Cruel DeVos

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I.

TRUE STORY. MY WIFE teaches grade school. In addition to the stories I can tell, and the ones my many friends who teach or are married to teachers can tell, during the school year, I hear a new one practically every day.

Here’s one: several teachers noticed that three siblings (third grade and younger) were digging through the garbage at school. Turns out they were looking for food to take home for the weekend since there would not otherwise be enough.

Here’s another: one of my wife’s fifth grade students broke down in class one day, and explained she was having trouble studying for the standardized test—a whole other topic—because she hadn’t eaten and was hungry. A few teachers pitched in to get her fed, and take some snacks home. Turns out her family was homeless and living in a motel.

My wife, a veteran with more than a decade’s experience in public schools, is not easily upset: it’s been her practice for years to keep extra non-perishables in her desk for the kids who can’t concentrate on empty stomachs.

This is not Appalachia, or even the most desperate inner city; it’s a county less than thirty minutes from the nation’s capital (the state of which is itself a never-ending metaphor for all we need know when it comes to equality, opportunity and our collective genius at hurting the most innocent and vulnerable amongst us).

Another story. Several years ago, she noticed one her students hoarding ketchup packets from the cafeteria. He was bringing them home in case there was nothing to eat.

(The Swiftian irony of this last anecdote is one that surely would have Reagan smirking in his grave.)

The worst one? For me, it’s the story of the student who claimed he wasn’t hungry at lunch time. Because he was embarrassed. He didn’t want to admit he had no money. My wife could literally hear his stomach rumbling as he pretended he wasn’t famished the same way Republicans pretend they care about people.

ii.

Never mind Trump. One need look no further than Betsy DeVos to understand the true depravity of the contemporary state of all-things GOP.

(Yes, Trump is the oozing pus from the Id of America’s underbelly, but if there’s any silver lining, it’s that light does expose the rot. Our Toddler-in-Chief has emboldened an element of our society we thought had either fizzled out or at least was content to spew its spleen safely—and anonymously—online. The smart money says this is not a fad or a trend; it’s a virus that’s required centuries to fester and one megalomaniacal half-fascist to bring to a feverish boil. It will, nevertheless, be flushed out and retired to the sewers of our lower frequencies, hopefully forever and sooner than later. Or, even more optimistically, Trump continues to do damage to the “brand” we figured George W. Bush had so indelibly done, and our next contender can do what Obama never had the heart or stomach to bother with: making a compelling case for Democratic politics with a heavy side dish of populism. As we know, first the Tea Party, and then The Donald wormed into the post-2008 vacuum and stole all the oxygen, which halfway explains why we’re where we are, today.)

But to fully understand the next-level sociopathy of our present administration, we must look at DeVos. Unqualified? Duh. Ignorant? Yes. Not only wealthy, but married to the King of Pyramid schemes that prey upon the poor and gullible? Even Dickens at his most heavy-handed would throw this away as clichéd opportunism. But there it is; only in America can we have and know so much and insist on making it worse for everyone but the .01%

iii.

Did you catch any footage of DeVos’s hearing? If you have a strong stomach, you should, especially if you think the criticism of her has been over the top.

How about the footage of her speed-walking away from a group of protestors?

These fanatics have been insulated by their money and blissful ignorance so long they’re flummoxed (and genuinely frightened) by the slightest resistance. And all of them (look at ongoing embarrassment of Republicans scurrying away from their own town halls, or The King of the Cowardly Cretins, Mitch McConnell, doing everything possible to avoid any public scrutiny of his healthcare bill) have no means to debate or defend themselves when challenged. Classic bullies.

Take DeVos’s brief confrontation with some citizens who dared oppose her, on principle. What an opportunity: she was on camera and could have totally owned the moment, engaged these people in conversation and made them look unreasonable if they shouted her down. Instead, she retreated like the rat she is. (By the way, this isn’t just normal political resistance from one party to another; that Trump even appointed her—and she accepted the gig—is an act of aggression, a calculated outrage to dismantle the very department she’s long had her sights on, and intended to demoralize opponents.)

iv.

How is any of this different from the way Republicans have rolled since the day Reagan declared government our enemy? It’s pretty much the same, only more so. And that’s where things have crossed all lines of normalcy and decency. Circa 2017, it’s no longer sufficient to merely reinforce the wealthiest and most powerful; the GOP, with virtually no internal dissension, is on the public record (with votes, statements and, importantly, no comments to the contrary) advocating policy that literally takes away the (drastically underfunded) funds from those with the least, and disguise it as “choice”. Indeed, in another moment that Dickens, Orwell and Kafka, tag-teaming with three typewriters and ten bottles of tequila, couldn’t muster the imagination to invent, DeVos invoked segregated schools as a testament to the empowering benefits of “choice”. (No, seriously.)

