“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Creator Gods: Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Five

[For Franz Wright]

I have said before that you (or I) cannot make up a language.  Children may play at making up a secret language, but what they are doing is creating a code, using different words or sounds in place of the words used in their daily language.  Scholars, such a J.R.R. Tolkien or Anthony Burgess, may invent languages, but these are a sort of mathematical exercise:  no one speaks the language these men invented for their fictions.  The one extended and widely supported attempt to create a language, the Esperanto movement of the mid-twentieth century, failed completely.  Today the language is spoken only by small clubs who meet and use it as if it were a parlor game.

Who creates a language? We do. Not I.  Not you and I.  We.  We are as real as – I might argue more real than – any “I” or any number of “I”s.  The group (village, community, tribe) precedes the individual, both logically and historically.  Individuals exist only as abstractions of relationships.


There is, however, one part of language that an individual can invent:  names.  Bell could call his aural recording device a “phonograph.”  Larry Page and Sergey Brin could name their website “Google”.  The power of naming is so great that it is rightly considered a gift from God:  Adam is given the task of naming all the creatures in the Garden.  Naming is his only work before original sin drives him and Eve to labor in their respective ways.

It is important to note the one significant limitation on this power:  you cannot name yourself.  If you do, it will never be more than a nickname or a “stage name” or a “nom de plume”.  Those who know that you made it up will always say that “it’s not his real name.”  You must receive your real name, since your name is a sign of your relatedness.
The power to name is also the power to command.  Repeat the name of a demon the ritually prescribed number of times, and the demon will be summoned to appear before you.  Jacob wrestled with the angel demanding to know his name so that he could have power over the angel and summon him at will.  This power explains the Biblical prohibition against speaking the name of the Lord, making it the unspeakable name, whereas the name of the Evil One “is legion” – i.e., there are a million of them.

I have read that George W. Bush always gave the people around him nicknames.  He renamed them as an expression of his power over them, as a King renames a knight (“I dub thee -- ”) or as the church renames a nun when she takes her vows.  His lackeys apparently felt flattered by Bush’s condescension, but his true peers, such as Angela Merkel, were offended.


Poetry – and religion – offer us something like new languages, and examining their scope and limitations in this light helps us understand more of the nature of language.

Religions in general and their sacred texts in particular are what I might call “hyper-languages”.  They use ordinary language to attempt naming and explaining those aspects of human experience that are inexplicable in words.  The mysteries of Creation, of birth and death and life after death, of the injustice of life, its horrors and its beauty, are all the subjects of religious discourse.  But the language created by the prophets, by the writers of sacred texts, and by the inventors of religions, are languages of icons and symbols.  They use narrative, metaphor, and imagery, which are themselves all conveyed in ordinary language, to attempt the communication of ideas about that which the human mind cannot entirely understand and which it cannot therefore represent in words.

Poetry, too, uses ordinary words to convey images that speak the unspeakable name of God, that express the yearning of the poet’s soul, and that portray the life of the world as it truly is, beyond the limitations of the human mind.  Joseph Campbell said that he thought “Religion is really just a misunderstanding of poetry”, and I would add that the converse is also true, that poetry speaks a personal religion, that every poem is a sacred text.


Here is Wallace Stevens talking about the reality behind the perceptions in our minds, about the things of the world as they are beyond our thoughts:

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Questioning Youth

I suspect that most people would find me bad company – Lord knows I would.  I criticize or denounce just about anything that everyone else believes or – worse than believing – takes for granted.  I insist on questioning the most widely accepted values and treat things that give others comfort or even joy – religion, entertainment, political ideologies – as nonsense to be refuted.  As a result, I offend everyone sooner or later.  Doesn’t that sound charming?

One of the unquestioned values of American society (I cannot call anything American “culture”) is the value of youth.  Youth is thought to be desirable, beautiful, and creative.   I have scoffed at this belief in the value of youth for at least four decades.

First, even half an hour’s honest reflection on the memory of one’s own youth forces one to admit to having behaved foolishly almost all the time or, on those occasions when one behaved reasonably or perhaps wisely, to have done so by chance.  The choices and decision of the young cannot be wise because the young can foresee only a tiny fraction of the potential consequences of each choice.  They who make decisions without weighing as many of the consequences of their action as possible might turn out to be lucky, but they cannot be wise.   Nothing can be learned from the example of such a person.  Youth is necessarily ignorant and therefore given to folly.

