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Category Archives: Politics & Current Events

What Do We Value?

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Image of the U.S. pointing to Justice with Hope alongside, on the East Pediment of the U.S. Capitol Building. Original sculpted by Luigi Persico, 1825-1828, called Genius of America.

I was thinking the other day about our pervasive pursuit of personal happiness (as distinct from the public good). When I started this blog, I noted that I thought the unrelenting focus on something called “happiness” is not only not the way to find it, but is… er, well, kind of tacky. In other words, I worked from the assumption that something “higher” or “loftier” than personal happiness must be at work in someone’s life for them even to deserve to be happy. Not that we always get what we deserve.

I’ve been contemplating lately what those higher or loftier values might be and how they are related to living the good life.

Here’s my initial venture into a list, but I would love to hear from you, too, about what drives you beyond a self-centered desire for a selfish kind of happiness or success.

Compassion

Justice

Integrity

Service to Others (in work or other activities, even personal ones, such as “be a good mother to my children” or “be a good friend”)

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also come to realize where so many of us today encounter our inspirational ideas: from TEDTalks, which have become a defining phenomenon of our time. They have become as all pervasive as the pursuit of happiness, and their stated purpose is to introduce to larger audiences “ideas worth spreading.” In other words, TED has an organizational goal of improving human life. It occurred to me that examining the TEDTalks at least a little bit systematically might lend some insight into what we perceive to be important to that endeavor.

Maybe I thought of this because so often the TEDTalks I see posted or that someone sends around have to do with “happiness.”

Search for the term “happiness” in the index of the TEDTalks, and you get 7,136 hits. By comparison, if you search “compassion,” you get 2,090 results. “Justice” garners 3,487 results. “Integrity” 5,911.

The phrase “service to others” garners a mere 33 hits, only 4 of which seem to link to TEDTalks themselves; the other hits are in bios and the like. “Happiness,” on the other hand links mostly to talks on happiness and quotes about it. Only 2 of these hits link to bios—those of happiness/success gurus Srikumar Rao and Martin Seligman.

Does this perhaps indicate that, though we want others to believe that we are invested in service to others, we really find personal happiness more important? Or does it mean that service to others is more important to people’s self concepts, but what they believe others are interested in is personal happiness? I’m not sure—and maybe it even means nothing important—but these numbers reflect what is to me an odd imbalance.

These results are for any tiny mention of each term, but even when we look at the TED “themes,” we note that “What Makes Us Happy?” is a popular theme with 87 talks devoted to the topic. Of the 47 themes, the happiness one ranks just above the middle of the pack at 20th. “The Charter for Compassion,” on the other hand, boasts only 8 talks, the lowest of any category. Even food beats it out at 23 talks, and the ocean at 43. There are two education categories with a combined total of 107 talks. “Not Business as Usual” garners 162 talks. TED, like every other organization, must play to its audience—in this case largely business people. Its sponsors are all mighty corporations such as Prudential, IBM, Pfizer, American Express, and Johnnie Walker. Interesting bedfellows when it comes to saving the world.

TED does have a theme called “Rethinking Poverty,” which seems to be the one mostly devoted to issues of justice, at least that of an economic variety. It contains 96 talks, ranging over a wide array of subjects, from “Breakthrough designs for ultra-low-cost products” to “How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place,” to “Hidden hotbeds of invention.” Many of these talks focus on the experiences of poor women (sex trafficking, infant and post-partum mortality, malnutrition, etc.); many others focus on technological innovations to help people, especially in poor countries. Technology is one of the foundational topics of TED, the other two being Entertainment and Design, so this is no real surprise.

TED talks, have, also not surprisingly, been criticized on a number of counts, including their corporatization, their being a “massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism,” for “low-grade intellectual fraud” masking as smartness, and for the fact that the statistics and science used in them are frequently quite questionable.

So, there’s what TED provides to us for its own perhaps blinkered needs, but there’s also what people watch. The single most-watched one is Sir Ken Robinson on “schools kill creativity,” the title of which is, I should add, quite misleading. If you look at the list of the “20 most-watched TEDTalks (so far),” you will see the technological emphasis of the TED audience, as well as its desire for positivity—“insight,” “thrilling potential,” “astonishments,” “best,” “magic,” “breakthrough,” “nurturing,” “genius,” “happy,” “success,” “orgasm,” “great,” and “inspire” are all words that appear in the titles of the top 20. “Kill” and “danger” are the only remotely negative words.

One TED speaker, Sebastian Wernicke, went so far as to do a statistical analysis of what facets of a TEDTalk make it more or less popular (see below). When he did the original talk in 2010, “happiness” came in at the second most popular term, after “you.” In a June 2011 update, “you” was still at the top, but “choice” had edged happiness into the number 3 position, emphasizing, I suppose, that there is even more talk about how we’re responsible for choosing our own happiness.

