In study after study, the people of countries that follow the Nordic Model are the happiest and healthiest in the world.  

So, I believe that we should adopt the model that has proved to be most successful and that we should work toward Syndicalism by instituting tax and other incentives for expansion of Employee Stock Ownership Plans and increased board representation by workers.  

Long ago, Aristotle, who was wrong about so many things, got something right. In his Nicomachean Ethics and other work dealing with ethical issues, he advanced a position that has come to be known as the Golden Mean—a heuristic, or rule of thumb, in ethics, to seek a middle path. Take your pleasures, but don’t become a slave to them. Have pride in yourself, but don’t be vain and self-centered. Seek a temperate middle ground. Social Democracy is that ground.  

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Why Repugnicans Support “School Choice” and a Look Back at the Repugnican National Convention

Republicans face an existential threat. Polling shows that young people oppose them, often by overwhelming numbers, on every issue. And, of course, the country is becoming less white. So, if they are to keep from going the way of the Know Nothings, they have to a) suppress voting rights and b) create fundamentalist madrassas to indoctrinate young people in a fascist/nationalist/exceptionalist ideology. A great way to do this is by diverting taxpayer dollars to private religious schools. To that end, “school choice” was a major theme of the last Repugnican Coven. A look back:

Remarks on “School Choice” from the Republican National Convention, 2020:

Kim Klacik: We want higher paying jobs and more business opportunities. We want lower taxes. We want school choice.

Vernon Jones: He’s also supported school choice to assure [sic] that no child, no matter their race or Zip code, is left behind. Every child should have access to a quality education.

Donald Trump, Jr.: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that could afford the best schools and the finest universities, but a great education cannot be the exclusive right of the rich and powerful. It must be accessible to all. And that’s why my dad is pro school choice. That’s why he’s called education access the civil rights issue, not just of our time, but of all time. It is unacceptable that too many African American and Hispanic American children are stuck in bad schools, just because of their zip code. Donald Trump will not stand for it. If Democrats really wanted to help minorities in underserved communities, instead of bowing to big money union bosses, they’d let parents choose what school is best for their kids.

Tim Scott: I realized a quality education is the closest thing to magic in America. That’s why I fight to this day for school choice, to make sure every child in every neighborhood has a quality education. I don’t care if it’s a public, private, charter, virtual or a homeschool, when a parent has a choice, their kid has a better chance and the president has fought alongside me on that.

Random parent dialogue:

                Speaker x: [Trump brought about] Real-life policy changes that affected real Americans.
                Speaker y: An amazing opportunity to get ahead, to have our businesses, to have our children educated, of school choice.

                Speaker z: That is something that’s huge for parents right now, especially black moms, whose kids are trapped in failing school districts.

Tiffany Trump: We believe in school choice because a child’s zip code in America should not determine their [sic] future.

Mike Pence: Jack is an eight-year-old from Wisconsin who was struggling academically and socially in school. Jack’s mom, Sarah, who works three jobs to support her son, applied for Wisconsin’s school choice voucher program.

Sarah Hughes: We’re glad that we were able to get the school choice voucher to go to that school. With Jack, he would have slipped through the cracks in public schools and having the option to go to a school that fits him has been a real game changer for us and I know that because of that opportunity that he is going to succeed and he is going to achieve that goal of being an apparatus engineer if that’s what he chooses to stick with.

Jeanette Nunez: We must continue to support out commander in chief who has a bold agenda. . . . It means fighting to provide the best quality education, by empowering parents and preserving school choice.

Eric Trump: Over and over, issue after issue. . . . school choice. . . . Promises made and promises for the first time were kept.

Melania trump: This president also continues to fight for school choice, giving parents more options to help their children flourish.

Tera Myers (speaking about Ohio’s voucher program): When I inquired about functional learning, I was told, “This is all you get, like it or not.” Well, I did not like it. One size did not fit all. So, I helped fight to pass legislation in Ohio for a special needs scholarship, so that all students could choose the right program for their needs. I worked to start a new functional learning program at our local private school. Finally, Samuel had an appropriate place to learn. Last December, Samuel was invited to the White House to meet our President and share his thoughts on education freedom. He said, “School choice helped my dreams come true. My school taught me the way I learn best. I was able to fit in. I made many friends. I became a part of my community. My teachers helped me become the best I can be.”

