Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

In Support of the Space Program

"Why can't we take those millions from the space program and spend them in our ghettos?"

But the space program is our only hope to build NEW ghettoes on other planets!

One Way to Write a Poem

You can start with a stroke of the pen, then make it some letter, say a "Y", then add more letters to make a word like "You", then more letters & words to make some sort of sense, something you might be saying to someone, some "you", for example, then--and some find this harder than starting-- say something that makes it make sense to stop.

Monday, January 30, 2006

And also to say "I told you so!"

We want to live a long long time, but we want to die while all our friends and lovers are still around to realize by our sudden absence how important we really were. Hence the attraction
of YOUNG friends and lovers.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Committees, Capacitors and Capricious Derivations

"Committee" derives from the Latin, "Com" - with, and "mittere" - to put or send. Thus, a committee is a group to whom one sends things or with whom one puts things. It is, in short, a storage facility, particularly useful for long-term storage.

If issues are charged, too hot to touch, you refer them to a committee, which, like a capacitor, is layered: the conductors (who conduct business or electricity) are separated from one another by paper, which, like the layers of waxed paper in a capacitor, are dielectric, a word that combines the words "die" - expire - and "lectric" - which shares the Latin origin of "lecture", "lectern", etc.: "Legere", to read.

Thus, as a capacitor stores charge, so a committee stores matters of importance, which eventually expire, lost in the many layers of papers which must be read.

A committee is also a com-Mitty ("Mitty" as in Thurber's story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") - a group of people who sit around a table and, together, dream unreal dreams of their own heroic statuses and capabilities. Sometimes, amid the sounds of paper shuffling and snoring, one hears them muttering in their dreams: "pocketa pocketa - queep! - pocketa...."

[Note: For the source of "pocketa..." -- see the Thurber story.]

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Much talk of the mystery of the spirit: The spirit is the spirit is what we are when we know we are it, know we are.

Those who think little of themselves demand, in addition, mystery, as if (like Groucho, ashamed to belong to any club that would have him) they cannot respect anything understandable by such as they, as if the spirit is that which knows itself only by overwhelming that through which it is to know itself.

These people, meeting God's messenger, wrestle him with words, hoping to lose. This is the mystery of the spirit: It is too simple for mystery. That's what overwhelms us: The complexity of mystery, the lie we believe when we believe ourselves less than we are, the mystery we then become to ourselves so as to have something to worship.

Am I speaking to a mystery or a solution? (I suppose you're all wondering why I've called you all

Friday, January 27, 2006


He idled away the day, thinking it would wait for him, found - too late to get anything done - that the day had gone off to play with others, leaving behind its dark, taciturn companion with a blunt message.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Discuss Among Yourselves

Talking about the Middle East, inflation, values, crime, talking about and about, not knowing how, simply, to talk to each other, how to see each other to talk to, so talking instead about the things we do, the things we suffer, to make life interesting, not knowing how interesting WE are, no end of what we must invent to talk about when there's no one to talk to.

If you and I could talk to each other, there'd be no inflation, since our dreams would be more important than the price of fish.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Use for Art

What is this craving for fame? We long for a dense texture of agreement, enough random intersecting of viewpoints to make a solid ball of thread, never to be disentangled, not even by a kitten.

Being known by 2 or 3 or 10 differs from being known to millions, differs in kind (we hope), not only in degree. We imagine there are fame thresholds, points of no return, points beyond which the agreement that we are something special is no longer agreement, but solid fact, like pigeon-spattered statues in the town square.

Profusion of viewpoints, multiplicity of agreement yield confusion: It becomes increasingly difficult to spot the source of opinions that "everyone" holds. When you fasten a button, if the thread passes through the material (and itself) enough times, it can no longer easily be extracted by tugging it back out the way it went in. Confusion, randomness give us the solidity we call "fact" or "knots". If the same message comes at us from all directions at once, we call it "reality". It's what "everyone knows."

We long for the degree of randomness that is just beyond what we can confront, the point where we shrug our shoulders, saying, "It's too complicated for me - no one could make sense of it", in hopes of a permanent knot.

But ah! there is no reality too solid and confused to have a loose end. The most permanent creation is the creation we knowingly and willingly continue to create. And even where most of a "fact" (an institution, an individual's fame, the greatness of a work of art, the solidity of a planet) is a knot of complexity for which no one takes responsibility, just a single thread of intended creation revitalizes weary, petrified fact and makes it flex and breathe and become again a living thing.

Monday, January 23, 2006

At Home

I go for a jog, moving through miles of space with no sense of entering or leaving, though in my house, doors and narrowings and other dividers celebrate my every few steps. Home is where each room (if not each step) is its own universe. If I could leave behind each instant as I enter the next, lightly, but not without ceremony, where would I not be at home?

Traffic Court (Abridged)

Traffic court. What odd things people do every day! A very serious place. People don't like to be punished, don't like punishing people. No one appears to be having fun.

I wish this many people would show up at my poetry readings.

Wisdom Over Wit

Wisdom beats wit. There's a larger market for wit, but also more competition. And when you can't sell or give away your wit, it doesn't help you dispense with self-pity and keep writing.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Note From The Forest

Getting here was not easy,
so I mark my path with poems,
that others may follow me.
No wild creature disturbs my path.
Even the birds know that poems
leave a bitter taste.

26 Characters in Search of a Play

This poem is self-explanatory:
It consists of English words comprised
of permutations of 26 characters
in search of play. It means no harm.
It comes from a brutal universe,
where nice people hurt and die.
It doesn't have time to say much.
It would like to be useful,
because if play can be useful,
it will be permitted to play.
It means well.
It can't help itself.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bodies and the Single Spiritual Being

What's hard to understand about ghosts is not that they've lost their bodies, but that they can't seem to pick up new ones.

WE did it, so it must be easy.

But we don't know how we did it or how we'll do it again (which makes us leery of losing the body we "have"), any more than a randy teenager knows how he gets turned-on, except that it's easy, impotence inconceivable.


Though I find new streets to walk, it's always just the earth's surface, and if I could go to the center of the earth or to the stars, it would be just more points in space, and if I could leave space and time as we think we know them, It would still be just me, and, it being just me, I have decided my front yard is new and interesting, and it is.

Pappy Always Used to Say...

The first time I pulled my adjective on that cliché and backed him down, Daddy said, "Son, that were a damn fool thing to do. Thet thar hombre were out to kill yer language. Y' let him live. Son, never pull yer adjective unless y' mean t' use it."
Hell, Daddy," I said--"It weren't even loaded."

"Then use yer verbs, but finish what you start."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Longish Riff on "What Is It About Judaism?"

Someone asked me recently why Jews were such a big deal -- why they seem to be and to have been so influential in history when compared to their relatively small number, why so often hated, etc.

This is far from a new question, and I'm sure if I had time to read a thousandth of what's been written on the subject, I could come up with a learned answer. I don't have that time, but I do have some ideas. They may be old hat. I haven't seen them before, but you may have. I'll summarize them here, and perhaps you'll find something fresh in them. They may also be wrong. For example, if I say that Jews were the first to develop something, perhaps there are cultural anthropologists who could tell me otherwise. But I think my ignorant opinions are as good as anyone else's ignorant opinions, and, hey, this is a blog.

First let's look at the phenomenon itself:

I remember a paperback I read in college with a title something like "Four Men Who Changed The World", and that all four were Jewish: Jesus, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Not to get into arguments about the many non-Jews who could have been among the four most influential (Buddha? Plato? Beethoven? Lenin? [But not John Lennon, who was part Jewish], Shakespeare?) or the obvious European bias of the book, the point is, given that Jews are 2 or 3 tenths of a per cent of the earth's population, it's surprisingly easy to name four Jewish candidates -- or ten Jewish candidates for high position on "most influential".

(Who else? St. Paul, Moses, David, Soloman, St. Peter, Matthew -- or more recently, Proust, Trotsky, per many scholars -- Christopher Columbus, Bob Dylan...)

Quick, name the world's ten most influential Methodists. Lutherans? (I get as far as Luther and Bach, then go dry. I know there are many others -- but I don't know who they are!)

There's also the fact (or illusion) that many professions (law, math, music, etc.) have a lot more Jews than would be expected from their small portion of the population.

In Hitler's day, there were about 18 million Jews on the planet (by most counts -- and I wish I could say "...but who's counting?" Alas, Hitler's minions were counting, with the help of IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, which provided all the Hollerith machines [punch-card sorters, etc.] that made it possible). By the time Hitler and much of Germany were gone, there were only 12,000,000 Jews left. But even at 18,000,000, Jews represented less than one per cent of earth's population. Yet Hitler was able to persuade tens of millions of Germans (and others) that Jews were running and ruining the world.

Of course, Jews did own banks and have high positions in various industries and governments out of proportion to their numbers, but not, typically, positions of crushing predominance. There were more Christians among international bankers than Jews, more wealth among Christians, etc. We tend to forget, when someone generalizes about Jewish bankers, naming, for example, the Rothschild family, that the Rockefellers, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, the Mellon family, the Vanderbilts, etc. were not Jewish. Someone pointed out to me years ago (and it was certainly true at the time - the '60s) that the two main areas most dominated by Jews in the United States were music and mathematics - NOT banking or commerce. I suppose some areas of commerce have long been Jewish or were until recent years: the Amsterdam diamond cutters and Jewish jewelers, the NY garment industry, the big movie studios. But large segments of commerce are NOT primarily Jewish. Tom Watson (of IBM - who supported Hitler logistically), Henry Ford (a noted anti-Semite) and other titans of industry -- not Jewish. Nor, today, is Bill Gates Jewish.