Of course, Wernicke gives this talk with much good humor—and laughter from the audience. This kind of deprecation of the TED endeavor is part of the purported sophistication of its speakers and its audience. What’s interesting to me is that Wernicke can make the kinds of solid statistical observations he makes without commenting on or evaluating them at all. In other words, it’s fine with him that “happiness” is the top topic or, as he puts it, if you’re going to give a TEDTalk it should be on a topic that “we can connect to both easily and deeply.” (I’m not sure what he means by deeply, when the maximum for a talk is 18 minutes long and since Wernicke developed a tool called the Ted Pad to give people the formula for creating a good or bad talk.)

Wernicke has since also given a second TEDTalk that boils the entire endeavor down into a single 6-word sentence. He did this through “crowd-sourcing,” that is, paying people on the web to summarize various groups of TEDTalks to come to a complete summarization of 1000 talks. Though Wernicke found the original summarized submissions “flat” or “lacking” or only partial in their insight into what the TEDTalks were all about, here’s what he came up with when combining and shifting the words around : “Why the worry? I’d rather wonder.”

Wernicke stops there, as if this insight is enough. And for me, this TEDTalk sums up what is wrong with the entire genre: the smug, secure, positivity of those who are already well-off and largely satisfied with their lives but still looking for more personal fulfillment.

What else matters—to you or those you see around you?

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Olympics Whitewashing

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Bronze copy of Myron of Eleutherae’s “Discobolus” (discus thrower) in the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bruce and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London last night—at least until we dozed in front of the telly, as it had been a long (though positively productive) day for both of us. It is always fun and interesting to watch this parade of diversity and cooperative competition, even though the difference in the wealth (and poverty) of nations makes too much difference even there.

This morning, on Facebook, my friends were busy filling in where our U.S. media failed us in its much-criticized tape-delayed presentation. NBC’s lame and condescending excuses fell on deaf ears, but, in particular, two other issues caught my attention—about two parts of the Opening Ceremonies that NBC covered badly or simply deleted from view for U.S. audiences during the prime-time broadcast that nearly everyone watched.

One of these was a tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, which evidently befuddled the announcers, based on their inane, even apologetic reaction. Meredith Vieira’s reaction to child performers dancing on their hospital beds was, “Y’know, those children don’t look very sick,” as though she just had to support the idea that universal health coverage creates goldbrickers. Duh, Meredith, there’s a difference between performers and actual patients. Probably Meredith just doesn’t realize that. She came across as ignorant and proud of it through her entire commentary. Matt Lauer and Bob Costas weren’t much better.

Of course, the radical right takes the celebration of the NHS as a political statement, but director of the Ceremonies Danny Boyle insists that it simply was a testament to the values of the British people. I won’t post links to the crazies who are appalled by this, but what’s funny about them is how they are forced to demonize nearly the entire British people because of their devotion to the NHS. No matter how many falsely prepared reports about how terrible “socialized medicine” is supposed to be, it remains a fact that countries that have it—such as Britain and Canada—overwhelmingly love it. Sure, any large system has problems, but when entire nations are unified in their appreciation and approval of something, you know that it goes—or should go—beyond political differences.

In the U.S., however, the pitched battle is ongoing about the fate of our healthcare system, and thus a simple celebration of the life-saving work of doctors and nurses in the NHS was weakly introduced and then we hit a cut-away to an ad. And the right-wingers love to talk about the “liberal media.” Hah.

While it’s obvious why NBC might cower at the thought of ruffling feathers on the right these days, the other element missing in U.S. coverage is a more subtle issue. This was a tribute to the victims of the 7/7/2005 terrorist attack on London, shortly after it was announced London would host these Olympics. The bombings killed 52 people, who were honored last night with a somber dance number and Scottish singer Emeli Sandé singing “Abide with Me.” NBC cut this entirely and substituted a flaccid interview with swimmer Michael Phelps.

Why? Of course, every moment of the Olympics can’t be covered on TV—there aren’t enough hours in the day—and editorial decisions must be made. But to cover over something like this with some pre-recorded (and frankly really boring) interview?

For me, this comes back to the issue of enforced and fakey positivity. I’m guessing that NBC didn’t want any of their advertisers to be associated with any “downer” content, and NBC’s producers and editors seem to have thought that a memorial to the dead was not cheerful enough for the Opening Ceremonies. Instead of respecting the decisions of the artistic directors of the Ceremonies, they substituted their own judgment and their own content. To me, that is a failure to broadcast the event they are supposedly covering as reporters and that I tuned in to see.

What’s amazing and shocking about this is not only its callousness, but the fact that journalism, too, is held hostage by the blithering positivity idiots. NBC has already been criticized for allowing their journalistic coverage to be expanded to support their prime-time stake in the Olympics, something completely against the journalism code of ethics. And now they aren’t even covering it in a spirit of journalistic integrity but as a puff conveyor for advertisers.