Lou Holtz: President Trump has demonstrated through his prison reform, advocating for school choice, and welfare reform that he wants Americans from all walks of life to have the opportunity to succeed and live the American dream.

Jack Pruitt: So, because you have an issue with president Trump’s tone, you’re going to allow Biden and Harris to deny our underserved black and brown children school choice?

Narrator introducing Pence: He. . . . expanded school choice.

Mike Pence: Joe Biden wants to end school choice, and president Trump believes that every parent should have the right to choose where their children go to school regardless of their income or area code.

Donald Trump: Biden also vowed to oppose school choice, and close all charter schools, ripping away the ladder of opportunity for Black and Hispanic children. In a second term, I will expand charter schools, and provide school choice to every family in America.

The same liberals want to eliminate school choice while they enroll their children into the finest private schools in the land.

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from Flor-uh-duh Bob’s EZ Entrepreneurial Guide to Charter Riches!

OK, if some reader is so dense as not to see that this piece is satire meant to call attention to horrific, illegal scams being perpetrated right now in the United States, it is. And if you follow any of the “advice” given below, you will possibly receive and richly deserve housing in a state or federal penitentiary.

As a would-be artist of the con, you follow in a great American tradition going all the way back to John D. Rockefeller’s father, the Dr. Marvel medicine show guy who traveled the West selling Everything Cures. Many possibilities for grift lie before you. Like renowned televangelist Jim Bakker, you could sell “Covid cures.” (Try the very reverend Bakker’s colloidal Silver Solution! And, oh, the healing power of donations!) You could adopt the “business model” of the multilevel marketing Ponzi schemes or of the “charity” or “university” run by Donald Trump. You could go into cyberscam operations by assuming the identity of an ex-princess of Nigeria. You could go into online sales of “genuine” costume jewelry or erectile dysfunction pills. You could, like Bernie Madoff, sell nonexistent securities. But because of the government’s insufficient appreciation of the entrepreneurial spirt, all these have their downsides, including, alas, hefty fines and prison terms.

This is, however, your lucky day, for I, Bobby Bigbucks, the guy who put the con in economy, am going to reveal to you, right now, THE SECRET to Making Million$ in the Charter Game. Rest assured that the nominal Membership Fee you paid for this TOP SECRET information will be multiplied like a politician’s bank account on being elected to Congress!!!

But, there’s a hurdle up front. No way ’round it. You have to learn THE FUNDAMENTAL EQUATION of Charter Management Operations because that’s what this whole scam is based on. Remember, there’s Fun in Fundamental! So, with no further ado:

(FTE * n) – (C + E) = G

where

FTE = the annual per-student funding, or full-time equivalency, that the state will provide you for every kid whose parents you sucker in or pretend to have suckered in

n = the number of students that you enroll and pretend to enroll in your school

C + E = costs and expenses of running the school

G = the grift, what’s left over for you

Now, it doesn’t take a stable business genius like Donald Trump or Big Daddy Ewing to figure out the secret here. ANYTHING YOU DON’T SPEND ON ACTUALLY PROVIDING AN EDUCATION, YOU GET TO KEEP.

YUP. IT’S YOURS!!! (Well, technically, it’s the school’s, but I’ll tell you how to get around that in just a minute! It’s slicker than a . . . hey, cut that part out, OK?)

You might be asking yourself, how on Earth is that legal? Good question.

First, create a CMO, which is short for Charter Management Organization, or Channel for Megabucks Outflow. Via your CMO, buy, on time, an empty factory building or K-Mart or whatever. Gut the building and divide it up into classrooms, bathrooms, a lunchroom, and administrative offices. Don’t worry about frivolities like a library, science labs, a nurse’s office, a gym, or a theatre. Remember, anything you don’t spend is yours. It’s best if you have a little grass-covered dirt outside for PE.