One can go back and forth on this. The point is that enough Jews hold high positions in Western society that it has been easy for demogogues to scape-goat Jews and hold them to be huge hidden influences on society. Freemasons have received similar (though far milder) treatment, and have, similarly, a disproportionate share of high positions in the world (George Washington and others of our Founding Fathers, for example). And, like Jews, Freemasons have a culture that is mysterious to outsiders.

And now 1.2 billion Moslems (or a significant portion of them) are focused on the tiny Jewish state of Israel (whose inhabitants include nearly as many Muslems as Jews) as THE enemy. Bin Laden justifies his attacks on the United States partly by citing U.S. aid to Israel. All the Jews in the world amount to about 1 per cent of the number of Muslems.

So the first obvious question is, how did this relatively tiny group (compared to Chinese or Arabs or Christians or Germans or Japanese or Buddhists or Hindhus, etc.) come to be so damned important? Why do they stick in so many craws? Why do they produce so many people of note?

The second question is, how come they're still around? Back in the days when Joshua was resettling the land of Canaan (Israel), there were lots of other peoples in the area. Where are they now? Can you point me to the Hittite part of town? Where can I hire an Emorite lawyer? In what industries are the Amalekites dominant? And where are the worshipers of Dagon (the Fish God) -- the ones we know as "The Philistines" and from whom "Palestine" takes its name, though the current Palestinians have little to do with the Biblical Philistines. Where are the Pharaohs?

I think there are still about 100 Samaritans in Israel. But Samaritans are a sect that splintered off Judaism (believing in the Five Books of Moses [The Torah], but not the other books of the Old Testament). So they're really Jews, in a way. No wonder they survive yet as a people.

Can you fix me up with an Assyrian? How about lunch with a Babylonian? Raise your hand if you're a Midianite...Chaldean? Are the Iranians the descendents (culturally? genetically?) of the Persians from the days of Cyrus and Darius?

Yes, peoples seem to have vanished. I know that arguments can be made to the contrary. Mussolini tried to persuade Italians that they were the Roman Empire ressurected, and there's a wild and grotesquely funny scene in one of the early episodes of "The Sopranos" where Tony Soprano and his henchmen are beating up the Jewish owner of some motels because he refuses to pay protection. The Jew, though beaten and in danger of being shot, will not submit. He tells them that Jews have out-lived one mighty empire after another, despite attempts by many to destroy the Jews, that Jews are still around, but where are the Babelonians, the Assyrians, the Romans -- gone! Tony Soprano, mafioso, replies (I don't recall the exact words), Oh yeah, I got news for you: WE'RE the Romans.

(Another argument I've seen, but with no documentation, is that the Delphic Oracle was an Assyrian plot to undermine the Greek's Hellenism. Hmmm. And I'm told that those who get very "significant" about Freemasonry or Rosicrucianism consider them cultural descendents of ancient Egyptian lore.)

But I think it's fair to say that it's unusual to find a group of people (even if we limit this only to the more observant Jews) still following the traditions and cherishing the language their ancesters spoke as long as 4,000 years ago (Abraham) and 3,500 years ago (Moses). Keep in mind that the "ancient Greeks" and Romans are relatively recent phenomena. Nor do modern Egyptians understand hieroglyphs (unless they happen to be scholars of Egyptology), worship the gods of the Pharaohs, etc. When Christianity came into existence (if we date it from the point where Paul began to splinter off from Judaism), Judaism was already about 2,100 years old. How many Christians today can speak Aramaic (Christ's language)?

So that's the second question: How come Jews are still around and still being Jewish?

The questions are connected, I think, though when we think of Jews being "Jewish", we are likely to think of observant Jews, whereas, many of the most influential Jews (for example, Jesus, Karl Marx, Freud and Einstein) were not particularly observant - with the possible - and surprising - exception of Jesus, most or all of whose ideas already existed in one or another Jewish sect that preceded him; as I said in an earlier essay, it was not obvious to his own disciples, after his crucifixion, that their group was to be considered other than Jewish; the decision by Paul to take Christ's teachings to the "gentiles" was controversial.

But I think when we look at some of the things that have made Judaism unusual, atypical of peoples on this planet, we'll see that the many prominent people of Jewish descent who were not observant were still greatly influenced by the Jewish culture perpetuated by the observant.

What makes a culture last? Mainly isolation. Language, for example, changes quickly in centers of commerce and development. The accent of educated Englishmen in, say, the 1760s was not much like the accent of educated Englishmen today. It was (according to linguists) more similar to isolated communities of Kentucky hillbillies, descended from English immigrants in the 1760s (or earlier). In these isolated communities, language has changed less than in modern, industrial England, influenced by all the other languages and dialects it came in contact with via trade and war.

But it's hard for a cultural group to remain isolated for thousands of years. Most groups get destroyed or otherwise assimilated into the dominant culture. Judaism and perhaps a few others are anomalies. The Gypsies (whose name refers to an old idea that they are Egyptians, though their language tells us that they hail from the general area of India) manage to be among other cultures without being of them. How? They don't usually settle down, don't usually live on farms or run taverns or run factories -- at least not in the past. They travel. They are always passing through. (And they, too, were targeted by the Nazis.) They were among the nations, but never of them. Thus they kept intact an ancient language and an ancient set of customs, being, often, more like the Gypsies in other nations than like the other citizens of "their own" nation.

Since their methods of surviving are their own and aren't much like the Jewish methods, I won't try to go into them. I know little beyond the stereotypes -- Gypsy roles as traveling fortune tellers, as thieves and con artists, as seasonal labor, etc. As I say, these are stereotypes; I have no idea how accurate they are. But the example of the Gypsies does indicate that for a people to last for thousands of years among other cultures, but separate from them and intact requires some unusual strategy for living.

Now, can you name 4 famous influential Gypsies? I can't name one, and I'll bet most of you can't either. So, though here we find another example of an ancient culture that has survived in and among other cultures, we don't have anything like the Jewish phenomenon. The question remains, how were Jews able to remain so deeply a part of the mainstream cultures as to play large roles in their development, yet keep their own culture largely intact during thousands of years of diaspora (being scattered among "the nations" -- the gentiles)?

The answer, I think, lies in certain oddities about Judaism from nearly the beginning -- and definitely from the time of Moses. When Judaism came into being, it was one among many Semitic peoples. It was a tribal culture. You were a Jew (or a member of Abraham's tribe) because you were desended from Abraham. "[Jew" came later as a name, because the descendents of Jacob's fourth son, Judah, became the dominant tribe of the remnant of Israel after ten tribes got "lost" (after the days of Solomon). Israel is a name given to Jacob, so goes back much earlier than "Jew" and "Judaea".]

A tribe persists by spreading its "seed". You get lots of Jews if Jews have lots of kids. But with small tribes, inbreeding works against survival. The American Indians avoided this by adopting women and children taken prisoner during raids or simply by intermarriages among allied tribes. The Jewish tradition seems to have allowed marriage outside the tribe. Ruth, for example, is a "Moabite" (I don't think I've met a Moabite recently.) Moses had two wives, neither from within Israel's people.

Also, the tradition that anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish means that a Jewish woman could marry a man from some other tribe, and the children would be Jewish. (But I think the man was usually required to be circumcized and thus become part of the "Convenant with God" that was said to define a Jew.) I don't know much about this, just enough to know that Judaism was tribal and stressed marriage within the group, but allowed enough exceptions to avoid the genetic dangers of inbreeding among a small group.

[At this point I could dodge the question and say that Judaism survived because Abraham and the other Patriarchs had a special personal relationship with God. Maybe so, but I'll see what I can come up with apart from that.]

There are hints early on that Abraham and his immediate descendants were a bit different from the other tribes. We get a sense, for example, that Abraham is humane when he argues with God, hoping God will be merciful with Sodom and Gemorrah. That's not a tribal view. These weren't Abraham's people (except for his kinsman, Lot, who was already to be saved). The tribal view is, typically, that the tribe's name means "the people" and the other tribes have names that mean things like "the enemy" or "the strangers" in "the people's" language.

We also learn that when the Sodomites tried to attack the angels visiting Lot, they were violating basic laws of hospitality. In other words, we get a sense that these Jews had some ideas about ethics that extended beyond "We're the people, and eveyone else is the enemy."

But where Judaism really begins to look like the Judaism we know today is when Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt and rises to be second only to the Pharaoh on the basis of his wisdom, hard work and honesty (refusing to be seduced by married royalty, for example). In a way, this is a new beginning for Judaism. The earlier patriarchs are either dead or out of the picture. Suddenly it's just Joseph, alone in Egypt, becoming what Hitler would call "cosmopolitan", a man of the world.

But then we are reminded that Joseph, through all this, has remained a Jew. And suddenly he brings his family back into the picture, inviting them to join him in Egypt (and forgiving his brothers for their little prank -- selling him into slavery!).

