The Liar in Winter

Last night I was finally able to see the new 4K restoration of The Lion in Winter on a large screen. What better time than now after the Inauguration, to watch a film with old actors in a drama of the dark ages in which all the characters are only interested in personal goals and are willing to break all civilized norms to achieve them (including making deals with avowed national rivals)? In the middle of things, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) even says, “God I love winning” (or something to that effect) and he is constantly telling other people how he has just won. Owing to the need to preserve the 12th century atmosphere, however, the King did not use twitter to express himself.

Henry’s family is also surprisingly contemporary. All of his children are unattractive schemers. I won’t involve our current ruler’s wife in comparisons, because my suspicion is that her own gold-digging would have been satisfied being the wife of the owner of the hideous tower on Fifth Avenue where she would happily live. (Like Eleanor in the London Tower?) But if anyone is like her in the film, it is the innocent pawn Alais (Jane Merrow), mistress of Henry, who by treaty with France is require to marry her off to one of his sons. That would make Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who? Marla Maples?

The movie itself is quite entertaining, and you owe it to yourself to re-visit it. The acting is the kind of mid-twentieth century stage-for-screen type acting (as in Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that we see no more. Today’s substitute is the pretentious mannered dramas, usually period pieces, where acting is designed to garner awards and burnish a star’s seriousness cred. (Independent filmmakers, of course, don’t have the capital to purchase rights to plays, so the field is left to the majors,. who see these as prestige projects—Hollywood’s version of pro bono work.)

What separates the film (and the play it was based on) from our current tragico-farce is of course the language. The stage- and screen-play by James Goldman is witty and intelligent. There are just enough references to the age of Henry and before to anchor the play in the middle ages, but there are intentional anachronisms designed to advise the viewer not to become too concerned about the historicism of the work. Disregard of factual and historical accuracy is a hallmark of the current administration as well, but our present day actors on the national stage have no wit and are not playing to an intelligent audience. I could not bring myself to watch the inaugural address, but reading the text impressed on me how verbally stunted and rhetorically challenged our new president is. If the goal was to impress upon his followers that he was not among the elites of the country in terms of intellect, gracefulness, eloquence or knowledge, he surely accomplished that with his speech. Big ideas generally cannot be expressed by one simple declarative sentence after another. But even the small ideas which he had seemed uncomfortably confined.

In the end of the film we grow to respect, if not admire, both the ancient king and queen, even after we acknowledge Eleanor’s confession that “we are jungle creatures.” Henry discloses to his wife that he wants to control succession because he has learned that peace and honest government are preferable to war, something he spent his life pursuing. . And so even though the ambitions of both Henry and Eleanor seem checkmated in the end, we have some sort of sympathy for both of them. Having seen the nominees of our current leader, his advisors and confidants and watching him act the snarling bully and ungrateful recipient of nearly a plurality of the nation’s vote (short by 3 million or so), breaking tradition, however quaint, that requires the new president to at least act humbled by the responsibility, we have no similar admiration or sympathy for this vulgar egoist. So when the movie ended, the faint good feeling from watching professionals act in a polished and eloquent production, the dark reality of our current situation returns. This is the beginning, not the end, of a national nightmare. And it’s going to get much uglier and more tragic before it’s over. And it won’t be amusing or edifying to watch.

Beckett on how we got here and what to do now

Who better than Samuel Beckett to explain our current absurd situation and what to do about it? So as we are hurling toward the unthinkable, we can take stock with the lyrical analysis in The Unnamable, the last of his great trilogy of novels beginning with Malloy and Malone Dies.

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know. With the yesses and noes it is different, they will come back to me as I go along and how, like a bird, to shit on them all without exception. The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter. And at the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.

From Three Novels by Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2009), pp. 286–87.

Nature is about to mock our stupidity

antarcticas-ice-sheets

1. Antarctica’s major ice sheets. (Map by Ted Scambos, used by permission of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

A group of British scientists studying the effects of climate change on the Larsen C ice shelf in Western Antarctica (a research effort based at Swansea University and Aberystwyth University in Wales and known as Project Midas) observed that in the last two weeks of December the rift which is primed to dump more than 5,000 sq. km. into the ocean grew by a startling 18 km. (11 miles). Larsen C is a sheet on the eastern side of the long cape-like peninsula south of South America [#1]. The area of ice from the rift to the sea is a quarter larger than the area of Rhode Island.

rift-plot-2017

2. Growth of the Larsen C rift as plotted by Project Midas.

The rift has been growing at an accelerated rate since 2011. The rift is now about 160 km. (100 miles) long, half the length of which has occurred since 2011.  Over that same time the rift has widen about 10 fold [#2]. In the first 11 months of 2016 it grew by 21 km. (13 miles), a length that was nearly achieved in the last part of December alone.

