Saturday, October 29, 2005

The "Mistake"

"Control the press and you control the minds of men."
-Cecil Rhodes

In the English language, many words experience a shift in meaning over countless years of usage. 'Awful,' for instance, used to have the same definition as today’s 'awesome.' In fact, the no. 2 definition for 'awful' in the American Heritage dictionary states, “Commanding, inspiring, or filled with awe.” It’s easy to see why. When one sees the Sistine Chapel or the Grand Canyon for the first time, one is usually filled with awe. No one knows for sure how 'awful' shifted from meaning ‘inspiring’ to today’s meaning of ‘terrible.’ It was probably the same process by which ‘bad’ actually means ‘good’ in some circles.

Sometimes the rapidity with which words shift definitions has disturbingly Orwellian consequences. One such example is the rapidly changing definition of the word 'mistake.' Just a few short years ago, a mistake was an unintended action that usually produced an unpleasant result – like when you mistake salt for sugar in a recipe or when a foul ball smashes the neighbor’s window.

Today, however, 'mistake' has come to define any instance in which a famous or powerful person was caught red-handed doing something illegal or morally reprehensible. When Dwight Gooden got caught with cocaine in his system all those times, those were just ‘mistakes.’ On a recent installment of 60 Minutes, correspondent Ed Bradley asked New York Yankees infielder Derek Jeter whether he had difficulty reconciling teammate Jason Giambi’s steroid use with Jeter’s well publicized anti-drug stance, Jeter responded by saying, “well, yeah, but you understand that people make mistakes…”

Listen up, people. THESE ARE NOT MISTAKES. Jason Giambi did not slip and accidentally inject himself with steroids; he fucking cheated. He intentionally violated the rules, and he did so repeatedly until he got caught.

Big deal, you say? While it’s true that Giambi’s steroid use, or the drunken, drug-addled, sex-crazed misbehavior – often referred to as ‘mistakes’ – of countless rock stars and Hollywood luminaries, have little impact on society, this generous definition of the word 'mistake' has bled into the world of politics and journalism. The phrase, ‘intelligence failure,’ for example, is nothing but a euphemism for 'lie.' The only failure was in the administration’s inability to conceal the lies from the public – a trick at which they are usually quite skilled.

The same can be said for the main$tream media’s pre-war cheerleading. The leading lights of journalistic integrity, the New York Times and the Washington Post – badly burned by the failure to locate WMDs and the poor prosecution of the Iraq War – have issued a spate of ridiculous “oopses.”

But, unlike Giambi’s steroid use or, say, Robert Downey’s struggles with heroin, these ‘mistakes’ have immense, far-reaching consequences. As Z Magazine’s Mike Whitney points out, “Along with the New York Times, the Washington Post is perhaps the most widely syndicated news in the country. Their stories not only inform the national debate (on any given topic), but also establish the rationale for military action. The apocryphal stories that appeared on the front page of the Post were the basis for an illegal invasion and countless deaths.”

The fact that both the Times and the Post have issued mea culpas in recent months is evidence of their desperation to maintain their lucrative position as corporate shills. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” they seem to say, as Toto pulls the curtain aside. The other guilty parties – NBC, CNN, L.A. Times, et al – haven’t even bothered to issue apologies.

And the lying – or mistaking – continues.

In the hours following Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s Oct. 28 press conference, MSNBC’s coverage was blatantly skewed to the Right with commentary from such impartial judges as Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson, not to mention input from pundits and ‘analysts’ who appeared without the disclosure that they were from such notorious right wing institutions as the Cato Institute and the Washington Times.

But some of the biggest lies – or mistakes – come in the form of the lying-by-omission strategy so often employed by the so-called liberal media. After all, the real story here isn’t simply the outing of a covert operative; the real story is the fountain of lies that spewed out of the administration – and the press – in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lies such as these: that Sept. 11 mastermind, Mohammed Atta met with one of Saddam’s henchmen in Prague; that an intercepted shipment of aluminum tubes was intended for the manufacture of weapons grade plutonium; that Saddam was attempting to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger. The bovine press has obediently omitted from its reporting that all of these lies have been thoroughly debunked. Moreover, there has been no mention in the M$M of the fact that National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was the one who created the crudely forged documents purporting to show Saddam’s intent to procure the Niger Yellowcake that is at the center of this controversy.
Make no mistake – the press that you count on to provide balanced coverage of the events that impact millions of lives is lying to you. The only mistake they made was that you found out they were lying.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Three Outta Five Ain't Bad

Drunk on hubris, three out of the last five Republican administrations have been rocked by scandal, irrefutably demonstrating the ‘moral values’ party’s utter contempt for the electorate.
Watergate, Iran-Contra and now Plamegate have managed to bubble to the surface despite the main$tream media’s steadfast resolve to focus instead on lotto winners, celebrity breakups and natural disasters. Even after the churning cesspools become too putrid to ignore, said corporate press does its best to convince the suspicious-but-gullible masses that these are isolated incidents and not symptoms of a never-ending determination to usurp the democratic process.
Of course, the Democrats are not free from blame; indeed, Bill Clinton helped to insure that four consecutive decades have seen legal action against the White House, contributing to the increasing public perception that Republicans and Democrats are merely two branches of the same morally bankrupt, corporate run political structure. But whereas Republican scandals blossom until they are too huge even for the “Fourth Estate” to ignore, Democratic scandals are brought to light by the endless ferreting of the so-called liberal media. How much sooner might Shrub’s administration have crumbled had the press given the same attention to Jeff Gannon, the Downing Street Memo and the President’s notorious intake that they gave to Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinski?
In any case, whether you’re an idealist or a cynic, a liberal, a conservative or a moderate, a Northeastern Elitist or a Bible thumping redneck, you find yourself – yet again – trying to make heads or tails of a complicated presidential scandal. Could this be why half of us never vote?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Couldn't have said it better myself

Check out this article by Cenk Uygur.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Some Things Never Change

Charles Bukowski is a writer who is known mainly for his short stories and novels about hookers, gambling, heavy drinking and weird, abusive relationships. Later in his writing career, he also took up poetry. Here is one of my favorites.
In addition to his fiction and poetry, Charles Bukowski is the author of one of the best political essays ever written. It was originally published in a volume entitled, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. That volume has since been split in two and published under the titles The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Tales of Ordinary Madness, both published by City Lights. The essay below appears in the former. I hope City Lights won’t be too pissed that I reprinted it here. Pardon the lack of capital letters; that’s the way he wrote it.
"Dear Mr. Bukowski: Why don't you ever write about politics or world affairs?"
"Dear M.K.: What for? Like, what's new? --- everybody knows the bacon is burning."

