Back after a long hiatus, to wish you a happy Easter.
Faithful readers of this blog, all 12 of them, may recall the 3 Weird Sisters classic, “Touchdown Jesus” Smited from several years ago, in which a monumental tacky Jesus sculpture erected by an Ohio megachurch was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
Well, several months ago that church finished their new tacky monumental statue to replace the one that burned, and I have been saving the pictures from then until today just so I could use this headline. Behold the new, and one presumes, fireproof Jesus:
Which of course reminds me of this classic from the lamentably departed Poor Man:
This, however, is my favorite picture of the resurrection of the giant tacky megachurch Jesus statue:
Easter is, I must admit, about the most impenetrable holiday for me. The meaning, for those of us raised in homes that were at most religiously apathetic, extends to bunnies, baskets of goodies, and hunting for hidden eggs; in that context, it’s a holiday you outgrow in adolescence. It becomes even more confusing when you consider the way it moves around on the calendar. Then there’s the whole thing about breaking out the white shoes, buying new outfits, and celebrating by eating ham of all things, which Jesus as a Jew would not have eaten. Maybe the message there is that after he died for our sins and was resurrected, the reward was bacon. Well, as Eddie Izzard says in the clip below, you tell me.
Alternately, because wordpress apparently no longer supports youtube videos, see it here.
Also, because what would a religious holiday be without rightwinger outraged butthurt, the culture wars have erupted all over Fox News and the nutosphere, thanks to Google’s unconscionable recognition of the day as Cesar Chavez’ birthday, 20 years after his death. The offending doodle:
On Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy (or as I call it, Tweaker) conservative alternative to Twitter, it was suggested that Google could have used a more holiday-appropriate theme, such as eggs, which of course reminded me of the Eddie Izzard bit above. As I told one complainant in blog comments elsewhere, who insisted the doodle was a “slap in the face” to Christians and claimed that from here on out, he would be using bing as his search engine…”so, what you’re telling us is that Google, a private company, only recognized your portable religious holiday with a doodle on the date in the past 14 out of 15 years, but because they skipped one year, it’s a slap in the face and you’re going to switch to using an inferior product for conducting web searches as a result? That’s a pretty weak-sauce version of getting thrown to the lions, bro.” Funny how flexible that idea of a “free market” is when the actors in it don’t mindlessly conform to the religious preferences/prejudices of the conservatives who are its most ardent defenders.
Silly me. I should know by now that Easter, like Christmas, is meant to remind us of the untold suffering and oppression the Christian majority in this country has endured as a result of the fact that not everyone believes exactly the same things they do.
In the week since the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary, we’ve heard a lot of crazy ideas (as we do in the wake of every mass shooting) about how best to protect innocent unarmed civilians from nutters with guns. Today we’ll be hearing from the NRA, whose position we already know will be that “guns don’t kill people; crazy people with guns kill people.” A true statement, but one that doesn’t solve or even suggest a solution, which would have to involve keeping the most lethal weapons out of the hands of crazy people, which is a bridge too far for the NRA.*
There’s a genuine conflict here: we do have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing people the right to own guns. Clearly we aren’t going to be able to declare all of them illegal and force people to hand all of them over. Even if we could, I don’t think I would favor it – there are millions of hunters in the country and many millions more who are responsible gun owners, who keep their weapons secure and own them only for home protection. In many cases, this is an imagined need, but nonetheless it’s one that’s not entirely unreasonable and it’s a right that goes all the way back to British common law, which makes it a bit hard to argue against from a legal standpoint.
By and large, hunters and the owners of well-secured guns kept for home protection aren’t the problem. They also aren’t the ones buying semi-automatic weapons. Let’s be honest: a semi-automatic rifle or handgun is an offensive weapon designed for military use, and as such, is not an appropriate weapon to allow anyone and everyone to own. There’s a contingent of crazy that insists that one of the things the Founders had in mind when drafting the Second Amendment was keeping citizens armed in case of the need to overthrow a tyrannical government. Again, there may be truth in this – the Founders themselves had only recently thrown off a government they considered to be tyrannical, though its offenses and predations fell far short of the tyrannies we’ve seen enacted over and over again in the modern world.
Consider the context: the Founders lived in a time where the most powerful personal weapon was a muzzle-loader, which could fire off one shot every couple of minutes, or perhaps once per minute if the guy handling it was particularly adept at re-loading. It was an age where parity in firepower was possible - a group of average citizens, all armed with muzzle-loaders, would, with the exception of cannons, be as well-armed as an organized military of the same numbers.
That parity is not possible these days and indeed hasn’t been for a century or more. It goes without saying that it wouldn’t be desirable, either. We can’t very well allow every citizen the right to own and keep any variety of weapons, including but not limited to hand grenades, shoulder-fired rocket launchers, or nuclear warheads. Those are all “arms” as well, and somehow we’re able to agree that not everyone should have them and that there are no legal uses for them outside of a battlefield.