Glaciologist Professor David Vaughan, Director of Science at British Antarctic Survey, is quoted as saying in Science Daily“The calving of this large iceberg could be the first step of the collapse of Larsen C ice shelf, which would result in the disintegration of a huge area of ice into a number of icebergs and smaller fragments.” The instability of the area has caused Project Midas scientists to remove their camp.

When the ice sheet finally calves, it will expose additional parts of the ice sheet to erosion and the effects of the warmer waters. It will also “uncork” a large area, allowing additional flow of ice and glaciers into the sea to be melted. The long term effect, reported the Washington Post, could be the increase of ocean levels by 10 cm. (4 inches).

By my calculation, if the rift continues at the rate of the last two weeks of December, the calving might take place on Inauguration Day. That would be a perfect sign from Nature that we can elect willfully ignorant and arrogant fools, but their lies can only get them elected. It won’t solve any of the existential crises we face. In fact, given that the group that will soon hold executive and legislative power (and not much longer judicial as well) is the only governing body in all the world who claims climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by a cabal of scientists hoping to take a small amount of wealth from the plutocrats that now rule us, I can see no better performance for the Inaugural Ball.

They won’t notice it, of course, as they continue eating foie de bald eagle and powdered rhino horn, chuckling over their brilliant statesmanship.

rift-in-larsen-c-111016

Detail of rift in Larsen C photographed by NASA’s DC-8 research aircraft on November 10, 2016. The rift at this point is about 100 m (300 feet) wide. (NASA Earth Observatory.)

Anthem for our coming winter

Once again we have escaped the night’s gnawing away at the light. Neolithic man must have been even more terrified than I was as the daylight got shorter every day. But just like then, and as it has ever since, came winter solstice and night was defeated! Helios has vanquished darkness; the earth is no longer without form, order reigns and chaos is once again beaten back: Marduk has defeated Tiamat, Horus and Jesus are born, Julblotet sacrifices have been made so days will become longer and soon surely the crops will rise again.

karnak-on-winter-solstice

The columns of the Karnak temple are aligned so that the Winter Solstice sun rises along its central axis. (Photo by Graham Hancock.)

But this year we must prepare for a second winter, one we’ve never seen before. As we anticipate the first openly proto-fascist administration in America, we have no Christina Rossetti carol appropriate for the purpose. We can, however, turn to America’s most lyrical fascist poet who inverted a medieval English summer anthem for just the kind of salute we need for the winter soon to be upon us.

Ancient Music

from Lustra with Earlier Poems (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1917, p.61)

by Ezra Pound

Winter is icummen in
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm.
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Not a new year to celebrate

For many years I have used this last day of the year to tell stories about year ends or cyclic time reckonings, involving, for example, the Puritans, Imperial Rome, Edwardian England, and so forth. This year I had on tap the story of America’s first war hero, who died 241 years ago today on the Plains of Abrahams before the British fort at Quebec. He was General Richard Montgomery, one of Washington’s most able (and one of the few trained) leaders and led American forces in an attempt to take Canada, either for its own sake (the Continental Congress burned with desire to liberate, and thus possess, all of North America) or to bring Britain to the table by a dramatic offensive action. He died a half a year before the Declaration of Independence. The story is interesting as a study in leadership (and the hagiography of George Washington) because it represented an impetuous decision by Washington, something he was known for in his early career but learned (largely from this mistake) to adopt strategy to his resources and thus became the military leader Napoleon honored on his death in 1799 (a military leader unlike Napoleon in every way except his startling success). It also is interesting because it involved the heroics of two figures not thought of as American heroes anymore: Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. The two,.together with a band of unschooled patriots, trudged through the Maine wilderness in winter, in a march that became so desperate that men boiled their leather belts for something to eat. And it ended, as all memorable war stories do, with luck balanced on a razor’s edge and eventually teetering off one side. As an added advantage, the story can be told in intimate detail since many of the participants (including common soldiers) kept journals of their trials.

And then November 8 happened. The idea of sitting up on the ground and telling sad stories on the death of American heroes seems an empty exercise. We are about to be ruled by a group who are so outside any reasonable conception of an American tradition or ideals (however untethered to our actual history) that it is staggering. This group of grasping, self-interested, anti-intellectual authoritarians is so cynical that their spokesperson, the reactionary tool Kellyanne Conway has just the other day used their preferred tool of the diktat, Twitter, to give a lecture to George Washington University on what history it should be teaching. As a famous baseball catcher should have said if he didn’t: their knowledge of history is enough to drive a truck through. It’s been nearly two months and my head is still spinning.

