Orbiting Dicta

Category Archives: Culture and Society


How to Paralyze the Government, Hurt the Poor, and Injure the US Abroad

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A Tale of Two Citizens

The past week was memorable for any number of reasons, not least of all the deepening of the Anglo-Irish bank scandal that inaugurated Ireland’s economic freefall and all but bankrupted the country. (Note: the Irish economy just slipped back into recession.)  In Italy, the multi-millionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of low crimes and misdemeanors (again) and sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from ever holding public office again.  An appeal is in the works and it is widely believed that given his age and Italy’s legal eccentricities, he will probably never spend a night in prison.  His media empire is vast, and hundreds of thousands of Italian voters routinely vote for him.

On a far more global scale, the world is now gathered, metaphorically, at the bedside of Nelson Mandela, “Madiba,” the 94-year-old ex-president and champion of human and civil rights who spent 27 years in prison for his campaign against apartheid in South Africa.  He is not expected to survive for very long, though he has managed several times to outflank the lung infections he acquired so long ago during his awful 20-year imprisonment on Robben Island and in two other prisons.

Mandela is regarded as an icon of integrity and human values, one of the great revolutionary figures of the twentieth century whose place in history is secure alongside other champions of human rights and dignity.  He has no great wealth, no media empire, no pocketed politicians growing rich off his patronage.

The contrast between two former heads of state could hardly be sharper.  The great mystery remains, however: can money and power earn a morally dubious, conniving prevaricator anything more than a minor footnote in history compared to Madiba?  It would hardly seem likely, but it’s a funny old world.

The Triumph of Capitalism

Ireland is calming down, which is not a bad thing given the return of blustery summer weather.  The G8 meeting near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, garnered a huge amount of attention early  this week as leaders from the richest nations on earth gathered to talk to one another. Whether anything comes of it is a different matter entirely.  There were many street protests, but no violence to speak of.  Security was tight, of course.

Down here in the Republic, the Obamas came, saw, and conquered the media and charmed all but the most jaundiced reporters.  They are now gone, leaving behind a nice warm feeling for the most part, although Malia and Sasha looked fairly bored at Glendalough, at least until the midges descended on them.  The Kennedys have also come and mostly gone from New Ross, where the new visitors’ center was very ceremoniously inaugurated yesterday.  Quite a lot of Kennedys (and Fitzgeralds) still belong there, and the welcome extended to Caroline,  her children, Jean Kennedy Smith, and their relatives to commemorate JFK’s visit exactly 50 years ago was warm and genuine.  A flame from the memorial graveside in Washington was flown over especially for the occasion and will burn in perpetuity at the New Ross center.

The Kennedy Celebration (and the Edward Snowden affair) tended to eclipse the earlier discussions at Enniskillen, which history will probably notice more carefully.  Those took place in the midst of a number of unsettling revelations about tax havens and corporate evasions involving some of the largest conglomerates on the planet, especially good guys like Google and Amazon, which are so dear to consumers’ hearts everywhere.

Collectively, it is estimated that these companies, along with Apple, Starbucks, and many other multinational corporations, have avoided paying corporate taxes in their home countries by employing a series of dodges engineered by lawyers, accountants, and politicians to the tune of  something like 3 trillion dollars.  With the global economy in tatters and Europe struggling hard to hold a severe recession at bay, this is not an insignificant sum, being equivalent to one-fourth of the US national debt among other things.  And things seemed to be going so well just five years ago.

But the rot had long set in, as “First World” bankers, government ministers, and regulators looked the other way while dodgy deals and criminally reprehensible policies undermined the world’s financial health and further enriched the already rich.  Strikingly, very few of the perps have seen anything like effective investigation much less prosecution.  Too big to jail, as they say…  One might think that Bernie Madoff was the evil genius behind it all. Or Martha Stewart…

Although comprising only one-seventh of the world’s population, the eight countries constituting the G8 control half the world’s wealth.  There seems to be something wrong with this picture.  Granted, the emergence of the G20 in 2008 tended to balance the situation somewhat. It is worth noting, however, that only one African nation — South Africa — is included among the gaggle of finance ministers and bank governors.  But all told, these countries represent two-thirds of the world population and account for about 80% of the gross world product.  However the wealth is  actually not in the hands of the politicians who govern even the eight richest and most powerful nations, or the twelve more that make up the G20, or even the bankers themselves, but rather in the multinational corporations that generate — and, it seems, hoard that wealth.

As I ruminated over the emergence of the new economic order, I was reminded (again!) of some lines from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for Network, the brilliant (and prophetic) film of 1976, which was named one of the ten best scripts of all time by the Writers Guild of America.  In a climactic scene, the newscaster Howard Beale is being lectured by Arthur Jensen, the network boss, who asserts that “There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.”