So why the hangup when it comes to semi-automatic weapons? They aren’t used for hunting, and for home protection you don’t need something that can fire off 30 – 100 rounds per minute. In fact, while handguns are the weapons most often chosen for home protection purposes, for most people, a shotgun would be a better choice, owing to less need for accurate aim (and really, just playing a recording of a shotgun being pumped would be enough to persuade all criminals aside from psychopaths to clear the premises immediately).
Once we’ve ruled out hunting and home protection, the semi-automatic’s sole use is unavoidable: it is an offensive weapon, not intended for personal defense so much as for killing the other guy. Given that murder remains illegal, it’s insane to insist that a weapon designed solely for killing multiple human beings in a minute or less should be readily available and legal to own for an average citizen. About the only purpose I’ve heard gun enthusiasts advance for which these types of weapons might have even a borderline legitimacy is that they are “fun to shoot.” Perhaps so, but the Second Amendment isn’t concerned with your personal enjoyment of any particular weapon; as such, I’d have to say that the right of crowds of citizens to not be slaughtered greatly outweighs any “fun” an enthusiast might experience in firing one of these weapons at a shooting range or elsewhere. People who have a burning desire to handle these types of weapons have the option of joining the military; outside of that, they don’t need to be handling them.
As for those who persist in clinging to the idea that they have a “right” to own these types of weapons in the event that the evil gubmint gets too oppressive what with the seat-belts and the motorcycle helmet and the required food labeling laws and so forth, add them to the mental health registry: their belief that they could, with a semi-automatic weapon, fight off the fighter jets, targeted missiles, tanks, and other weaponry in our awesome military arsenal should the need arise, clearly marks them out as both paranoid and delusional; they are precisely the type of people who should NOT be running around with powerful, rapid-fire weapons.
Here’s the thing: the Second Amendment says you have the right to own and keep a gun. It doesn’t say what type of gun, and none of the guns in production today could have been anticipated by the Founders. If pistols were available in the late 1700′s, they had only recently come on the scene; certainly there was no gun at the time capable of firing more than one shot without being re-loaded. The Second Amendment could be interpreted as the right to own a more modernized version of the single-shot firearms available when the Amendment was drafted, and nothing else – if we had a sane majority on the Supreme Court or in our political discourse. Instead, we’ll probably spend the next weeks, months, and perhaps even years listening to ridiculous suggestions about how we can turn every public space into an armed camp to “protect” us against armed lunatics who should never have access to weapons in the first place, instead of dealing with the issue of having too many, too powerful, guns floating around. Already ruled out is the idea for a real ban on semi-automatics such as the one used in last Friday’s shooting; we are told that even a ban on future sales of these weapons would do nothing to take care of the estimated 8 million of them already in citizens’ hands. In other words, a buy-back program coupled with hefty fines for anyone caught with one after the deadline for turning them in, as was successful in Australia, is off the table. We don’t know what number of murdered children would be required in order to even begin a serious political discussion about taking this very reasonable step, but the correct answer to the question is obviously ”> 20.”
I’m not going to belabor the transparent insanity of the suggestions being put forward by those who value cold hard steel more than young children’s lives, but I will briefly recount them. First there’s the camp who believes that the answer to mass shootings is more guns. According to these fine patriots, if all of us were packing heat, some citizen-Rambo would pick off the crazy guy with the gun before the body count gets too high. Never mind that never, not even once, has an armed civilian stopped a mass shooting by taking out the gunman. There have been a few times in low-profile cases where an off-duty policeman, former Marine, or other individual with career training in handling firearms stepped in and stopped a bad guy; there are about as many similar cases in which the would-be hero either almost shot the wrong guy or determined that an innocent bystander would be at risk if he took the shot. In other words, thanks to these guys not being average civilians with guns, the gunman was stopped without harm to innocent parties. Substituting the average citizen into these scenarios, most of whom have had nothing like the extensive training of police or members of the military, the likelihood in these scenarios is that even more people would get shot in the crossfire, law enforcement arriving on scene might mistake the hero for the bad guy, and so on and so forth. That’s all true, but beside the point, which is: your right to own a weapon designed for offensive purposes does not trump MY right to not live in the Wild West or an armed camp. There’s nothing in the Second Amendment to suggest that it trumps the express goal of the overall document, which I will remind the brethren, is to:
“…insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…”
I feel that continuing to indulge the fetishes of a fringe group of maladapted, insecure and fearful people endangers or denies all of the above goals to the great majority of people in this country.
Then there are the proposals to turn schools into windowless bunkers patrolled by pistol-packing teachers and other school personnel. This one is interesting primarily because it’s being advanced by the same folks who insist teachers are a bunch of overpaid incompetent boobs – but you can count on them to handle a gun around your kids every day!
We’ve heard again how “an armed society is a polite society,” for all values of “polite” which equal “being afraid to say anything out of fear that the gun-toting Cletus at the next table in the bar might disagree.”