It’s also just another example of how cruel the positivity idiots are. I find it supremely ironic that in the name of positivity, what these people so often spread is unkindness, in this case the blotting out of a tender testament to innocent victims of terrorism and their remaining loved ones. What an important statement to be making during this international event that brings together such disparate people.

At any rate, it gets the coverage of the Olympics off to a bad start. Who can trust the coverage not to be a rah-rah falsehood all the way around? Let’s all make sure to supplement our watching with some careful reading and watching elsewhere. It may be a challenge, partly because YouTube has provided live streaming in every country but the U.S. Readers here speculate that NBC has put the legal kibosh on open access here. Who knows? But we can still dig around a bit and head on over to the BBC and the CBC websites. Here’s to the power of the web for keeping us from missing the rest of the show!

Schizoid About Pets

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Cat Comedy

In my ongoing contemplations of why it is that I am compelled to write about my pets and other animals, even while trying to avoid the slime of sentimentality, I present you with two stories ripped from the headlines and a couple of anecdotes from my own past, plus a question I wish someone could answer.

I had intended to be purely jovial. Rare, I know, but there are genuine moments of silliness and they bear exploring just as much as the tears. At any rate, I heard on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is putting on a cat video festival. You can submit a nomination from the official site.

And, of course, video is not the only medium: cats do very well in still photos through such sites as I Can Has Cheezburger? Thus, I chose “The Internet Is Made of Cats” for today’s song, which was suggested by Minnesota Public Radio’s coverage of the upcoming event.

In the Marketplace discussion I first heard about the video festival, Jack Shepherd of Buzzfeed was queried about why cat videos are so popular, especially for people as breaks during a workday at the office. Shepherd notes, “It’s aspirational. You’re sitting at work and what you really want to be doing is at home lying in a sunbeam. And cats have got that figured out.”

I agree, but would like to also add another reason: I believe that the easy home video has finally given people an effective way to share how great cats are. Cat relationships tend to be much more private than dog ones. Dogs go out on walks, car rides, to visit friends, to romp on the beach, and so forth. They generally enjoy being out in the world, and people long have used them as conversation objects in parks and on sidewalks. We have showed off our love of dogs easily and eagerly.

But cats are different. Many of even the cutest and most loving cats hide when strangers come into the house, and few enjoy the spectacle of a walk on a leash in a public place. (Granted, there are some notable exceptions, but few.) It may have taken the internet video for us to get a real, culture-wide understanding of the delights of cat companionship.

Cat videos are, then, a great example of a paradigm change fostered by a particular technology. In this case, I think it’s a wonderful paradigm shift, as I’m all for a wider understanding of the beauty, humor, and wonderfulness of cats.

Dog Tragedy

Unfortunately, news this week had a tragic downside, too, in the pet world. Lennox the dog was executed in Belfast, Ireland, after a long, but unsuccessful legal battle by his family to keep him alive. By all accounts, this is one of the stupidest instances of animal cruelty I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of plenty. The Belfast City Council and its “animal services” staff clearly had some dictatorial ego problem and continued to insist this dog was a danger in spite of much evidence to the contrary and in spite of offers from both of the Animal Planet dog behavioral show experts Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell to rehome the dog in the U.S.

The Council’s continued insistence that Lennox was “dangerous” and “unpredictable,” in fact, is so unbelievable as to call into question the integrity of any process it oversees. All the numerous photos of Lennox with the Council dog handler and even this one video in which they try to elicit aggressive behavior show a well-behaved dog. They have continued a policy of secrecy and have never released any video or evidence of Lennox behaving aggressively, which means there likely is none. I mean, if they could have released a video showing this dog being aggressive for five seconds, it would have instantly quieted the furor.

Dogs, of course, are put to death all the time, and pit bulls, who are often trained to fight and bred for that purpose, are some of the most common. I understand this—and I even agree that death is better than them suffering a fighting life. I understand that even though many of these dogs might be re-trained and salvaged, animal rescue organizations don’t have the necessary resources to do so. I also fully understand that dogs who are actually aggressive and pose a threat should be destroyed.

However, Lennox was a family pet, who had lived for five years without ever showing any signs of aggression to anyone. He was seized because Northern Ireland has a law against the existence of “pit-bull type” breeds. The Dog Wardens Department had measured him and deemed him a “pit-bull type,” though later DNA testing would demonstrate that he had no pit bull genes at all, but was rather an American Bulldog-Labrador mix. The dog had been previously neutered, licensed, vaccinated, and microchipped and was kept in a secure fenced enclosure with two other dogs with whom he lived peacefully.

He was taken from his family (including a young girl with health problems, whose reaction is discussed here) and incarcerated in a small, concrete, windowless cage. It must have been like arriving in hell. The family was not allowed to see him, not even to say good-bye. One of the photos accompanying this article shows major hair loss indicating the poor health of Lennox after months in confinement and suggests that the dog was in such bad condition that these official and legal animal abusers feared the consequences of the dog being seen before they killed it. Perhaps the so-called responsible apparatchiks who had “cared” for this dog had even driven it to aggressive behavior in order to justify themselves or had actually killed it long ago.

