Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Growing Up Poor

I grew up somewhere between poor and lower middle class. Raised in a largely single parent household, by a working mom who had a high school education (maybe).  Pops was there occasionally, mainly when he had finished his drinking spree and wanted the comfort of a home and good woman. Sometimes, my mom would let him in, sometimes not. Mainly, though, he was missing in action.
So, we had a tenuous grasp on an apartment in midtown Manhattan, once having to change apartment buildings quickly, to stay one step ahead of the collection agency.  There were three kids, me being the youngest.  My sister tired of the education game, dropped out of Julia Richman high school and went to work in the same company employing my mom—it was the War, and worker bees were much in demand, even undereducated ones.  
Note that education was not a large issue, at least not a spoken one.  My mom’s folks, Scottish immigrants to the US during the late 1890's, were not educated beyond the 8th grade, and that could be a stretch. Similarly, on my dad’s side, education did not figure prominently.
But, there were no pulls away from continuing our education either. My brother was extraordinarily bright and was granted access to Stuyvesant High School in New York. My sister, through luck, charm, and good looks, hooked up with a med student attending Columbia. They were married and began their life together, a life very different from my sister’s early days.  Because Bill was so bright, he propelled himself towards college, graduating fairly young.  With him as my male role model, I went off to college, with nary a thought about how to pay for it. Happily, with loans from my sister, and working a job or two, I also managed to make it through my days at my small college in what is now Silicon Valley.
Our lives growing up poor in Manhattan provided little trauma, aside from the occasional broken arm, or other assorted street accidents—we played on the streets, and wandered all over the city, did my bro’ and me.  Will even was mugged once in Central Park, but it never stopped us from walking there with great frequency to play.
During this growing up absurd phase of our lives, never once were we hassled by the police; there were no gangs harassing us, and nobody got shot on the streets, aside from our cops and robbers games.  It was not that we were never “armed”. We made "brass knuckles" out of garbage can handles. My brother and I used to play War, and we would sometimes duel with real steak knives—I have a V scar on my hand to prove it. And we learned to make a flame thrower—turns out, if you load a water pistol with a flammable fluid (lighter fluid??) and then shoot that liquid through a lit match, you get a magnificent flame thrower—of course, we almost burned down the bathroom door, but what the hell . . . we were armed and ready.
But throughout this period, when we were forming our personalities, no one harassed us, no one told us we were thugs, or stupid. Our apartment, though modest, was not rat-infested (lots of cockroaches, though) and our plumbing worked.  My mom earned enough as a bookkeeper to pay the rent and keep us fed. We attended school every day and then played in the streets after.

We knew nobody who got shot, or otherwise assaulted/killed.  We were just modestly poor, like a lot of people during the War in New York City.

And then we went off and got educated, married, had kids and the kids got an education, and then they married and educated their kids. That’s the way it is in Middle Class White America, at least for most of us. We didn't know any Blacks growing up in New York City, and later in Rockland County. Black residents mostly lived above 125th Street and largely stayed there. If police were hassling folks north of 125th Street, we didn't know about it.

But I’m fairly sure, had we been Black and living in Harlem, our lives would have been different.  I don’t know how different, but different they would have been.  And I’m pretty sure that the people of color growing up now in the segregated sections of Baltimore live very different lives than we did as poor White folks growing up in 1930-40's Manhattan.  And I’m equally sure that those people of color have a different view of American privilege than we do.  And that many of them do know someone who has been shot and killed. And they do know about police harassment—DWB, and even Walking While Black (WWB) are real things, even if not to me.

So, as I read about the riots in Baltimore, my mind goes in two directions simultaneously. One side says, “God, why burn down your own neighborhood? How will that solve anything?”  But then my other side says, “I no longer care what you think. I’m fed up with the whole shitload called America. My life is always going to be in the toilet, so if I feel like burning something down, I will.”  That’s what can happen to folks when they feel as though they have nothing left to lose. When you lose all hope, then anarchy reigns, and anything can happen.

So, as much as I want to see rational behavior, including even peaceful protests, I need to understand that many people are beyond that point. And I am reminded of another conflict, the one that has been raging in that benighted place called the Middle East. I ask the same questions there of that conflict raging now since, at least 1947.  Why do you keep shooting rockets at Israel, when you know they will return the compliment tenfold? And the answer is, “because we no longer care.”  And Israel, why do you keep up the Settlements, and why do you level apartment buildings with all those innocents inside?  And the answer is, “because we can.”

Maybe we’re dealing with basic human nature in these awful conflicts, whether here in Baltimore, or around the world. Maybe people will continue killing one another. But I keep wondering, isn't there anyway to call a halt? Can’t we find some way to treat other people as humans, capable of hurt and love? Can’t we for God’s sake just stop what we’re doing and quit pretending that we’re better than “those other folks” just because it makes us feel bigger?  Can’t we try people???