Next, buy a bunch of refurbished computer terminals in bulk from China. Line the walls with these. Use the same source for desks, chairs, filing cabinets, telephones, and security cameras.

Then, contract with a Virtual Charter School to provide online “Personalized Learning” (For a guide to running one of THOSE scams, send a 12-inch stack of twenty-dollar bills to Bobby Bigbucks in the Cayman Islands.) You will promote your school as a high-tech, innovative, personalized learning environment that leaves the old Factory Model of Education in the dust. Hee hee. I know, right? People will believe most anything.

Now, here’s the biggie: Via your CMO, lease the building and the equipment to your school AT SEVERAL MULTIPLES of the market rents for these and of your mortgage.

You might think, hey, that was easy! But no, you can’t just write checks to strip clubs and massage parlors and the like from the school or CMO accounts. NO. DON’T DO THAT.

Instead, hire and pay as employees of the school and the CMO yourself, your spouse, your children, your mistresses or misteresses, your ne’er-do-well cousins and golfing buddies, your pool boy, etc., and pay all these people exorbitant salaries and load them up with perks. You will be one popular person!!! Talk about an opportunity to throw your weight around. Remember this motto, which enshrines the American Way: one’s worth is one’s girth.

And know that every day in operation, you are building equity on the property that those suckers, the marks, the taxpayers are paying for!!!! That’s the real beauty. If you need a little infusion of cash, just tell investors that you are not actually in the education biz; you are in the real estate biz, just like Donald J. Trump.

Employ the most unemployable in your family and fiends network to do janitorial, waste management, and busing services, and make sure you get your Vig, or mob boss tax, on each of these operations.

Of course, in keeping with the Fundamental Equation, you must drive expenditures WAY below the FTEs. Pay the lowest possible teacher salaries. Churn those teachers so that they don’t build seniority and get uppity and expensive. Don’t by any means spend money on frivolous stuff like nurses or whiteboards or markers or paper or art and science supplies or anything else that might result in actual education. Start a PTO to hold bake sales to raise money for sports equipment. DO NOT spend money on athletic fields. (If you insist on this, pouring concrete for an outdoor basketball court is pretty cheap.) You can pay a buddy or cousin with a start-up busing company to haul kids to a local park where they can play football, baseball, field hockey, and if there are fees, parents can pony up for those. Teachers can buy their own supplies out of the pittances you pay them. And who needs library books and textbooks when you are a next generation digital learning environment!

Practice in a mirror: “What? You want classroom libraries?!?!?!?! Do I look like freaking Santa Claus to you? And do I have to remind you that this is a next generation digital school of the future?” What is that teacher going to do? Complain to the union? LOL. In your school, there is no freaking union.

Now, I know that it’s easier to get these charters approved in poor neighborhoods because state legislators don’t give the-leftovers-on-the-country-club-luncheon-tray about those schools. However, take my advice and open in a nice (you know what that means–nudge, nudge), middle-class neighborhood where the kids will, by virtue of their ZIP codes, do reasonably well on the standardized tests despite the education you’re giving them. This will save you a ton of headaches. Oh, and maintain a “No Excuses” discipline policy. That way, you can make up reasons to kick out any kids with less than desirable demographic characteristics, with “needs,” and with potential to score very poorly on the state tests–you know, the kids that public education schools have to include and help.

And that final point raises another beauty of this: you get to run a private business for your own profit at taxpayer expense and call it a “non-profit charter school” because, after you have milked it for pay and perks, there’s no profit, just as students won’t profit from your use of them to enrich yourself. The Fundamental Equation becomes

(FTE * n) – (C + E, including pay and perks for you and your pals) = 0

Voila! You’re nonprofit! Hee hee, haw haw. And the state legislators whom you pay off or actually employ as part of your CMO can tell voters: “Well, charter schools are innovative, no excuses, digital public schools of the future, and I support only the nonprofit ones.”

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on so-called “Education Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

Posted in Ed Reform, Humor, Technology | Leave a comment