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Friday, October 23, 2009


The reason for global warming should be obvious: the world is full of bullshit. There is more in the world now than there has ever been. We now have entire fields of study which are founded on bullshit, obtaining grants to collect and disseminate bullshit. We are now inundated with “information” which we call “data” but which is mostly bullshit. We have a proliferation of Art, 99% of which is bullshit. How much of the internet is bullshit? Are you kidding?

Even before the internet, there was already so much bullshit on television, radio, in newspapers and magazines that it was nearly impossible to discern what was not bullshit. Now, the static of bullshit pervading cyberspace boggles the brain.

All advertizing is bullshit. Large chunks of serious institutions have been taken over by bullshit. Government, The Law, Medicine, Sports, Literature, Art, Business, Education from top to bottom are infested with bullshit.

Religion, philosophy and “serious thought” are pervaded by bullshit. There are entire bullshit sciences: psychiatry, psychology, sociology, anthropology. Most history is bullshit. Take away the bullshit and you have a slim volume of commons sense known to anyone with an I.Q. higher than an imbecile (and, oh, the I.Q. test is also bullshit).

What do I mean by bullshit?
I mean garbage, waste, lies, dissembling, poses, self-serving nonsense, sentimental wishes, statistics, anecdotal evidence, anything said in a political campaign, most medical tests, all local news programming.

When the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s story saw the emperor parading naked, he should have cried, “Bullshit!”

Andy Warhol was a “bullshit artist” in both senses. So are all the cable talking heads, the Sunday pundits, the PBS experts (including Deepak Chopra, Suze Orman,). Talkradio is the font of more bullshit every day than was produced in all the books of every century before the Twentieth.

The Twentieth Century was the bullshit century. The greatest figures of the era were bullshitters of the highest magnitude: Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, JFK, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. Our heroes are mostly made of bullshit (“bravado” = bullshit). Bullshit is the definition of acting and accounts for most of what we are fascinated with about celebrities.

The cure for bullshit is simple. Skepticism — a state of mind which stands uncomfortably between cynicism and apathy — is the antidote. When you see it, doubt it. When it moves you to tears, proceed from the assumption that you are being manipulated. When it makes you angry, ask who wants you to feel that way. Who benefits from the news stories about crime? How did the latest subject on the gossip shows become an “issue.”

It is true that there has always been bullshit. Bullshit thrived throughout history. Myths, legends, superstition, the Middle Ages (the Age of Bullshit). The start of every war can be traced to bullshit, and most were won or lost by bullshit.

But we were led to believe that the modern age would distinguish itself by overcoming bullshit. In science and medicine, truth would triumph over ignorance for the betterment of mankind.

The Founding Fathers were products of an era historians call The Age of Enlightenment, when bullshit was recognized as the enemy of man. Having seen through such bullshit notions as “the divine rights of kings”, they hoped that an idea like democracy might work. The hypothesis was: “You can bullshit some of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”

The plan required that th people would be educated and informed of the dangers of the bullshit-riddled future. It assumed that the people would choose to be guided by an enlightened and intelligent elite — a group not unlike, oh say, the Founding Fathers. They would be a cut above the people in the ability to reason, the eloquence to lead, and mostly, possessed of just enough independent wealth to allow them the luxury of expressing selfless wisdom to act for the common good occasionally — on the really important issues. Parenthetically, it should be noted that this has worked during our history. Noblesse oblige, the duty of enlightened wealth and upper classes to govern wisely and selflessly has provided many of our best leadership: the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Adamses, Byrds, Rockefellers, etc.

The U.S. Constitution stands as the most remarkable work of protection against bullshit ever devised out of a laboratory. The checks and balances every textbook so glibly mention are an ingenious expression of the anti-bullshit political theory. No one group is to be trusted not to bullshit the others.

Even so, Jefferson and some others still smelled bullshit. They didn’t buy the argument that individual rights would be protected against the greatly increased power of the new improved people’s government. The proponents argued that it was not necessary to enumerate individual rights into the document. Those rights were well understood by the founders who were English gentlemen by birth and lawyers by training. These rights were guaranteed to every Englishman through the English constitution, a conglomeration of written documents and laws, unwritten traditions. They had incorporate these rights into the charters of their colonies and now their states’ constitutions, and the states were to be independent and sovereign.