Yes, we have had presidents who were unqualified (Calvin Coolidge jumps to mind) and ones who were dangerously hateful and uneducated (for example, Andrew Jackson) and ones who were duplicitous and used lying as a tactic (Richard Nixon, although he is an amateur compared to our soon-to-be leader). But not one of these has not only combined all these traits but actually publicly and proudly displayed them as the very essence of his campaign. We will soon have a president who appealed to the very worst impulses of his supporters and still persuaded nearly a plurality of voters to give him the job. Add to that the fact that at this juncture in history having a preening, blow-hard, narcissist as the executive may represent an existentially disastrous decision, and we have reason to think this turn of the calendar may be the most epically portentous in our history.

You can think of year ends as melancholy: 1777, 1861, 1862, 1929, 1941, even 2008. There were certainly times during the cold war that The End was foreseeable by clear thinking people. But in none of those times (except, perhaps, for the two economic collapses of 1929 and 2008) did we actually consciously, with a decision that was based on fully disclosed fact, bring about the calamity upon ourselves.

Nor in any other of those times were we faced with a disaster whose only solution was for people to reject what they deliberately decided to do in the face of all the evidence.

I have no idea how we can save ourselves (and the planet). It may be too late. But since I did spend a great deal of time before November 8 trying to persuade voters not to go down this road (my GOTV effort was concentrated on Wisconsin voters), I have some observations that might interest graduate students specializing in pre-catastrophe America several centuries from now.

Social media is not social activism. In fact, it probably is the reverse. What ails this country is not having too few outlets for stating one’s opinion. It’s having too few forums for having reasoned discussions. Twitter is not the New England Town Meeting despite what Internet entrepreneurs believe.

Snark, satire, ridicule do not promote social justice or progress, motivate people to engage in public affairs or develop faith in self-government.

The right wing has done a spectacular job at destroying patriotism and belief in civic responsibility. Since the Age of Reagan when “greed is good” was the motto, the right has slowly but surely gnawed away at civic virtues to the point that common decency is considered “PC” and subject to scorn.

America, which has always had a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism, has never been as deeply co-opted by the forces of ignorance as it is today. Reactionaries, with well-financed lackeys, have convinced Americans that identifying a problem that requires the smallest bit of sacrifice on a citizen’s part is a lie dreamed up by a conspiracy of “experts” who have never done a days honest work (such as by selling subprime loans as securities). It is as though the PVC, cyanide, lead, agricultural runoff, hydraulic liquid that has invaded our water supply have softened all of our minds. How does a country regain its trust in experts once hoaxsters have taught them to disregard evidence?

And everything that ails America right now is what the Founders (or at least the authors of the Federalist Papers) warned about. They argued that the Constitution was designed to prevent this catastrophe. But yet here we are.

Is there a solution at hand? At one time there was a party that had stumbled onto a way to use democracy to produce social justice, economic opportunity, general welfare and the expansion and spread of useful knowledge. Since the Great Depression national Democrats  (or at least many leading ones) had relied on university experts to guide and inform public policy. The party struggled with moral questions and often made political sacrifices to do the right thing. Unions were part of this coalition (in fact the New Deal created the national union movement), and they helped educate their members in the purposes and benefits of polices that were broadly beneficial and warned them against those designed to promote individual greed. Some time around the end of the 1980s the party made a serious turn. Political experts replaced policy experts. Wall Street replaced universities as the source of advice. Self-interest replaced common interest as the benchmark of political promises. And not to pull any punches, that change was pushed by and benefitted the Democratic Leadership Council and its poster boy Bill Clinton. The glib over-achiever from the right-to-work state, who would say anything to charm interest groups is probably more responsible for our current dilemma than even the buffoon who was elected president in November, because he gutted the one organization that worked for (however fitfully and slowly) social and civic progress. I could go into how deeply his cynical approach to both politics and policy, but he is now ancient history.

The question is what to do now. I wish I saw an answer. But it is something I will be contemplating as this year expires. There will be great damage done by those who soon will hold the branches of the federal government in their hands. Before that can be undone, we will have to figure out how to prevent them from permanently solidifying that power before it is too late. But the task is daunting given our disorganization, loss of core beliefs and entrenched recent history of poor political instincts. We must first forget the idea that either money, social media or demographics are going to save us. In fact, nothing is going to save us until we prove ourselves worthy of saving. And that is going to be a long, painful process.