The final, the piece de resistance of dumbassitude, goes to one Megan McArdle, formerly of The Atlantic, now decamped to The Daily Beast (Tina Brown sure knows how to pick them, doesn’t she?), who suggested that we should teach children in this situation to rush the shooter. Because, according to Megs, it will unbalance him and throw him off if a bunch of people, even small ones, are running at him from different directions. It’s also a sneaky way of blaming the victims – in this case six- and seven-year olds – for failing to save themselves when a guy who had no business with any type of gun managed to get his hands on a very powerful – and legal – one.
That’s an awful lot of flailing FAIL to go through to arrive at the conclusion that the only thing that CAN’T be part of the problem is the gun itself, despite the fact that in these mass shootings, the gun is a tool performing the function for which it was designed, and that function is an illegal act for civilians.
We don’t have to put up with this crap. We can insist on reasonable gun laws which both protect the rights of sportsmen and people to be secure in their homes while recognizing that some weapons have no place in civilian society. We can insist on background checks for any sale or trade of arms at any venue. We can insist that gun buyers be required to register their weapons, and that they demonstrate that they’ve completed some sort of training on safe handling and keeping of firearms, in order for those weapons to be legal. We can insist on not just a ban, but a buy-back program designed to get most of the most lethal weapons out of circulation. We can insist on a law that imposes heavy fines upon people found to have those types of weapons after a specific buy-back deadline. It won’t get them all off the street, but getting 75 – 90% of them would be a good start. Sure, criminals will continue to get these types of weapons – but it’s not criminals who have been shooting up our congressional meet-and-greets, our movie theaters, our houses of worship, our malls, and our schools. Criminals use guns primarily to help them obtain money or other goods illegally – they aren’t interested in shooting little kids, or really anyone else, unless it furthers that goal. Crime is down overall, while mass shootings are up, and none of the gunmen in these cases have been hard-core criminals. If these types can’t get their weapons legally, they’re not likely to get them at all.
Finally, we can insist that the right of the majority for domestic tranquility trumps the right of a vocal minority to own a tool for which there is no constructive legal purpose.
In closing, I’ll note that I lived a full third of my life in a home that was a virtual arsenal of guns. My father was an avid collector – mostly of military-issue guns from WWI and WWII – and other military paraphernalia. He didn’t have any semi-automatics, because he was more a collector than a “mah gun gives me POWER” fetishist. I have no idea how many guns Dad had, but when they were auctioned after his death almost 20 years ago, they went for over $75,000. In short, it was a lot of guns. He wasn’t a hunter and he rarely took out any of the guns and fired them. He did occasionally target practice at a gun range or other safe location, and for a time, he headed up a group for teenagers wanting to learn target shooting. The entire time I lived in the same house with him, I never saw a gun lying around unattended. In fact, I never saw a gun unless he had it out and was in the same room with it. If I had seen one out, I already knew that I wasn’t to touch it. I learned how to shoot, but also knew I was never to have a gun in my hand unless my Dad was there and had handed it to me.
But the guns were a constant menace anyway. When we lived in Georgia, he stored his collection in an attic space that was fairly easy for him to access, and which he kept securely locked. After the move to Arkansas, he had no appropriate place in the house to store them, and so for the last 15 years of his life, they were packed away in crates that took up one end of the family room. We were instructed from a very young age to never tell anyone about Dad’s guns. They weren’t even insured, because Dad didn’t want anyone knowing about all of them. His fear was more about robbery than government. So I grew up surrounded by an arsenal, which didn’t make me feel any safer; we were far more likely to be murdered by gun thieves than by anything else.
After Dad died, the guns worried me even more, because now my Mom was alone in the house with a commodity eagerly sought-after by criminals. She contacted an auctioneer with some expertise in weapons, and within a year of my Dad’s death, the collection was auctioned off in Illinois. It provided a great sense of relief to all of us.
Just a few years after my Dad’s death, a gun collector in a town about 40 miles away went missing with his wife and young daughter at the same time his gun collection went missing. Some months later, the family’s bodies were discovered in their vehicle, submerged in an abandoned flooded gravel pit. The crime was eventually traced to white supremacist Chevy Kehoe, after his infamous shoot-out with Ohio police. Proceeds from the theft went to fund terrorist activities, including bombing a government building. Just a few months after Dad’s death, there was another robbery in a town only 75 miles away. No one was murdered in that theft, but the proceeds from it went to fund the Oklahoma City bombing. The trail of violence and terror from the flood of guns in this country doesn’t end with the guns themselves.
Before Dad’s collection went to auction, Mom offered each of us the chance to select anything we’d like to have. I didn’t choose anything. Even one gun in close proximity would make me feel less secure than not having one.
*The NRA held its non-apologia before I was finished drafting this post; as expected, the guns aren’t the problem. It’s the mentally ill; better to compile a list of them than to stigmatize people who want to own deadly weapons by forcing them to register them. Video games are the problem; that’s why all those kids are dead.