our raving takes place quite quietly while we are staring down at the hairs of a rug --- wondering what the shit went wrong when they blew up the trolley full of jellybeans with the poster of Popeye the Sailor stuck on the side.
that's all that matters: the good dream gone, and when that's gone it's all gone. the rest is horseshit games for the Generals and money-makers, speaking of which --- I see where another U.S. bomber full of H-bombs fell out of the sky again --- THIS time into the sea while SUPPOSEDLY protecting my life. the State Dept. says the H-bombs were "unarmed," whatever that means. then we continue to read where one of the H-bombs (lost) had split open and was spreading radioactive shit everywhere while supposedly protecting me WHILE I hadn't even asked for protection. the difference between a Democracy and a Dictatorship is that in a Dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting.
getting back to the H-bomb dropout --- a little while back the same thing happened off the coast of SPAIN. (we are everywhere, protecting me.) again the bombs get lost --- careless little toys. it took them 3 months --- if I remember properly --- to find and lift that last bomb out of there. It may have been 3 weeks but to the people in that coast town it must have seemed 3 years. that last bomb --- the god damned thing had gotten itself wedged on the edge of a sandhill far down in the sea. and everytime they tried to hook the thing, so tenderly, it would shake loose and roll a little further down the hill. meanwhile, all the poor people in that coast town were tossing in their beds at night wondering if they'd be blown to hell, courtesy of the Stars and Stripes. of course, the U.S. State Dept. issued a statement saying the H-bomb had no detonation fuse, but meanwhile the rich had left for other parts and the American sailors and townspeople looked very nervous. (after all, it the things couldn't blow up what were they flying them around for? might as well carry 2-ton salamis. fuse means "spark" or "trigger," and "spark" can come from anywhere, and "trigger" means "jolt" or any similar action that will set off the firing mechanism. NOW the terminology is "unarmed," which sounds safer but is the same thing.) anyhow, they hooked at the bomb but as the saying goes, the thing seemed to have a mind of its own. then a few undersea storms came about and our lovely little bomb rolled further and further down its hill.
the sea is very deep, much deeper than our leadership.
finally, special equipment was designed just to haul bomb-ass and the thing was pulled from the sea. Palomares. yes, that's where it happened: Palomares. and you know what they did next? the American Navy had a BAND CONCERT in the town park in celebration of finding the bomb - if the thing wasn't dangerous they were really cutting loose. yes, and the sailors played the music and everyone came together in one big sexual and spiritual release. whatever happened to the bomb they pulled out of the sea, I don't know, nobody (except the few) knows, and the band played on while 1,000 tons of radio- active Spanish topsoil was shipped to Aiken, S.C. in sealed containers. I'll be the rent is cheap in Aiken, S.C.
so now our bombs are swimming and sinking, chilled and "un-armed" about Iceland.
so what do you do when you've got the people's minds on something not so good? easy, you get their minds on something else. they can only think about one thing at a time. like, all right, headline of Jan. 23, 1968: B-52 CRASHES OFF GREENLAND WITH H-BOMBS; DANES IRKED. Danes irked? oh, mother!
anyhow, suddenly, Jan. 24, headline: NORTH KOREANS SEIZE U.S. NAVY SHIP.
oh boy, patriotism is back! why, those dirty bastards! I thought THAT war was over! ah ha, I see --- the REDS! Korean puppets!
it says under the A.P. wirephoto, something like this --- the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo --- formerly an army cargo ship, now converted into one of the Navy's secret spy ships equipped with electric monitoring gear and oceanographic equipment was forced into Wonsan Harbor off the coast of North Korea. those dirty Red bastards, always fucking around!
but I DID notice that the lost H-bomb story got shoved into a small space: "Radiation Detected at B-52 Crash Site; Split Bomb hinted."
we are told that the president was awakened between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. and told of the capture of the Pueblo. I presume he went back to sleep.
the U.S. says the Pueblo was in international waters; the Koreans say the ship was in territorial waters. one country is lying, one is not. then one wonders, what good is a spy ship in international waters? it's like wearing a raincoat on a sunny day. the closer you can get on in, the better your instruments pick up.
headline: Jan. 26, 1968: U.S. CALLS UP 14,700 AIR RESERVISTS. the lost H-bombs off Iceland have completely disappeared from print as if it had never happened.
Sen. John C. Stennis (D.-Miss.) said Mr. Johnson's decision (the call-up of Air Reserves) was "necessary and justified" and added, "I hope he will not hesitate to mobilize ground reserve components as well."
Senate minority leader, Richard B. Russell (D.-Ga.): "In the last analysis, this country must get the return of that ship and the men that were seized. After all, great wars have started from much less serious incidents than this."
House Speaker John W. McCormack (D.-Mass.): "The American people have to wake up to the realization that communism is still bent on world domination. there is too much apathy about it."
I think that if Adolph Hitler were around now he would pretty much enjoy the present scene. what's there to say about politics and world affairs? the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban crisis, spy planes, spy ships, Vietnam, Korea, lost H-bombs, riots in American cities, starvation in India, purge in Red China? are there good guys and bad guys? some that always lie, some that never lie? are there good governments and bad governments? no, there are only bad governments and worse governments. will there be a flash of light and heat that rips us apart one night while we are screwing or crapping or reading the comic strips or pasting blue-chip stamps into a book? instant death is nothing new, nor is mass instant death new. But we've improved the product; we've had these centuries of knowledge and culture and discovery to work with; the libraries are fat and crawling and overcrowded with books; great paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars; medical science is transplanting the human heart; you can't tell a madman from a sane one upon the streets, and suddenly we find our lives, again, in the hands of the idiots. the bombs may never drop; the bombs might drop. eeney, meeney, miney, mo-
now if you'll forgive me, dear readers, I'll get back to the whores and the horses and the booze, while there's time. if these contain death, then, to me, it seems far less offensive to be responsible for your own death than the other kind which is brought to you fringed with phrases of Freedom and Democracy and Humanity and/or any of all that Bullshit.
first post, 12:30. first drink, now. and the whores will always be around. Clara, Penny, Alice, Jo- eeny, meeney, miney, mo-

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fisher Price or DHS: You be the judge

Airport security can be fun. Take a look.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Miller's Self-Infatuation Ruins a Perfectly Good Conspiracy

It seems to me that everyone is missing the point on this Judith Miller Plame identity leak thingy. Well, almost everyone.
It is extremely rare for me to find common ground with right wing whack jobs like John Hinderaker, but I think he’s onto something here. It’s funny that the common ground betwixt lefties like myself and righties like Hinderaker is always on the outskirts of ConspiracyTheoryville.
Hinderaker’s take – and this is something that I’ve been saying for a while – is that the real issue with Miller stems from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s previous investigation of her in which she was accused of leaking news of an impending FBI raid on a Muslim charity suspected of funneling money to terrorists.
The silence of the supposedly liberal Main$tream media on this very, very important point seems to me like proof of the theory’s veracity.
For those of you not up to speed on this aspect of the Miller saga, here’s the upshot: In December of 2001, Miller received a tip that that the FBI was about to raid the offices of an Islamic charity organization called the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The FBI believed HLF was knowingly channeling donations to Hamas and possibly other terrorists. On December 3, one day before the scheduled raid, Miller called HLF offices to ask them how they felt about the government’s decision to freeze their assets. According to Fitzgerald, she also warned them about the impending raid, which gave them time to destroy crucial evidence.
Miller’s cover story prior to her release from prison was that she was waiting for Scooter Libby to waive the confidentiality agreement he had with her, something he had already done way back in July. We know that Miller’s lawyer, Bob Bennett, spent ten days prior to her release negotiating with Fitzgerald. What were they negotiating if Libby had already given his waiver? Could it be that Bennett was trying to convince Fitzgerald to restrict the grand jury questioning to the Plame investigation only?
Fitzgerald met recently with Judge Thomas Hogan, probably to request an extension of the grand jury, whose term expires on October 28. Maybe Fitzgerald is trying to buy a little extra time in order to find a connection between the two investigations. Surely such a connection exists.
Let’s take a look at Miller's post-9/11 reporting, shall we? First, she protects a Muslim charity/terrorist front organization just three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, she sounds the war bugle with a series of articles riddled with qualifiers like “if verified” and “some officials believe,” while sidling up to power starved frauds like Ahmed Chalabi and obscure defectors like Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri (not to mention a host of anonymous ‘sources’). Next, she shamelessly promotes her new book on the anthrax threat with a series of ‘news’ articles, including the envelope of white powder she herself received (which turned out to be harmless). Later, after the war she wanted so badly finally comes, she gets herself ‘embedded’ with an army unit that quickly gains notoriety as the “Miller Unit,” as it gallivants all over Iraq in a futile search for the very WMDs that Hans Blix, et al already said didn’t exist. Shortly after returning from this rogue operation, she takes her revenge on Joe Wilson by helping to leak his wife’s covert identity. (Incidentally, Miller's shady reporting goes way back.)
Somesink smells fishy in Denmark! If, like me, you have little difficulty believing in things like Operation Mockingbird, then this Judith Miller Plame identity leak thingy becomes easier to understand. The only reason we even know about it is that, like Narcissus, Miller became infatuated with her own image. I can’t wait until she drowns in the reflecting pool.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Trickle-Up Theory (part 2)