If I lived in Belfast, I would be calling for a major overturning of government. Yes, based on the case of a dog and what has apparently been the Belfast City Council’s flagrant lying, callousness, and cruelty in dealing both with the dog and the humans that loved it.

This story breaks my heart, and it outrages me near to violence. Animal and child abuse are the only things that ever really get at me in that way, but they do.

Stella at the poison house, right where I would later threaten to punch the landlord in the face, 1988.

My Own Love and Rage

I recall my own physical rage when, years ago, my landlord flooded my apartment with paint remover. It was sheer chance that my cats, Cassie and Stella, survived. I had not been warned that the man was having the paint removed from the bricks on the front of the house, but I happened to be home on that weekday morning, preparing to leave on a trip. As I packed my bag, what I thought was water began streaming down the walls under the window wells in my half-basement apartment. I thought someone was washing those windows. But when I ran out to tell them they were causing flooding, I found a man in a space suit with a high-powered hose.

Another man, who would later explain he was the space man’s assistant, ran forward and warned me back. He told me that the substance would take the skin off my bare feet. When I told him that the substance was flooding my apartment, he admitted to me that legally my landlord was required to notify me, but said that since they were almost finished they would just go ahead and complete their job.

I ran back around the house to my rear door, grabbed up my cats, and put them in their carriers as far from the mess as I could. My next act was to put on my shoes because, by then, the brute petrochemical smell of the paint remover made its unhealthiness clear and it was pouring across my floors as well as down my walls. The removal assistant came around and began helping me move furniture and other belongings out of its path, though it was too late for one desk of papers and numerous pots and pans hanging on the wall in my kitchen.

Then I called my landlord. He refused over the phone to interrupt his workday, but soon enough he stood angrily at my back door to inform me how selfish I was to bother him.

I am pretty sure that I have never at any other time in my life been so angry. I got right up in front of this man, who was several inches taller than me, and told him that if he didn’t get out of my face I would punch him. Though not much of a fighter, I had my right fist clenched tight. He left.

Soon enough, my boyfriend arrived to take me to the airport. I explained to him that he would have to keep Cassie and Stella for the weekend at his apartment. Fortunately, he was glad to do so, and off we went. I would have to deal with the mess when I returned, but at least my cats would be safe. I trembled at what might have happened had the timing been a little different. I loved these cats so much, and they had brought so much joy to my life.

Cassie happy on her new porch, 1992.

Schizoid and Sociopathic Human Behavior

The accumulation of these stories suggests to me something very odd about the human psyche, and that’s the lack of empathy that so many people have.

My idiotic landlord had a cat himself, but couldn’t understand why I would be upset that he’d nearly poisoned mine. Certainly at least some members of the Belfast City Council have pets. And yet, they have no sympathy for pets that they do not know. In fact, they have no sympathy for even the humans who love pets besides their own. The Belfast City Council insists that it acts to protect people when, in fact, it harms people as well as animals in its myopic behavior.

There are also many people who just claim not to like animals. I have often wondered at the cavalier running down of dogs or cats by some supposedly perfectly responsible people. One of my worst moments as a teacher came once when a student in a creative writing class noted that his father hated cats and would often attempt to hit them when driving in his car. I told the student that his father was clearly an asshole, and that we weren’t going to consider him in our conversation. But maybe we should have because there’s an enormous issue here.

If his father hated cats or just didn’t care about the animals he might run over, that’s bad enough, but clearly he didn’t even care about the people who do care about the animals. That is human-aggressive and sociopathic behavior.

Why, I ask you, do we find it so acceptable to live with these people? And how many of them are the same people who circulate cat videos from youtube, never making a connection between the two unreconcilable contradictions in their behavior? How can such love for animals and such hate for them co-exist so close together? Are humans expressing their emotions for each other through these innocent animals? Or is it about something else? Why? Not only why cat videos? But why dog murder? What do these two phenomena have to do with each other?

Bloody Thursday

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Bloody Thursday memorial at the ULWU office, Mason & Beach streets, San Francisco, 2009. Photo by Liz Allardyce.

Today is the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, a dark day of San Francisco’s Maritime Strike in 1934. In yesterday’s many noisy proclamations of gratitude for our freedom in the U.S.A., few probably remembered Bloody Thursday. (I myself had barely heard of it.)

On that day, in the midst of a long-term strike, two men were shot and killed by police as the police attempted to break up strike barricades that prevented the flow of goods to and from the port via the Embarcadero. Later that night, the strikers were forced to withdraw by the use of the California National Guard, but sympathy generated by the funerals of the two dead men changed the general tenor in San Francisco, and soon the International Longshoremen’s Association (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was joined in a general strike by dozens of area unions. Although the ultimate settling of the series of strikes all up and down the West Coast did not grant unions every concession they sought, and though there was violence well beyond Bloody Thursday, it is often credited as being a turning point that helped to establish the power of labor.