Extolling the alleged virtues of the free market, no matter what contrary evidence accrued, mostly worked wonders for the Republican party these last few decades. We now are at a point where they’re acting, in concert, to raid the already paltry provisions of the disenfranchised. And to what end? Funding infrastructure or some national emergency? Of course not. Exactly what they’re after is simple, and truly staggering: to ensure that those born with every advantage will have still more opportunity and money. Revolting in the extreme.

But therein lies an opportunity. Audacity of this level is so breathtaking it’s negligent to become cynical; unacceptable to be indifferent. We’re at a threshold moment, where otherwise apathetic spectators must determine if they are, at long last, disgusted with the direction we’re headed. Doing nothing, at this point, is abetting evil. (And this includes not just going toe-to-toe with the True Believers across the aisle—many of whom, of course, stand to be most drastically impacted by all these reverse Robin Hood policies—but the pampered and recalcitrant nitwits who still insist Hillary Clinton was, at best, the lesser of two evils, or remain third party or bust when we see, daily, the disparity between what Democrats and Republicans do, when in power.) Advice: frame an argument, for once, that puts liberals on the right side of Scripture (what a concept!) and put the stakes in stark relief: it’s no longer a shell game, no more talk of trickle down; this is straight-up thievery, taking from those with the least. I think Jesus said a thing or two about this.

Finally, it’s tempting, even irresistible, to catalog the myriad flaws, hypocrisies, moral failures and rank opportunism that has virtually defined DeVos’s existence. But it’s more effective to look at her as the caricature she is. She represents the faceless figure epitomizing the worst Republican impulses, all untethered by our incurious, incompetent Tweeter-in-Chief. Never mind him, or her, and remember it’s not who she is, but what she represents. DeVos, and her merry band of nihilists, are the boot in the face Orwell warned us about. That is what must be resisted, mocked, defeated.

A final story. One of my wife’s friends, who teaches high school, had a student who was arrested for shoplifting. It turns out he had been doing this from a young age. He was stealing food. To eat.

Think of this kid, and all the other ones, especially the ones with increasingly fewer advocates who can defend or assist them.

Rage against this Machine.

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2012: When Rhetoric Meets Reality (Revisited)

I read the news today. Oh boy.

Looks like one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry is beginning to spring a rather unseemly leak.

Sounds like art may have been imitating life a tad too closely when Travolta, as Vincent Vega, maintained that “I’ve given a million ladies a million foot massages and they all meant something.”

Jokes aside, what a sordid spectacle that Travolta is even in the position of having to defend himself. (If any of what is being alleged is true…super-size the spectacle with a side of self-loathing.)

If, to avoid confessing (and/or confronting) the fact that he is gay, Travolta has been reduced to back-room escapades that involve coercion, money and power employed in all the wrong ways, it probably still says something more about our society than it does about him. Yes, today we can stand back and take legitimate pride, as a nation, in how far we’ve come that the biological fact of being gay is no longer something to feel ashamed or secretive about. I’m certainly not the only person from my generation who can easily recall that less than two decades ago, gay-bashing was de rigeur in virtually any stand-up’s routine. If you doubt that, just consider two of the most famous and wealthy comedians of the late ’80s: Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay (the fact that both of these guys have broken more gaydars than Ted Haggard is beside the point).

Which brings us to what happened yesterday in North Carolina.

I guess it should not be too surprising, given the recent bubble and squeak over contraception (more on that manufactured and ultimately self-defeating controversy here.). It’s still illuminating to see people so motivated by an issue that affects them, on a personal level, so little. It’s not like we don’t have an employment crisis or ever-growing evidence of global warming or, well, take your pick of problems (old and new) that we could address for our collective benefit. Or perhaps that is precisely the point: because things are increasingly chaotic and uncertain (like they where yesterday, or last year, or last century) people instinctively focus on the trivial things they control, however tenuously. It does not require a degree in Sociology or a passing familiarity with American history to make easy if unfortunate correlations between what is happening –the things being said, the ways they are being said, the circumstances they are being said under– has happened consistently in our country. Leaving religion and faith out of it for a moment, even though that’s impossible, it’s telling to note that the signs being held at these rallies (even the misspelled ones) are using the same smug certainty, animosity and illogic that decorated the signs held up during the Civil Rights movement and, before that, the Women’s Suffrage movement. Not similar; identical. Even Andrew Dice Clay could put the pieces together.