“Who are those guys?”
Butch Cassidy

Okay, so modern banking is a scam designed to fatten the rich at the expense of the poor. But how did it get that way?
Since its inception, banking has been crooked. The first banks appeared in ancient Egypt, Babylonia and Greece, where wealthy farmers and tradesmen deposited gold and silver in local temples for safekeeping. Pagan priests would loan the gold to needy families at rapacious interest rates and then split the proceeds with the depositors. Families that could not repay their loans were jailed, executed or sold into slavery. The church – which was also the government – grew exponentially rich, along with the depositors.
Banking grew in complexity during the Roman Empire, when the fortunes of war were deposited in private banking institutions, which were allowed to do what they pleased with the wealth as long as they helped finance further conquests. Private banks in Rome also helped finance the construction of roads, aqueducts, monuments and temples; laborers and soldiers were paid in salt, a valuable commodity at the time. (It is from this practice that we get the word “salary.”) If ever a private banker in ancient Rome got into hot water with his customers, all he had to do was finance a monument to the Caesar of the moment and the uprising would be quelled.
The middle ages saw the next great leap forward in banking with the advent monastic orders of knighted crusaders, most notably, the Knights Templar, who used stolen riches to expand their ranks and curry favor with the Papacy. Like the other monastic orders at the time of the crusades, the Knights Templar, or Knights of the Temple of Solomon, began in earnest, taking vows of celibacy and poverty. Their name was derived from the portion of Jerusalem they occupied after the Muslims had been driven out in the early 12th century. Legend had it that the mosque al-Aqsa in Jerusalem had been built on the site of the original Temple of Solomon. Since this was the quarter they inhabited during their occupation of Jerusalem, they began calling themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. Over the centuries, this name was shortened to the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, then later, Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar took their orders directly from the Pope and obeyed no other laws. This appealed to many noblemen despite the vows of celibacy and poverty, not to mention the harsh and dangerous existence led by the Knights Templar. Noblemen from all over Europe campaigned for admittance to the Knights Templar, offering their vast riches and land holdings as dowries. As a result, the Knights Templar grew in wealth and power, acquiring stately manors and immeasurable riches. They also gained a reputation as unparalleled stalwarts when it came to guarding their wealth.
At this point in history, wealthy noblemen had no method for protecting their riches from bandits and thieves other than to guard it themselves, which hindered other activities. Since the Knights Templar were already guarding their own vast riches, it would take no extra effort for them to guard other people’s riches, too. Before long, it became common practice for noblemen throughout Europe and the Middle East to give their riches to the Knights Templar for safekeeping. Soon, even governments adopted the practice: England even turned over a portion of the crown jewels to the Templars’ able watch.
The Templars quickly added other financial services to their repertoire, including debt and tax collection, loans and even cargo and passenger shipping. They issued notes to depositors who then traded the notes rather than transferring the actual gold and jewels. Thus was born the advent of paper money.
After nearly 200 years, the Knights Templar had grown richer and more powerful than most of the countries in Europe. More importantly, they had grown more powerful than the Vatican, a development that did not sit well with then Pope Clement V, who ordered the arrests of all the Knights Templar and the redistribution of their wealth, most of which went to Templar rivals, the Knights Hospitaller, who, rather than banking, had established what might be called the first hotel chain.

The early modern period saw the emergence of Jewish banking establishments. Since Christian doctrine forbade the collection of interest, and since most other professions were off limits to Jews, banking and money trading became primarily Jewish occupations.
In medieval times, just about every kingdom, duchy or realm had its own coinage, usually bearing a likeness of the duke or prince in power. A nobleman traveling from one kingdom to the next – often a distance of less than a hundred miles – would be compelled to have with him the coin of the realm. After all, the duke or prince in one province would be most offended indeed to see the face of his neighboring rival stamped on a coin. So, some method had to be devised that would ensure that travelers had the proper coinage in their purses. Local Jews, familiar with the various regional coins and their values, would often trade one coin for another for a small fee. Over the years, these small fees would add up, and the clever and thrifty moneychanger might, on occasion, find himself with a small fortune.
Oftentimes, these small fortunes were used to buy passage from Europe to Jerusalem, where the Arabs looked upon Jews with less disfavor than their European counterparts. Other times, however, moneychangers would stay put, using their wealth to curry favor with the local monarch. Frequently, this entailed financing a war or building an addition to the castle. The moneychanger would provide the necessary funds in exchange for later repayment plus interest, or, as in most cases, increased freedom. In the aptly named Dark Ages, the average Jew’s activities were severely restricted. A small loan to the local duke might earn letters of transit, which, despite the Jew’s low social standing, would be required to be honored by any local subject who wished to keep his head.
This is precisely the method Mayer Amschel Rothschild used to deliver his family from the Jewish slums of Frankfurt, Germany to the pinnacle of the now famous Rothschild banking house. In 1743, the year Rothschild was born, Jews were not even allowed surnames unless one was given to them by a local official. In the place of surnames, many Jews took the name of the house in which they were born. As this was before the advent of numbered address systems, most houses had a sign or plaque differentiating their house from the ones around it. Rothschild means Red Shield in German. Mayer Rothschild, therefore, means simply Mayer from the house with the Red Shield.
Mayer Rothschild was a trinket shop owner and moneychanger who collected rare and discontinued coins as a hobby. The local landgrave, Elector William I, shared Rothschild’s interest in rare coins and invited the young moneychanger to his castle to compare collections. Rothschild handled himself skillfully, offering several rare coins as a gift to the wealthy landgrave. Soon, Rothschild was named Elector’s financial agent.
Elector William I had made a fortune renting out his famed Hessian fighting men to kingdoms all over Europe. When his cousin, a Danish prince, requested a large loan for a war he was losing, Elector William I found himself in a quandary. He knew the loan would never be repaid in full, since the cousin would cite family ties as justification for reneging on the loan. He knew also that denying the request would do irreparable harm not only to familial relations, but also to the fragile political balance of the time. The clever Rothschild came to his rescue, devising a plan that would both preserve the delicate political situation and insure repayment of the loan. Rothschild concocted a scheme whereby the Danish prince would get the money without knowing who it came from. He would therefore be bound by honor to repay the loan.
This was Rothschild’s breakthrough. Not only did the stunt earn him permanent letters of transit for him and his family, it also laid the groundwork for a continent-wide messenger service that would surpass those of all the kingdoms of Europe. This service was used widely for many decades to come, since it was faster and more confidential than any other such service then in existence. What’s more, the confidentiality did not extend to the Rothschilds themselves; by reading the messages being sent via their service, the Rothschilds were finely attuned to the political and financial activities of all of Europe. This arrangement led eventually to the Rothschilds’ virtual takeover of the British stock market and, therefore, their ascension to European aristocracy.
Mayer Rothschild’s five sons went on to form the largest banking conglomerate in the world, with branches in London, Paris, Vienna, Naples and Frankfurt. Their immense wealth and influence deeply affected the political landscape for many decades. The Rothschild’s achievements include the building of the Suez Canal, the Cape Town to Cairo railway, the formations of Rhodesia and Israel, and the rise of the De Beers diamond concern, to name just a few. The Rothschild’s influence had diminished significantly by the 20th century. The rise of Hitler forced them out of Germany and Austria; the annexation of Naples by Italy brought a halt to the Naples branch of the bank; and the emergence of national banks in England and France greatly reduced their influence in those countries. But the Rothschilds’ effect on the contemporary political topography can still be deeply felt. The current Rothschild generation is active in philanthropy, the arts and politics. Their impact cannot be overstated.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Temporary Insanity