The ILWU’s “Why We Continue to Honor Bloody Thursday”
A Washington State history site on the overall West Coast strikes of 1934
Trailer for a PBS film on Bloody Thursday

When I was growing up, my parents both belonged to the National Education Association, but to me it was indistinguishable from the many other professional organizations to which they belonged. It was a time when what unions had accomplished in the previous decades was taken for granted, and I was hardly aware that my parents were union members. No more. Unions are now under attack again in our country, and those of us who rely on them to assure our minimally fair treatment and compensation have cause to be worried.

It is also one of those things that makes my jaw drop with disbelief that anyone who is a working person today can speak out against unions. Not that unions are perfect—they are subject to the same kind of corruption and mis-management as any other kind of human organization—but they are indeed a prime support of the so-called “freedom” that we celebrate, unless, that is, we only celebrate the freedom of the wealthy. More and more, it seems that large segments of our population somehow believe that wealth is justification for anything.

The implication of this, of course, is that the wealthy are actually better than the rest of us and deserve what they have. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of Mitt Romney noting that he “won’t apologize for being successful.” But what does it mean that millions of working-class Americans buy this line of reasoning, at least when it comes along with largely fake “conservative” emotional appeals. (See here for a more thorough analysis of Romney’s finances, just out from Vanity Fair.)

I am stumped by this phenomenon, but I also believe it is related to the positive psychology movement that indicates we have a “choice” about everything that happens to us. And it is in this way that I believe that Oprah, who is a big Obama supporter, nonetheless undermines reality-based politics and policies with her incessant, wealthy-woman insistence on the legitimacy of positive psychology. I guess she needs to believe that she deserves all of her wealth and that the rest of us could have it, too, if we only believed in ourselves. She retains one foot in the real-person world based on her modest beginnings, and therefore she can show some sympathy to others, but still… she’s forgotten too much.

In a recent conversation with an old friend, an incident from my past came up. Once, when I was helping to register voters in a poor neighborhood, one older black woman collapsed wearily into a chair as I went over to help her fill out the form. I gave her a pen and asked if she had any questions about anything the form said or asked. She sat back for a moment and eyed me up and down with clear suspicion on her face. “How is it that you here?” she asked me. “A nice, white lady like you—how is it that you on our side?”

Without hesitating, or even really thinking, I answered her. “Ever since I was twelve years old and diagnosed with diabetes, I have known that people don’t always get what they deserve.”

She nodded and turned back to filling out the form, gripping the pen and bearing down hard.

Truly, though, I don’t know. I had parents and a brother who understood this without having had diabetes, and grandparents who did, too. It was an answer, at least, that the black lady filling out the form could believe in, and that has often made me think about how she needed a reason to trust me. Comprehension of her situation without a bridge was inconceivable to her.

Yet, I remain flabbergasted that people buy into the story that everyone gets what they deserve. I want to start a new mantra:

If you are dumb enough to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, then I can’t wait for you to get what you deserve.

Of course, I know that it’s just as likely that you won’t.

Does anyone understand this belief better than I do? Is there any explanation for people who resent their own lot in life but who are willing to point to the even more downtrodden and say they must deserve it? Is there any effective way to point out the delusion inherent in this line of thought?

In my musings on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, I wonder why so many want to strip away protections from others rather than extending them to more. I wonder why if they don’t feel they have what they deserve in terms of job security and working conditions, they think that others shouldn’t have it either. I wonder that those who have health insurance want it denied to anyone else, and I wonder even more at those without it who don’t want to be “forced” to share the financial consequences of their health risks. I wonder at working people’s susceptibility these days to being divided and conquered by the wealthiest of the wealthy, whose only interest is in maintaining their own power, their freedom to do to the rest of us what they will and to use us for their own ends, their freedom to take away ours.

Freedom in this country at least theoretically means that people have the opportunities to pursue health and happiness. The growing income inequity impinges on that, as does a lack of basic healthcare provisions for all citizens. We need to make sure that we all have those opportunities, not just a select, self-appointed few.

I think in the future, I will celebrate July 5 right along with July 4. They seem to me two sides to the same coin of freedom–freedom to rise a little bit as much as the freedom to accumulate vast wealth unimpeded.

Franz Liszt’s Orpheus & Travels in Time

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While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.

I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.

Goethe’s garden house in Weimar, Germany.

It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)

It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.

We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.

Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.

Memorial Day and Maya Lin

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Most of the time, our remembrances of those who have fought in wars are characterized by respect for bravery and sacrifice and ambivalence about the existence of these wars in the first place. I don’t know whether it’s actually true that previous generations didn’t feel quite so much ambivalence, though that is the story we are told: World War I and World War II were seen as “necessary” and “moral,” whereas once the United States launched itself into Vietnam, and, more recently, the Middle East, our government has had less clear and lofty purposes.