Mom and I had a discussion a few days following the Sandy Hook shootings. She said this event was finally going to change things; I was less sanguine. But something about that press conference felt like a Schiavo Moment. At one point, LaPierre is actually advocating for armed volunteers to police our schools. The insurance premiums to cover the risks associated with having armed non-employees on school property when children are present…well, he didn’t offer any advice on where schools should go for the millions of dollars that would be required for that, should anyone be stupid enough to take such a dumbshit idea seriously and try to implement it.
Enough is enough. It’s time, and well past the point, for us to stop allowing the radical, the paranoid and the profiteers to dictate what our policy will be. They can only get away with it again if we don’t speak up and demand that they accept responsibility, and the limits to freedom that it sometimes requires in the real world.
Having recently had a few dollars of expendable cash for the first time in quite a while, I indulged in my favorite habit – going to the bookstore and buying books which I could check out for free from the public library, were I responsible enough to return them on time or organized enough to get myself to said library during operating hours. The library is only a mile away…but the bookstore is a mere five blocks from home, so it inevitably wins out every time, thanks not only to proximity but to the quirky way in which I choose my reading material, which is by browsing. In the bookstore, things are arranged by what’s new, then by categories such as fiction, non-fiction, history, biography, natural sciences, etc. Much easier to browse than stacks organized according to the Dewey decimal system.
Anyway, one of my selections this time was Passionate Minds by David Bodanis, about Voltaire and his long-time aristocratic mistress Emilie du Chatelet – a love affair animated by shared intellectual passions. du Chatelet was an anomaly for the time – a woman motivated more by intellectual pursuits than fashion or court gossip, in an era where most women of the French aristocracy were uneducated, sometimes to the point of not even being able to write their own names.
Much of du Chatelet’s energy went into finding an appropriate male promoter or sponsor for her intellectual pursuits, which she finally found in Voltaire. He was not her husband, of course, but adultery was the norm for the French aristocracy of the time and du Chatelet’s husband, having his own dalliances on the side, raised no objections.
Her confidence boosted by her association with a man who truly respected her intellect, du Chatelet delved into explorations of Sir Issac Newton’s theory of gravity. du Chatelet translated Newton’s calculations from the geometry he used as mathematical proofs for his theory into the new calculus, both verifying Newton and making his work more accessible to future generations of scientists. She was also the first to theorize, correctly, that different colors of light in the spectrum had different temperatures, and among the first to recognize that light, as a substance, was composed of something other than mass.
What I found most interesting about the account, however, was not du Chatelet’s story, nor Voltaire’s, but the mise en scene in which their relationship played itself out. This was the France of the last Louis’ – XIV, the Sun King; XV, who came to the throne at 5 years of age; and XVI, who left the throne a good foot shorter than when he assumed it.
I learned a few things I never knew, such as how different the aristocratic system was in France than it was in England. This should have been long evident to me, since looking back on it now I was aware that France never had a Magna Carta. As a result, the French aristocracy had both less power and more privilege in some ways than their English counterparts. The king alone had the power to raise someone to the nobility. Working was one of the quickest ways to lose a title; aristocrats were expected to do little or nothing. Dabbling was acceptable, as was high military command, but working for a living was not. Members of the aristocracy were not taxed – at all. Taxes were quite literally, as Leona Helmsley once put it, “for the little people.” Considering that France was during the period almost perpetually at war with other European powers, one can only imagine the tax burden that must have devolved upon those who actually did the work of the nation, and wonder that it took them so long to revolt. Justice was similarly two-tiered; an aristocrat could – and often did – inflict violence upon a commoner without fear of reprisal. The system was set up to make sure the privileged remained so, and the rest kept to their proper place. Fairness entered into the scenario not at all.
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s more or less the platform for one of our two major political parties. We already know they’re down with the idea that the privileged shouldn’t be burdened with taxation, that those who actually do the work that produces wealth should also shoulder the burdens of funding government, including the cost of the world’s largest military, and that we have a similar two-tiered system of justice, in which the man who steals billions or sickens thousands escapes punishment, while the man who steals the contents of a cash register serves decades behind bars.
The great irony here is that the party that proposes to restore this old order is the same one that makes a big deal out of disdain for France. Remember “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and “freedom fries”? It turns out that, contrary to Donald Rumsfeld’s dissing of “old Europe,” that’s the version they preferred. It’s not “old Europe” or old France they have a problem with – it’s the new version, the post-revolutionary one, in which ordinary people no longer know and keep to their place as drudges whose only value is generating wealth for a bunch of layabouts.
In an interesting parallel, time-share billionaire David Siegal, who is building a replica of Versailles as his personal residence, just last week sent out a letter to his employees warning of the dire consequences to their future employment prospects should Barack Obama be re-elected. This week, the billionaire Koch brothers followed suit. Just reminding the ordinary folks to remember their place – as drudges whose only value is in making sure that billionaires remain billionaires.