Once again, the employment god has cast a critical eye in my direction. Without dwelling on the details, let’s just say that my most recent situation came to an acrimonious end. It wasn’t my fault — really. I didn’t mean to tell the boss his way of doing things was moronic; it just slipped out. In any event, my meager wages from that job left me little time with which to contemplate my next move. I had to act fast or I’d be spending the winter under a viaduct.
One of my previous swims in the treacherous waters of pre-employment dealt me an entanglement with a dangerous sea creature known as a temporary agency. The temporary agency is a creature with long, powerful tentacles with which it draws its prey into a deep, dark world of cubicles and 15-minute breaks and fast food lunches and unwanted friendships. The temp agency feeds primarily on desperation and aspiration, but will settle for a steady diet of petty recriminations. Its victims struggle eternally in a web of cute, inspirational banners and office birthday parties.
A favorite method of capture for the temp agency is to attach a tentacle to the victim and then just sort of forget about it. The would-be victim goes about its business unaware that it has a tentacle attached. In rare cases, the victim grows big and strong and the tentacle is unable to reel it in. The temp agency doesn’t care; it has many tentacles. But, more commonly, the victim goes about its business until some trouble arises and a struggle ensues. The struggle is an instantaneous signal to the temp agency, which quickly attaches more tentacles to both combatants. The scorned employer is suddenly in the market for fresh meat. The temp agency’s tentacles tighten. The unappreciated employee self-righteously but desperately seeks another source of income. The tentacles tighten.
Such was the case for me when I found myself — again — in the boiling and infested sea of hunger and overdue bills. The tentacle rescued me. It scooped me up and placed me gently on the warm beach of secure employment. It placed a refreshing drink in my hand, and, just as my lips were about to meet the straw, the tentacle jerked me violently into a deep miasma of pointless, demeaning servitude.