In the U.S., civilians have been sheltered for a long, long time from the brutal day-to-day realities of war. We haven’t had an official war on U.S. soil since the Civil War ended in 1865, and nearly eighty years had already passed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and then landed troops in the Aleutian Islands the following summer. Seventy years have now passed since then, with only 9/11 as a major attack on U.S. soil.

But, as Edna St. Vincent Millay once noted in an untitled poem, “Peace / Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War / Somewhere progresses.”

Indeed, much of the world is caught up in war on any given day.

In my own family, on this day, we honor the memory of my grandfather, Robert Kelly Roney, Jr., who fought was sent to North Africa, then Europe, during World War II and came home full of shrapnel that remained in his body for the duration of his life. He did not often tell the story of his shrapnel, at least not to me. In our family, the women were “protected” from these details.

On the other hand, he would sometimes tell the story of the deceit and betrayal that he experienced at home before his service and after his return from the battlefield in the figure of his father-in-law and employer, Edgar, more commonly referred to in the Southern way by the initials E.A.. While R.K. was gone to the front, E.A.’s vegetable canning factory was investigated for nefarious practices. As part of the “war effort,” the canning company provided a certain portion of its goods to the military—to be shipped overseas as rations or used in bases to feed training soldiers. My grandfather had managed the factory before his departure, and it appalled him to later learn that his father-in-law had established the practice of sending cans filled with water, devoid of food.

R.K. would shake his head when he told this story, and you could always see his amazement at the idea that a soldier in the field might open one of these cans hungry, perhaps very hungry, and remain that way. As a veteran himself, he felt this at a personal level. It was as if his own father-in-law had left him to starve on the battlefield.

Perhaps that was precisely what E.A. hoped—that somehow R.K. would see a familiar can label in the mess hall or trenches and then find nothing. The two of them had been in conflict for some time—over a woman. I didn’t understand the implications of the story for many years, but many’s the time that R.K. would tell us the tale of how, one night as he worked late in the office of the plant, pouring over the books, his pencil rolled off the desk. He leaned down to the floor to retrieve it when a bullet smashed through the window and whirred over his head.

“It must have been just a warning,” he would grin at my brother and me, “because it was only the one shot. But I lay on the floor for quite some time waiting for more.”

We would gasp at the excitement of it, never fully comprehending the breadth and depth of the story. The canning factory would burn to the ground in time to make the investigation about the empty cans moot, my grandfather would suspect insurance-fraud arson by his father-in-law, my grandfather and great-grandfather would part ways, and my grandparents’ marriage would break irrevocably and forever apart.

My grandfather would nod at us and warn us about the wars at home, but not about the wars overseas. Later, when my brother grew up, they would share some war story sessions, but not me. I was left with the domestic discord.

Perhaps that is one reason why the story of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial so stirred me when I was a young woman studying art in college. It’s hard to imagine now the uproar that greeted the news when her design, selected as the best from the 1,442 submissions, was revealed to have been created by a 21-year-old female—one of Asian descent and one still an undergraduate student (albeit at Yale). By now much of the ugly outrage, though mentioned, has been sanitized in writings about the memorial, but in the early 1980s—both after the design selection was revealed and after the memorial was built and opened to public view in 1982—the memorial stood to harsh criticism, racist and sexist commentary, and a deep questioning of what the purpose of a war memorial is.

Perhaps most importantly, several veterans groups spoke out to the effect that the memorial constituted one more insult to their service in a war that the nation had ultimately turned against. Instead of honoring the dead, they felt that its underground structure indicated shame and an attempt to erase their honorable service. (This video is clearly a student project, and flawed, but contains one of the best overviews I could find and the second half shows some footage of the vitriol and misunderstanding to which Lin and her design were subjected.) This was the cause of the inclusion of the more traditional figurative statue that stands behind and off to the side of the Wall memorial. The Three Soldiers statue was added to appease those who wanted a more “heroic” monument. Even that became a battle, as its proponents insisted it should be placed above Lin’s Wall, at its apex, which would have completely defeated her artistic vision of a wound in the earth that would represent the solemnity of the loss of soldiers’ lives. Fortunately, Lin prevailed.

By the time The Three Soldiers was completed and unveiled in 1984, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993, they had taken on an appropriate secondary role. Maya Lin’s work of landscape art had won over almost all who experienced it first-hand, and it has over the years evoked the most amazing response of any war memorial on earth.

I will never forget my first visit to the Wall, shortly after its installation. I remember approaching it along a sidewalk through the park setting of the Mall, past the Washington Monument and through the peaceful green of the trees and grass. Gradually, I went down the long, sloping walk. At first, it felt simply as though I were passing a short retaining wall, but then I was down in the vee itself, the noises of the city dropping away to silence, the wall rising above me, the names shocking in their specificity, my face reflected back at me from the shining, black granite, the names imprinted on my face.