Which leaves me thinking that maybe they should stop exclusively focusing on the France of the ancien regime, and perhaps pay just a bit more attention to what immediately followed it and brought it to an end. As Louis XVI would no doubt tell them, the loss of a bit of your financial stature is nothing compared to the loss of a bit of your physical stature.
As those who know me have long known, and as most others have guessed from my nom de blog, I am a denizen of the great state of Arkansas, the butt of our national jokes and general, all-purpose whipping boy. Trust me, a lot of that is deserved – look at our state rankings in education, health care, income, and any number of other measures, and it quickly becomes obvious that we don’t have our shit together.
But one thing has long irked me, and that’s the tendency of bloggers and others in the more-liberal-than-thou coastal areas to tar our state with the same reactionary brush they apply (correctly) to Texas, Mississippi, and other god-forsaken places. While it’s true that Arkansas shares some regrettable traits with these places, including racism, general ignorance, and hyper-fundamentalist religiosity, it has a populist streak not found in those areas. Note that I said “populist”, not “progressive.” It’s merely coincidental that some of the things that happen here politically look like the latter to outsiders; they without exception are the result of the former.
Thanks to that widespread misunderstanding, for the past month national publications have ballyhooed Arkansas’ status as “the first Southern state” to put medical marijuana to the vote. It’s true; the Compassionate Care Act will appear on our Nov. 6 ballot. But the first mistake in this media meme is the assumption that Arkansas is part of a monolithic South, which it isn’t and never has been; error the second is in assuming that the development in any way indicates that progressivism is gaining purchase in Arkansas or in other areas of the old Confederacy.
The fact is, the initiative almost didn’t make it to the ballot as a result of several rejections of the ballot title language by the state’s Attorney General, an initial insufficient number of valid voter signatures on petitions, and a late Supreme Court challenge after the other hurdles had been cleared. Along the way, state lawmakers weighed in with the opinion that the measure was proof of the need to “reform” the initiative process – a concern that none of them voiced in regard to a casino amendment put forward by a private individual which, had it made it to the ballot and passed, would have allowed said individual to write into the state constitution a monopoly for herself on all casinos in the state, as well as set her own preferred tax rate, free from the interference of meddling officials actually elected by the people of the state. It’s good to know our elected representatives have their priorities straight.
The court challenge came, as might have been predicted, from one of several religious political groups operating in Arkansas who see their mission as making sure that the rest of us don’t do anything that they believe might make God mad; apparently their belief is that God gets pissed when people with debilitating illnesses experience less pain and discomfort. God gave them that illness – they should welcome it! It is His divine plan that the only relief should come from billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies.
The court challenge has actually been the most entertaining part of the whole story so far. Jerry Cox, head of the Family Council and someone I know from personal experience to be a less-than-honest operator, announced his group’s intent to challenge the initiative, under the pretext that the ballot title didn’t explain to voters all the problems that states which have passed medical marijuana laws have experienced as a result. I, who am not an attorney, thought “wow, that’s some weak sauce; that can’t be what he’s planning on arguing to the court, because they don’t care about that – they only care about whether or not the ballot title accurately describes what the law will do.” I assumed there was some other argument with actual legal grounding that would be made; as it happens, I was wrong. In a very unusual move, the Court announced that they didn’t want to hear oral arguments from either side; I interpreted that as being an indication that either they didn’t intend to give Jerry Cox a soapbox or they intended to bend intepretation of the law to the breaking point in order to toss the initiative from the ballot. As it turns out, it was the former reason – the court handed down their ruling on Thursday and noted that the ballot title language was “free of partisan coloring,” which was exactly what Cox and the Family Council were arguing was the reason it should be rejected – because it didn’t make their argument for them in the ballot title wording.
So now, it’s on to the election. My prediction? I think it’s going to pass. The only polling done on the issue was back in May or June; at that time, 47% indicated support vs. 46% who were against. As I joked to my sister, half the people in the state have a family member or friend who’s farming in the national forest, which in and of itself should be enough to put it over the top. But in all seriousness, while that may be a small factor, the bigger reason is that people here simply don’t like being told what to do by outsiders. The Attorney General’s insistence that the ballot title language include a reminder that marijuana is still illegal under federal law will, if anything, persuade some voters to vote in favor of the initiative. The old bootlegger vs. federal revenooers attitude is still alive and thriving in large pockets of the state. That attitude is a double-edged sword, to be sure: it’s the same one that gave rise to the Central High crisis of 1957. But it continues to exert an influence that makes the state politically schizophrenic and impossible to pin down.
The other reason I think this will pass is purely anecdotal – over the past several months, in general conversation with several people who I would not expect to be supportive of the initiative, I’ve been surprised time and again when they not only bring up the issue but volunteer that they’re planning on voting in favor of it. These are mostly people over the age of 50, some of whom are regular church-going folks, which leads me to believe that if the undercurrent of support is that strong in this group, it’s going to pass.