Second, the beauty of youth is after all shallow and meaningless.  There is nothing to be learned from clear skin, firm flesh, or plentiful hair.  But the beauty of old people –
think of Dominique Sanda --

or of Sean Connery --

whose willingness to age honestly, without the supposedly age-defying self-mutilation of plastic surgery, has given them faces not only still beautiful but full of the power born of having lived, faces that manifest self-respect and therefore command the respect of others.  We can learn much from the beauties of age.

Third and finally, it is absurd to place value on something you can only lose.  Only that which is attainable can be a source of value, and no one has ever or will ever grow younger.  All we can do -- and must do if we are lucky -- is grow older.  Youth is fleeting and ephemeral; it is not something to value.  It is absurd – if it isn’t madness -- to hold youth in high esteem.


The other day I had as a passenger in my cab the young fellow who lives next door to me.  He is a friendly, considerate, attractive, and intelligent young man.  I found myself grinning while we drove because it seemed that he would comment on the sexual allure of at least one man in every block we passed.  And when he talked about the people whom he was on his way to visit, he would describe their sexual prowess or their sexual endowment.  I kept grinning to myself because I remembered being young and gazing after just about every moderately attractive man I saw in passing.  The first and foremost fact about any man I knew was always his sexual allure.  And I grinned because I simultaneously realized that no such thought had passed through my mind in quite a long time.

I smiled to think what a relief it is that sex just doesn’t matter to me that much anymore.  I also smiled because I had been reminded again that I had once been a different man than I am now, a man moved by different passions, professing different beliefs, and worried by different problems.  Life had once been a matter of different needs and different obstacles from those which now force me onward and block my path.

Is the illusion of continuity and of identity through time, the sense, that is, of selfhood and individuality, really only an illusion imagined and not a thing perceived?  Do we find in our memory of ourselves only those moments that correspond to the now in which we are living while we cast a blind eye on all those things in our past which are alien to that which we at this moment believe ourselves to be?


I notice another difference between my young neighbor and myself, something more deeply rooted, more significant, and powerful than mere sex.  He is a creature of his electronic tools to a degree that is not merely foreign to me but is actually a source (for me) of alienation and disdain.  I watch him as if across a great distance that I feel divides me not only from my neighbor but from all of his contemporaries as well.  And in  conversations that I have had with others of my age, I find that they feel the same: we find that "kids these days" seem to focus their attention almost exclusively on their communication and computing devices and to ignore the people, places, and things in the real world around them.

Interestingly enough, my work driving a taxi gives me opportunities to listen in on conversations among members of the younger generation, whom I think of as the app-addled or mobile-mad.  I can think of a couple of occasions when I discovered things about how they regard smartphones, tablets, pads, etc.  On one of those occasions I happened to remark that many people do not want to have smart phones.  Such an attitude mystified the young man with whom I was speaking.  Why on earth would anyone feel that way?  To him the dislike of and refusal to use these devices seemed unimaginably irrational.  On the other occasion another young man said that he preferred using apps on his phone to making a phone call to do the same thing (such as hail a cab, order take-out, and the like) because he just did not like having to talk to a person.  In both cases our brief conversations ended with comments by my young interlocutors that people who do not like smart phones and apps are old and will die out fairly quickly anyway.  Thus we dinosaurs go unheeded: we are not, after all, a valuable demographic for manufacturers and service providers to consider.


I had the great good fortune of taking courses on the art of film in my freshman year at college.  I remember that when we studied German films of the early twentieth century, in particular Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympiad, the professor remarked that the movies made in Germany during those decades, with their yearning for Wagnerian heroes, seemed to be preparing the country’s psyche for the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority.  So for the last 40 years I have been looking at the box-office hits, the blockbusters, the mythic tales being told in our movies and asking myself for what future were we as a society preparing.

First came the disaster movies, e.g., “Airport!” and “The Towering Inferno”:  taken together, they provide the blueprint for the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Then came “Rambo” and the endless string of Schwarzenegger muscle-heroes, from “Conan, the Barbarian” on down, all quite hysterical if understood as descendants of the campy ur-gay Hercules (and Jason, et al.) movies of the 1950s:  these willfully violent "heroes" seem today to be clearly the inspirational myths for all the mass-murdering gunmen from Columbine to Sandy Hook to ____________ (fill in the blank from this morning’s news).  Those movies in turn morphed into the “Terminator”/“Matrix” genre of "the-machines-take-over-the-world" stories.

These last are becoming our social reality today.  As I will lay out in the near future, iphones, Google glasses, and smartphones are indeed taking over our lives.  The only difference is that in the real world these machines are not independent creatures but rather the tools of corporate capitalists and of the government.  These technological toys are in fact instruments of social control being turned against us by people who, for my money, might as well be machines themselves.

The day of the jackal, indeed.