Even then, there were already offerings placed near these specific soldiers’ names. Even then, people searched for the names of their loved ones and caressed them when they found them. Even then, people wept over these names, and took rubbings of the names to take home. Even then people felt more connected to this memorial than to any of the stately ones scattered nearby and towering over the pathways and picnics. This memorial took my breath away. I felt as though I myself had died and was being buried along with every one of the men and women listed there.

The Wall taught the country that it was not the individual veterans who should be held accountable for any war, whether a just or unjust one. It changed our discourse about war and its effects, it publicly personalized the act of memorialization, forced us to face the complexities of a national politics reliant on a background of war. It did a lot, perhaps more than any other single piece of art in the contemporary world, while at the same time demonstrating clearly that gender and ethnicity (and even youthfulness) were not determinative of power or understanding. Alas, it could not also bring about the end of the institution of war itself.

May we all honor those who have served, while at the same time supporting efforts to find another way of negotiating our world.

* * *

It’s difficult to find a good video online that summarizes the impact of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. The one I featured above is from the 25th anniversary of the memorial. There also exists a good full-length documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, directed by Freida Lee Mock and released in 1994.

This video uses some clips from that film to talk about a PBS veterans storytelling project.

Here, there’s a pastiche of several parts of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, with great commentary on the memorial. Goes on to discuss other memorials that Lin has designed, including the Civil Rights Memorial.

This one is a tour through the memorial site on a very cold day. Not professionally made, but a good overview if you’ve never been there. It’s even interesting that the wind, so annoying in the early moments, dies down as the camera enters the deeper part of the memorial, clearly demonstrating its quieting effect.

The offerings left at the memorial are discussed here.

Three Pentagon-sponsored videos that relate to the memorial:
Part 1: about the history and effect of the memorial
Part 2: about veterans who embraced the memorial by designing an offering of a specially made Harley-Davidson motorcycle
Part 3: about schoolchildren visiting the memorial in recent years

A veteran describes the effect of the memorial, as well as Footnote’s development of a program to document veteran stories.

Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

School’s Out & The Little Red Schoolbook

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Today’s song (lyrics here) is a little old anthem to help all my friends get through the next week or so (or more for those in el-hi) to the end of the school year. It took me a long time to realize that teachers feels the same sense of relief at the end of the year that students do.

Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” dates to 1972, but I was still a goody-two-shoes child then and didn’t fully appreciate it until I was in high school and going through my own teenage rebellion. Even then, I was rebellious in a goody-two-shoes way. I wasn’t smoking in the parking lot, at least most of the time, and I wasn’t yet drinking or losing my sexual innocence. I was just disobedient and disrespectful to my teachers.

Watching the above version of “School’s Out,” filmed at a concert in Sweden, made me think of one of my inspirations for my rebellion, The Little Red Schoolbook. (I mistakenly thought it originated in Sweden, but it was Denmark.) The Little Red Schoolbook made the rounds in the U.S. about the same time “School’s Out” did.

I don’t remember much about my own rebellion, except that I got thrown permanently out of geometry class and that the school administrators summoned my parents to confer about how to make me behave. My geometry teacher frequently assigned students who whispered in class to copy out passages from books as extra homework. He often suggested the Bible as a source. When I received this punishment one day, I chose The Little Red Schoolbook as my source—a passage about how authoritarian teachers are actually insecure. “All grown-ups are paper tigers…” “If you’re bored, you only learn how to be bored.” And so on. Mr. Houser greeted this with outrage. The one detail I will never forget is the shade of red his face turned when his eyes fell on the words I had copied out in my prissy schoolgirl hand. I was satisfied with that.

It’s interesting to me how those mixed feelings about school have stayed with me even though I chose a life in education. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy teaching, but I feel a constant tension with these issues of authority. And even my fellow academics, most of whom I believe generally love school more purely than I do, get burned out and look forward to summer or whatever short breaks we may get.

We don’t get cut many breaks in education these days, especially not in public education. When I found a video excerpt of a documentary about the Australian release of The Little Red Schoolbook, called As It Happened: The Book That Shook the World (2007), I was struck by its emphasis on the possibility of students striking. I had just posted on Facebook about the sorry state of higher education funding in the state of Florida and noted that “IMHO it’s time to start thinking about strikes, though we are all too grateful just to have a job.” I guess the rabble-rousing Little Red Schoolbook is still somewhere inside of me, though I have long since been absorbed into the status quo and the nation has backslid in terms of progressive education.

Below is the short strike-related documentary excerpt, and a longer, more general one is here.

Here’s to dreams-soon-to-come-true of summer, freedom, and much-needed rebellion.

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

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I’m in a mood today where I am feeling angry about the rich getting richer. I’m not poor, so I can stand it and live on. But it makes me wonder why it is that some wealthy people (like Bruce Springsteen) and some middle-class people (like me) feel for the poor and wish for more evening out of income and opportunities, whereas others just get greedy.