Monday, April 27, 2015

Shit Happens

The awful act of nature that comprises the Nepal earthquake—3700 dead and counting—causes many people to question their concept of God. As usual, Christians with no brains have linked the earthquake with “paganism” and God being angry.A former Los Angeles police officer and self-styled preacher, has sparked outcry by suggesting that Nepalis should not rebuild their “pagan shrines” and instead convert to Christianity. Tony Miano, an outspoken conservative who has previously been accused of homophobia, triggered angry responses when he posted a series of messages on social media, expressing sympathy for the people struck by devastation in Nepal, but suggesting God was angry.”

And lest the thinking Christians begin imagining that they possess the only emptyheads in the universe, it clearly is not so. In India, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Sadhvi Prachi kicked up yet another controversy when she came up with her logic on the recent earthquake that devastated Nepal. Commenting the most unreasonable statement that could come at this tragic time, controversial BJP functionaries, Saksha Maharaj and Sadhvi Prachi have linked the earthquake in Nepal to Rahul Gandhi’s Kedarnath visit. Speaking to media persons in Haridwar, Sakshi Maharaj said, “Rahul Gandhi eats beef and goes to the holy shrine without purifying himself, the earthquake was bound to happen.” It may be mentioned here that the lady was in the news recently for calling the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi a British Agent.

See, every religion has its emptyheads.

Apparently, every tragedy, such as the Nepal quake, begets some idiot who has “the explanation” and it is never based on facts, reason, or science. Instead, the emptyheads of the universe almost always ascribe the event to some failing on the part of the folks affected. One could only hope that organized religion, if it won’t be helpful, then perhaps it could refrain from opening its mouth at all.  It all makes me wonder whether they would ascribe Jesus’ “problem” (that nailing to the cross thing) to some awful failing on his part—he must have committed some unspeakable act to so offend God/poppy that his nailing was ordered.

But back to Nepal. The tragedy continues to unfold, with the death count continuing to rise. Partly, the destruction is simply a result of a 7.9 quake, which is huge. By way of example, here is a quote from Wiki about that 1906 California quake: “Since the 1906 earthquake preceded by more than 30 years the development of the Richter magnitude scale, the most widely accepted estimate for the magnitude of the quake on the modern moment magnitude scale is 7.8, values from 7.7 to as high as 8.25 have been proposed The main shock epicenter occurred offshore about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the city, near Mussel Rock. Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada”.

So, we have a quake equaling the San Francisco quake, which really destroyed the city.  Is it any wonder that so much damage was done in Nepal? Kathmandu is an old city by any standard, with its history spanning some 2000 years. Many of its key buildings, especially its temples, are several hundred years old. As such, the building standards did not include any technology that might withstand such a powerful quake. So, it may even be surprising that the buildings survived at all. One assumes there are geologic explanations for why some buildings collapse, while others standing nearby remain unscathed.  But the ancient buildings are vulnerable, God’s wrath notwithstanding.  But for the newer buildings, we have less good explanations.  It seems clear, that building standards capable of withstanding powerful quakes exist, but have not been used throughout the country, including the capital, Kathmandu. For that we can blame, not God, but building contractors who wished to save money. These days, money is almost always a preferred explanation for disaster, and Nepal is no exception.  

So, we should think about the Nepali people who are currently sitting out in the open, or in tents, with little food or water, as disaster aid groups try desperately to reach them.  If you can, send some money to their aid—there are many private relief agencies now gearing up who can be contacted and would welcome your money. If not, then at least keep them in your prayers or your thoughts. And if you hear or see a religious emptyhead trying to blame these people, please tell them to shut up and go find a bank or a republican to blame.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Big Government

I was having a discussion the other day and a friend made some comment about ‘big government” when referring to some government action he didn't like. It occurs to me that we really need to think a bit more about this term, “big government”.

First, we have four levels of government in this country—town, county, state, and federal.  From having worked with all four levels (in addition to working with governments of others countries) I have concluded that there are significant variations in the relative competence displayed by each of those four levels, with the county and state being at the bottom.  But any of the four could be described as “big”, and certainly the four in combination qualify for that term.  We have a lot of government in this country. But, to be fair, we have a lot of people—pushing 320 million at this stage.  If we don’t want anarchy (Rand Paul notwithstanding) we need government at several levels.

We also need government to provide many of the services we require to exist as a civilized nation—education, roads, defense, home security (policing, et al), protecting us from commercial predators, and the many other issues that require intervention on our behalf. So, yes, we have and need a lot of government.

But the term is used often to describe some policy or rule we don’t like. And often, the folks who use the term do so by decrying the “bureaucrats” who carry out the policies of government.  In fact, most of the stuff we don’t like has been conceived by one segment of that “big government”—the elected officials at each of the four levels.  It’s even a bit mind-blowing, when I hear an elected official—generally someone at the state or federal levels, blowing off steam by yelling about “big government”.  This is a common cry now in republican circles. While trying desperately to get onto that federal titty-sucking, they yell about big government, by which they mean all the “other guys” sucking on the federal titty.

