Counterpunch, 1-15 March 2012

In the latest issue of Counterpunch, JoAnn Wypijewski tells the story of Keith Jennings, a resident of Stony Ridge, Ohio.  Mr Jennings couldn’t keep up with his house payments, so the bank owns it now.  He has responded to this by enlisting a group of local youths to seal the house off, covering it in tar and cement.  Ms Wypijewski is at pains to portray Mr Jennings and his cohorts as a thoroughly unheroic bunch.  Their lack of heroism is precisely what makes their odd little story seem urgent to her.  They stand for all the forgotten eccentrics who have, over the centuries, done odd, apparently pointless things that have made life a little bit more complicated for people in power, and have thereby helped to prepare the way for the great figures whose names we do remember.

Harry Browne asks “How Toxic is the Fog of Benevolence in Foundation Journalism”?  Mr Browne points out that, while many people express concerns about possible conflicts of interest when journalistic enterprises are parts of big businesses, very few express such concerns about journalism that is funded by philanthropic institutions.  Considering that philanthropic institutions are usually endowed and overseen by the very people who have the greatest influence over big businesses, this certainly is a strange state of affairs.  It is all the stranger in view of the fact that for-profit journalism must appeal to a broad public, while charity projects need only satisfy their funders.

Self-described “adventurer, chef, yogi, and army wife” Rachel Ortiz contributes “Faith: An Atheist Perspective.”  As a Jewish teenager in Texas, Ms Ortiz fell in with a group of very outgoing Southern Baptists.  Converting to their faith, she spent three years being happy at church and miserable at home before she started asking questions that the Southern Baptists couldn’t answer.  After a period away from church, the 16 year old Ms Ortiz went back as an observer.   She was appalled to see everyone moving at the same times and speaking in the same ways during the service.  This seemed to her a sign of “brainwashing.” She writes:

I began to notice that when children “spoke in tongues,” it sounded remarkably similar to the way their parents sounded when they spoke in tongues.  I noticed that everyone simultaneously knew when to bow their heads, when to stand, when to sit, when to clap, when to say Amen!  It was in that moment that I knew to the very core of my being that I had been, and all of them were, brainwashed.

My reaction to this was a bit complicated.  Mrs Acilius and I pay regular visits to a couple of nearby Anglican and Lutheran churches.  There, everyone simultaneously knows when to bow their heads, when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel, when to say amen.  If that’s the result of brainwashing, it’s the least subtle brainwashing imaginable. They give you a paper when you go in the door on which a full set of instructions are printed.  It isn’t subliminal recruiting, but superliminal recruiting.  So the picture Ms Ortiz painted did not immediately strike me as sinister.

On the other hand, most Sundays we can be found in a Quaker meetinghouse.  Mrs Acilius is a member of the meeting, and I am also active in it.  In traditional Quaker meetings, shared silence is communion and an explicit agenda is a sign of the secular.  The one we attend isn’t like that.  They have a bulletin with a list of Sunday morning Protestant stuff, including hymns, a sermon from the pastor, etc etc etc.  There are some moments which are not stuffed full of planned events, what Quakers call “Open Worship.”  In these moments we usually sit silently together, but occasionally someone feels compelled to speak.  These moments are usually too brief to be a meditative experience that quiets the mind.  Frankly, that’s part of the reason why we keep going back to the neighboring liturgical churches; a well-executed service there is a single experience, and has a clarifying effect similar to that which an hour of meditation in communal silence can provide.  By contrast, the brief interludes of silence in our very churchy Quaker meeting often represent interruptions in a little series of tasks that all concerned are busily keeping up with.  Even so, the meeting fits into what is often called the “Free Church” tradition of Protestantism, in which congregations value spontaneity and individualism.  Because of these values, Mrs Acilius’ fellow members grow uneasy when we remark on the amount of busy-ness that is packed into that hour.  Thinking of their reactions when we talk about how little spontaneity there is in the meeting, it is easy to understand how a Free Church Protestant could be shocked to see a group of worshipers behaving in the highly coordinated manner Ms Ortiz describes.