Times have changed, of course.  Apple, Microsoft, and Google have climbed to the pinnacle of the heap, and it is curiously relevant that the richest man in the world, the media baron Carlos Slim, lives in Mexico.

In any case, Jensen continues, You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars.”

Yes indeed.  And quite a lot of them seem to be stashed away in tax shelters. And we wonder why there is unrest in the streets of Enniskillen?  Or, rather, why there isn’t more.  Or even in Brazil, where it seems that a Great Awakening may be underway.  And Brazil is one of the G20.  This could get interesting.

May Madness?

There is a proverb attributed to Joseph Addison, the seventeenth-century English writer, which claims that “He who hesitates is lost.” Or in my case, “almost lost.”  As I began to compose a column about several current events some weeks ago, I hesitated only to find that the situations changed so rapidly that saying anything seemed either premature or inaccurate.  Take for example the Syrian sarin gas discovery that got Senator McCain’s knickers so mightily a-twist that he was ready to declare war all by himself if necessary.  Then the UN reported that the poison gas was likely used by the insurgents that Senator McCain and many others support and devoutly wish to arm.  (Now it has turned out that it was most likely the Assad government who done it after all.  Apparently.  Someone did.)  That President Obama hesitated before throwing his weight behind military intervention did not strike me as timidity so much as prudence.  Then Britain and France said it was OK to arm the rebels. Senator McCain showed up just across the Syrian border this week just to make sure that the good guys were still good guys.  The Russians plainly aren’t, but if the lessons of Iraq mean anything, toppling a dictator and installing a “government” of a fragmented, divisive, hostile, and sometimes murderously partisan pack of rebels is not a recipe for success.  (Iraq is another story: read it and weep.)

The home scene is hardly better in some respects.  Like a dog with a bone, congresspersons will not let the Benghazi attack (among other things) recede into the past, but are digging frantically to uncover a cover-up.  After all, didn’t the White House first claim that the attack was part of a series of incendiary assaults, prompted by a scurrilous anti-Islamic film, that had just erupted in Cairo, Tripoli, and other hotspots?  Our Intelligence Services were admittedly caught flatfooted by a concatenation of strangely unrelated events, but somehow sensing a conspiracy in the rapid-fire clarifications seems far-fetched, to say the least.  But with a House of Representatives intent on stymying or even crippling the executive branch, or at the very least embarrassing and discrediting it, perhaps that, like the IRS “scandal,” is about what we should expect.  All that is lacking is a call for Ken Starr to return.  Whitewater has not been forgotten.

Years back, one of my political science professors claimed that “politics is the art of the possible.”  Not anymore.  It appears increasingly that politics as practiced in the US is the art of partisan oneupsmanship.  For instance, since the economy seems to be recovering rapidly, there has to be something that the Opposition can use to attack and if possible cripple the Administration.  If one can’t be found, invent it. Take, for instance, the IRS turmoil.

Before and during the campaign season of 2012, there was a major flurry of applications — hundreds and hundreds of them, from groups applying for 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status even though many even bannered the storied term “party” in their titles.  As the New York Times reporters and other heartless commentators pointed out, there is a great advantage to securing such recognition: such groups would not have to disclose their donor lists.

Not that such groups would ever engage in political activity.  Of course not.  I seem to have had the mistaken idea that the “party” part of “Tea Party” meant “political party,” since they run and support candidates, host rallies, lobby politicians in Washington, throw mud, etc.  But perhaps they just sit around in straight-backed chairs and read the Bill of Rights over a cup or two of Earl Grey.  Patriots do that, they say.  But when the IRS began to investigate the deluge of applications, red flags began to appear on the field of play.  Cries of persecution were heard in the land and for all I know it might even be the case. How many left-wing groups using the terms “Tea Party” and “patriot” were investigated?  It’s a fair question.  No one likes the IRS, after all.  (Who was it who said “The power to tax involves the power to destroy”?) But, it might be asked, weren’t these mild-mannered bureaucrats doing what they were supposed to be doing in their stifling little cubicles in Cincinnati?  That is, making sure that groups applying for tax-exempt status were not in fact using the 501 (c) (4) appellation as a dodge to hide their donor lists?

In mid-April, first came the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by the pursuit and capture of the bombers.  Then the little town of West, Texas was scorched when a fertilizer factory blew up, again captivating public attention for a while.  Was it terrorism?  Revenge?  A White House cover-up?  Does anyone remember?