Some days are just unBEARable.
As I dressed myself for my first day of training, I noticed that my gut was even more difficult to tuck into my “good” pants than it had been at my previous job. Either I had been drinking more beer — and that can hardly be possible — or my metabolism is slowing with age and all that beer is growing more difficult to burn off. The previous night’s session was no consolation: I had to drink at least five beers just to find the courage to accept this dead-end position.
I arrived at my assignment at 8:30, but Kathleen Watson’s digital clock radio read 8:39. Kathleen Watson was the head of the company’s human resources department, which meant that she was the overseer of all the wage slaves. She didn’t look afraid to use the whip.
“May I help you?” she asked icily.
I quickly and timidly stated my business.
“Oh. Finally,” she said. Her short hair was red on the outside and black on the inside. Her tight dress revealed what was probably once a great body, but now it looked as though it had seen many miles of rough road, as they say. Her creased face and baritone voice betrayed years of smoking. I tried to imagine what brand of cigarettes she smoked. After a moment’s consideration, I concluded that she must smoke More’s — those long, dark brown, cigar-like coffin nails. She wore bright red rouge on her cheeks and crimson lip-gloss. Suddenly I pitied her.
“I’m sorry. Am I late?” I asked apologetically.
“You were supposed to be here at eight.”
“Oh. I was told 8:30,” I explained.
“Well, it’s eight thirty-nine,” she said sharply. Then she spirited away. I wasn’t sure if I should leave or stay. Had I missed the opportunity, such as it was? Suddenly, she returned with two pieces of paper.
“Sign here and here,” she commanded. I obeyed. “You can wait over there,” she said, gesturing crudely at a couple of chairs. I sat down and picked up a Newsweek that was resting on the end table. I flipped serendipitously to a story — a story, mind you, not an advertisement — about a $1.2 million special edition Mercedes Benz that will soon be available — sort of. The one pictured next to the article looked like something Johnny Quest would drive. It had a silverish aura around it. Mercedes, according to the article, plans to manufacture only 25 of the cars. It has a V-12 engine, gull wing doors, some kind of ceramic polymer body and an unfathomable top speed. In order to change a flat tire, the article said, owners must wait for a specially trained German mechanic to fly in from Mercedes headquarters in Bonn. Mercedes has already received 200 orders for the machine, which gets eight miles to the gallon.
Someone called my name. I looked up to find that a fat, blonde woman was, by all outward indications, extremely happy to see me.
“Hi!” she exclaimed. For a moment, I thought she recognized me from somewhere. I tried briefly to place her face in my resinated memory, but I quickly realized that I have met at least a million women just like her. Her manner of speaking turned everything into a one-word question.
“Firstthingwe’regonnado?” she began. “IstakeyerpitcherforyerIDbadge?”
“Okay,” I replied hesitantly.
“Okay!” she cheered. She shuffled hastily away, cradling a clipboard like a child on her ample hip. I inferred that I was supposed to follow her.
In a small room down a dark hall, someone had erected an enormous camera and tripod assembly. She nudged me into a chair and shoved my head against the wall. She then jerked my head to the side so that it lined up with a piece of tape on the wall.
“Okay!” she cheered again. She leapt behind the enormous howitzer of a camera and aimed a menacing flashbulb right at my face. A blast of pure white blinded me for several seconds.
“Okay! One more!” she exclaimed. The second shot, I figured, was meant to insure total blindness.
As I sightlessly groped my way, she led me through a maze of cubicles until, at last, we reached one occupied by another obese woman. This woman, who I could barely see, was going to be training me for the next few days. She, too, spoke in one-word questions.
“Himyname’sjenniferhowyadoin’?” she chirped. As my eyes recovered, I noticed a poster hanging on the wall of her cubicle. It was a photograph of a yawning grizzly bear. Along the bottom, in cheerful lettering, the caption read: “Some days are just unBEARable!”
“I’ll drink to that,” I thought.
After a while, with Jennifer yammering endlessly and me nodding in endless agreement, I became aware of several other posters decorating her cubicle. They had obviously been manufactured for fourth grade classrooms. One showed Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty and the gang painting a big sign that read, “Everything goes better when we work together!” Another one had a photo of a gorilla that appeared to be smiling — wildlife is popular among cubicle dwellers — the caption read: “Smile! It’s the first thing people like about you!” Yet another poster showed a bald eagle in two views superimposed on one another. Its caption read: “Let your dreams take flight!”
Obviously, exclamation points are the only punctuation employed by inspirational poster manufacturers.
The company to which I had been assigned on this go-around ran some sort of money order scam. It involved risky, short-term investments and probably resided somewhere right on the edge of legality. The place was loaded with surveillance cameras and signs that read “Access Restricted.” Everyone — even temps — had to wear an identification badge and security card. The card and the badge were attached to a retractable spool that could be clipped to a strap or belt.
On the second morning of my assignment, I was accosted near the front door by a security-conscious prick. (They’re everywhere these days.)
“Have you got your badge?” he demanded in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Now at this particular point in the day, a beige cubicle festooned with childish regalia was just about the last place on Earth I wanted to be. I should have said, “Nope. I’m an interloper. Kick me out.” But, instead, as you already know, I said, simply, “Yep,” as I obediently extended my ID badge. The frustrated Gestapo asshole reluctantly let me pass.
The training for my pathetic assignment consisted of two phases. The first was to learn how to load and operate the electronic money order dispensers used by the company in its scam. Since the rest of the operation relied on economic mumbo-jumbo and loopholes, mastery of the dispensers — the only tangible ingredient in this recipe for deceit — was required by everyone. The dispensers came in four models, from old and crappy to new and crappy. I had to learn the rudiments of their operation so that, when convenience store workers called me with questions about their machine, I would be able to walk them through the solution, step by step.
The second phase of training entailed learning how to read a variety of computer screens between which I would eventually be flipping. The screens provided the viewer with essential information about the money order machine in question. The convenience store worker would call to report — often in broken English — a malfunction of some sort with his or her money order machine, and the operator — me — would use the information on the screens to identify the problem, work on a solution and record the events of the call.
Due to lack of interest, I was the only person who showed up for training. This, said Jennifer, meant that training would go “way faster.” As we concluded each step of what I considered a mind-numbingly slow process, Jennifer would squeal with delight: “My! Ican’tbelievehowfastwe’regoing!”
Midway through the pea soup fog of my first morning, the first obese woman returned with my access card and identification badge. The badge was still warm from having been run through an electric laminating machine. The picture on my badge betrayed the feeling of dread that had been — and was still — coursing through every fiber of my being. No mention was made of the second picture. No doubt it has found its way into my Permanent Record.
Break time. At last. The only positive aspect of this particular work environment is the religious devotion its inhabitants have toward breaks. This is undoubtedly the result of countless migraines, acts of vandalism, unearned sicknesses and other forms of productivity-reducing defiance from the wage slaves. I walked to the lunchroom as quickly as I could without attracting attention. I poured myself a large cup of bad office coffee in a futile effort to fortify myself against the insanity that surrounded me. Coffee was the only mind-altering chemical permissible in this land of NFL memorabilia and United Way fundraisers, so I partook heavily. I sat down and completed a crossword that someone else had tried to fill in using a yellow felt-tip. The lead story in that day’s paper told of a local doctor who had punched a woman in the face. The woman, according to the story, had cut in front of the doctor in traffic. Naturally, the public’s sympathy was with the woman; naturally, mine was with the doctor.
Upon my return from break, I detected a commotion of some sort wending its way slowly through the cubicles. If it continued on its present course, the commotion would eventually arrive at my desk. I would be forced to interact. It wouldn’t be so bad if they would just let you work in silent hatred, but there is always some “Rah! Rah! Sisboombah!” bullshit taking place that is obviously designed to convert the nonbelievers. It’s like a Christian summer camp five days a week.
As the commotion in question made its way relentlessly toward me, it became clear to my non-believing eyes that it consisted of four grown men dressed as old ladies.
“What the fuck is that?” I demanded. In panic, I pursed my lips. Did I say that or just think it?
“Oh. It’stheMoneyGrams,” explained Jennifer gleefully. MoneyGram, she said, was one of the product services offered by the company. The company, she said, invented a character called a “MoneyGram,” which was really just a money-dispensing old lady, to promote this product service. Every month, in an effort to raise money for United Way, some of the employees would take part in a goofy stunt of some sort. On this particular occasion, some of the employees offered to pay an unspecified amount of money to United Way if these clowns would dress up as “MoneyGrams.” The poor slobs had to choose between paying the unspecified sum or dressing up as old ladies, in which case the challenger would be compelled to make the payment. I was doubly horrified. For starters, I had no desire to stand there and take part in this foolishness, and, secondly, I feared that the longer I worked there, the greater the chances that I would be forced to participate. But, by that time of course, I will have been thoroughly converted. It was all I could do to keep from running away.
After four days of this nonsense, I concluded that sleeping under a viaduct wasn’t that bad after all. When I went to the temp office to turn in my time sheets, I told my supervisor that I could no longer tolerate this position and that I wanted another assignment. She looked at me with that look that people give you when you tell them that you hate something that they love — blueberry pie or For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance.
It was unfathomable to her that, in this economy, someone would choose not to leap at the chance to become part of the Great American Workforce. To her, I was one of “them;” I was one of the people who “chose” to eat out of dumpsters and guzzle cheap wine. Nothing I could say would illuminate the vast regions of voluntary ignorance that occupied her soul.All I could do is take a deep breath and wonder silently if I had enough money for a beer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Trickle-Up Theory (part 1)

