Monday, August 28, 2017

The Line-up

In today’s Guardian (UK)* philosopher Julian Baggini discusses that “symbol of Britain’s civilised, fair, quiet way of doing things”—queueing. Queueing is so ingrained in British culture that “[t]o undermine the queueing system is to undermine the national way of life.” 

But, Baggini says, that is what is happening, as cash has made it possible to crash the lines.

In the article Baggini examines the rationale for queueing, noting that queueing “has always been much more a pragmatic means of keeping order than an ethical practice to promote fairness.” At one point in the discussion he claims,”The most egalitarian way to manage demand is by ballot.”

 The Scene: A bus stop during the morning rush hour.

“OK, everybody, the bus will be along soon, so we had better start organizing the vote.”

“Oi, who put you in charge, mate?”

“Well, I thought since I was the first here . . . But if anyone else wants to . . . No? OK, let’s get on with it. To begin with, we’ll have to know everyone’s name. Let’s start with you.”

“My name’s Les.”

“And you, young lady?”


“The fellow in the mac?” 

“Major Heath-Cowley.”


“And I’m Mrs. Hislop. And this is my friend Miss Pym.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Harris . . .”

“Mrs. Hislop. H-i-s-l-o-p!” 

“Er . . sorry. ‘Hislop.’ Got that.”

“John Biscombe.” “Amy.” “Penny.” “Bobo and him’s me mate Mick.” 

“And way in the back . . . the big fella?”

“Mohammad, Mo, for short.”

“I think that’s everybody . . .”

“What about you? What’s your name?

“Oh, yeah. I’m Nelson. So, does everybody have a pencil and a piece of paper.”

“Nah. No paper.”

“Grab that schoolboy, somebody. . . Son, would you tear a few pages from your composition book for us? Thanks. Here’s for your trouble . . . OK, now everybody write down the name of the person you think should go first and hand the ballot over here to be counted.”

“Ey. What’s that bird’s name again? Blondie, over there.”

“Sylvia, you lug.”

“Ha, ha. Here I am running the show and I don’t have . .  somebody lend me a pencil?”

“The Bus!!!!”

“Hey, wait, I don’t have all the votes. Don’t push and shove. Wait! Wait!”

“See you later, alligator.”

“Damn! I better get over there.”

“Sorry, mate, but we’re full to the gills. Catch the next one.”

“But, conductor, I was here first!”


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Entropy (Generalization, Part One)

The photograph is of a general-store-cum-luncheonette late on a hot summer’s day. Its windows stare blankly at the empty street in front of it.

Left of center of the picture are two lean, blond young men (they are in their twenties), dressed in light-colored t-shirts and shorts; they lie on their backs, reclining on sacks of potatoes. 

All is still. There are no other figures in the photograph. No other people caught in a moment of arrested movement. It is a scene of purposelessness; nothing is being done; nothing will be done. It is a picture of decay.

The photograph is in black-and-white.
It is part of an exhibition.
The exhibition is entitled “ENTROPY.”


The meaning imputed to the photograph is untrue.

I know it is untrue, because I am one of the men in the picture—the one on the left. 
I know that it is not a depiction of laziness, of purposelessness. My companion and I have just completed a stage of our trip to view the eclipse. Our bicycles and backpacks are on the left, outside the frame of the picture. 


But what I have just written is also untrue. I am not one of the lean, blond men in the picture. Yes, I had dark-blondish hair in my younger days, but I have never been lean. And, besides, I have never ridden a bicycle. 

The black-and-white photograph is not part of an exhibition entitled “ENTROPY.” The photograph and the exhibition do not exist. They were in a dream I had early this morning. The men seen in the photograph have never existed. The country store has never existed. The heat and the stillness of the air have never existed.

And the female photographer—who is left-handed—never existed.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Now

“If thou be'st born to strange sights, 
    Things invisible to see . . .”
John Donne


(Note: You may stick in “alleged” wherever you see fit.)

What follows was inspired by the heinous vehicular attack today on innocent people in Barcelona, an event similar to at least a half-dozen earlier attacks in Europe. Once again, ISIS claimed responsibility for the atrocity. 