Which means that after November, this will be a state in which same-sex marriage is prohibited by the state constitution, while medical marijiuana is legal – putting us a mere couple of years behind California, politically-culturally-speaking. This will surprise no one who knows anything at all about the state – we sent the first woman to the US Senate way back in the 1930′s, then several decades later produced the fine specimen of a state legislator who coined the term “barefoot and pregnant.” Obama is currently polling at about 35% here, while at the same time we have the only governor in the region – a Democrat re-elected in the Teabagger high-water-mark year of 2010 by a landslide - who has embraced the Medicaid expansion under his health care plan.
So the next time you’re tempted to lump us in with the lunatics in Texas, Mississippi, or Oklahoma, just….don’t. We’re an island of sanity in comparison to the reactionary ignoramuses who surround us. That’s a frightening thought, but we do get things right sometimes, though it’s for different reasons than you might expect.
Serendipitous coming so soon after my Labor Day observations:
Sounds like he’s channeling Australian mining heiress Gina Rinehart, doesn’t it? If all you poors would just step up to the plate and pony up your fair share of the taxes (read: at a higher rate than Rmoney pays) out of your paltry $20,000 per year earnings, then the noble Job Creators could catch a much-needed break on their taxes.
I can’t wait to see polling numbers at the end of this week. It’s beginning to look a lot like a landslide.
For this, our country’s annual recognition of the contributions of working people (or as I like to call them, “wealth creators”), I thought I’d examine the current up-is-down understanding of economics by the average citizen – particularly the average self-described conservative citizen – and the entireity of the business media.
My first thought was about how we have a Labor Day for honoring workers, but no Masters of the Universe Day for honoring our Galtian (aka “Job Creator”) overlords…then I was reminded of the question that most kids get around to asking their parents at one point or another, and the inevitable response they get in return: “how come there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day but there’s no Children’s Day?” which is usually answered with the universal response: “that’s because every day is Children’s Day.” And so it goes in our country and economy: we spend one day of the year recognizing the people who actually do the work that generates the wealth, and the rest of the days lauding the people who profit from their labor and trying to help them profit even more. But fear not; I’m sure in the near future Fox News will point out how heartless we’ve been for not setting aside a special day for recognizing the contributions of those who own us all, and will whip up the anger and rage of the barely sentient lifeforms who make up their viewing audience in favor of creating such a holiday. It will be a working holiday of course; it would be just wrong to make it a paid day off. In fact, it probably should be a day in which we all contribute our labor, free of pay, in gratitude to those who out of the goodness of their hearts “give” us jobs.
It wasn’t always so. We’ve gone from a nation where, as recently as 40 years ago, an elected official wouldn’t dare insult workers by suggesting they were overpaid or otherwise a drag on national progress and productivity, to one where the ordinary people whose work creates the wealth of the nation are routinely insulted with the suggestion that they are superfluous. Teachers and other public employees are regularly derided for what is described as overly-generous compensation and benefits plans, while at the same time the value of their work is given short shrift. During the last few very difficult years, we’ve been treated more than once to claims by elected officials – who are, after all, our employees – that the unemployed are lazy and merely riding the dole, completely ignoring the reality that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around – the result, in many cases, of these same public employees’ efforts to stymie economic recovery in order to bolster their own chances of electoral success.
The fact is, the history of our country, like the history of the rest of the world, is a history documenting the theft of labor. Up until the 1860′s we were at least honest and forthright about it; no one, not even slaveowners themselves, was under any delusion that slavery didn’t constitute the theft of labor. This theft isn’t unique to capitalist economic systems, either – the Soviets were every bit as guilty of stealing the labor of the many for the benefit of the few, and to make things worse, did so in a particularly heavy-handed way that brooked no objection or dissent.
In the past 40 years, labor theft has made a big comeback here in the US; not surprisingly, this has coincided with the erosion of the power of unions. Lest you think the term “labor theft” is being overly dramatic, consider the following: at this point in time, the six members of the Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune built by founders Sam and Bud Walton, have a net worth equal to that of the poorest 41% of Americans. That kind of discrepancy can only occur when people are not being fairly compensated for their labor, and in fact, we know this is what is going on with Wal-Mart: the company is rabidly anti-union and regularly uses tricks such as the 35-hour workweek to avoid paying for health insurance for workers; it relies on slave and near-slave labor overseas for producing products at the lowest possible cost to stock its stores; it’s been caught red-handed breaking minimum-wage and other labor laws, particularly when dealing with illegal workers; and it shamelessly offloads the consequences of underpaying its workers onto federal, state, and local governments, going so far as to hold seminars to instruct workers on how to apply and qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs that we all pay for. Wal-Mart isn’t alone in these practices, either – the majority of profitable chain businesses in the US are also underpaying their workers. It’s just that Wal-Mart offers such a glaring example of why all the whining about how put-upon the so-called “job creators” are is such patent bullshit. Seriously, is it possible that these 6 people contribute more to the country’s GDP than the 41% of Americans whose net worth their fortunes exceed? Not a chance. And that’s before we even consider that these folks are the heirs of the men who actually had the bright idea and built the company. No, the heirs didn’t build that – so why should it be priority number one in this country to make sure they not only get to keep it all, but that we make it even easier to help them get even more?