Besides, the clever argument ran, the mere definition of individual rights was dangerous. It would lead to the conclusion that the defined rights articulated the exclusive list of rights possessed by individuals. That was contrary to their intention. They meant the powers of government to be circumscribed, clearly defined and limited, with all the other powers, rights and residue belonging to the people. The argument was somewhat prophetic as throughout much of our history parsing of the language and divining of the intentions of our constitution has become a parlor game played by Supreme Court justices and law professors.

Jefferson the scientist remained skeptical. He felt more comfortable putting it in writing. The result was The Bill of Rights, which has become the model for every constitutional democracy.

So did it work? Did it prevent or at least restrain the bullshit? Let’s first admit that the odds were long. It is in the nature of things that most everything is bullshit. It is simply part of the nature of the human animal to survive by wits, which means learning to bullshit better than the next guy. Every baby cons its mother into attentiveness by tears and tantrums. Toddlers trick their peers away from their toys, the best students learn to fools their teachers, rites of passage into manhood and womanhood involve successfully duping members of the opposite sex as well as a large dose of self-deception for survival.

In politics, democratic leadership inherently requires bullshitting the largest numbers of people, persuading them to do what is right contrary to their self-interest, usually by manipulation and promises.

Jefferson pinned his hopes for bullshit detection on the concepts contained in one cluster of clauses of the First Amendment — no state religion, unrestricted freedom of speech and press, peaceable assembly, and petition for redress of grievances. The idea was that if given access to all points of view, the people would sort out the bullshit and eventually make the right choices. There would be no state religion, no one Truth about ultimate questions. Rather, there would be a diversity of theories to choose from. The same with political truths: let everyone state a point of view, try to prove it, argue it, print it, try to persuade others, march about it, get together with others of like mind, complain to the government about it. Eventually, right choices would be made.

But Jefferson never anticipate the power of Bullshit. The mass media and now the internet have produced volumes of misinformation. He never imagined how much misleading data would bury the people trying to sort out the few nuggets of truth from the piles of bullshit. The naked emperor in our world is hidden behind blizzards of bullshit.

Jefferson, the architect, botanist, agronomist, philosopher, historian, naturalist, and lawyer could never have foreseen that there would come a time when everyone became a specialist, when the educated elite, the best and brightest that he relied on, would be so overwhelmed in bullshit about their own field of study that they could not hope to lead others in general debate over diverse issues. The most educated of us are narrow-minded and suspicious, self-interested without pause. Doctors and lawyers hate each other; scientists learn government to milk it rather than check it.

The system envisioned by the founding fathers, of enlightened leaders followed by an educated informed people, foundered on the mass of bullshit.

What does that leave us with? The only hope was to educate the people to fend for themselves. The mass media promised to inform, but it deforms, manipulates, distorts by overemphasis, creates hysteria. The free press, conceived as protectors of dissent and a marketplace of creative ideas, has devolved into just a marketplace of shabby commercialism. Since first discovered by Hearst and Pulitzer to be a profitable consumable, the News Business, pandering to the lowest tastes regarding crime, scandal, or salable issues, is an industry captured by the compulsion to SELL, not to inform.

We had the hope that public education, free to everyone, would insure that all the people would be able to recognize the bullshit. But we are failing miserably, even to insure basic literacy. Educators focus on giving information (data, bullshit) rather than teaching how to sort it out. There are so many people to process and so much bullshit to plow through that teachers become buried under it and eventually give up or become part of the bureaucracy that cultivates bullshit for a living.

The result is a public mired in cynicism and apathy. Most people don’t bother to vote, too discouraged by the weight of bullshit. Those who do vote, increasingly and understandably, do so to express a narrow self-interest — an issue or small constellation of related issues they perceive as relevant to their lives — and even then, are easily manipulated into buying bullshit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Four Thoughts

(1)I find myself exaggerating my recovery so that I won’t disappoint people who ask me how I feel. If I keep saying "Lousy," especially if I follow up with details about bowel movements and such, friends may eventually stop calling. I know I would.

(2)The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a Virginia court’s ruling that an anonymous tip about a supposed drunk driver could not justify a police traffic stop of the car unless the police themselves saw the car do something suspicious. Justice Roberts issued a vigorous dissent, arguing, among other things, that the evil of drunk driving justifies the police action. He wrote: "The effect of [this] rule will be to grant drunk drivers 'one free swerve' before they can be pulled over by the police... It will be difficult for an officer to explain to the family of a motorist killed by that swerve that the police had a tip that the driver of the other car was drunk, but that they were powerless to pull him over, even for a quick check." Roberts noted that hotlines and other services encouraged the public to report suspected drunk drivers.
I thought Roberts was supposed to be one of those “conservative” judges who show “judicial restraint” as opposed to those “liberal judicial activists” on the bench who bend their interpretation of the law to conform to their personal preferences. He would never be “result oriented,” would he?