Meanwhile, as a host of  Congresspeople went into apoplexy over Benghazi and the IRS conspiracy, the viewing public (at least) was mesmerized by the dramatic events surrounding the Cleveland kidnapping case.  By then, the previous cause for panic in the streets of April, bellicose North Korean posturing, had faded from our national media radar, although Kim Jong Un and his generals are still shooting off big rockets and making mean faces at the West.  Austin, TX, seems to be safe from thermonuclear destruction for the time being, I’m happy to say.  (I’m still not sure what Kim has against Austin.  Dallas maybe or even Houston.  But Austin?  Where is Dennis Rodman when we need him?)

Soon weather matters again pushed everything aside for a couple of weeks, from the aftermath of October’s Hurricane Sandy to recent California wildfires, and weeks of unseasonal snow storms, hailstorms, and rain.  A barrage of violent tornadoes, ice storms, wildfires, and flash floods arrested our notice, punctuated by reports from the seemingly endless Jodi Arias murder trial in Phoenix (and briefly, the reappearance of O. J. Simpson in court).  Trains derailed and bridges collapsed.  Parts of jetliners fell off and crashed into peoples’ houses. High school kids plotted to blow up their schools and pretty nearly did.  Ricin-contaminated letters were sent to politicians in Washington and now New York.

As bridges fall, trains collide, and roads crack, the stalemate in Washington seems likely to last right up to the summer recess.  Is it just spring fever or is something going seriously wrong — everywhere?  Or is it just the ever-vigilant coverage of the media, social and otherwise, that makes it appear so?

By the way, the proverb about taxation was coined by that old firebrand, Chief Justice John Marshall, way back in 1819.

Seven Days in April

It began with certain sadness in the wake of the heroic death of Anne Smedinghoff, the young State Department representative killed in Afghanistan on April 6th delivering books to school children.  She grew up not far from here and graduated from Fenwick, our Dominican high school in Oak Park.  Her funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, April 17th – the same day as that of Margaret Thatcher in England.  I was preparing to write about the telling contrast between these two women when the Boston Marathon erupted in terrible violence.  As the nation was gripped by horror and bewilderment, a fertilizer factory exploded massively in West, Texas.

As the week drew on, tornadoes, sink holes, freakish weather patterns, wildfires, local floods, bomb attacks in Iraq, Afghan woes, devastating earthquakes in Iran and China, and even North Korean machinations faded from our screens and minds as American eyes focused almost exclusively on the tragic events in Boston.  That focus shifted to the incomparable manhunt for the bombers, their capture, and now the hunt for explanations and the beginning of the political posturing as the blame game revs up in Congress.  It was like a movie.  Too like a movie.

Today, Sunday, the worn and sometimes ragged white ribbons that decorated almost every tree in River Forest, Anne Smedinghoff’s neighborhood, still flutter in the chill April air.  In England, attention has shifted from the Thatcher funeral to the London Marathon.  But the contrast between the two women remains fixed in my mind.

I did not know Anne Smedinghoff, nor did I ever meet Margaret Thatcher.  But I lived in England during her long and, from my perspective, largely disastrous tenure as prime minister.  I was there the night she was elected and in 1990 I was there the day she was dumped by her party in favor of John Major.  Smedinghoff’s brief life was devoted to promoting peace through diplomacy — a dangerous mission in an explosive part of the world. (She had previously served in Caracas, Venezuela, and volunteered for the mission in Afghanistan.)   Thatcher set out to remake England, and largely succeeded.  She broke the trade unions, bled the middle class, ended England’s long history as a major manufacturing nation, and spoiled the educational system.  So dire were the funding and administrative “reforms” she rammed through Parliament that in 1985 her alma mater, Oxford University, refused to grant her an honorary doctorate — a courtesy ordinarily extended to prime ministers who had studied there. It would not be wide of the mark to say that the English educational system is still a mess after all these years.

But Thatcher succeeded in executing a sharp right turn in English politics, converting even leaders of the Labour Party to the kind of fiscal and social entrepreneurship she favored.  Once Gordon Brown was out of the way, the subsequent Blair years were very much like the Thatcher-Major years.  And to David Cameron and the Tories, Thatcher achieved the status of a national heroine.  Their suspicions of the European Union, and refusal to enter the common currency, remains part of the Iron Lady’s legacy.

To be sure, Thatcher was a resolute and forceful politician.  She stood up to IRA terrorists, but also harmfully delayed the peace process in Northern Ireland.  Discarding diplomatic means, in 1982 she waged a successful and bloody if mercifully brief war against Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, an English colony just off the coast of South America.  And in tether with Ronald Reagan, she maneuvered Mikhail Gorbachev toward a nuclear stand-down that contributed weightily to the fall of the Soviet Union.  Credit earned, without doubt.