“The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain”—so responded America’s tweeter-in-chief. But, as ABC News points out, “Trump faced criticism over the weekend for not labeling a similar attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, as terrorism.”* 

Instead of finding an equivalence in terrorism between the murderous ISIS vehicle attacks and the murderous Virginia car attack by a White Supremacist, our panoramic president claimed to see a different equivalence: that “many sides” were responsible for the violence of that day in Charlottesville.

I, myself, confess that I don’t see, as I survey the American political landscape, equivalent malignity, hatred, and terrorism on “many sides.”** 

However, I am willing to change my mind the next time a Birkenstocked tree-hugger plows his Prius into a Daughters of the Confederacy cake sale.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

They're writing songs of love

But not for me.*

How terrible it is not to be loved. The abject wretchedness and hollowness of one’s life. What is the best analogy to invoke to try to explain the misery? Perhaps the invasion of Poland by the Nazis? (Bringing in its wake the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and the construction of death camps.) 

Well, I wouldn’t go down that metaphorical path, and I trust that you wouldn’t either. But that was the image in the mind of Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a global private-equity firm. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker three years ago,** Schwarzman was at that time “worth more than ten billion dollars. You wouldn’t think he’d have much to complain about.” But he did; he was unloved by the American middle class, who were blaming his class—the wealthy—for its problems. Schwarzman’s own problem was a proposed repeal of the carried-interest tax loophole, from which, Surowiecki noted, Schwarzman personally benefits. (Raising taxes isn’t always bad in Schwarzman’s eyes, as he has in the past suggested that it might be a good idea to raise taxes on the poor so they had “skin in the game.”)

In this article, entitled “Moaning Moguls,”  Surowiecki yokes Schwarzman with venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot, (both of whom “compared populist attacks on the wealthy to the Nazis’ attacks on the Jews”). They are members of the plutocratic set who “believe that they’re a persecuted minority.” (I have just looked out my window, but I failed to see any billionaires on their hands and knees forced to clean the streets with toothbrushes.) 

“Moguls complain about their feelings,” Surowiecki concludes, “because that’s all anyone can really threaten.”

They ought to feel lucky that it’s only their feelings that are hurt. After all, they could be sent to Auschwitz.


*George and Ira Gershwin, of course.

Friday, August 4, 2017

God, Sex, and Money

“My religion? Well, my dear, I am a Millionaire. That is my religion.”

George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara


I have never been the most modest of persons, but I’ll be damned (figuratively and most likely literally) if I'm going to claim that I know God’s will. The absolute chutzpah of it. It is hubris asking for a lightning strike.

But, of course, there are other people who are celestial mind readers. Apparently, an abundance of them in the state of Michigan. There is the woman in Ypsilanti, Michigan who informs us: 

“I’m a firm believer that God sent that turkey to bring me friends.”*

And then (on a more serious note?) there is the Michigan billionaire father-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Richard DeVos, who has read the deity’s mind as clearly as the Dow Jones Industrial Average: 

“Being a capitalist is actually fulfilling the will of God in my life.”**

(I leave aside here the petty discussion about how slaves, Holocaust victims, battered wives, etc. fulfill the will of God.)


In an Atlantic article exploring “[t]he intense focus on sexuality, purity, manhood, and womanhood in certain faith communities—and its consequences,” Emma Green quotes Amy DeRogatis, an associate professor of religion at Michigan State University (it figures):
“Many American evangelicals have come to believe that good marital sex is not just ordained by God, but is healthy and leads to strong self-esteem, financial prosperity, and heightened spiritual awareness.” (Emphasis mine)***
OK. As I read it: God wants you to have (marital) sex, which will get you money. (Outside of marriage that sounds a lot like prostitution.) 


What the theological telepathists who focus on their financial bottom lines seem not to understand is the major religious point of the great 600-year-old allegorical morality play The Summoning of Everyman. In the opening speech God proclaims:

I hoped well that Everyman
In my glory should make his mansion,
And thereto I had them all elect;
But now I see, like traitors deject,
They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant,
Nor yet for their being that I them have lent;
I proffered the people great multitude of mercy,
And few there be that asketh it heartily;
They be so cumbered with worldly riches,
That needs on them I must do justice,
On Everyman living without fear.(Emphasis mine)

“The first time I ever heard the word ostentatious, someone used it about Richard DeVos”: Richard Mouw, “prominent Evangelical intellectual.”