O yes – and let me close by reminding you that Mussolini defined fascism as “the perfect marriage of the corporation and the state.”

The true patriots are named Manning and Snowden.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Guest Lecturer

After close to a year and a half of blabbing on here by myself, I now introduce my first guest speaker, ch, the long-time friend to whom I referred in the previous post, “Persons Unknown”.  After reading that post, ch, a retired history teacher, wrote to me about the history of the Constitution, confirming that the interests and purposes I found in its language were indeed those of the Founding Fathers.  With his permission, I here publish the email he sent to me.  Bracketed remarks printed in italics are my comments on his thoughts.

“About the formation of the Constitution:  what really propelled the Framers to meet in Philadelphia was Shay's Rebellion, which had just occurred in Massachusetts.  Shay was a disgruntled farmer who was protesting taxes levied upon him by the elites in state government.

“At the time, the federal government, initially created by the Articles of Confederation, really couldn't compel states to pay their requested share of taxes to the federal government, so the federal government was weak.  So it could afford no real army and could not put down the rebellion.  The federal government at that time also did not provide for a president, so there was no one to lead the non-existent troops against the very existent rebellion.  Fortunately for the powers that be, however, Massachusetts was well funded, could afford to have a militia, and was possessed of a strong governor -- and it was curtains for Shay.

“Well, the wealthy across the land saw the handwriting on the wall, and quickly came to the conclusion that if they didn't get a strong central state together fast to protect their goods, they might have their purses swiped by the common man.  Intolerable!  So they (ALL WEALTHY MEN) met in Philly, in the summer of 1789 I think it was, to remedy the weaknesses in the federal government.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

“What emerged was a new central government possessed of the powers to tax, the powers to declare war, the power to regulate the post, the power to regulate weights and measures, and the ability to regulate commerce.  Now there was new daddy in the room.  And the first real test for dad was when George Washington and his boys in their new shiny uniforms rode off to heavy-handedly suppress a bunch of down at the heels whisky distillers in Pennsylvania who didn't want to have their trade controlled by no ‘guv-mint’.  (This was the ill-fated Whisky Rebellion.) 

“To be fair however, the Constitution created a federal government of limited powers.  All powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people, and the federal government can only regulate what it is expressly articulated in Article I Section 8.  It can however, pass all laws ‘necessary and proper’ to implement the ‘Express Powers’.

[I’d say that is the detail in which the Devil is said to reside.]

“The clauses most frequently stretched by the ‘necessary and proper’ clause are the war powers, the tax powers, and the famous commerce clause.

[See my remarks on the program I heard on “Community Rights in my Persons Unknown post.]

“The federal government is also a government of checks and balances and separation of powers, devices designed to prevent (in theory) any one from running away with all the power.  And Madison thought at the time that, due to the size of the new country, it would be impossible for any one faction, out of the many in such a large land, to rise to supremacy.  In a sense he thought that size does matter.

“Furthermore, all revenue bills had to arise in the House, the branch most beholden to the rank and file.  

“However, a quick qualification:  all three branches are insulated from the will of the people.  The president is elected by the Electoral College.  Until the passage of the 17th Amendment, Senators were chosen by state legislators.  And federal judges are appointed for life so that they can be immune from popular opinion.

“Also, when first ratified, the Constitution did not contain a Bill of Rights.  However, when Washington promised that he'd get one passed the first day in office, which he did, that soothed a lot of feathers.  Of note, Madison wrote both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  For 5'2" he was a big man.

“Personal Comment:  I really like Washington, Adams, Madison and most of all that old geezer Franklin.  I really get the feeling that they were just feeling their way, and trying to create a new land of opportunity while trying as much as possible to protect individual liberty.  (Of note, I'm using ‘liberty’ in its modern sense, but at the time ‘liberty’ meant the ability to use ones property unencumbered by anyone else.)  But he whom I despise is Hamilton.  Fortunately Aaron Burr had his way with him.

“So, when someone says that they are a member of the Federalist Society
(isn't Chief Justice Robertsa member?) what they are advocating is a strong central state that can maintain order and protect property.

"Can ya dig it?

“Cheers, ch

[Roberts is or was a member not only of the Federalist Society but probably of Opus Dei as well.]

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Persons Unknown

Ever and always look at the language.

Consider the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  The word “person” denotes a body.  We have many names for what we are, both individually and collectively, but when we speak of a person, we mean a body.  That is why a performer advertises a concert as “Live and In Person.”