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May the Great Bird of the Galaxy Bless Your Planet

From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, I watched Star Trek about 4 times a week.  I’ve had occasion to watch it since, and it holds up.  It’s a good show, and an interesting specimen of 1960s liberalism.  Of course, when I see it now I also feel strong nostalgia for that period 30 years ago when I watched it regularly.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve spent a good deal of time indulging in that particular nostalgic feeling.  Webzine io9 ran a story about a Flickr photostream called “Bird of the Galaxy“* maintained by a man called Tom Redlaw.  Mr Redlaw has collected a great many photographs taken on the set of Star Trek.  This photostream consists of scans of the photographs that depict moments that did not appear on the show.  So we glimpse alternate takes, deleted scenes, images meant to be combined in double exposures, stagehands at work, structures on the soundstages, miniatures under construction, bloopers, practical jokes, et cetera.  Mr Redlaw discourages embedding of his photos, so I won’t embed them  But I will link to a few:

Here’s another set of behind the scenes Star Trek photos, including some shots very similar to ones Mr Redlaw has posted.  For example, this picture seems to have been taken a couple of  seconds before the one linked first above:

*If the phrase “Bird of the Galaxy” rings a bell, you may be thinking of “The Man Trap,” the first episode ever broadcast, in which Mr Sulu thanks Yeoman Rand for a favor by saying “May the Great Bird of the Galaxy Bless Your Planet.”

Deep in the brain

An article about brain parasites that breed in cats and spread to creatures, possibly including humans, that then become unreasonably attracted to cats appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  The article triggered vast amounts of comment around the web; I’ll just mention that it appeared at about the same time Gregory Cochran argued on his “West Hunter” blog that the likeliest biological basis for homosexuality is a brain parasite.  If this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make, you are well on your way to grasping the nature of Dr Cochran’s mission.

The late Christopher Hitchens often irritated me, though not in the way that Dr Cochran sets out to irritate people.  I read his column in The Nation for many years, and always wondered what percentage of their working day that magazine’s widely praised fact-checkers spent correcting his misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  A few always slipped through; my personal favorite was this, from his column of 22 October 2001:

There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”

I agree that it is foolish to regard the attacks of 11 September 2001 as an act of political protest, but that is not because Hitchens was right in his suspicion that their perpetrators chose the date 11 September from an obsession with the events of the seventeenth century.  A correction appeared in the following issue pointing out that the Ottoman forces actually suffered their defeat on 12 September 1683, not 11 September.  Hitchens, in his next column, dug his heels in and argued that because the battle began the previous day, he shouldn’t have to give up his point.  In defense of this apparently preposterous stance, he quoted a remark in which Hilaire Belloc put the battle on 11 September, then said that Belloc’s “awful ‘Crusader’ style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists.”

The same column in which Hitchens tried to salvage his theory that 9/11 was a reprisal for Hilaire Belloc’s prose style includes a quote from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton and Belloc were so closely associated that in their day they were often referred to as “Chesterbelloc.”  This issue of The Atlantic includes an essay by Hitchens about Chesterton, who was apparently one of his favorite authors.  I didn’t think of it in 2001, but it explains a great deal about Hitchens to think of him as a follower of Chesterton and Belloc.  Like those men, he was a prolific writer who prided himself on a fluent style, showed significant erudition in a wide range of fields, and did not particularly trouble himself about questions of fact.  Also like Chesterton and Belloc, he was an insistent and grossly unfair apologist for his religious ideas.  Chesterton and Belloc defended the Roman Catholic church by presenting every other faith tradition in an absurdly negative light; Hitchens simply added one item to their catalogue of strawmen when he set up shop as a professional atheist.  The essay in this issue raises the possibility that Hitchens imitated at least some aspects of Chesterton and Belloc’s work deliberately, as well as exhibiting an influence that stemmed from his early and long exposure to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh describes the difficulties she faces adjusting to the idea that her father, Eugene Loh, is in a long, terminal decline, and that she is his caregiver. The article’s hook is “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.”  I shouldn’t think that would require much explanation.  It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer irretrievable losses, stressful to take care of another person, and natural to resent unfamiliar responsibilities.

I suspect that everyone who has ever occupied Ms Tsing Loh’s current position has at least momentarily wondered how much nicer things would be if the other person would just hurry up and die already.  If Ms Tsing Loh had written a short story about a fictional character in her position who couldn’t shake that thought, she would have explored a facet of the human experience* that needs acknowledgement.  By choosing to forgo the distancing mechanism of fiction and write a first person account, complete with photographs of Mr Loh, she is performing an entirely different sort of speech act.  She is not only confessing to this wholly predictable, probably well-nigh universal human response; she is also confronting her father and everyone else who loves him with a demand that they discard pretenses that have become conventional because they often make life more comfortable for people in their situation.  That demand, if met, would create a new kind of social situation, one which would be “honest” in the sense that it leaves raw emotions unconcealed.  However, that very honesty is another form of role playing, in which the members of the group play roles that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, though not necessarily so in the setting of a family group that is supposed to survive for many generations.  To keep people together for that long under all the stresses that come with family life, it’s necessary to develop a shared understanding of boundaries and to define ways to renegotiate boundaries.  Without those understandings, it’s impossible to predict each others behavior, which means that it is impossible to communicate without leaving the impression that one is saying more than one intends.  If Mr Loh were to recover the ability to read, I can hardly that he would not flinch when he realized that he was the theme of sentences like “if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91 year old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me.  Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sane, sensible individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”  He might laugh, but I’m sure he would flinch.