How Banks Prey on the Poor

When I was about eight years old, I opened my first bank account. It was a passbook savings account, and I’ll never forget the smiles on the bank managers’ faces as they patiently helped me fill in all the necessary paperwork. At the time, I assumed the smiles were inspired by the cute novelty of a little boy opening his first account, but upon reflection, I realize they were smiling at me the way Dracula smiles at his next victim.
“Come hither,” they beckoned helpfully. “I think you’ve got something on your neck.”
That experience 30 years ago was my last pleasant banking transaction. Since then, my banking career has been a nightmare of hidden fees, overdraft charges, denied loan applications and collection agents. Banks refer to their victims as customers, but a customer is someone whose repeat business one is trying to earn. Banks act as if they are doing you a favor by allowing you to open an account.
I have a friend who refuses to open a bank account. He keeps his money in a cookie jar on the top shelf of his cupboard. When he gets the desire to buy something like a new computer or a stereo, he simply saves his cash in the cookie jar until there’s enough to make the purchase in question. He pays his rent in cash; he buys money orders for his utility bills and all other expenses for which cash is inappropriate.
I used to make fun of him for his lowbrow approach to finance. Many times I derisively told him of the old Lithuanians I saw while waiting in line at my bank in Chicago who would come in every Saturday to count their money. The bank tellers wore expressions of frustrated resignation as the distrustful oldsters would demand to see their money and count it. I laughed cruelly at the way the old guys never realized that it was the same $5 thousand being counted over and over.
But who’s laughing now? As I write this, my checking account is overdrawn by $149.00. Every day it’s in the red, they add another $5.00. Are they doing this to earn my repeat business?
Those old Lithuanians are right to distrust banks. And so is my friend. Here’s why:
There are several methods banks use to extract as much money from their customers as possible. I should say from their poor customers, because the true purpose of almost every bank is to serve the rich at the expense of the poor. According to the New York Times, banks received over $30 billion in overdraft fees in 2001. Rather than offering overdraft protection to the working poor at a reasonable interest rate of, say, 10 to 20 percent, depending on the customer’s credit worthiness and length of employment, banks instead agree to cover bounced checks and debit card transactions and charge a fee of $20.00 to $35.00 for each overdraft. That means the $2.00 cup of coffee you purchase using your debit card two days before payday could end up costing you $37.00 or more. In effect, the bank is offering you a loan at an interest rate of around 190 percent. If you tack on the $5.00 or more per day many banks charge overdrawn accounts, the percentage rate climbs to over one thousand percent. That had better be one damn good cup of coffee.
But that’s not all. Most banks use many shady tricks to maximize the possibility of your being overdrawn. Here’s one little trick banks use to exploit their working class clientele:
Let’s say you have written several checks this week. The first check was for $650 for your rent or mortgage payment. The second check was for $45 for your phone bill. The next two checks were for around $20 apiece for gas and electric service. Then another one for around $40 or $50 for groceries. Then, throughout the week, you wrote three or four more checks for between $5 and $10 apiece for lunch. On top of that, you stopped for coffee a couple times on your way to work and wrote checks for around $2 each time. Throw in a pack of smokes or a six-pack of beer here and there and by payday, you’ve overdrawn your account by $15 or $20. Well, rather than debiting all the small checks first and then charging the $35 overdraft fee for the $650 rent payment, they debit the largest checks first so that they can charge the $35 overdraft fee several times over on all the little checks. Don’t believe me? Check your bank statement at the end of the month.
What’s more, most banks increase the overdraft charge if you’ve had more than a certain number of overdrafts in a given period of time. If you’re like me, the first pay period of the month can be difficult because rent and most utility bills are due by the 5th of the month. The obvious solution is to apply for overdraft protection. Overdraft protection provides the customer with a line of credit that kicks in automatically when expenditures exceed the amount of money in the customer’s account. The loan is paid back usually at an interest rate similar to that of most credit cards.
Unfortunately, the bank customers who need this service the worst – ones who find themselves in the red about once per month – are the ones least likely to be approved for such protection because they are considered bad credit risks. Paradoxically, one of the things the bank looks at in considering customers for overdraft protection is how many overdrafts the customer has had within the last 18 months or so. When my application for overdraft protection was denied for this very reason, I decided to create my own overdraft protection. My current financial tormenter, U.S. Bank, offers a service called a “goal savings account.” This service automatically transfers a certain amount of money – in my case, $25 – from my checking account into my savings account once per month. Since they would not approve me for overdraft protection, I asked them if they would set up my accounts such that if I overdrew my checking account, the needed sum would be transferred automatically from my “goal savings account.” They gladly agreed. What they failed to mention, however, is that each time such a transfer occurs, my account is charged $5. So, if I have $2 in my checking account and I write a check for $5, it will cost me $5 to transfer $3 from my “goal savings account” to my checking account. Their failure to notify me of the $5 charge resulted in both my accounts being overdrawn.
In effect, U.S. Bank – like all banks I’ve encountered – is like a shark, no wait, a vulture, pouncing on the animal in distress and regurgitating the digested flesh into the waiting mouths of the rich who sit uselessly squawking in the nest. Or something like that.
When you take all this into consideration, the word “customer” takes on tragicomic dimensions. What if a tailor treated his customers the way banks treat theirs? If he knew you were poor, he would sew the buttons onto your shirts in a way that guaranteed they would pop off the second or third washing and then charge you to replace them and increase the replacement charge by 10 percent every fifth button. He would simultaneously do exquisite work for his rich customers while giving them deep discounts and free alterations and repairs. Plus, he would be rude and dismissive every time you entered his shop. Come to think of it, this is precisely what tailors do, only they’re not tailors any more, they’re The Gap.
To add insult to injury, the advertising campaigns for most banks are patently dishonest. TCF Bank in Minnesota claims in their ads to offer “totally free checking,” while First Bank in Kansas tells its customers to “relax…you deserve consideration.” This advertising approach gives prospective customers the false impression that if, like roughly 3 million Americans, they are living paycheck to paycheck and find themselves in financial difficulty from time to time, they can count on the bank to help them out. This is a reasonable assumption. Why else, after all, would someone choose to keep his or her money in a bank?
There are three reasons that I can think of. First, banks are insured. If the bank is robbed or destroyed in a fire or tornado or some such calamity, the customers’ money remains safe and sound, whereas if my friend’s cookie jar is stolen or destroyed, he’s shit outta luck. Second, customers can earn interest on their deposit, albeit a tiny percentage. The third and most compelling reason someone might want to keep his or her money in a bank is Purchasing Power. If, like many Americans, you find yourself a little light towards the end of the pay period, you can simply “relax” because “you deserve consideration.” This relaxation, though, comes at a very high price. And the poorer you are, the higher the price.
Another scheme employed by many banks is a system of bizarre and constantly changing rules regarding when deposits and account transfers are posted. If, for instance, you make the deposit in person at a teller, it posts at one time, but if you make the deposit at an ATM, it posts at a different time. Many banks offer a 24-hour telephone line that customers can call to check their account balance, but this, too, is a ruse. On more than one occasion, I have called the number and made a purchase based on the balance information provided only to incur an overdraft charge because some previous purchase or debit was not yet reflected in the amount stated.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines customer simply as “one who buys goods or services,” but the American banking system has its own definition: “One who pays a lot for services, but receives only punishment.”

There is a tiny ray of hope, however, for the working poor who prefer not to keep their money in a cookie jar. It’s called the Credit Union.
Credit Unions are non-profit (if there is such a thing) banking institutions that, for the most part, act in the best interests of their customers. The idea behind credit unions is that, as with all unions, individuals obtain more power and autonomy when they work together.
The first credit unions were closely associated with labor unions. Teachers or plumbers or carpenters or journalists would pool their financial resources to provide low interest loans to the union’s neediest members, thereby providing assistance to working families who had been forsaken by traditional banks. The problem was that in order for credit unions to retain their non-profit, tax-exempt status, membership was required to be restricted to particular groups, such as trade unions or farmers or very small geographical areas such as townships or counties.
The Credit Union Membership Act of 1998 changed all that. This act allowed credit unions to significantly expand their eligibility without endangering their non-profit, tax exempt status. As a result, credit union membership has grown from about 64 million members in 1992 to almost 83 million members in 2002. And according to the Christian Science Monitor, Credit union-issued loans increased from a 16.1 percent share of the national market in 1992 to 17.1 percent in 2002.
Of course, traditional banks are pissed off about this development. And why shouldn’t they be? The $30 billion-per-year overdraft cash cow upon which they’ve been feeding is walking out the door.
“Once, members of a credit union knew each other and pooled their resources to provide credit for their co-workers and neighbors,” laments the American Banking Association web site. Today, the diatribe continues, credit unions can serve entire states. “Despite this departure from their original mission, these credit unions continue to be afforded special treatment, including exemption from federal taxation and from the regulatory responsibilities that apply to commercial banks.”
Well, boo hoo. Congress has acted on behalf of its constituents, for a change. Whatever will those poor, mistreated banks do now? I guess they’ll just have to take their $30 billion bat and ball and go home. When will these insouciant greed heads ever learn? Had they treated their working class customers with respect when they had the chance, they wouldn’t be witnessing this exodus into credit unions today.
But this doesn’t mean things are all peaches and cream for working class Americans. Credit unions still require a credit application to qualify for loans and overdraft protection, and with many such customers emerging bruised and battered from commercial banking’s rapaciousness, credit histories unfairly reflect poor ratings.
to be coninued

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Why are christians so fucking dumb?

Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone -- that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized -- though I should not like to be put to giving names -- but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.
Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer -- that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds of the air.
On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man's possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.