As I’ve noted before, a capitalist economy is kind of like a huge poker game – it can only keep going as long as more than one player has some scratch in the game. It also mimicks a poker game in the tendency for most of the wealth, over time, to accumulate into just a few hands. When that happens, it’s game over.
None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with a business owner generating some profit from the labor of his employees. That is, after all, the whole idea behind capitalism. The question is, how much of that profit should go to the owner? The truism that one of our political parties, most of our wealthy citizens, and the entire business media would like for us to ignore is that no one has ever become a billionaire through his own labor alone. Wealthy people become wealthy as a result of how successful they are in profiting from the labor of others. Sometimes, they have a good idea, which coupled with the labor of others, generates great wealth for them. And oftentimes, they just are good at profiting from other people’s labor. In the 2000′s, we saw productivity gains of 20% in the US, none of which went to workers, who were, after all, the primary generators of those gains. And so we find ourselves today in a position where 6 people are worth more than 41% of our citizenry – 6 people who didn’t “build that” but rather, inherited it.
Government has only two ways to slow down the corrosive concentration of wealth that spells stagnation for a capitalist economy. One is mandating higher minimum wages, and the other is higher taxation on great wealth. For the past 30 years, one of our political parties has dedicated itself to blocking both of those mechanisms, and today we are living with the results. Rather than face the reality, however, they retreat further and further into fantasies about “job creators,” ignoring that most basic economic rule of supply and demand – jobs are only created when there is a demand for the goods or services they produce; they are not created out of the goodness of some multi-millionaire or billionaire’s heart, because spending money on hiring workers to do work for which there is no demand is roughly equivalent to setting the money on fire. Our economy sucks because too many people have too little money to drive the demand necessary for full employment; they have too little money because too few people are hoarding most of it.
I have recently had an epiphany, in which it occured to me that in this era of grotesque wealth for the few and growing poverty for the many, one of the most popular shows on television focuses on people who have a mental illness that causes them to hold on to physical objects for which they have no need or use. Millions tune in to tsk-tsk these poor, obviously ill individuals who live in houses stuffed with garbage, and then turn the channel to watch other individuals who do things like spend $100,000 on handbags, who they envy and wish to emulate. But how is one any different than the other? If hoarding is an illness marked by an inability to let go of anything and a desire to accumulate ever more, whether it is needed or useful or not, how is it any different to feel that $500 million, $1 billion, $5 billion, or $20 billion isn’t enough? Sure, the money hoarders aren’t living in garbage dumps, but isn’t the irrational need to continue accumulating more than you need or can ever use the same? The man, or woman, with a billion dollars could lose half of it today and it would change the way they live not one iota. So why do they fight so hard, and so dirty, for even more, at the expense of the people who have generated that wealth for them?
It will be a great day when we as a nation wake up and recognize wealth hoarding as an illness rather than a goal to emulate. In the meantime, would it be too much to insist that our national policy not be driven by the mental illness of a handful of people for whom even ”all of it” would not be enough?
I’ll close my Labor Day rant, which might at first glance seem to have wandered a bit far afield, with this news item in which Australian mining heiress Gina Rinehart, one of the richest women in the world worth some $20 billion, complains bitterly about “class warfare” – not, of course, the warfare she and her peers have engaged in, but the “warfare” that results when the proles who made her wealthy question how the pie is being divvied up – and suggests the following:
”There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire,” she writes. “If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.”
Got that? The heiress, who didn’t “build that,” thinks the reason all you poors aren’t rich like her is because you’re laying about drinking. Looking at her, I can’t help but think it has yet to occur to her that perhaps she could spend less time eating. But I digress. Rinehart goes on to elaborate what’s wrong with Australia, and it’s strikingly similar to what Mitt Romney is telling us is wrong with America: rich people pay too much taxes, businesses are regulated to make sure they follow the rules, and poor people make too much money (the Australian minimum wage is about equivalent to the US minimum wage). She goes on to issue the same veiled threats we hear whenever our own MOTU are in danger of paying a few percent more in taxes: if you tax us, it will only hurt you, because it won’t be worth it anymore for us to continue to try to make scads of cash.
And this is where we bring it back home: when we recognize that these people suffer from a mental illness, we can stop worrying about their idle threats to “go Galt,” to take their fortunes and “screw you guys, I’m goin’ HOME.” They can’t do it; their illness won’t allow it. They must have more; they live for more. Making it a little harder for them to get it won’t stop them; it will merely insure that the rest of us don’t suffer as much as result of their illness.
So that’s my wish for this Labor Day – that people will wake up and recognize that the idle threats of the wealthy are exactly that; that they need us more than we need them; and that we will stop allowing a bunch of mentally ill people to dictate economic, tax, and labor policy. It’s a tall order, but not one that would be all that difficult to fill. All it takes is for us to recognize our own power – we are the source of their wealth – and their weakness – enough will never be enough.