So how is it that Joseph, basically a shepherd boy from the boondocks, is able to prosper so quickly in Egypt? What did he have going for him? Something, obviously. Good looks? Brains?

No doubt, but I suspect he was already literate when he got to Egypt. Can't prove it, but he certainly knew something about how to learn and what to learn.

More basically, a culture (even if viewed in just a single representative, like Joseph in Egypt) is likely to survive such a contact if it is superior in key ways to the larger culture. I suppose the belief in a single immaterial God (whether a "true" belief or not) confers a certain superiority over people who worship statues. For one thing, God, not being a large statue, can more easily be felt to be with you anywhere. But I'm just guessing. I really don't have an anthropological explanation for Joseph's success. I'm simply stressing that the Jewish story is encapsulated, in miniature, in the story of Joseph -- and in the sad result: Envy, and his family's descendents becoming slaves in Egypt.

I conclude there was something different about Judaism that kept it intact as an extended family, that helped Joseph succeed in Egypt, that led to envy and enslavement. The enslavement itself is one of those things that, if it doesn't kill a people, may strengthen it. In any case, it forbids the mixing of Jews with Egyptians, so leaves the separateness of Jews intact.

We tend to stress "enslavement", but the Egyptian experience was more than the experience of slavery. It was also a bunch of shepherds forced to live for generations in crowded cities. I wonder what this sequence taught Jews: Moving from being roaming sheep herders to being among the foreign elite of a wealthy empire (when they joined Joseph) to being slaves in urban slums?

What I'm seeing dimly is an odd pattern: A people that adheres to ancient tribal forms while developing ethical values that have some universal aspects I don't associate with tribal values -- which is not to say that a tribe (say the Dakota) doesn't hold complex and spiritual values, but simply that certain so-called modern ideas of how different peoples should live among one another are not usually associated with tribal values -- which depend largely on having lots of space for relatively sparse populations. Also, a people that is non-urban is suddenly forced into an urban life, and a people with generations of relatively isolated and insulated traditions and language is plunged into a cosmopolitan life, led there by Joseph, who has become a wise man (who interprets dreams) , a healer, an organizer of production, etc., while keeping intact his sense that he is not an Egyptian, but an Israeli. It's as if a great Apache (Cochise, for example) had been taken prisoner, shipped to NY (remember, Joseph came to Egypt as a slave), and risen to be one of the top officials in the U.S. Government and in U.S. industry, all the while remembering that he was an Apache. (Sounds unlikely. Makes me think all the more that Joseph and his family were already literate.)

Generations later, they move out of Egypt (led by Moses, who was born Jewish, but not raised Jewish! He was raised Egyptian.). Now, the book of Exodus would have us believe, there are 600,000 Jews (still numbered by tribes). That figure may be exaggerated, but one of the effects of being heavily suppressed is, often, lots of children. When there's no future for individuals, they try to put a future there by creating children.

Now here's the point where something arises that seems to me crucial: In the desert (says the Bible) the "Children of Israel" receive the law from God. And it's in writing. (Those "tablets" were not medication.) Every people has its laws, traditions, etc. But few tribes in those days had their laws in writing. Few had writing. At least that's my impression. Yes, in some great civilizations of around that time (China -- and in Hammurabi's Babylon -- around the time of Abraham) there were written systems of law. But those were exceptions, and they weren't among the tribes of a non-urban sheep-herding people (the vinyards of Israel were yet to come).

So that's one point: They had written law. Moreover, this law covered all aspects of life: What could be eaten, how to treat an adulterous wife, what fabrics to combine or not in clothing, what animals to sacrifice at what times of year, how to deal with epidemics, etc. The 613 laws enumerated in the Old Testament deal with religious matters AND secular matters, both civil and criminal. AND ALL OF THESE LAWS ARE SAID TO COME DIRECTLY FROM GOD.

Do you see the various anomalies here? They pop out at me:

Rule by law (rather than by fiat of a ruler who is above the law) is one of the advanced ideas that has made nations like the United States possible. Here it is part of a tribal culture.

Written law that covers all aspects of life and behavior and must be followed exactly because it comes, not from man, but from a God who opens up the earth to swallow up those who do not obey him (which happens immediately after Moses first returns with the tablets of the law, hint hint) - so you have the idea (an ancient one, that seems the antithesis of modern - at least to most of us) that all law is from God, that God is, as it were, a totalitarian God -- this combined with the very advanced idea of written law. And the law is elaborate, yet must be understood so that it can be obeyed. The result? The need for many Jews (if not all) to be literate, the "People of the Book". There are simply too many laws, and it is too vital to obey them, lest one incur God's wrath and God lets one's enemies devour one - too vital not to be able to read and understand these laws. (It's not like Catholicism, for example, where you can break all the rules, then go to the priest, confess and be shriven.) So we get (and I think have had at least from that time, if not earlier -- as with Joseph) the Jewish tradition of literacy.

And with literacy comes another anomaly: If each Jew (or at least most male heads of family) can read the law for himself, he begins to rely on his own understanding. This is something tyrants have always understood: If you want to have slaves, you keep people illiterate. Literate people begin to have opinions. Among Jews, there has long been a tradition of wrangling (even the wrestling with God for which Jacob was named Israel - one who wrestles with God). There has always been the right to reason with others about religion, law, etc. So we get this odd combination of a people, more or less theocratic (God-ruled) - something we Westerners are inclined to consider a backwards quality - that cherishes reasoning and the individuals right to learn for himself and form his own opinions -- qualities we consider advanced.

Also, since the law is presented (by God himself, remember - that's what the Bible says and what Jews appear to have believed) as complete, with everything that's needed, we end up with a nation of lawyers and fine reasoners. Why? Because times and conditions change, and laws must change to fit the new conditions. But these laws CANNOT BE CHANGED because they're from God.

We need to look at this "from God" point, because it's stranger than it may at first seem, at least to Westerners. It may be familiar to Muslims, if their "Sharia" is as comprehensive as the Torah. Imagine if Christians had been given by Christ a complete compendium of all the laws, religious and secular, and told that they were all God's commandments and that they were all the laws we'd ever need? But that didn't occur. In fact, Christians were specifically excused from adhering to all those laws by one of Christ's statements in the Gospels (at least that's the usual explanation of why, though most Christians accept the Old Testament as "God's Word", they consider themselves exempted from, for example, keeping Kosher). Many Jews, too, have tried to reset priorities over the years. Rabbi Hillel (not too distant in time from Jesus) , asked to explain what one must do to be a Jew while standing on one leg, said that the key principles of Judaism were two: "The Lord is God; the Lord is One" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself".

But the main line of Jewish history has involved a massive intellectual effort to interpret the law, because the law is from God and is said to cover everything needed, so it can't be "changed", but must be "interpreted" and "explained" so that it will continue to make sense under changing circumstances.

This law was (says the Bible) given to the Jews 3,500 years ago. Orthodox Jews today aim to follow it totally. You're not supposed to light a fire on the Sabbath. Today we don't need to light a fire. We just turn on the lights or the electric stove. So scholars have to work out whether or not that's allowable on the Sabbath. Changing conditions require new interpretations. Or the Bible gives a broad statement, but there are many particular applications of it to be worked out: Two people each grab hold of something and each says "It is mine". How do you decide who gets it? If there's no other evidence, you give half to each. What if it can't be cut in half? Sell it and divide the money. What if one says "It's mine" and the other says "it's half mine and half his"? Give the first one three fourths of it, the other one fourth. And so on. In the chapter from the Talmud (18 huge volumes of Jewish law and commentary on that law and commentaries on the comentaries, written over a period of far more than 1000 years) that I'm paraphrasing (Baba Meziyah, which means "The Middle Gate" -- and I've forgotten why), the Rabbis having this discussion keep posing scenarios and coming up with the answers, citing evidence from the Bible, but then, suddenly there's a long list of special circumstances (things that make you wonder, "How did they come up with that?" and the chapter ends with the statement (or the initial letters in the words of the statement) that means "These questions will be answered when the Messiah comes."

I say "the Rabbis discuss", but you must understand that when the Talmud (a word derived from the Hebrew word for learning) says "Rabbi Meir says..., but Rabbi Akiva says..." and so forth, the first Rabbi may have said his piece in 300 BC, while the second Rabbi's reply came 800 years later.

Getting back to my point about anomalies: Because it's a "primitive" tribal people with a "primitive" idea that all its laws are absolutes, God-Given, but this is combined with it being a "modern" written law with a literate people encouraged, in a "modern" manner, to reason and discuss and required, by the very fact of it's being a supposedly absolute law that must be applied in changing conditions (a very "primitive" idea) - required to become masters of close reasoning, exegesis (finding evidence in Biblical and earlier scholarly texts for later conclusions), developers of the Talmud, one of the most complex and highly developed legal systems of its time -- though today, I suppose, the laws of most nations fill many more volumes than the Talmud. But when you consider that much of the Talmud was already there 2000 years ago and that it was added to until the 13th Century, you are looking at a remarkable compendium of legal and religious reasoning.