After the fall, Thatcher was for a season the subject of a brilliant television sitcom called “Dun Rulin’” that detailed in high comedic fashion her imagined return to ordinary life in an English suburb. In real life, in 1992 Thatcher, who once sternly indicted the tobacco industry when she was prime minister, took on a million-dollar contract with Philip Morris to help hawk low-grade cigarettes to third world countries, resist taxing tobacco, and oppose anti-smoking legislation.  That might be overlooked, but it seems consistent with her Ayn Rand-like ethics.  Philip Morris expressed its satisfaction by celebrating her 70th birthday in Washington, D.C., with a million-dollar party.

Anne Smedinghoff died delivering books to impoverished school kids in Afghanistan.  She had a modest if well-attended funeral by comparison.  St. Luke’s lacked the pomp and circumstance and glorious music of the ten million-dollar funeral at St. Paul’s in London.  But she was commended by the Secretary of State, the President of the United States, the Governor of Illinois, and thousands of citizens who still believe that a better world will ultimately be achieved, not by might nor by power, much less money, but by the works of peace, by the Spirit of a loving God (Zechariah 4:6).

Shooters

The four Americans who expected a constructive, reasonable, and compassionate response to the Sandy Hook tragedy from the National Rifle Association (AKA the NRA), must have been cruelly disappointed.  I doubt that anyone else was much surprised by today’s official statement, although many may have been appalled at the sustained detachment from reality that it displayed for all the world to consider.  And much of  it did so, by the way, in dismay.

The only way to stop bad guys from using guns against the peaceful and vulnerable is not more guns, but fewer guns.  Keeping them out of the hands of bad guys is a good place to start.  Especially keeping high-capacity assault rifles out of the hands not only of the bad guys but also the mentally or emotionally unbalanced guys.  Or even sadly mistaken guys who misidentify their children as burglars.  Placing armed guards in kindergarten classrooms smacks of the bleakest of dystopian science-fiction scenarios.

It might be worth considering that not only are the good guys with guns called police officers, of whom there are already not nearly enough to patrol malls, post offices, factories, and mass transit stations and carriages, but these same good guys want to get guns off the street.  Listen to the police chiefs, NRA guys.  Listen to the medical professionals.  Listen to the mayors of our major cities.

At the end of this day especially, it is clearer than ever.  Once again, the NRA has shown itself to be in the running for Public Enemy Number One.

12-12-12

The election campaigns are over and the voting done.  We are back where we started, pretty much, about 6 billion dollars later.  Washington seems paralyzed by Party bickering.  At least the Israelis and Palestinians are not lobbing missiles at each other for the time being.  The long Black Friday and Cyber Monday (with antecedents and consequents) are pretty much behind us.  Most Americans have all but forgotten about Sandy and the worst storm damage since Hurricane Katrina and the worst ever to visit the east coast.  A strange quiet seems to have fallen over the earth (save for unrest in Egypt, Syria, and large parts of Africa).  Winter is slowly approaching and the beautiful season of Advent , once precious to Christians as a time of waiting and expectation, is half over. It now seems more like the last chance for the forces of capitalism and merchandising canniness to convince the general public to buy everything that can be shoved onto a store shelf or fill our daily email folders with promises of free shipping.

The pope has released his volume on the birth of Jesus.  CNN was all a-twitter last week.  It seems that His Holiness believes that the ox and the donkey are additions, and the date is wrong, and the angels didn’t sing anything, they just said the words, like a click tape for a rock star concert.  (But as my grandpa would say, “Vere you der, Charlie?”)  Still, it’s refreshing to note that the pope is up to about 1965 with his biblical research…

As I would tell my class, how would anyone know there weren’t an ox and an ass present?  It’s just as likely that they were.  They’re the kind of animals one would expect in a stable, especially that stable if one had read Isaiah 1:3.  I’m less confident about the collie dog that the shepherds brought along according to the plaster figure set I bought piece by humble piece over the years back in New Mexico when I was 10 (and 11 and 12).  But everybody knows that angels sing.  Especially in choirs.   (Actually, I’m surprised that the pope conceded that there were angels (in the sky?) at all: most savvy scholars think they are textual add-ons to drive the messianic point home.  Very imaginative, those old Jews.)

It may even snow….