(3)The stock market rebound to above 10,000 has T.V. pundits scratching their wooden heads. How can this be, they whine, when unemployment is at 10% and other signs of the recession persist? They never read their Milton Friedman, the father of neo-conservative economics. When a recession comes, businesses wisely lay off workers to reduce costs. It is the excuse they need to do what they should have done during good times. Now, business improves (meaning bottom lines show net profits because of reduced costs), and it would be foolish to rehire workers, especially at the old hourly rates. Having been squeezed for more than a year, any worker re-hired would be glad to take a huge cut in pay and benefits.

(4)And speaking of benefits. I thought that the main benefit of a universal health care plan was supposed to be to remove the burden from business, as most of the industrialized nations of the world have done for generations and which even the “less civilized” nations of the emerging world recognize as necessary. Once government takes over the job of insuring health care, American businesses can compete with foreign companies. Wasn’t that supposed to be the prime argument — the unified field theory — that cemented the economy’s recovery with health care? Why haven’t I heard that argument made forcefully to support the “public option”?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

One Brief Shining Moment

For one brief shining moment in November of 2008 Americans seemed unified. For the first time in at least a generation, an election produced a meaningful consensus for change.

But it is one of the many curses of long life that I must remember that these shining moments are all too brief and that the shine is easily and quickly tarnished.

The reality is that the default position for the American electorate is stasis; i.e., resistance to real change. The nature of our politics is that elections are decided by a small percentage of voters - so-called swing voters because they have no ideological or party loyalty. Rather, they sway from left to right to middle, easily manipulated by events, rhetoric, rumor, always motivated by fear.

Obama’s brief shining moment, his Golden Age, may be one of the shortest ever. FDR’s lasted about four years (1933 through 1936); LBJ’s two years (1965 and 1966).
If the health care law turns out to be a disappointment, meaning that (1) it fails to provide universal coverage, (2) seems to be a boondoggle to the insurance companies, and (3) is perceived to be too costly for most people, and if unemployment continues to rise or seems to be stagnant, the midterm election of 2010 may bring an end to any possible alteration of the status quo.

I well remember the 1960's, an era which - to this current generation - stands mostly for excessive optimism and bad hair. The notion that spiritual enlightenment was achievable through individual or collective shortcuts such as drugs, meditation, rock and roll, or free love is rightly viewed as a ridiculous illusion.

But that is not the 60's that I best remember. Another side of the optimistic urge for change manifested in more rational but no less hopeful attempts at leaps of progress. The United States Supreme Court, an institution which for most of our history has been a powerful force against even incremental change, for the blink of an eye under Chief Justice Earl Warren, carried the struggle for societal progress, with revolutionary decisions that enforced racial equality, ensured the separation of church and state, and gave new meaning to the Bill of Rights, especially the often neglected minority protections, the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments. It has taken the powers of reaction 40 years to unravel the framework the Warren Court constructed.

In the middle of the decade, political winds gathered to create a perfect storm of progress that had not been equaled since 1933. After the death of JFK, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, the most ideological and polarizing candidate possible. LBJ won a strong mandate and used his unique position as a Southerner with a congressional expertise to pass the Civil Rights Act, the most important racial equality law passed since Reconstruction.

In 1965, LBJ pushed through the Congress the experiment in socialized medicine called Medicare. He followed this with the most optimistic set of programs since the New Deal: his War on Poverty, a constellation of programs designed to directly aid the poor. It included Head Start, the Job Corps, food stamps, and was credited with reducing the percent of families below the poverty line to the lowest it had ever been.

Of course, LBJ soon trashed all the possibilities for progress with his tragic Vietnam policy. Most of his programs were quickly dismantled with the rise of Milton Friedman, resulting in deregulation, reliance on so-called “free markets”, the decline of trade unionism, and “trickle down economics.”

Beginning in the disastrous year of 1968, the Democratic Party began a rapid decline. Progressivism (poisonously labeled “Liberal”) became a dirty word, rejected by the two successful presidential candidates, both right of center Southern governors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Both tried to meld a few social policies that were mildly progressive with economic policies that co-opted moderate Republican positions. Both abetted the erosion of Constitutional freedoms, supporting laws that expanded the police power of the government. Carter began the rush to deregulation; Clinton raised campaign fundraising to an art, surpassed Republicans in pandering to corporate lobbyists with the resulting policies that declared “the era of big government was over” and abetting a free market boom that laid the groundwork for Bush’s subsequent rape of the middle class and the crash of our entire economy.