Which brings us back to the beginning: religion.

Matters of belief and actions vs. words aside, most of us can concur that religion giveth and religion taketh away. When it gives comfort, inspiration and increases the capacity for love, I can speak for myself (and many millions of others, I feel safe to presume) when I say this is all good and well. When it gives incentive –or cover– for exclusion, intolerance or increases the capacity for hate, this is what people (like me) talk about when they talk about the danger of a fundamentalist mindset (nevermind, for the moment, the myriad hypocrisies inherent in any person’s life who claims to follow the infallible word of the bible because, just to take one example, if you own the computer necessary to read these words, or are reading them on the screen you work at to make paychecks, you’ve already parted ways with Christ).

Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil…

In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who read, much less seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.

This does not leave much room for interpretation, no matter how consistently the dominant themes of this man’s teachings are neglected or appropriated for our unevolved times. This is where the scripture and the rule-following (and the rule creating) men in charge of laws and wars miss the soul of the words they claim to worship. Jesus, ideal as an inspiration if not the revealed truth. How can you not get behind this example, this idea that is larger than any individual faith, no matter how sincerely held?

Without Love I Am Nothing: this is the sort of sense you can spend many Sundays (some folks spend their entire lives) trying to understand in a church. It sounds good when you hear it, and it may even be inspiring if man on the altar conveys it with sufficient humility. But like so many aspects of organized religion, it’s when the rhetoric matches reality in the streets that it affects the soul.

And our soul, as a nation, is in need of healing –and awareness– if we continue to kid ourselves that there is a spiritual foundation for institutionalized injustice. If we allow ourselves to hide behind what is, at best, an inconsistent message that was obviously lost in translation. If we fail to recognize that those who translated these words owned slaves and stoned their wives and fought wars for land in God’s name, thousands of years ago. If what is happening today does not remind us how much has changed, and how little.

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2012: When Rhetoric Meets Reality

I read the news today. Oh boy.

Looks like one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry is beginning to spring a rather unseemly leak.

Sounds like art may have been imitating life a tad too closely when Travolta, as Vincent Vega, maintained that “I’ve given a million ladies a million foot massages and they all meant something.”

Jokes aside, what a sordid spectacle that Travolta is even in the position of having to defend himself. (If any of what is being alleged is true…super-size the spectacle with a side of self-loathing.)

If, to avoid confessing (and/or confronting) the fact that he is gay, Travolta has been reduced to back-room escapades that involve coercion, money and power employed in all the wrong ways, it probably still says something more about our society than it does about him. Yes, today we can stand back and take legitimate pride, as a nation, in how far we’ve come that the biological fact of being gay is no longer something to feel ashamed or secretive about. I’m certainly not the only person from my generation who can easily recall that less than two decades ago, gay-bashing was de rigeur in virtually any stand-up’s routine. If you doubt that, just consider two of the most famous and wealthy comedians of the late ’80s: Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay (the fact that both of these guys have broken more gaydars than Ted Haggard is beside the point).

Which brings us to what happened yesterday in North Carolina.

I guess it should not be too surprising, given the recent bubble and squeak over contraception (more on that manufactured and ultimately self-defeating controversy here.). It’s still illuminating to see people so motivated by an issue that affects them, on a personal level, so little. It’s not like we don’t have an employment crisis or ever-growing evidence of global warming or, well, take your pick of problems (old and new) that we could address for our collective benefit. Or perhaps that is precisely the point: because things are increasingly chaotic and uncertain (like they where yesterday, or last year, or last century) people instinctively focus on the trivial things they control, however tenuously. It does not require a degree in Sociology or a passing familiarity with American history to make easy if unfortunate correlations between what is happening –the things being said, the ways they are being said, the circumstances they are being said under– has happened consistently in our country. Leaving religion and faith out of it for a moment, even though that’s impossible, it’s telling to note that the signs being held at these rallies (even the misspelled ones) are using the same smug certainty, animosity and illogic that decorated the signs held up during the Civil Rights movement and, before that, the Women’s Suffrage movement. Not similar; identical. Even Andrew Dice Clay could put the pieces together.

Which brings us back to the beginning: religion.