Update: In the truth is stranger than fiction department, it seems my suggestion for Fox News to rile up the mouth-breathers was scooped by this essay in today’s Wall Street Journal. However, after reading through it and noticing that the author is a retired labor and employment attorney, I have a sneaking suspicion that the WSJ just got trolled, and like their brain-dead brethren who have yet to figure out that Stephen Colbert is a parody of a Fox News host, it completely eluded them that the author was being tongue-in-cheek.
h/t to commenter RSA at Balloon Juice for the link.
I hope you find this as funny as I did:
As you probably guessed, I was laughing hysterically all the way through. But just in case it’s not your cup of tea, here’s another birfday offering:
Hope you’re having a happy one! And congratulations on the upcoming graduation of your wonderful son.
Thomas Kinkade, self-described (and trademarked) “Painter of Light” died Friday at his California home of natural causes.
I wasn’t going to post anything about this, until I saw that the screed I posted on Kinkade’s work almost a year and a half back got over 10,000 reads yesterday, a big deal for a small family blog like this one, and that, of course, in the comments there have been a few on the theme of “Leave Britney ALONE!!”
So I’d just like to say, for the record, that even though I found Kinkade’s work trite, I never wished the man dead, or even ill, even though I did find his foibles amusing - mostly because he so openly pandered to religious sentimentality and strove to portray such bucolic innocence in his work. This, you must admit, is very much at odds with whipping it out and pissing on Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland. All of that has to do with his body of work and his public life; of course I did not know the man and so have no insight as to who he was in private, whether he was a really great guy or not, or anything else, and offer condolences to his family and friends.
But I would like to address those who commented on the original post to the effect of “who are you to judge” and “if you don’t like it you shouldn’t critique it.” First of all, I’m not judging anyone’s like or dislike of Kinkade’s work. If you like it, fine. We all have what I like to call “guilty pleasures” – things we like even though we know we should know better. Mine is Duran Duran’s Greatest Hits, which I’ll pull out and actually play once every 3 or 4 years (in my defense, I got it for only a dollar when I worked at the used record store). I know it’s not good music; I know there’s nothing remotely artistic about it, despite all the videos of Simon LeBon cavorting with models. It just is what it is – meaningless pop that I for whatever reason will listen to and enjoy occasionally. That’s the point – there’s nothing wrong with liking Thomas Kinkade’s work – as long as you recognize that it’s not fine art and is not an asset that will appreciate in value.
Why does the distinction matter? Because of stories like this: Thomas Kinkade’s death sparks run on his paintings at West Michigan art gallery. There are several things just wrong with that headline, the primary being that the stuff for sale at Thomas Kinkade and other galleries weren’t paintings – they were prints of original works by Kinkade that had been “enhanced” in a few areas of the image with a few brushstrokes by an assistant. The Hand of the Master touched none of them, and with an estimated 1 in 20 homes in the US owning a Kinkade “painting”, the print runs were in the hundreds of thousands. These things have the same approximate value as commemorative plates from the Franklin Mint; they just aren’t worth anything more than the nominal value of the materials and labor that went into making them, and never will be.
That all deals with the actual value of Kinkade’s work, but the other point is that Kinkade’s work isn’t art because there’s simply nothing behind it other than an idea to paint a pretty picture. Again, if you think the pictures are pretty, fine. But there’s no emotion or idea going on behind it, other than “what will sell?”, which makes it impossible to connect with on anything other than a very superficial level such as “the colors match the sofa.”
Here’s the thing: Thomas Kinkade had technical painting ability. I can’t paint anything like he did (I wouldn’t want to, but that’s beside the point). And this is what he chose to paint. He chose to make a business empire rather than be an artist. That’s ok, again, as long as the people who paid hundreds of dollars or more for prints of his work re-touched with paint by assistants also understood it. I think a lot of them did not. But he most assuredly did, and as evidence, I offer the following:
When Kinkade created or agreed to having his name put on these objets d’crap, you can be certain that he wasn’t thinking of himself as an artist.
So, that’s pretty much it – Thomas Kinkade died, I’m sorry for his family and friends, and I still think his work was dreadful, but you should feel free to like it if you must – just please don’t call it art.
And….just one last thing, because I’m a bad person and can’t help myself, but I’m left wondering if, at the end, the Light Kinkade walked into featured a radioactive glow and lurid colors, and if somewhere, a Hobbit got his Ring.
The depiction of the pint-sized psychopath in Team America may have been the only redeeming thing about him. “Fuck you, Hans Brix!”
Wherever Kim Jong Il is now, I’m sure he’s looking up at us.
It’s December 1! Let’s do decorations instead of video this year, Kipper…and I’ll just start this off with a whimper instead of a bang.
I recommend you enjoy just one of these at a time, sort of like the treats in an advent calendar. More than a few is just too much to digest.
(Lyta, you have a special expertise here, and I expect you to be an active participant.)