So what we have, just looking at this one phenomenon, 3,500 years ago, is a bunch of anomalies from the viewpoint of most of our ideas of what's primitive and what's modern:

1. The Jews are primitive: Tribal, held together by family lines (whereas a modern nation is held together by language, law, etc., but can rapidly expand beyond genetic boundaries).

2. The Jews are advanced: They support rule by law and include in their laws ethical precepts that include ways of dealing with other peoples that are far more sophisticated than the usual tribal view.

3. The Jews are primitive: A bunch of nomadic shepherds.

4. The Jews are advanced, with experience of both managing and being slaves in sophisticated urban socities.

5. The Jews are primitive. Their laws are all Divine fiat, absolutes, requiring religious adherence in all sorts of everyday matters we moderns consider secular (diet, for example).

6. The Jews are advanced, promoting literacy among most Jews long before this was common -- in fact, long before anyone else, I suspect. China had lots of literate people, but many more who were illiterate. The Jews may be the first people in our history books for whom literacy was, if not universal, at least encouraged for all or most levels of society (male society, I suppose).

7. The Jews are primitive, trying to take a set of detailed laws from 3,500 years ago and apply it to modern times. (Are we really going to stone homosexuals and adultresses to death? But wait - that, too, is interpreted by the Talmud to permit more humane resolutions.)

8. The Jews are advanced, encouraging reasoning and producing what may be the most sophisticated and most closely reasoned legal system of its time. (Actually, TWO such systems, since there are two separate lines of development, the Babyloninan Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, but that's a longer story -- and besides, I've forgotten most of it!)

Aren't these odd combinations of characteristics? I think they are unique among peoples. In a way, the Jews are the perfect BRIDGE from primitive to advanced, being (by current Western ideas of what's primitive and what's advanced) far ahead of others in some ways, far behind in other ways. When a more advanced culture encounters a less advanced culture (for example, England in the 18th or 19th Century encounters African tribes), the less advanced culture is overwhelmed, tends to sicken, perhaps die off (and get assimilated). This may be because the more advanced culture uses military superiority to destroy the less advanced. But that's not necessary. Just the contact, even if friendly, will suffice. How do the village elders handle the kids once they've seen blue jeans and rock and roll?

But what happens when two cultures collide (for example, Roman and Jewish during the decades of bloody rebellion in Judaea preceding 160 AD) where one is clearly superior in many ways (Roman military might and commercial strength and probably finer sculpture -- maybe many other things) and clearly inferior in other ways (I think at that time the Jews had a higher literacy level, more dedicated fighters -- they held off the Empire far longer than the Romans had believed possible, perhaps a more sophisticated legal system, as rich a literary tradition, a religious belief that was superior to Pagan Rome's -- enough so that far more Romans moved toward Judaism and to its offshoot, Christianity, than went the other direction, toward Paganism). (Speaking of literacy, the best Roman history of the rebellion is by an assimilated Roman Jew, Flavius Josephus.)

What happens is, I think, the anomally we call Judaism: A people that survives among the nations, often barely tolerated by them, keeps its culture more or less intact (both by intention and because forced into separateness), yet exerts a powerful influence on that culture, far more than, for example, Gypsies; with a literacy level and tradition of study that enables those who break out of the ghettos to master professions quickly (for example, the great Jewish doctors of the Middle Ages), with a reasoning ability and legalistic mind and attention to fine detail (part of the requirements of Talmudic interpretation) that carries over into commerce.

Nearly always there was this balance of cultures: The Jewish culture was seldom overwhelmed by the cultures it inhabited, because the Jewish culture had strengths, points where it was superior, based on its internal rule by law, some fairly sophisticated ethical ideas, it's tradition of literacy, it's urban background, etc. The Jewish culture seldom (contrary to Hitler's assertions) overwhelmed the host culture, being in some ways inferior to it (no Jewish army, not allowed to farm, constrained by tribal ideas of membership - making it hard for the Jewish community to expand, theocracy, etc.)

Here's where we connect up to the many great names in Western culture that are Jewish: When Jews move out of the ghetto and start to assimilate, they have the best of both cultures: They retain the love of learning, the literacy, the ability to live in cities, the ability to reason, perhaps many of the ethical precepts. They typically move away from the idea that their lives must be constrained by the details of the law or that they must remain part of a tribe that wears odd clothes and speaks with an odd accent. In other words, when they assimilate, they take with them all the points of Judaism that we would tend to think of as advanced.

This leads to envy, persecution, Jews frequently having to flee to other cities, other countries. That leads to a stronger sense of being different, of having to keep the culture intact, so that the success of the more or less assimilated adds to the preservation of Judaism's separateness - ironic.

So now we have a whole culture of people that, unlike Gypsies, are tied to stable communities. They are not nomads. But because of frequent attacks, they must be ready to move at any time. Aha! That's one reason Jews pioneered modern commerce and finance. Here are a few examples:

Because they might be forced to leave a country or city with very short notice, Jews developed ways to transport wealth quickly and secretly. They converted their wealth to forms easy to transport. Thus they became expert jewelers (jewels could be sewed into skirts and underwear and were valuable everywhere). Because a Jewish money lender might be exiled (all property seized) by some king or lord who owed him money, Jews developed international finance to the point where a ruler who reneged on a loan in, say, Vienna, would be pressured to pay up by, say, a ruler in England who hoped to borrow money from the English branch. That was the genius of the Rothchilds: The family created branches in all the major capitals.

Another part of quick transport was the development of credit based on deposits "elsewhere" - somewhere secure, and all the modern modes of wealth (stock, etc.) that consist of paper, not gold or property. Jews developed a great deal of what we think of today as having always been around - modern concepts of credit, banking, etc. - because they had to in order to survive.

(Brief historical digression: In ancient Israel they were mainly farmers. In Europe they were mostly not allowed to own land, because to own land, one had to take an oath of loyalty to the ruler and to Christ - something like that; and Jews couldn't take the "Christ" part of the oath. So Jews were in-keepers, traders and money lenders. Jewish law forbids the taking of interest on loans, calling it "usury". Christians also considered usury a sin. This delayed for centuries the development of a workable banking system, since without collection of interest, banks found it hard to be profitable. The non-Jewish Medici family of Florence rose to wealth and power as a banking family because they figured out tricky ways to make interest on money they loaned that was not "technically" interest. I don't know the details, but this shows how much the economy NEEDED some sort of incentive for bankers.

In most of Europe the solution was to have Jews be money lenders. The idea was that it was sinful for a CHRISTIAN to take interest from another Christian, but not for a Jew. Some Jews disagreed, but others said the Jewish prohibition applied only to fellow Jews. (And of course, many Jews were just a little annoyed with their Christian neighbors after centuries of persecution.) This was popular with the ruling classes, because if they became too indebted to a Jew, the Jews got skimpy protection under the law. It was easy to stir up an anti-Jewish mob or find some excuse to confiscate Jewish property. And, of course, being literate, attentive to details and able to reason (and that includes ability to work with figures), Jews were often good at it.

That's the background that led to Jewish bankers and much hostility to Jews as Shylocks. There were many non-Jewish bankers as well, but it was the Jewish bankers who had the incentive, indeed the necessity to develop the means to make wealth easily transportable and international and who pioneered much of our current financial system.)

In summary: What has allowed Judaism to survive where so many cultures died or disappeared has been its odd combination of weaknesses and strengths that kept it, simultaneously isolated from its host cultures (isolated enough to ensure preservation of its culture) and intermingled with that culture in a unique balance of strengths and weaknesses (or primitive aspects and advanced aspects).

This goes back to the odd phenomenon of a tribal people with a written law that, because it covers all of life and is said to be directly from God and is complex, makes for a literate people, proud of their independent opinions and reasoning, and a need for legal skills to keep that law relevant over centuries.

This also creates the situation where, particularly when Jews become assimilated, they have a likelihood of prospering, doing well in professions, etc. The details I gave about Jews in finance are just one example of this.

How did the Jews come to have their law in writing? I don't know. A literate God? A people who happened to have a genius named Joseph who set something in motion? Or does it go back to Abraham (whom someone will say, was really an exiled Babylonian high priest or something?).

And, of course, some would just say "It's because God chose them." Whether or not that's the case, I think a great deal follows from that odd combination of literacy and theocracy and tribalism.


If it's messy enough, it's neat: A butcher's knife or a grenade strews us with bloody, but recognizable bits. A nuclear blast leaves fine clean ash. Such overwhelming force compresses and explodes time, rendering the friends and family of the moment so dead that they are not dead, but historical, as physically remote as dioramas of ancient ancesters behind glass museum walls, leaving even memory a numb neat blank. Everything that was dear to you will fit in a single small urn on a mantel, if a mantel survives.

Destruction seems to be a lower harmonic of nothing at all. Nothing at all is neither neat nor messy. It's the instant of potential creating of any or everything. We try to return to that state (so that we can make things over? Do a better job of it?) by destroying so completely and indiscriminately as to make zillions of atoms and molecules and gamma rays and all the other special ingredients moving wildly every which way resemble, in their randomness, nothing at all, just as inconceivably disordered and random fast motion (like that of the molecules making up a rock) appears to be stillness, as the motions of colliding particles cancel out -- just as a business or army in which every individual is doing his own thing, with no co-ordination, is at a standstill.