*I’m familiar with the arguments against the phrase “the human experience”, and I still like to use it.  If you rehearse those arguments in the comments, be prepared to read long discussions of the thought of Irving Babbitt in response.

Star Pilot #7

Jules Jupiter, from Star Pilot #1

I’m glad to say that I’ve received an advance copy of Star Pilot #7, the latest installment of our favorite photocopied comic book. In this one, Jules Jupiter, super-intelligent simian who sometimes flies among the stars and sometimes acts as a roving sleuth here on earth, travels to a fictional country where a dictator has spent 30 years or more trying to erase all awareness of history from the minds of his compatriots.  Jules meets an old man who tells him of a legendary pop star from the 1970s whose music might restore freedom.  In an apparent nod to Star Wars, the old man reveals himself to be this pop star.  As in that venerable film Old Ben Kenobi resumed the name Obi Wan and took up the light sabre again after he revealed his true identity to R2D2 and company, so Julio Clemente resumes the name JuCle and takes up his electric guitar again after he has told Jules Jupiter his story.  The story reimagines this pop culture classic in a nonviolent form.  There are no explosions, no shootings, no sword fights,only music and the prospect of a negotiated settlement.  That fits with the peace-minded ethos of the previous issues, but is still a surprise in the ultra-violent world of comics.  Check Jules Jupiter’s online store to see when it will be available for purchase.  Issues 1-6 are there now, at the amazingly low price of $1 apiece.

Car Insurance vs Health Insurance

Earlier this evening, I posted a long comment on a post at Secular Right.  In the post, blogger Heather MacDonald said that she was, in principle, a supporter of the idea that the law should require people to buy health insurance.  In support of this view, she pointed out that motorists are required to buy car insurance.  My reply:

“I see little difference between mandated car insurance and mandated health insurance—in most places, having a car is virtually a necessity of life” Car insurance and health insurance have a couple of things in common. The chief of these is that both categories of products are called “insurance.” The rest of the similarities, such as the fact that the some of the same companies sell them and some of the same agencies regulate them, stem from this point of vocabulary.

The similarities between car insurance and health insurance, however, are dwarfed by the differences between them. You choose an auto dealer, choose a car, negotiate a price for that car, arrange financing for it, pay that price, buy the fuel of your choice for it, decide which routine maintenance tasks you will perform on it yourself and which you will entrust to a mechanic, choose the mechanic who will perform those tasks, and pay that mechanic for those routine tasks, all without input from your insurer. If car insurance were the same thing as health insurance, you would be dependent on the insurer to make all of these payments and all of these decisions for you. To use mandates for car insurance as an analogy to justify mandates for health insurance, then, is like saying that because lightning rods protect your house from lightning, they should also protect your garden from lightning bugs.

If the USA’s political leaders were serious about controlling the cost of health care, in fact, they would move to make health insurance more like car insurance- not by making it mandatory, but by removing the tax incentives that reward employers for redirecting money from employee’s paychecks to health insurance premiums. Under our current system, a substantial percentage of the compensation US employers pay to keep their employees on staff goes, not to them in the form of money they can spend as they see fit, but to insurers to form funds from which employees can draw only in the form of medical expenses. Therefore, when those employees become consumers of health care they have no incentive to keep the cost of their health care down. Health care providers obviously have no such incentive. Even employers and insurance companies have only a very weak incentive to keep costs down, since employers are paying premiums with money that would otherwise go to the corporate income tax or to some other tax shelter. That’s why the cost of health care has for many consecutive years grown at a rate well in excess of the general rate of inflation, something which is not true of cars, car insurance, or any of the services car insurance usually covers.

If the corporate income tax were abolished, it would be possible for health insurance to become like car insurance. Consumers could choose and pay for their own routine health care, and pay also for insurance to cover catastrophic health expenses, as consumers now buy car insurance to cover catastrophic auto expenses. Doubtless, the modern world being what it is, there would be a political demand for substantial public sector subsidies for low-income people who have need of health care. So long as these subsidies were in the form of direct transfers of money to these potential consumers, they might leave the recipients with as much incentive to negotiate for lower prices as they have when considering the purchase of other goods and services that money could gain them. Not being as far to the right (or as secular) as most people who hang around here at Secular Right, I would be eager to support a generous program of subsidies along these lines.