Irish Women Athletes

In Brian Boyd’s review article in the August 11 weekend Irish Times, “An Olympic Suffragette: ‘I was seen to be off gallivanting in a foreign land,’” the following letter to the editor from 1956 denouncing the participation of Maeve Kyle was included:

Dublin.
Irish Team For Olympics
Sir —     Last week the   Olympic Council met to select a team to compete in the Olympic games, at Melbourne next month.
When I read down the selected list of competitors I found it contained the name of a woman – a married woman.  I deplore it.
A sports field (or arena) is no place for a woman, and certainly not a “Mrs.” It is most unbecoming, unseemly, and degrading of womenfolk. It must not be countenanced on any grounds.
Pope Pius XI, emphasing [sic] the rules for separation of the sexes which the law of nature and Christian prudence demand, has declared:
“These rules must be observed also in athletics and gymnastic exercises, where special precaution must be taken in regard to Christian modesty in the case of girls, in as much as it is extremely unbecoming for them to display themselves before the public gaze.”  Encyclical Letter, Divini Illius Magistri [1939].”                                                                       Vox Populi

Well, Katie Taylor, you’ve come a long way. What I found most interesting was the proximity of the old Catholic position to that of the Saudis, Afghanis, and some Pakistani Muslims, all of which countries nevertheless had young women competing in London this year, some for the first time. How easily we forget….

Torch Song

The opening of the Olympic Games serves as probable proof that sport is the de facto religion of the modern western world.  It has it all — pageantry, cult, a powerful priesthood, costumery, processions, hymns, acolytes, and an official mythology, not to mention power, money, and corruption.  It’s enough the make a Renaissance pope envious.  The opening (and closing) ceremonies at Beijing four years ago were a truly amazing spectacle and London promises to do its best to keep the pace up.  On Friday morning, bells tolled throughout the land, millions of people began the trek toward the various venues, and eyes throughout the world are beginning to focus on the grand inauguration.

Curiously (especially given the English venue this year) the Olympic Torch itself is a relatively modern addition. Innocuously pagan, the ignition of the torch that is relayed in various ways from Olympia, Greece to the location of the opening ceremonies, is attended by eleven women representing the “Vestal Virgins” who kept the sacred fire of the goddess Hestia perpetually burning.  Never mind that Vestal Virgins were Roman.  It’s the symbolism that counts.  The Romans were never great fans of the Games anyway, and it was a Christian Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, who brought them to an end in the late fourth century.  They were not revived until 1896.  The ceremonial flame was not introduced until 1928.  So much for ancient history.

The torch and its long relay has a more interesting history, being a thoroughly modern touch introduced by the Nazis under the beady eyes of Joseph Goebbels for the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Adolf Hitler hoped to bolster his claims for a link to ancient Greece for propaganda purposes.  When protests erupted along the route through Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, they were suppressed by “security forces.”  How times have changed.  (I’m not making this up, you know: you can read all about it on Wikipedia.)

So as the torch is finally brought to the stadium on Friday and the great cauldron is lit, pause for a moment and consider the ironies of history.  Or just call it revenge.

The Borgia Pope and the Dominican Friar

Some distortion of history may be tolerable in the case of great art.  Certainly Shakespeare did not scruple to bend fact to the requirements of immortal drama.  It remains the case that Brutus killed Caesar, not the other way around.  Truth stretches only so far.

In the case of the running TV production of The Borgias, the writers and producers frequently stretch facts beyond recognition, not least in the segments about Girolamo Savonarola, the prophetic preacher and mystic who in fact opposed Alexander VI for several years and paid for it with his life.  But almost every detail in the portrayal of Savonarola’s life and death is wrong, from his religious habit to his manner of execution.  Nor did Savonarola engage in the ordeal of fire as shown.  Challenged, not by Cardinal Borgia, but by the Florentine Franciscans, the ordeal was postponed then cancelled because of rain. It never happened.  Surely a program series that takes justifiable pride in historical verisimilitude in many respects could at least have got the Dominican habit right.

I began to realize how deeply fictionalized the account of Rodrigo Borgia’s papacy had become when Cardinal della Rovere, superbly portrayed by Colm Feore, turns to the Capuchin Franciscans in his bid to unseat the pope.  The Capuchin branch of the Franciscans would not appear for another generation after Borgia’s death.  It may be said that Jeremy Irons also plays the part of the wicked pope with Shakespearean relish.  But his trim, clever, witty even sometimes sympathetic characterization is a far cry from the grossly fat, thuggish brute who bought his way into the papacy and ruled with an iron fist for eleven years.  (His son Juan, by the way, was murdered a year before the execution of Savonarola.)

Anyone interested in the truth of the case could profit by a glance at one of the recent histories of Savonarola such as the two volumes by Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire (Random House) and Fire in the City (Oxford University Press).

Truth is often the first casualty in politics. When it comes to historical accuracy, the same may be said for entertainment.