Furthermore, a corporation (corpus being the Latin word for body) is “a person in the eyes of the law.”  Thus, says the Supreme Court, a corporation’s right of free speech cannot be trampled by campaign finance laws.  Though a corporation’s decisions and actions may be taken by the men and women who are its officers, it is the corporation that has legal standing and legal rights and responsibilities.  Jamie Diamond (may he rot in hell) may be the Chief Executive Officer, but it is Morgan Stanley Chase that stands before the law and must pay the penalties: Diamond himself gets off without losing a penny of his billions in “compensation” for his O-so-valuable service to the great person, the corporation.

So what exactly could a Clinton or Bush or Obama or Reagan mean when they carry on about “personal” responsibility?  They must mean that the banks should pay to the government some fraction of what they have stolen from the people.  Certainly the officers of the corporation – or the politicians, generals, et al. – are not the “persons” to be forced to pay.  The welfare recipient to whom the State sends an extra check by mistake, and who (“FRADULENTLY” they cry) buys food with that money, must be made to pay full restitution for the welfare recipient is the person responsible.

Rumsfeld sat before a Senate committee and said that he took “full responsibility” – and nothing happened.

“I’ll believe that a corporation is a person,” goes the joke, “when Texas executes one.”


The Supreme Court has struck down limitations on the amounts of money individuals can waste by contributing to political campaigns.  The Left is up in arms, wailing over the corpse of “democracy”, but I think that the Court has indeed ruled in accordance with the Constitution.  The Constitution is not the Declaration of Independence, that troubling bit of romantic rhetoric.

The Constitution is the Law of the Land.  Enshrined therein are a couple of principles that the Left would rather forget.  The first is that only men who own real estate should be able to vote.  The second is that, for the sake of counting the population represented by each such landowner, Negroes owned by the landowner should each be counted as three-fifths of a “person.”  If you are worried about buying votes, you might consider that the Constitution allows that anyone who buys more slaves thereby buys more representation in Congress.

Unpleasant as it may be to hold these principles in view while considering the meaning of the Law of the Land, anything else is dishonest.  And holding them in view one must admit that the government of these United States has been since its inception an institution for the wealthy – in the 18th Century for the landed gentry and in the 21st for the moneyed.  After all, a government exists to regularize the affairs of and adjudicate disputes among the owners of things (including, in the case of our constitution, the owners of people.)

Folks on the Left are fond of pointing out, rightly, that one cannot legislate morality.  Indeed, the morality of a nation is not the provenance of its government but rather of its church or (again in our case) its churches.  On a still lower plane, customs, mores, and etiquette govern most daily interactions among men and women, and disagreements about these things are usually hashed out within the disputants’ circles of family and friends.  The mechanisms which regulate everyday social behavior are ones of reputation, shame, gossip, and “the court of public opinion.”

It is often said that “possession is 90% of the law.”  Many take that sentence to mean one who has hold of something is 90% of the way to establishing his or her rightful ownership of it.  In fact it means that 90% of the laws on the books concern questions of ownership: how it is established, maintained, and transferred and what an owner’s rights and obligations are vis a vis that which is owned.  The Constitution sets forth the rules by which laws are enacted, executed, and adjudicated in the United States.  As such, the document really governs only the affairs of the owners of things.  In short, our government exists to act as umpire or referee in conflicts that might arise among those who control of wealth of our society.

Put another way, “capitalist democracy” is a system in which all capitalists have a vote.  The government does not concern itself with the lives of the poor; so why should they have a voice in running the government?  And thus shouldn’t the wealthy be free to use their wealth to shape the government? 


Once again, I have reconnected with a friend from my youth whom I have not seen or corresponded with for decades thanks to this blog.  Today I had lunch with CH, a friend from my high school and college days, who informed me of the origin of the personhood of corporations.  “It seems,” my friend said, “that in the 1890's (I think the case was Santa Clara v Southern Pacific) a judge in the pocket of Southern Pacific bought the argument that the 14th Amendment should be construed to define corporations as "persons" and therefore to grant them the protections afforded by the Bill Of Rights.”

[I note that Southern Pacific was at that time the personal possession of Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins.  So the Big Four, as they were known, were well served by their judicial creature, who created a “person” by the name of Southern Pacific who could be liable for everything the four did, leaving them immune to prosecution. ]

“What's also odd,” CH went on to say, “ is that the current court considers themselves to be "originalists" yet they buy the argument that the 14 Amendment, which was enacted to protect the recently freed slaves, should be interpreted to allow to give personhood to corporations.”

And I might add another oddity:  the word "person" comes from the Greek word for "mask".  The corporation as a mask behind which individuals can hide and thereby escape liability for their actions --

As I said at the beginning, "Ever and always look at the language."

See also “Democratic Capitalism”.