The election of 2008 at first presented a mirror image of the 1968 election. This time, it was the Republican candidate who was saddled with the legacy of disaster by his party’s president. The difference was that this Democrat presented a literal face of change in the most obvious sense. Yet, in a sense, this was an illusion. Oddly, Barack Obama resembles JFK in this way. His personal image wreaks of change, but his politics is actually less radical than his image.

Obama’s overwhelming victory, which dragged in Democratic majorities in both houses of congress, was another illusion. The apparent “mandate for change” neglected to consider the realities, particularly of Democratic party politics. Clinton democrats really control the Senate, with “Blue Dogs”, or heirs of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose politics are barely distinguishable from Republicans.

The lack of difference between the parties has been decried by many observers, cited as responsible for cynicism or apathy among the electorate. Contrary to the wishes of many, Obama is not the massiah of liberalism. He is a Centrist, who learned the lessons taught by Clinton in the 1990's regarding radical social issues. He will be satisfied with a health care bill that passes, whether or not it contains a “public option,” and whether or not it provides universal coverage. He will claim victory and make the best argument he can for the practical need for compromise in order to achieve “progress,” no matter how imperfect.

And he will be right.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Stubborn Man

Morris Trukenberg died last night. He was around 96 years old. The best guess is that he was born in 1913, although he teased the date so often that no one now alive can be certain.

He was a stubborn man.

A few years ago, I received a call to come to the emergency room at Kaiser Hospital. Morris had fainted and been brought there for examination. When I arrived, I heard his distinctive voice shouting, "There's nothing wrong with me. I don't need a doctor. You're keeping me here a prisoner."

The loud complaints were accompanied by some unpleasant references to the presumed heritage of the nurses. I apologized to one of them. "He can be a bit stubborn at times." The nurse smiled, said, "You don't get to be 90 unless you are very stubborn."

His stubbornness probably save his life, not once but many times.

He was 26 years old when the Germans occupied his home town of Radom, Poland. Morris was living with his large family, but apparently acting independently from his parents. He told me that one night he and his friends were harassed by some German soldiers - a rifle butt in the small of his back for "no good reason except we were Jews."

Over the objections of his parents, Morris decided to leave with friends, to go to the east, to Russia, to evade the advancing Germans.

Over the next years, he would travel to a city, look for work, and occasionally be arrested by Russians, who mistook him for a German spy. His reddish hair, fair complexion, name, were circumstantial enough to force his detention several times until he was finally able to persuade some commissar of his true identity, which was the second worst thing to be in the eyes of Soviet officials: He was a Polish Jew, not a German spy. It was then on to the next city.

Eventually, he met Esther Teitelbaum, who had fled her home in Lodz, Poland, with a sister and brother, traveling east. The brother had dropped out in a border town, where his girlfriend's family lived. The girl's father convinced him to stay - the Germans could be "dealt with." Esther later discovered that her brother, along with all the members of his girlfriend's family had been murdered.

Morris and Esther married, continuing to move east, to Stalingrad, and by persistent step east and south (to avoid the bitter winters) to the Caucas. A daughter was born on VJ Day (August 14, 1945), while they were in Orsk in the Urals.

Returning to Poland, Morris found that his family was gone, all but a brother, Chaim, who had been exiled to Paris before the war. Chaim had been "deported" to forced labor, but survived and was back in Paris.

Morris packed up and came to Paris where he and Chaim began a "schmatte" business, making clothes and selling them from a cart. When frictions arose between the brothers and their wives mostly over competition and jealousy, Morris took a chance by 1954 to emigrate to Los Angeles where some cousins and friends from Radom had alit.

It is hard to realize that Morris lived for another 55 years after moving to America.

Learning another new language - Morris was in his 40's - Morris got jobs painting houses in the new developments in the San Fernando Valley.

He and Esther survived, thrived in fact. They scrimped and bought a house on the West Side, raised their daughter and then, when Morris was over 50, had a second daughter, whom they raised with a new generation of parents.

He survived his wife and first child, lived to see and enjoy three grandchildren, leave them a legacy of stubbornness in the face of obstacles that would seem to make survival, much less some measure of material success, a highly unlikely proposition.