Matters of belief and actions vs. words aside, most of us can concur that religion giveth and religion taketh away. When it gives comfort, inspiration and increases the capacity for love, I can speak for myself (and many millions of others, I feel safe to presume) when I say this is all good and well. When it gives incentive –or cover– for exclusion, intolerance or increases the capacity for hate, this is what people (like me) talk about when they talk about the danger of a fundamentalist mindset (nevermind, for the moment, the myriad hypocrisies inherent in any person’s life who claims to follow the infallible word of the bible because, just to take one example, if you own the computer necessary to read these words, or are reading them on the screen you work at to make paychecks, you’ve already parted ways with Christ).

Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil…

In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who read, much less seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.

This does not leave much room for interpretation, no matter how consistently the dominant themes of this man’s teachings are neglected or appropriated for our unevolved times. This is where the scripture and the rule-following (and the rule creating) men in charge of laws and wars miss the soul of the words they claim to worship. Jesus, ideal as an inspiration if not the revealed truth. How can you not get behind this example, this idea that is larger than any individual faith, no matter how sincerely held?

Without Love I Am Nothing: this is the sort of sense you can spend many Sundays (some folks spend their entire lives) trying to understand in a church. It sounds good when you hear it, and it may even be inspiring if man on the altar conveys it with sufficient humility. But like so many aspects of organized religion, it’s when the rhetoric matches reality in the streets that it affects the soul.

And our soul, as a nation, is in need of healing –and awareness– if we continue to kid ourselves that there is a spiritual foundation for institutionalized injustice. If we allow ourselves to hide behind what is, at best, an inconsistent message that was obviously lost in translation. If we fail to recognize that those who translated these words owned slaves and stoned their wives and fought wars for land in God’s name, thousands of years ago. If what is happening today does not remind us how much has changed, and how little.

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Happy Birthday, Darwin!

PRINCETON, NJ — On the eve of 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way. These attitudes are strongly related to education and, to an even greater degree, religiosity.

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And if you think that’s depressing, get a load of this.

I think:

Sometimes, it’s better not to think.

Ignorance, after all, is bliss and a little ignorance goes quite a long way, especially in this hyperspace, computer-chip information overload moment in time. A moment that is in perpetual fast-forward. Time, it seems, can scarcely keep up with itself.

          On occasion,  (every day, more or less), you find yourself overwhelmed by a compulsion to comprehend the things you cannot control which have complete control over you. Things like aging and illness and quantum space and the mysteries of compassion. For starters. The things that only poets understand, and who understands poets? What do they know? They’re poets for God’s sake. Each person, it seems, must ultimately develop a progressive inability to understand this world in which they suffer and survive. And maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is for the best. If the necessary miracles of evolution did not ensure an innate ignorance, anarchy would ensue. If people understood that, for instance, the dust particles that annoyingly had to be cleaned every so often were primarily microscopic flakes of dead skin, or all those germs that thrived in elevators and restrooms and pay phones, or second-hand smoke and car exhaust, what our collective assault on the ozone layer was doing, think of all the would-be Robinson Crusoes, setting sail for the deserted islands that no longer exist. They simply aren’t there.

The future, as it always seemed to be, was at once exciting and intimidating to consider. And yet: thinking about the reality, the inevitability of the 21st century, it doesn’t seem altogether possible. Can’t we just slow things down a bit and grapple with the century that we let get away from us sometime back in the mid-to-late 1800’s? The Pony Express, the phone, then the phonograph, then pasteurization, planes, product assembly lines, proton bombs, Apartheid, All The President’s Men, politics as usual. Prosperity. Privation. Privacy. The Internet. Enough.

After a century of explosions—population, death, wealth, squalor, atomic, apathy, ethnic cleansing, e-mail—is there anything left to establish? Haven’t we already outdone ourselves? What does the new century, the future, the space age, have to dole out that we haven’t already discovered? What do we have to fear that doesn’t already stare us greedily in the face? After trench warfare, Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, Hitler, Pol Pot and each subsequent dictator du jour, what is there, really, that can surprise us?

To be continued.

I  think.

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Song of the Day: Mingus, “Pithecanthropus Erectus”

You know, this picture has always killed me.

It pretty much says everything that needs to be said about Creationism, the Religious Right, and the intelligence-insulting “debate” about teaching Intelligent Design in classrooms.

But it occurs to me, it’s relatively easy to illustrate that inherent flaw in the concept, the evidence, right on the surface, that reveals how wrong this depiction is: everyone knows Jesus was black.

(Oh yes I did.)

For a more articulate (and wordless) deconstruction, we turn to Charlie Mingus.

The composition, “Pithecanthropus Erectus”, from the album of the same name. The year, 1956. So much has changed; so little has changed. Mingus remains unassailable.

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