Google Reviews

Chartres Cathedral

3 of 5 stars
It’s A huge Building, special in Glasses Art ,amazing location, many Restaurants around and a view for city.

British Library

1 of 5 stars
Building itself is lovely but library disappointing. No access to see books without a card. Punk rock exhibition very disappointing. 99 per cent of people using laptops , only 1 using a book. Surely that’s the whole point of going to a library.

Grand Canyon

1 of 5 stars
I haven’t even gotten to the Grand Canyon yet from central California. BUT I can guarantee we will never be back. And, Arizona highway department is to blame! Hwy 40 is the recommended highway if you want to go to the south rim, and are coming from the west/southwest areas of California. In the 500,000+ miles of travel have I experienced on the road, I have never seen a highway in as poor of shape as this. There were so many detours because of roadwork, making the trip at least 2-2.5 hours longer than it should have been.

The Parthenon

3 of 5 stars
The buildings and ruins are great and really give you a glimpse into the past civilization. The signs (at least the English ones) seem to be written by a high school history student who tried to cream as much esoteric info as possible with each phrase. As someone unfamiliar with Greek culture, I was able to understand exactly 0℅ of what the buildings were for, who built them, and why.

Auchwitz-Birkenau

1 of 5 stars
No organisation at all. I went to Aushwitz Birkenau museum and I was told to go to Aushwitz 1 which is about 3 km away to buy a tour tickets. I had to pay 7zl for parking. For no reason. When we went to Aushwitz 1 we were asked for the tickets (where there was no sing at all saying that I need to have tickets ready in English or either Polish) I was told to go back to where I came from (3km away) or wait for 4 hours to enter. Very disappointed wont reccomend…

The Taj Mahal

2 of 5 stars
Amazing monument but very poor customer experience.No digital books/Audio/Video shops to know the history of the monument.Nothing invested on amenities for seating and food. The government is ought to invest more when it comes to overall tourist satisfaction.

Prado Museum

3 of 5 stars
Great museum, terrible attitudes. Nobody speaks English, you need to pay for everything separately and the staff start ushering you out well before the closing time. Great art though!

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

3 of 5 stars
Didn’t really do it for me. I’m not a big war buff, and the crying visitors and the gruesome displays kinda made me feel uneasy (moreso than historical museums should do)

Nairobi National Museum

1 of 5 stars
It sucks

The Great Wall of China

3 of 5 stars
Crowded and incredibly dirty handrails.
Loud voices seem to be shouting directly in your ears

Hermitage Museum

3 of 5 stars
Not the best of famous museums, organized very poor…

Machu Picchu

jacopo ricca
1 of 5 stars
Nothing to complain about the place that is amazing, but the staff is terrible and rude they don’t speak English at all!how is possible in a park where they get people from all over the planet?

The Coming Dark Era of Cruelty and Ignorance

We are soon to experience something none of us have ever been part of. A near (but not quite) plurality of the voters this week turned over two branches of government to a party expressly dedicated to enforcing and enhancing the privileges of a select few (far fewer than their voters) without regard to the damage it will cause to large numbers of citizens, the norms our country has developed over two plus centuries, our position in the world and our aspirations for justice and equity. Those two branches will in turn constitute the third branch in such a way to make it a tool to upend the rule of constitutional law in order to entrench that party into a position that will be difficult to dislodge it from. This branch, in other words, will continue the partisan and radical departure from the rule of constitutional law that it embarked upon in the first decade of this century with such decisions as Bush v. GoreCitizens United and Shelby County v. Holder. The last decision, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that had been renewed by a nearly unanimous Congress, possibly helped the party’s takeover. In addition, by retaining state houses and governorships that party will have no difficulty maintaining a system of gerrymandered election districts that will, in all probability, keep the House of Representatives in the hands of the party, despite the fact that it receives only a minority of the total vote for that house.

Let’s look forward to some of the things we have been promised. Whether all of these will come about or come about in the way they promise is uncertain, because this party is notorious for hyperbole, misrepresentations, intentional deceptions, ignorance and the bald faced ability to make promises that it has no intention of acting on. But these things have been proclaimed so loudly that it would be difficult for even these dissemblers to duck without experiencing something close to shame before their ardent followers.