--H.L. Mencken, Homo Neanderthalensis, June 29, 1925

Wine into water? The parting of the Red Sea? A virgin giving birth? These are events that only a school child could believe in – and a stupid one at that – and yet millions of educated adults continue to harbor these and other ridiculous beliefs. Here’s the news, folks: THIS SHIT NEVER HAPPENED! It’s an unholy hoax designed to keep you in your place. Don’t you know that?
The enormity, the boundless immensity, the incomprehensibly colossal stupidity that is christianity’s defining characteristic is almost too vast for the mortal mind to grasp. How ironic! One almost needs the intellect of an infinite being such as god (who doesn’t exist, by the way) even to come close to understanding the utterly titanic imbecility that is christianity.
Of course, this observation can be made about religion in general, but since christianity is the dominant form of superstition here in AmeriKKKa, I will limit my remarks to it for now.
There are so many examples of christianity’s incalculable damage to human progress that it is difficult to know where to start. Science? Art? Literature? Medicine? Diplomacy? Education? Christianity has left its awful mark on every school of thought and field of endeavor. Where might we be today without the constant encumbrance of christianity’s irrational dread of human development? How many lives have been wasted in misery and fear of a vengeful, man-made god?
It might be helpful to examine the origins of religion, and to more fully understand how we got to this regrettable point in human history.
When considering early humans’ relatively limited ability to explain the natural world, it is easy to see how superstitious belief systems could emerge. Thunder, lightning, rain, floods, droughts, fires, starvation, disease and privation all required some sort of explanation. How could this peaceful patch of land be ravaged by seemingly limitless torrents of water one day and consumed by insatiable infernos the next? Why is food sometimes in great abundance, but at other times as scarce as can be? What – or who – was behind the earth-rattling thunder that scared the bejeezus out of us? Or the flash of lightning that illuminated the night sky and set the trees ablaze? Or the thunderous herds that trampled everything in sight? Clearly, someone was fucking with us. Well, who the hell was it? And what did he want?
He was Thor. And Odin. And Isis. And Poseidon. And Tlaloc. And Zeus. And Shiva. And he wanted temples and shrines and burnt offerings and human sacrifices and crazy dances…
And he wanted followers. Lots of obedient, bovine followers, some of whom possessed just enough moxy to lead the rest of the dolts into some unnecessary battle or pointless, demeaning servitude.
How did the majority of humanity come to embrace this folly? I’ll tell you. But if you would simply put down the bible and pick up a fucking textbook, you’d know it already. Here’s the answer. Are you ready? Here it comes. Ready?
That’s right, the frontal lobe. How many of you rubes even know what that is? The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain that allows conceptualization. I know, I know. That’s a big word. Sorry about that. Conceptualization is the ability to picture oneself in other places or situations. In prison, say, or at war, or in old age, or in poverty, or in luxury.
Or dead.
That’s the big one. Death. We can’t seem to cope with the fact that all this struggle is meaningless. Hunger, pain, sorrow, loss, landlords, bosses, cops, lawyers, plea bargains, elections, plane crashes, earthquakes, tornadoes, disease – none of it means a goddamn thing. Life is meaningless. You’re born, you struggle, you die. That’s it. You have no purpose. Your only purpose is to survive long enough to reproduce, just like all the other animals. The only problem is we know it. The “lower” animals don’t know it because they don’t have the frontal lobe, or at least not much of one. They live in the present. If they get hungry, they look for food. If they see an enemy, they fight or flee. If they see the opposite sex, they fuck. The end. Simple, right? Right. That’s why they’re so much happier than we are. They aren’t consumed with the thought of their own impending doom. They aren’t burdened by the foolish notion that life means something; that some punishment or reward awaits them upon their departure from this mortal coil.
So where did this newfangled frontal lobe come from, anyway? That’s simple. It came from the same place that giraffes’ long necks came from. Or kangaroos’ pouches. Or wasps’ stingers. It was a fluke of evolution. When a species starts dying off, the hitherto recessive genes become dominant in a desperate effort to keep the species alive. If the new thing works – that is, if it enables the mutant giraffe, for example, to find food and reproduce, then the new thing becomes de rigueur. It becomes necessary for survival, and the short-necked giraffes die off.
With humans, the evolutionary fluke that spared us from extinction was the frontal lobe. Think about it. We’re not fast. We’re not strong. And from a design perspective, our bodies have many flaws. Our genitals and internal organs are exposed to attack. We suffer from foot, ankle, knee, hip and back problems due to the uneven distribution of our weight. Our relatively hairless skin provides little warmth. The one thing that allows us to overcome all these deficits is our cleverness. We can fashion tools and weapons, form spoken and written language, harness the forces of nature, build shelters and domesticate animals. We can even find ways to minimize and remedy the aforementioned bodily flaws.
Unfortunately, our gift is also our curse.
Not all concepts emanating from the frontal lobe are helpful. And humans everywhere have shown an inability to relinquish poor concepts even after they have been proven harmful or ill conceived. The evolutionary fluke that gave humans the Cassini space probe, the polio vaccine and the Great Gatsby has also burdened us with bigotry, superstition and privatization. It seems that for every brilliant concept – penicillin, say, or democracy – we produce several bad ones – the hydrogen bomb, the multi-national conglomerate, the mini-van. Do you know where the word faggot comes from? A faggot is a bundle of sticks used for building fires. It’s also what for centuries was used by superstitious christians to burn homosexuals whenever there was a flood or a drought or some other natural disaster. Fortunately for homosexuals, rank and file christian dipshits often targeted Jews, blacks and “witches” instead.
Yes, of all the stupid, dangerous and pointless concepts encumbering human progress, christianity stands proudly at the top of the heap. Christianity is to thank for the notion that women and people with dark skin tones are somehow inferior to white, penis-wielding humans. Environmental destruction, too, has its roots in christianity, as do country & western music, Michael Landon TV shows and third-world sweatshops. And why must we spend ourselves into the poor house every December simply to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior?
Of course, not all christians are evil. Most of them, in fact, are actually good people. Our wisest leaders, our most brilliant scientists and artists, our most heroic defenders of justice have sprung mainly from christianity – Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu, Gregor Mendel, Galileo de Galilee to name a few. But these champions of fairness and reason emerged in spite of christianity, not because of it. Christianity’s greatest sin, in fact, is its suppression and persecution of the good people trapped within its walls. How much more could Mother Theresa have accomplished, for example, had she been allowed to provide cheap, safe birth control to the desperate citizens of Calcutta? How many bishops stood in silent complicity with South Africa’s system of apartheid before Tutu found his nuts and spoke up? How much more quickly might we have mapped the human genome had christian dogma not interfered with Gregor Mendel and other early geneticists?
And this christian hegemony continues to hinder human progress. How much have anti-abortion activists done to save the 40,000 or so American babies who die of malnutrition each year? Do they really want to save babies, or is that just politically motivated rhetoric disguised as religious conviction? As abortion clinic bombings, the Terry Schiavo melodrama and Pat Robertson’s assassination demands demonstrate, American christians are less concerned with following Jesus’ message than they are with consolidating their power at any cost, no matter how ironic this approach to (self) righteousness may appear.
The latest salvo of christian idiocy is emerging in the form of new monkey trials aimed at returning christian dogma to public school science classrooms. In Dover, Penn., eight families have sued the school district in an attempt to prevent creationism disguised as “intelligent” design from being treated as science. School boards in Kansas, New Mexico and elsewhere are facing similar debates.
These episodes raise an important question, one that christians should be asking themselves: Why is the growing body of evidence in support of natural selection so threatening to them? Could it be that they already suspect the truth – that eternal paradise is not waiting them at the end of this entire pointless struggle? After all, no one is telling them what to believe. Freedom of religion is still the law of the land. Science is simply telling us what the evidence shows. Christians’ difficulty in reconciling observable scientific evidence with their religious beliefs is just that – their difficulty. They externalize their own difficulty by making false accusations regarding the so-called effort to secularize America. America was secularized from the beginning so that the sectarian violence that had washed Europe in blood for centuries would not reach these shores.
In closing, I will give the last word to a christian, David J. Langum, the former president of the Alabama chapter of the ACLU. (Hat tip to John Scalzi):