That's probably why God in the Old Testament told Moses to speak to the rock, not strike it. Why add to the motion when the rock is already alive and just needs a purpose upon which all its particles can agree?

Odd how the experiences most of us associate with "nothingness" are experiences full of somethings, random explosions and fizzzipping of live wires, trash, bodies, stench and noise (and noise being too many meaningful sounds all at once). We call "white noise" silence -- or the thudding of one's own heartbeat. No amount of noise brings us silence. No amount of destruction brings us nothing.

Nothing, true nothing, is the absense of all the things we associate with nothingness. Can you hear these words in your own mind, as if some voice is speaking them? And your responses to them, are they not spoken even as we speak? Who or what is listening?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fatal Exclamations

Why is it (in the old comic books -- Korean War vintage, for example) that cowboys and American soldiers died with simple sounds like "Uh!", "Ugh," and "Gaa," while the Indians and Japs died in diphthongs ("Aiee!")? [A diphthong is not a kind of thong. It's a complex sound made by sliding from one vowel to another -- a sort of vowel movement?]

And how come the bad guys are so formal ("Capitalist dogs!"), while the good guys are so slangy and nonchalant ("Commie pigs!")?

The bad guys seem to take getting killed very seriously, laughing only to gloat, just before a wounded hero they left for dead gets off one last shot and one last wise crack as the villain
rediscovers seriousness briefly.

And why do we feel better about killing people after giving them the sorts of affectionate nicknames (Jap, Nip, Charlie, gook) one might give to a child or a pet monkey?

Why Stop There?

Mistreatment of prisoners violates international conventions.

War does not?

There must be rules about war. It probably goes back to having champions. Each army chooses a champion to battle the other army's designated champion, while both armies watch. No one else is supposed to get hurt. It's almost entertainment.

OK, we can have rules for war. But if we can agree on the rules for war, why can't we increase our agreements? What else can we agree about, you and I? We and they?

(I've even made my pronouns agree in case, and I think I got that right. Agreeing about oil and religion ought to be relatively simple.)

No One Home

The policeman protects your home. The poet tries to find someone home and say hello. In this society, we reward police, not poets.

Our homes are safe, but there's no one home.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Individuals and Groups

It isn't group versus individual. The question is, does the individual make the bigness of the group his own, growing to encompass it? Does he take responsibility for the flourishing of his group?

Or does he wear it pompously, like Daddy's too-big boots? Or cringe before it and scurry on errands, heart filled with gratitude-coated resentment?

An Odd Thought After Dying

When I died, the music in the next room didn't stop, and--this is the strange thing-- I thought, "Why hasn't the music stopped?" before I thought, "How come I'm still thinking?"

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Bright Idea for Poetry Readings

We shouldn't have these open poetry readings with seated audience and poet, for five tight minutes, at podium. Instead, a poet should, in the center of a circle of his/her peers and admirers, recite poems while dodging a volleyball hurled by other poets in the circle. The reader would be allowed to go on and on until hit, then replaced by the marksman (marksperson?).

Think of the much needed exercise for our effete poets, now debilitated by tobacco, drink, drugs, inertia: In their desperate need to hold an audience, they will train for stamina and agility.

And listeners will be able to take out their frustrations with lousy poetry and do so without resorting to critical sniping. How much easier to take we poets will be when audiences can zing volley balls at our sensitive heads.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Very Limited Way to Handle Sadness

I had some long sad stretches. These days they are called "depression". Mine were caused - partially - biochemically: The spiritual and biochemical phenomenon I called "my first wife" extricated herself from "our" life.

It wasn't even "my" life she left, but a knotted combination of our lives that remained, for over a year after her departure, the same knotted combination of a life I couldn't let go of and the life of the ghost of her. The future we'd created for ourselves in which we were together persisted, kept trying to crowd out of existence any new future I tried to create.

One thing I learned from that period is the long-term folly of depending on memories of happier days to pull one out of the dumps. Depressed, we remember sad things. If we try to remember happy things, soon we can no longer find the joy in them. Drawing on hopes turns hopes gray.

We make our pictures to suit and solidify our moods, so it is foolish to expect cheerful memories to fish us out. There are no cheerful memories, only cheerful rememberers. I must think up a cheerful me to think my cheerful thoughts.

What seemed to work (as a cope measure) was walking and looking at what was there, and that meant walking for hours before, at some point, I would see something, anything (a tree, a house, a pattern of light and shade and motion, kids playing in a park) and maybe even feel something.

The trick was not to be fooled by the lifelessness of all I saw, the way my vision cast a grayness over even the brightest day, to know (take it on faith) that I was putting that there and just keep walking (letting my thoughts plod along with me in their tedious rounds: Why did she have to...? Why couldn't she have...? Why did I...?), just keep walking and looking about and, really, peeking out of my thoughts to notice a sidewalk crack here, a fire hydrant there.

Deadly to remember how beautiful trees were to me once and try to jump-start joy by forcing myself to look at trees; why waste them thus? It's like getting mud on a treasured toy, then, to make it better, pushing all one's other toys into the same mud.

Perhaps this is because the end of a relationship is filled with attempts to force emotions into being. This often happens gradually, so that one doesn't realize it is happening. She turns a fraction of a degree colder, so, without knowing one is doing it, one turns up his heat a fraction of a degree. (One doesn't know one is doing it, because one doesn't want to admit that she's more distant.) And as the gap widens, in tiny increments one increases that effort to make love happen, until, at the end, one is hollering over an abyss to communicate to someone so far away (as if across Grand Canyon) that one isn't sure anyone is there, and all one gets back is echoes.

So as soon as one tries (on such a walk) to make the world beautiful and responsive, one stirs up the the ashes, which turn the world gray and get in one's lungs and eyes. Because it's the same reach, the same enforcement.

(One does all this. One, that lonely pronoun, so appropriate here, like Emily Dickinson's "formal feeling".)

So finding (on many walks) that recalling happier times soon became like sniffing one's own vomit, I learned to be patient with the world, to walk and notice and impose as little as possible upon either my thoughts or what I saw, and I discovered that gradually, increasingly often, I'd find myself right then and there being me again and the world alive around me.

Really what I discovered is that there is no loss, that whatever happiness I'd ever had had been in myself, and that whatever ability I'd had to access that happiness could not be lost. It could be buried, but never destroyed.

And it only takes a second of revival, of suddenly, unexpectedly slipping into that imperishable ocean of joy, of what - it now seems to me - one basically IS; just an instant of it after days of work that has lost its purpose and long rambling walks, just an instant, and loss begins to disintegrate, like the first rumblings of a frozen river at the start of a spring thaw. There are days when the sky is solid dead gray, spitting cold drizzle. And after you walk a mile or so, you see a thin spot in the gray, just a haze of blue, and after another mile, you find yourself under a tiny hole in the gray, visible vertical rays of sunlight surrounding you, and then you put your attention elsewhere for what seems a few minutes, then notice that things are more sharply defined, more brilliant, then realize that the clouds are gone except for a few blindingly white puffs here and there in a sea of gold and blue. It can happen that fast. Does it last? No matter if it doesn't, if the day turns dark again. That dark no longer has the same power to daunt you.

Of all my gripes with chemical psychiatry, my loudest is simply this: Losses and tangles of things said and done that shouldn't have been said and done and all the other mires that spatter us daily coat awareness with smeary muck and cut us off from ourselves. The pills a shink gives us, when "effective", are effective because they coat that smeary muck with a shiny lacquered finish and make it hard to see or touch. In doing so, they impose between us and what we truly are yet another layer -- a layer even more impenetrable than the muck.

Trust yourself a little longer. Trust the world a little more. You are still there. You can still communicate. There is still something there to which you can communicate. There is still a playing field. Better games are still possible.

[Soon after my longest bout with sadness, I discovered something that would have accelerated the recovery process 100 fold and which has, since then, spared me a great deal of worn-down shoe leather. This you can learn about here.]

Friday, January 13, 2006

Nailing Down the Spirit

Cartoons tell us that "the spirit" is a transluscent white image of your body that rises from the body when it dies. Some versions have the evil become black shapes that fall from the body.

The spirit - that is, you, for example, or I -- the spirit has no form, but we insist on trying to REPRESENT it as an ethereal woman, a dove, a mountain, a white sheet with eye-holes, etc., for it is unreal to us that what we are can feel such pain, yet not be touched, see such suffering, yet not be seen.

Life taxes the spirit, and we oppose taxation without representation.

Tabulating a Life

I'm dead now, in Heaven, I think, though it could be hell--they don't say. I have lots of time - I guess it's still called time time - to review my life and develop a statistical breakdown: Time spent saying "How are you" and "Fine, thank you" or listening to the news or brushing teeth or wondering if I shouldn't be doing something about the yard or having sex, eating, tasting, talking, saying something - anything you can think of, very impressive, all these records at my disposal, reams of figures, everything I did measurable.

Truly, I have lived.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Protesting Protest Songs

It's like "The butler did it!", these protest songs where, whatever bad thing happens to poor folks, surprise! surprise!--the rich folks did it and also the politicians, and maybe all of us
(either because we didn't know it was happening or because we did, but didn't prevent it or even because, on a day when, somewhere, children were starving , we were on a picnic, enjoying sunshine, beer, egg salad sandwiches and one another).