I encounter this profiteering greed mostly through the arena of healthcare. I don’t have high-brow tastes—I don’t spend a lot of money on cars, or clothes, or jewelry, or furs (god forbid), or expensive vacations, or fancy wine, or recreational drugs, or makeovers, or the many other vanities that I’m not even aware of. I spend money on my health. I’ve been doing a lot of that especially over the past five years, as I’ve encountered several issues with my health.

To me, most of the time, it doesn’t seem as though it’s the physicians who are greedy. They may make a better living than I do, but they mostly seem still fundamentally upper middle-class in spite of (or because of) their BMWs in the parking lot.

But the corporate entities with which I deal make me crazy. Recent examples:

* Today I was told by Florida Hospital that I have to pre-pay more than $400 for a colonoscopy scheduled for next week. (It’s my first ever, and is enough to dread by itself.) My insurer told me that, no, a routine preventive procedure is covered at 100%. We (together) called the hospital back and were told that they charge for a diagnostic rather than routine procedure, even though the latter is what the doctor ordered. “Just in case,” the drone said, “they find something wrong.” So they are charging in advance for a service that I may or may not need and that the doctor didn’t order. How can that be?

Ultimately, of course, they will refund my money. But it will be in their coffers for six to eight weeks or more.

* I mentioned on Monday that my insulin pump company holds me hostage. Every time a pump goes bad, they send me an emergency loaner. But if I don’t buy my next permanent pump from them, they will charge me $3600 for 90 days’ use of the loaner. The pump itself is barely worth that much, as they send old, reconditioned ones.

They also constantly try to force me to sign up for automatic supplies deliveries and billing. But diabetes is not a condition where you take one pill every day for a stable dosage. No, use of insulin varies, and so use of supplies varies. I don’t want to get a new order until I need one. The customer service has become so problematic, however, that it now often takes more than a month between when I order supplies and when they arrive. Several times I have run completely out of supplies and had to call for an emergency overnight order. How can it be that I can get a book or a pair of shoes or some obscure piece of computer gear in two days, but it takes a month or more for vital, life-sustaining medical supplies?

* A few years ago, I was told by a dentist at Greenberg Dental that I needed a crown and perhaps a root canal. Both of these are procedures that my dental insurance was supposed to cover completely. But suddenly Greenberg told me that only their general dentists were in the insurance plan, whereas that those who do the root canals were not. So, I was forced to either pay for the root canal myself or find another dentist who would do it and then send me back to Greenberg for the crown, leaving several days in between when I’d have to walk around with a hole in my tooth. I did the latter, and it was then that Greenberg started adding on charges to the crown. First, they said it was a lab charge, but when I called my insurance, I was told no such charge was allowed. It took several days for Greenberg to back down. “We bill them this way all the time,” I was told. “People always pay it.” Not me. Eventually they took the false charge off the bill, but then they added another. This went back and forth while I had a hole in my tooth. Finally, I settled on a $30 overcharge for an item that had never been listed on any of the earlier estimates. It became clear to me that there was collusion between the health insurance company and Greenberg.

These stories are boring. Sorry. They accumulate and accumulate in my life. Even though they are boring, they make me angrier and angrier every time I encounter such practices.

Our health care system is just fucked up, plain and simple.

Even if you believe that profit is the best incentive for good medical care (I don’t but even if you do), the problem is that you can never talk to anyone who makes decisions. You get customer service representatives who spout platitudes, who tell you “that’s our policy” or “that’s just the way it is.” There is never anything they can do to change it. And there is never any use appealing to a sense of right and wrong or a sense of decency.

These people are paid to insulate the people at the top who are reaping all the financial benefit of these predatory and unethical practices. Every time I think of them, I think of Michael Moore. Michael Moore has his flaws, but, by god, he was right to go for the executives in Roger and Me and in Sicko. But notice that he could get at far fewer of them by the time of Sicko. (Roger and Me was released in 1989 and Sicko in 2007.) The wealthy protect themselves from the rest of us so effectively nowadays that there’s seemingly little we can ever do to affect their unconscionable greed.

And healthcare is just not like other, non-vital services and goods. Shopping is impossible or at least very inconvenient, if not dangerous.

I will encourage my gastroenterologist to establish a relationship with a testing center that has more responsible and fair billing practices, and to move his tests away from Florida Hospital. I will raise hell on the phone with the corporate shills at the front line of “customer service” just on the off-chance that, like politicians’ offices, they keep track of “customer reactions.”

It doesn’t seem like enough. I languish today in my inability to change the practices of an industry that affects my life all too much.

You can watch Sicko in its entirety here if you haven’t seen it already: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/sicko/.

But at least watch the trailer to remind yourself that things have not improved since Moore made Sicko. In fact, the profiteering continues to rise, and the healthcare industry continues to use unethical practices that make it look less profitable than it is.

How do people get so corrupt? Why do our laws no longer protect us, the people, but only the powers that be? We live in dangerous, dangerous times.