First and foremost, healthcare. If there has been one overarching legislative goal of the GOP it has been to repeal “every word” of the Affordable Care Act. Now we can debate the margins of this legislative scheme. We can bemoan the fact that it left private insurers in charge of a system  distorted by self interest and incentivized to restrict rather than provide health coverage. And certainly the legislation was not a clever piece of politics. The parts that everyone agrees on (no disqualification for pre-existing conditions, coverage of adult children to the age of 26, requiring minimal coverage and other things like certain “free” procedures such as vaccinations) are hidden under a complex scheme to jerry-rigged in a way not completely understandable to the public. The efficiencies of the system are not clearly demonstrable, and it is easy for a disingenuous politician (such as those soon in charge) to blame price increases on the legislation, instead of the insurers who demand them. And without the public option, these same freedom-lovers can claim that the mandate for coverage is an unconstitutional infringement on the right of our citizens to refuse coverage and then throw themselves on emergency rooms when necessary. All of these faults are obvious. They greatly harmed President Obama’s political position and wiped out his party’s overwhelming control of Congress in one fell swoop. But here is the fact: 22 million people now have a basic form of health insurance that the Republicans intend to eliminate under the guise of letting the “free market” provide health care. Untold others will be cut loose, not because they need subsidies but because the insurer will not want to continuing to cover expensive illnesses or “pre-existing conditions.” This denial of medical insurance to those who need subsidies or those now under expanded Medicaid coverage will of course probably not effect the electoral prospects of this party (or at least its right wing). That being the only thing these craven politicians truly care about, expect to hear a Dickensian refrain: “Are there no charity clinics? Are there no tax credits for health savings accounts?”

Next, deportation. If there is one thing that this party’s new leader proclaimed from every balcony he could climb onto, it is that “illegals” must go. They constitute 11 million or more souls. In other words, about 11 times as many as the infamous Operation Wetback netted in 1954 by means so ham-fisted that many U.S. citizens were caught up in the net and ejected. We will see how callous the citizens who ushered in this group will be. Likely it will be a blot on our history. I will not discuss the infamous “Wall,” an idea so stupid and so ineffective in its intended purpose that I can only say it will probably be attempted by the party who really doesn’t care about policy or consequences.

Third, climate melioration. Time is rapidly running out to prevent much of the worst consequences of carbon pollution of our atmosphere and oceans. The party soon in charge believes that such concerns have been part of a vast international hoax. They have doubled-down on “creating” jobs in the coal industry, a near impossibility owing to technological and economic developments. As an illustration, West Virginia in 2005 produced the greatest amount of coal in its history, while at the same time employing the fewest number of employees at any time up to then. Since that time, demand for coal has decreased. As the U.S. military is studying how global warming will effect our geo-political and strategic position and coastal cities are considering how to protect themselves from sea level rise, our new rulers proclaim this is all a fantasy by scientists to extort money from poor oil companies in order to buy a new lab coat.

Gun regulation. Need I say more? The only civil right that Republicans believe in is the individual right to possess military-style weapons free from the prying eyes of a government overly-concerned with whether the bearer is mentally stable or criminally inclined.

What used to be called “civil rights.” Right before the election, the GOP of North Carolina boasted about how it had depressed the votes of African Americans in this first election without the Voting Rights Act protections. President elect Trump has promised to reduced crime in “African American communities.” You need only hear one speech by his African American expert, Rudy Giuliani to get a view of how sanguinary that is likely to be.

Income inequality. On the trail the new president has speculated whether the minimum wage was too high. And his tax “plan” returns more money to his class of plutocrats at the expense of everyone else and our economic well being. One need only see what classes of stock have risen in the day since the election to determine who believes they are going to feed at the GOP trough: private prisons, military contractors, fossil fuel companies, etc.

This list could be extended to great length. The key point is that with a party that has no concern for fact, scientific or otherwise, motivated by a narrow constituency for its intended largesse and propelled by a willingness to gin up support by spouting lies intended to appeal to the unfounded fears of the most gullible and the desire for destruction of the status quo by those who believe that they have not gotten their due owing to accommodations of people much browner than they, we are likely to experience at a national level the glorious economic miracle of Kansas and to have our foreign policy mimic the knee-jerk resort to conflict and violence against the non-whites much like the Likudniks or the xenophobic parties of Europe.

This country has not seen anything like this since before the Civil War, when slavocrats had control of the Democratic Party and that party had control over the electoral majority. It took this country over a decade to develop a political response to that grip and even when it achieved constitutional relief, the party of white privilege and injustice fought a civil war to override the decision it could not control. Such is one outcome when a group believes that it is entitled to power, notwithstanding law, morality or evidence. We are about to see how that plays out again.