Such songs should begin, "I suppose you're wondering why I've asked you all here...".

I say these things, and yet, I'm glad to be reminded from time to time of all that cannot simply be left to "the experts" and that I am part of a world that includes much misery. Apart from their glibness, there are only two things wrong with protest songs:

1. If it is wrong to take pleasure in sunsets, food, love, etc., while others elsewhere are suffering, then, since always somewhere someone suffers, it is wrong ever to enjoy oneself, in which case, what's the point? Why feed the starving children, for example, if life is to be a gray miasma of self-conscious sympathy.

2. It is important to point out abuses, but no group (poor, blacks, women, etc.) ever rises above its miseries solely by blaming others for them. Why promote the cult of the victim? It is very tempting to victims -- it's so easy to be a victim, so much easier than looking to see what part of one's condition one can improve and how one's own decisions and actions have contributed to it. But the road out of traps always involves increased responsibility -- on the part of both individuals and groups.

At this point someone says, "But surely a starving infant in sub-Saharan Africa can't be said to have contributed to his own misery!" There are answers to that, answers that address its substance, but really, the question is irrelevant, since our protest songs don't persuade the children they are victims. The songs persuade those who weep over the children (parents, for example) that they are victims, that it's their role in life to weep and supplicate, and our role to feel guilty or send money.

It's probably true that the best thing to do with a starving child is feed and educate him/her, not talk about responsibility. That's called coping.

It's also true that we do not get stronger by blaming others for our conditions in life. We may get paid damages by a court and you we may get vengeance, but we do not get stronger. We end up wedded to the weaknesses that have served us so well.

A little protest goes a long way.

A Needy God

Definition of God: That entity which is perfect, complete, unlimited, utterly above our onception, and, according to those who claim to know Him intimately, in urgent need of our agreement that He is.

[That's a smart-assed definition, since many tell us that it is we who need to know His presence. But certainly the impression given by many of the faithful is that the God they worship insists on being acknowledged. Odd how exactly the God each person professes resembles in temperament the person professing Him.

The God I chat with likes to play.]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Critics and Monkeys

It has not yet been determined that any number of monkeys left in a room full of typewriters would, in any length of time, produce a single great work of literature.

It has, however, been proven that a generation of literary critics, left in a room with the production of said monkeys would, in a few years, produce a significant mass of critical literature, analyzing and debating the merits of the monkeys' work.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Having to Have an Opinion

Odd how we are expected to have opinions, how eagerly we seize upon them even where they can lead to no choice of action (SHOULD the Post Office have raised the price of postage, WAS the 1926 Yankee team better than any since, DID Lennon write better songs than McCartney?...).

Odd how, hearing of a game between two distant teams, we feel we must have a favorite - we're like gambling adicts who, seeing two ants on the sidewalk, will bet on which will reach the next crack first.

How is it so few of us have learned the exquisite relief of not having to have an opinion?

Monday, January 09, 2006

A Proud and Free People

"I come from a proud and free people."

Everyone does. All the disgraced slaves come from proud free people and don't know how to go back, but they say this ("I come from a proud and free people") as if it matters, so maybe it does:

Maybe only the free can be enslaved, only the proud can be abased, and maybe we'd have no hope of getting there if we didn't know we'd already been there.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


New studies show that if you talk to children about suicide and ask them repeatedly if they've ever considered hurting themselves or thought of suicide as an option, those children do begin to think about suicide and notice that it's an option.

This is what the drug companies call "suicidal ideation" which is why psychiatrists want to screen kids: So that the kids can be put on medications -- as part of their meducation -- that include among their effects, causing suicidal ideation. That way the drugs can keep the suicide rates up (creating a demand for psychiatrists), so that the psychiatrists won't have to spend their days asking questions that cause suicidal ideation.

Then the psychiatrists can get back to their most valuable work: Redefining picking loose eyelashes out of your eye when there's no eyelash there as Phantom Cilia Disorder, redefining picking your nose as the digital phase of Snotophobia (which is not a phobia?), redefining pressing the down button again after it's already lit up as Obsessive Elevator Impatience Dysfunction, etc.

For some reason, no one asks the kids, "Have you ever considered harming a psychiatrist?" Perhaps we should spread the word that children are, increasingly, a danger to psychiatrists. We might recommend that they be screened to detect urges to maim or kill psychiatrists. (I think that's what the shrinks call "Defiance Disorder".)

For more data on the purposes and products of those who advocate screening all children (or all people) for "mental illness", check out this site.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Immortals Are Least To Be Feared

If you can talk to earth and sky and have them answer, you will never be lonely on earth, nor will deaths greatly diminish you; but despite this lack of sympathy for the preoccupations we call "human", you will not be tempted to waste people: Violence is how we compel an answer or at least a hearing when gentler means fail. Even death is a kind of hearing, the one who ignores your words receiving blade or bullet and dropping everything -- he GETS it. But why should you compel human attention when earth and sky listen to you?

You're In Good Hands With Monsanto and ADM

We're in good hands: On a planet where nations starve, farmers can't make a living (I wonder who pays off the politicians to keep food cheap "for us"), so have to sell out to giant food cartels.

When a few gigantic corporations hold all our food-producing land, they'll hold much more; in fact, we will be spared the expense of Jockey shorts.


Communication is not really nice. Many write graffiti on this wall, many more find them musing,
but all know that really the wall is supposed to be white and clean.

Artists hope to write graffiti so amusing or monumental that even the janitor will be amused or awed enough to spare them, until, after they've been there through several janitors, they are
assumed to be part of the wall.

Compelled Agreement

There is war to compel agreement and war to destroy utterly. If you wage war to compel the agreement of people unafraid to die (because they are fearless or because they are beneath caring), you must be prepared to stomach their utter destruction, and then you may find the higgledy-piggledy agreement of the corpses at your disposal (they must agree, for they stay where you put them) disagreeable.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Poetry Syndrome

Poetry Syndrome – or P.S., I Love You

They see things that others can't see.
We must put them in DSM V.
We left them out in the past
only because we assumed
everyone already knew
about Poetry Syndrome (PS) or ASHS:
Attention Surplus Hypersensitive Syndrome
and ASHES: Attention Surplus Hypersensitive Egomania Syndrome.

Of course, they make little money,
so are worth little to us,
but health plans will take them in eventually,
so we MUST prepare to deal with poets –
that is, should any of them escape the nets
of our heavily marketed depression, bi-polarity,
anxiety and all the other poetic ailments.
Let's prepare to flood the poetry magazines
with ads for ASHES medication:


1. I have a 6th sense: I see dead words.
2. When a dripping faucet keeps me awake, I try to provide the lyrics.
3. I brake for blades of grass and grains of sand.
4. I know the derivation of my first name, last name and middle name.
5. I have only a first name.
6. Some vowels are tingly.
7. People only THINK my metaphors are metaphors – each leaf WAS an angel.
8. The letter "s" doesn't like me very much.
9. When I said I mistook a falling leaf for a butterfly, I lied. Actually the falling leaf WAS a butterfly until it turned into a falling leaf, and every falling leaf may, at any moment, become a butterfly.
10. After I write a really good poem, the world has changed.
11. I think I have something to say.

And so forth – submit your suggestions.
They SEEM to be a harmless minority, well under control,
but for the sake of the integrity of our line of reasoning
we must deal with them: Sanity is predicated
on acceptance of reality. If each is allowed to have
and communicate his/her own reality, we'll have people
who would ordinarily be sent to us
for the excision of extraneous illusions
claiming to be sane on the grounds
that they have now located
a reality they can accept.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Seemy Side

"Be what you would seem to be" said someone -- I think Alice's Duchess. Would the two be's cancel out, leaving "seem"?

But there can be no hypocrisy in "seem" alone. Hypocrisy is a clash between seemings, since what we are is purely the potential to seem to be anything. We are. Then we decide to be someone or something -- and that is what we seem to be. If we then try to be what we seem to be, we have a new seeming (a subtle one) and probably hypocrisy, since we try to be what we effortlessly are.

That effort to be what we effortlessly are is probably what gets us stuck in being that and makes it hard to know that we could be anything else.

Have you ever had anyone insist that you stop lying and tell the truth when you were already telling the truth? I remember a "very nice" street car conductor trying to get me to confess (when I was eight) to something I hadn't done. It felt like being rolled in glue. Whatever I was being at the time (truthful) became something sticky from which I could not easily be extricated.

After all, even truthfulness should be a choice, not a compulsive propitiative mannerism.


I offer money made of metals, paper, rag, dyes that must be mined, grown, reaped, designed, minted, printed in how many ways I know nothing about by how many people over how many months or years?

In exchange, I receive a paper cup (How is it made so well-shaped, rolled over on itself so neatly around the perfect circle of the brim?) filled with coffee, cream, chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg, most of it cultivated by people whose language and ways are strange to me, thousands of miles from here, then processed (from beans and cows and bark...don't ask!) and gotten here, heated, chilled, brewed -- and I don't even remember how to make one lousy molecule!