Mainly, I have come to understand that “big government” really is elected officialdom at whatever level.  It used to be that the feds—i.e., Congress—were really the target of that term. The more obnoxious the action, the more disgust accompanied the “big government” expletive.  In recent years, however, the Supreme Court—I now refer to them as “Tony and the Supremes” to denote that most corrupt justice of all time, Tony Scalia, and his “houseman” Clarence--has entered the realm of "big government". Their Citizens United ruling that gave our government over to big commerce (see the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson) has almost destroyed the concept of a true representative democracy in our country.  So, does that square with the term “big government”?  It does, in my view, but it now means something different. It means that our government is being directed by a very small group of super wealthy commercial beings, much as we might imagine the old systems of royalty. The various kings, dukes, et al were still “big government” entities, but the folks they ruled didn't have much say. It’s getting that way again and “big government” per se has very little to do with the ultimate decisions that are made.

So, we need to rethink this term and the underlying concept of “big government”.

First, “big government” has relatively little to do with the thousands of working stiffs who work every day in the various halls of government, and carry out the whims of their elected officialdom bosses.

Second, if we don’t like the results of some policy/law that has been written and voted upon by our elected officials, we need to tell them about our dislike. We do that in two ways. First, we vote and we tell them by voting the rascals out of office when we don’t like what they produce. Second, we write or call or e-mail them to tell them we don’t like what they are doing.  If we don’t speak up, or we don’t vote, we don’t get to complain.

So, maybe it’s time to retire the “big government” epithet. As I have noted in the past, our government is only as big as we agree to make it. Second, my view is that most things that grow very large become both inefficient, and often behave in stupid ways—see “big banks”, big oil companies, big airlines, big commerce in general. Remember, when banks become “too big to fail” they are also too big to exist and should be broken up. That’s when we need “big government” to intervene and break them up.  See, we often need “big government” to protect us from our own worst instincts, which include placing too much trust in “big commerce”.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Gods and Other Fantasies

I have begun thinking anew about the existence of God. When I penned my last thoughts on this subject, I admitted to not possessing any actual knowledge of the existence, or lack thereof, of a God, or Goddess. But of late, I believe we are gathering some substantial evidence for the absence of any godlike interventions, including especially with regard to the existence of humankind creatures.   I believe we can now safely assume that man was created more or less accidentally, perhaps as a result of an aberrant evolutionary mechanism.  I have been wondering for some time now, as I watch the dreadful events unfold throughout the Middle East. I mean, ISIS alone could be the key to understanding that either: a) there is no God; b) if there is a god, it is a cruel and horrid thing, certainly unworthy of any form of worshiping on the part of humankind; or, c) if there is a God, that entity surely never intervenes for good or evil in the affairs of humankind.  The constant slaughter on all sides of innocents and evildoers alike seems all the evidence we need (Bibi, please take note).
And then we have this “exceptional” land called the US of A. And as if the now routine shooting of folks whose main crime appears to be faulty taillights is not enough, this assault by state legislatures/gubernators to adopt “religious protectorates” that allow their faithful to discriminate to their hearts content against any and all folks who fail to measure up to their standards of good Christian behavior seems to seal the deal for me.
I felt badly for that pizza parlor that wanted to offend homosexuals everywhere by refusing to serve them, with the resulting furor causing them to go under.  I mean, if you can’t discriminate, what the hell good is organized religion?  But then the public furor caused the good Christian Taliban to come out of the woodwork to begin tossing money at the pizza parlor owners—nearly a cool million.  So all was well in the land again, unless that is, you’re Gay, or Lesbian, or transgender. I assume, one could postulate a religious belief that suggests one should discriminate against any class. Let’s see, can I claim a religious belief that allows me to refuse to serve Mormons, because of their (prior??) belief in multiple spouses?  Or perhaps, I can discriminate against all those folks who don’t eat meat on Fridays?? Remember that fun game?? Or, obviously, if I am a good Christian follower, I might well refuse to serve Muslims. Maybe, I can refuse to serve anyone who wears a beard, or wears a turban, or sports a tattoo. Or how about Scientologists? Surely it's ok to discriminate against the terminally stupid.
See, it’s always a religious belief that allows one to act like a dickhead.  Which means to me that perhaps organized religion is the problem.  And maybe that means that God is either not paying attention, or doesn't exist after all. Just a thought folks.

Let’s see if we can pass some legislation that outlaws organized religion of any kind. If you’re going to be kind, and act morally, just do it. You don’t need to cite a religious clause in some ancient novel penned by ignorant white guys seeking power over their fellow man. Just do it. Act like decent human beings. Help your fellow man, instead of bombing him.
Oh, and if there is a God, my money is on that creature(s) being a woman.  So act accordingly.