I am a lawyer, law professor more precisely, and the immediate past President of the ACLU of Alabama. I am currently on the ACLU of Alabama Board of Directors and additionally serve on its Executive Committee. And, yes, I am a Christian.
I know of my own personal knowledge that the ACLU brings just as many lawsuits under the Free Exercise clause supporting various religious groups (including Christian churches as shown earlier in this thread) in their ability to practice their faith, as it does under the Establishment Clause attempting to prevent the overt endorsement of religion by government.
The true client of the ACLU is the Constitution of the United States. We represent specific, individual clients in order to promote constitutional rights. When we act to defend helpless individuals against oppressive government (a common scenario), I believe the ACLU acts in a truly Christian manner (although this is not intended as such, and my non-Christian colleagues on the ACLU Board would distance themselves from this). After all, Christ enjoined us to help the least among us, and often the ACLU finds itself representing the friendless and the scorned.
For myself, my beliefs are not so fragile that they require blaring public pronouncement, and especially public pronouncement by less-than-honest politicians. So what if there are no public statues or monuments to any particular religious faith? Of what value is a belief system that needs such constant reinforcement?
I also ask myself what I would feel if I were a Muslim or a Hindu, living in the United States and constantly being made to feel second-class by virtue of the religious prattle that comes out of the mouths of public officials. I would not want that for myself, and, as Christians, how can we possibly force onto others that which we would not want for ourselves?

-- David J. Langum

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Proud to be Stupid


The sign in front said, DIPPED CONE’S HALF PRICE. Dipped cone’s what, I wondered. I mean, an apostrophe indicates possession, right? In any case, I like chocolate dipped cones and I hadn’t had one in awhile, so I proceeded inside the store to get one. It was a hot day, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was only one person in line. I sidled up behind a 40-something-year-old lady and waited to order my cone.
And I waited.
And waited.
After a few minutes, I grew impatient and began to wonder what the holdup was. Was there a school bus full of children around back, and was she ordering for everyone on the bus?
But pretty soon, the nature of the delay became apparent.
You see, the misspelled sign had also lured the lady in front of me and she had come in to get a butterscotch dipped cone. (Butterscotch? Blech.) The amount with tax for her dipped cone had come to $2.26, so she gave the high school girl behind the counter three dollars and one cent, expecting three quarters in return. Unfortunately, the high school girl had already entered $3.00 as the amount tendered, and the digital readout on the cash register dutifully indicated that the proper change was seventy-four cents, not the seventy-five cents that the lady was expecting. This threw the poor girl off, and she asked for assistance from her manager, another high school girl. The second girl was thrown off by the simplicity of the dilemma; she didn’t realize that the first girl was having difficulty with the arithmetic of the transaction, and the first girl was too embarrassed to spell it out for her. The lady, of course, recognized the problem quickly and instructed the two girls as to what the correct change should be, but this only complicated matters. They had evidently been instructed by some other manager not to accept such suggestions from the customers lest they get ripped off.
Well, after several minutes of ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ and ‘you knows,’ the two girls gradually came to the realization that the lady who had been repeating the seventy-five cent figure with increasing volume wasn’t trying to rip them off, and they agreed to cough up the three quarters. By this point, her butterscotch (blech) dipped cone was melting and she appeared too irritated to enjoy it. On the positive side, the delay had allowed me enough time to assemble exactly the right change so that I would not have to endure a repeat performance of this ‘who’s on first’ routine.
Later in the day, I related this experience to a friend of mine who replied, “Oh well. What do you expect? That’s why they’re working at Dairy Queen.”
And therein lies the problem.
As a culture, we have grown so accustomed to this level of imbecility that it is no longer shocking. We have developed a whole level of employment perfectly suited to accommodate idiots. Unfortunately, we produce so many idiots that they are overflowing from the fast food and telemarketing positions for which they are suited and into regular professional positions. In my work as an office assistant for a downtown legal services company, I routinely encounter memos and e-mails that fail to recognize, for example, that “their,” “there,” and “they’re” are three entirely different words with specific applications in the English language. These memos and e-mails do not come from the janitor or the bike messengers, but from professional men and women who earn as much as 20 or 30 thousand more dollars per year than I do.
Of course, if I crinkle my nose or shake my head at these and other repeated mutilations of basic English grammar, I will be branded with the ‘bad attitude’ label. At best, I will receive the customary ‘standard of living’ wage increase at my annual performance review, despite the fact that my work is exemplary. At worst, I will be fired for a long list of easily deniable allegations that paint me as a disruptive influence on my co-workers. I know this from painful experience; it is not hypothetical.
It isn’t simply a matter of the occasional misspelling or malapropism that’s at issue here. What’s at issue is a rapid deterioration of Americans’ ability to engage in fundamental abstract reasoning, and our collective incompetence with eighth grade level grammar and arithmetic is an agonizing illustration of that deterioration.
Long gone from the American workplace is the so-called ‘war room,’ where every possible perspective on how best to proceed can be heatedly discussed by people who have a genuine interest in doing the right thing. Instead, what we now have are inspirational placards touting the importance of ‘attitude,’ which is a code word for obedience. Honest disagreement is considered a personal affront. And proof of this fact is everywhere, from our airlines to the auto industry to professional sports to NASA to the Pentagon and the White House. We have become a nation of blissfully ignorant, yet deeply suspicious Baby Hueys.
I will hold it and squeeze it and stroke its fur. No wonder Daffy Duck was always so annoyed.
The acerbic, excellence-seeking employee is as endangered as the ozone layer or the Siberian tundra. When Minneapolis’ Hiawatha light rail line was in its planning stage, some of the planners expressed concern for the traffic disruptions the line might cause on the nearby side streets. These ‘doubters’ were quickly labeled anti-light rail, and their apprehensions were peevishly dismissed. Identifying legitimate obstacles to success has become synonymous with pessimism, and identifying corruption and nepotism in the workplace has become synonymous with treason.
Just ask Bunnatine Greenhouse. She is the high-ranking civilian official with the Army Corps of Engineers who expressed concern that Halliburton’s uncontested multibillion-dollar contracts were compromising supply and rebuilding efforts in Iraq. After she voiced her concerns before Congress, she was removed from her job for alleged (but undocumented) poor performance reviews. She joins a growing list of so-called whistle blowers who have been punished for telling the truth.
FBI agents John O’Neill and Colleen Rowley, State Department official Richard Clarke, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the Diplomatic Corps; Air Force Chaplain Capt. Melinda Morton and countless other government and civilian employees have faced punishment in recent years simply for telling the truth about high level ineptitude and favoritism.
Unless we begin heeding these warnings, we are doomed to suffer a catastrophic ‘I told you so’ that will make Hurricane Katrina look like an afternoon shower.
The two girls behind the counter at Dairy Queen were polite and courteous, and that’s all that matters. An ironed shirt and an obedient demeanor are the keys to success in the American workplace. Competence, meanwhile, is left far behind.