Alien Logic

The alien instruments couldn't detect carbon-based life forms, but did pick up in detail the traffic on earth's communications systems (phones, internet, etc.), which, to them, seemed to cover the globe with an ocean of pulses -- pulses that, analyzed, proved significant, alive.

Experimentation showed that damaging connections in this system reduced or altered traffic in predictable ways, proving beyond reasonable doubt that this huge electronic brain was THE lifeform inhabiting earth, just as on earth, carbon-based life forms were busy proving to each other by similar logic that they are their brains.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Philosophy is Forgetting to Know

We begin with what we know. Philosophy is either an attempt to say what we know so that we will know that we know (and stir the germ of knowing in others); or else it's an effort to KNOW, beginning with the pretense that, knowing nothing, we must spin out a web of argument to entrap truth.

Since no philosophy can add to what we know and decide, we end up asserting that nothing can be known, nothing but the sticky web of our arguments.

Being With One Who Has Lost Someone

She's just lost someone dear, so is uncomfortable to be with, because you don't exist for her, or only in some other world that doesn't matter, your consoling words so much elevater music to that solid, vibrant universe where she and the absence of all that is dear to her are entangled in a blind, deaf embrace.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Human Rights -- How?

[The break in my Tom Cruise series continues. I'll get back to it in a day or two.]

A new year, and wouldn't it be nice to have a new life for each of us? Hence my topic today, human rights. I'm going to say some things that have probably been said many times before (surely in the Federalist Papers, for example -- what a trove! I need to reread them someday), little things that get missed about the nature of human rights and slow us in making them real.

The question I'll be trying to answer is, how do we achieve human rights for ourselves and others?

1. Many of us have human rights confused with Democracy. There's little connection. Pure democracy means rule by majority, and tends to mean that the majority defines the rights of any minority. In the United States, one purpose of the various checks and balances in our government was to limit democracy. Our Founding Fathers feared "mob rule". And even the educated citizens Jefferson hoped for (do we have them now?) would still, in a pure democracy, give us tyranny of the majority.

We have a Senate as well as a House, because Senators (being 2 per state, no matter how large or small the state) counter-act the democratic tendencies of the House, where "Representatives" represent approximately equal numbers of individual voters. That is, at least in terms of states, the fact that there are two senators from Rhode Island as well as from New York prevents large states from utterly dominating small states.

But the part of the Constitution that is most blatantly undemocratic is the Bill of Rights -- added to the Constitution as amendments one through ten because Madison feared that INDIVIDUALS were insufficiently protected from tyrannic actions by government institutions (or by the government that serves a majority of its citizens).

Each right in the Bill of Rights LIMITS democracy (or any other form of government, in theory), because it says that the majority (or its government) cannot deprive individuals of certain rights. I have the freedom to speak out, even if my views are unpopular with the majority. In a pure democracy, the majority could vote to outlaw my speeches.

Even the freedom of assembly is an INDIVIDUAL right, not just a group right. It gives me the right to join a group and meet with that group. If a group can't assemble, that inhibits my right to be part of a group.

So living in a democracy does not insure our rights, and getting other nations to become democracies does not insure human rights in those democracies. Hitler became the chancellor of a democratic Germany (a representative democracy somewhat like ours). He got into office by means of popular election. The majority ruled -- and how!

2. Many people think that the way to have human rights is to have them declared in a national constitution, in a nation ruled by law and where the highest courts are sworn to defend that constitution. I think that such a constitution may be of use where such rights are already widely respected, but when we, as citizens, no longer agree that these rights should be inviolable, the Constitution becomes a scrap of paper. (Of course, then we no longer have much of a rule by law.)

For example, the Soviet Union, which respected none of the rights we consider basic, had a constitution full of lip-service (or pen-service) to the rights it routinely violated. And our own constitution is now so routinely violated by our own government, that when a Congressman (Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican from Houston, Texas) votes against bills that clearly violate the constitution, he is considered a reactionary freak.

I don't think of our Constitution as a perfect document. After all, it recognizes slavery (a political necessity at the time in order to get the Constitution accepted). But anyone reading it newly will see that we no longer live in a nation that resembles what the Founding Fathers had in mind. We violate the reconstruction amendments by passing laws that discriminate on the basis of race, justifying them as reversing past discrimination. We punish people (including citizens) without due process (for example, a trial by jury of their peers), justifying this on the basis that such citizens MAY be terrorists. We deprive people of property without due process on the basis that other people may have used that property (under drug laws promoted by Clinton -- Bush isn't the only villain here). We "commit" hundreds of thousands of citizens to confinement (imprisonment) and torture (enforced drugging and shock and being strapped into beds) without a fair trial or even their being accused of a crime; this occurs under psychiatric commitment laws (e.g., the Baker Act).

Volumes have been written on these subjects. Some are more controversial than others: For example, the Constitution explicitly forbids an income tax, and, say some constitutional experts, the amendment that authorized an income tax (since which our economic growth has gradually stagnated) was never fully passed. But the courts and many other constitutional experts hold that the amendment is now part of our constitution.

The Constitution calls for a nation composed of almost-sovereign states, in which specifically stated (and very limited) powers were granted to the federation of states (the federal government), all else being left to the states or to individual citizens. States and local communities used to run the schools. Now the schools depend on federal funding, so follow increasingly all-important federal guidelines (and with all the federally mandated improvements, student performance continues to deteriorate, which the Government pays schools hundreds of dollars for each child put onto drugs for that mythical ailment, ADHD). States and localities used to do most of the taxing. Now it's mostly federal. And much that used to be left to individuals (for example, medical plans) is now constrained by federal mandates.

Originally only those things obviously done best by a federal government were to be done by that government (for example, conducting war or defense) -- all else to be handled by states and localities and individuals. Anything not specifically designated a federal power was left to the lower echelons of government (see Bill of Rights).

The so-called "elastic clause" of the Constitution gave Congress the right to do anything "necessary and proper" to carry out its designated mission. That opened the door to expansion of Federal power. We need to conduct a war, and we can't do it unless we're allowed to eavesdrop on communications between citizens -- or so it has recently been argued, one example among thousands.

But we haven't been at war since 1945, per the Constitution. That's the last time we were in a conflict where Congress had actually declared war on other nations. So when Bush uses "War on Terror" as a justification for harsh wartime measures (as Clinton used the "War on Drugs), Bush is simply trashing the Constitution. The Constitution says exactly what MUST happen for us to be at war. That has not happened since Dec. 7, 1941!

We don't lose our Constitution to tyrants (apparently), but to good people promoting vital causes. See yesterday's ramble on "wedge issues." Thus, for example, "the people" -- that is, via their legislators -- lost the right to determine whether or not abortion should be legal when the Supreme Court by-passed them and simply declared it unconstitutional, though nothing in the Constitution says so. The Court (in Roe v. Wade) invented a new right (one not mentioned in the Constitution) called "the right to privacy", arguing that the right to privacy is inherent in the other rights (and perhaps it is to some extent), then extended the definition of privacy to mean that any attempt to illegalize abortion violates the privacy of a woman's body.

They didn't say that illegalizing suicide is wrong. They didn't say that illegalizing a person's self-injecting heroin is wrong. (Aren't these private actions? They are illegal in most states. So is collecting child pornography.) They didn't look at how a government might have a legitimate interest in whether or not children get born. They didn't look at similar laws elsewhere (past and present) that consider it a father's right to kill his children, and any government intervention a violation of family privacy. And, of course, they didn't consider that abortion might violate some right that, as a human or almost-human, a fetus might have.

I'm not arguing that abortion should be illegal. Personally, while I don't think it's a good idea to abort babies, I also don't think it's a good idea to have the government telling a woman she can't get an abortion. That just tends in the direction of a police state, in the absence of a strong moral base in the population, the strong agreement you get where families, churches and schools raise a responsible populace. Attempting to enforce, legally, a morality not shared by most of the populace leads to tyranny.

But I'm arguing that the Supreme Court weakened the Constitution by using strained and inconsistent arguments to declare unconstitutional something whose legality should have been determined by legislators -- preferably state legislators in each state. And because many people wanted to see abortion legalized, for the sake of that legalization, they were willing to see the balance of powers between the Judiciary and Legislative branches of government overturned.

Part of the loss of state powers occurred for similar reasons of high morality: The federal government overturned states' rights in the effort to illegalize slavery -- and fought a probably unnecessary war in the process. (The Southern states had a growing contingent before the war that realized the South would have to do without slavery eventually; probably all that was needed to prevent a war was for the anti-slave Government to get off its high horse long enough to PAY the slave owners the money they'd spent buying slaves.)

You may say, well, if the Constitution defended states' rights (and it did), and if states' rights defended slavery, then we're well rid of powerful states. Perhaps -- or perhaps we needed to find a better solution than the most uncivil Civil War (or War between the States, as the Southerners termed it, stressing the sovereignty of the various parties to the war), a more patient solution that could have retained a model closer to the one envisioned in the Constitution. After all, those who pushed for an immediate solution left the ex-slaves mostly living in poverty as sub-citizens for about another century.

Why is this important: Because we are talking about INDIVIDUAL rights, and the individual is closer to his neighborhood than to his city, closer to city than to state, and closer to state than to the federal government. Therefore the individual has more control (more ability to go talk to someone, to be effective, to right wrongs, etc.) over local matters than over more remote state, federal and global matters. Therefore, any concern for human rights must include a concern for maintaining the integrity of the various echelons of society (families, neighborhoods, wards, cities and counties, states...), because when it's "The state vs. John Doe" or "The intergalactic federation vs. John Doe", John Doe doesn't have a chance.

For the Federal Government to notice lower-echelon corruption and act as ombudsman for individuals makes sense, but only if, having butted in, the Federal Government then butts out. But it doesn't work that way. Anything an upper echelon touches, it tries to hold onto, get that budget appropriation made permanent along with the increased staff allotment. That's how bureaucracy works. So in the absence of a firm commitment to the federal system (a federation of strong, self-governing states with strong, self-governing communities and families), we have lost the infrastructure necessary for human rights.

It's hard enough (in many cases) to talk to your Mom or Dad, tougher yet to reach the Mayor. Getting hold of the Governor or even your Congressman involves considerable red-tape and probably a form letter or e-mail from a very junior staff member. Now, try telling President Bush your concerns.

So the loss of states' rights is not a trivial matter if one is concerned with individual rights. It's not just the states that lost rights over the past two centuries, but also individuals, since all powers assumed by the Federal Government (and all tax money taken) are taken away, not just from states, but also from towns and churches and families and individuals. Each dollar of yours that goes to the federal government deprives you of the right to choose how to spend that dollar. Someone else decides.

The main point is that it doesn't matter much what it says in the Constitution if we, as citizens, do not understand that Constitution and support it, if we expect the lawyers to handle all that and the particular group of lawyers (all political appointees) called "The Supreme Court" to defend it for us.

Those rights we still have (for example, it's still a lot safer to speak or print our dissident views here than in many other nations or to belong to the church of our choice or even to exercise that somewhat unpopular right to bear arms), we have because this country was settled by citizens determined to throw off certain Old World chains, because we had a lot of space (makes it easier to get along and tolerate differences), because by the time our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution an Bill of Rights, we already had a citizenry imbued with certain pioneer values, educated by Tom Paine and Jefferson, respectful of Franklin's ideal of the self-made, independent citizen, etc. No one was going to tell these guys what they should or shouldn't say! From time to time, we still act to forward these rights, but mostly we're riding along on 200-year-old momentum (riding our couches, steering with remote TV controls).

(And these days, if you are too incautious -- especially as a student -- no one tells you what not to say, but you might find yourself forced to take psychiatric drugs.)

3. Rights get vitiated when we confuse the freedom TO DO things, BE things, HAVE things, with the freedom FROM things (fear, hunger, etc.). Every right given individuals is a constraint on others. If I have the right to say what I want to say in a public forum, you do not have the right to forbid me from saying things that disturb you (in that public forum). If you have a right to live and pursue happiness, I don't have the right to murder you. If you are guaranteed "freedom from fear" by law, then by law I don't have the right to frighten you.

That's an interesting example: If we consider Roosevelt's famous "four freedoms" to be human rights, than you have the right to be free of fear, so can perhaps take me to court if I say something here that scares you. I suppose I could retort "Well, don't read it," and you could say, "yes, but how was I to know it would scare me? The law must require your title to include the words 'Beware: Scary Material'." Sounds silly, but we see this sort of discussion all the time -- in court decisions on pornograpy, for example.

If you have the right to be free from hunger, can this right be used to permit the government to take over businesses that aren't paying all workers enough to feed their large families? In other words, do business owners lose the right to run their own businesses?

So part of the loss of rights stems from a failure to define them in ways most likely to result in a sensible system. Generally, a "right" that rewards non-production results in less available for all and a failing system. (The USSR is a good example. No reward for individual initiative -- in fact, it was typically penalized, as when neighbors would destroy the equipment of a more productive neighbor.) Exactly how high we can place our social safety nets without overpenalizing the most productive citizens (and particularly those producing things that enhance survival) is the question here. Note that our Bill of Rights and most of the Rights ennumerated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights do stress the rights to initiate action, to speak, choose, write, assemble, etc., though the UN list (a longer list) does look at some of the safety net issues. After all, a sane society should probably guarantee children some level of education, so that they can participate, and enough food to be able to grow and learn.

4. Some have tried to make human rights harder to violate by declaring that they are innately ours as ordained by God. I don't intend to argue about God's role in our having or not having rights, but it seems obvious that, whatever rights we innately have or are given by God, in fact, most people do NOT experience these rights. The point of insisting that these rights are God-given (like insisting that they are Constitutional) is to elicit agreement. We want to make these rights inviolable, and that means we need to get people to agree to them. (Don't you dare hit me! I'm wearing glasses. Don't you dare violate my rights. I got them from God!)

The trouble with doing eliciting agreement by harping on the Constitution is that the Constitution is barely breathing (can you feel a pulse), and belief in God isn't doing so well either. Also, if we attribute them to God, and then these rights start to interfere with each other, we get an impasse and endless hair-splitting or worse: "I have the RIGHT to own slaves." "But those slaves are people, and they have the RIGHT to be free."

(Digression: Did it ever occur to you that the Southern slave owners had PURCHASED those slaves with MONEY, and that the people who claimed the Southerners didn't own those slaves were actually devaluating money -- everyone's money? Similarly every time we pass a law saying that, for example, it's illegal to bribe a politician, we are lowering the value of our own money? Money, after all, is only as valuable as we all agree that we'll be able to use it to buy what we want to buy. So every law passed that limits what it is legal to buy devalues our money. Just an odd thought. Pardon the digression.)

Of course, what was basically wrong at that time WAS slavery. But still, both sides were defending "God-given rights", and so were both (or all) sides in the abortion issue, where those who defended the fetus were trying to say that fetuses are human individuals, just as the abolitionists tried to persuade Southerners that their slaves were human individuals. The slave trade had already been illegalized long before the Civil War. Why didn't the abolitionists just buy the slaves, then free them? Even the desire to have newly forming states be slave states was based on the desire of people from slave states to bring their investments (slaves -- rather expensive "possessions") with them to the new states. (Some abolitionists did a little of this -- purchasing and freeing slaves. The Government could have done it on a far larger scale -- and it would have cost a lot less than the war, which killed over 600,000, more than half from the Union side.)

Summary: We don't obtain human rights just by promoting democracy -- though it helps when the thirst for democracy forces out a tyrant. We don't secure our rights just by having them stated in a Constitution, nor will simply going to the wall for that Constitution do the job, though it will probably help. Just being a stickler for strict constitutionalism won't lead to rights unless it is accompanied by an attempt to rebuild an infrastructure for human rights comparable to that which existed earlier in this nation, an infrastructure that begins with family and school and community and our respecting one another as individuals and teaching children respect for each other. What we call human rights are extensions of self-respect to respect for others. They are, I think, a legal formulation that requires a government to behave toward each citizen the way individuals behave when they respect other people.

Good manners is a significant part of the basis for human rights. (Now there's a shocker!) (I started to write "Good manners are a not insignificant part...", then remembered I haven't been a professor for 38 years!)

When crime gets vicious we tolerate police who show little respect for individuals and suspect everyone and are particularly vicious to those who "look" like they might be criminals. And yet, it is that lack of respect for individuals that creates a criminal society; so we get a vicious circle. And once imprisoned, the criminals are deprived of most rights and treated as sub-humans, so mostly become career criminals. We need to reverse the vicious downward spiral. One of the "side effects" of a society that truly values human rights is that it has little crime.

We need to recognize that, however much our rights may be dear to God or Thomas Jefferson, they are secured by our understanding them, agreeing about them, wanting them and applying them in our own lives. And we need to insist on them for others -- world wide. Otherwise we get explosions of suppressed populations elsewhere that are "solved" by tyrannical governments using war as distraction, and we get mired in wars that are used as excuses for abridgement of rights -- that's just one of many ways the lack of rights elsewhere affects us.

I hope, by the way, that I've said a few things that have shocked you slightly. For example, I don't think I've ever heard from anyone else that when the abolitionists said "You don't own those people", the abolitionists were devaluating money as a medium of exchange. (Probably someone has said it, but I read a lot and have never seen it said, so I'll bet 99% of the two people reading this have never heard it before either.) And yet it's obvious. If you go to the store tomorrow to buy food and are told that you can no longer buy food, because it has been decided that all life, including cows, sheep, pigs, cucumbers, wheat and unfertilized chicken ovi, is sacred and can no longer be bought or owned or eaten -- at that point, your money would be severely devaluated. I don't think most people have noticed that freedom from fear or hunger or "from" anything can, if overdone, be used to abridge other vital freedoms.

I'm trying to get you to take a fresh look at the rights we take for granted, look at the anatomy of each, what it contributes (or not) to a better life for you and for all of us. Why should we have freedom of speech? What's REALLY wrong with slavery? (Isn't a good thing to have someone to do all the backbreaking labor for almost no pay? Why not?) What limits should be put on a democracy? That is, what things must be reserved to you as an individual for you to feel secure and able to be productive and live a good life in a democracy? What is the ideal scene here?

I think when you look at it this way for a while, you'll find that no political system alone can achieve that scene. It depends on the agreements of individuals as manifested in families, child-rearing, education and religion, as well as in our legal and political systems.