Archive for October, 2011

Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children”

October 31, 2011 | By | Reply More
Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children”

How often do you cross paths with a parent who is attempting to make his or her children in the parent’s image and likeness? I see it on a regular basis. The prototypical case is the parent who didn’t make it to the Broadway stage who tries to turn his/her child into a Broadway performer. You often see parents who demand athletic excellence from their kids, often (it seems) in an effort to compensate for the parent’s failed strivings to make it big in sports. This style of parenting reaches every high-earning or high-prestige profession.  Or maybe it’s not to make up for the parents own failings as much as it is an attempt to create a trophy child so that, at cocktail parties, the parent can nonchalantly drop a few hints about his or her child’s (sometimes admittedly spectacular) accomplishments.

This afternoon, a friend sent me a perfect antidote for this mindset. It’s a poem by Kahlil Gibran, titled “On Children.”

Upon reading it, I was reminded of the following quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:  “What does your conscience say? — ‘You should become the person you are’.”

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Bill Moyers explains the concerns of Occupy Wall Street

October 31, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Bill Moyers explains the concerns of Occupy Wall Street

Bill Moyers recently gave the keynote speech at Public Citizen’s 40th anniversary Gala. In addition to the video of that speech, I have transcribed various excerpts from his excellent speech. During his speech, he made it quite clear that he fully understands the concerns of the occupy Wall Street protesters.

Except for the bracketed material each of the following is a quote by Bill Moyers at the Public Citizen 40th Anniversary Gala:

While it’s important to cover the news, it’s more important to uncover the news. One of my mentors at the University of Texas told our class that “news” is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity. And when a student asked the journalist and historian Richard Reeves for his definition of real news, he answered, “The news you and I need to keep our freedoms.”

[We now have what historian Lawrence Goodwin has described as] “a mass resignation of people who believe the dogma of democracy at a superficial level, but who no longer believe it privately.”

We have a decline of individual self-respect on the part of millions of people.

We hold elections knowing that they are unlikely to produce the policies favored by a majority of Americans.

The property qualifications for federal office that the framers of the Constitution expressly feared as an unseemly veneration of wealth are now openly enforced, and the common denominator a public office, including for our judges, is a common deference to cash.

Barack Obama criticizes bankers as fat cats and then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 per person. And that’s the norm. They get away with it.

Let’s name it for what it is: Democratic deviancy, defined downward.

Politics today is little more than money laundering in the trafficking of power and policy.

Why are the occupiers there? They are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied America

Citizens United: Rarely have so few imposed such damage on so many.

[At the 12 minute mark of the video, Moyers discusses corporate personhood and the laws damaging public welfare resulting therefrom]

The Roberts Court has picked up the mantle: Money first, the public second, if at all.

[At the 14 minute mark: the damage done by Citizens United]

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Glenn Greenwald discusses justice for some

October 30, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More
Glenn Greenwald discusses justice for some

Glenn Greenwald recently appeared on Dylan Ratigan’s television show to discuss his new book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. Greenwald argued that many of our leaders don’t even pretend anymore that we should aspire to fairness.   Here’s the thought process underlying these claims we so often hear from those who oppose the Occupy movement: “Inequality will be deserved and legitimate because were all playing on an equal playing field.”  According to Greenwald, the reason for so much citizen anger (tea party and occupy protesters) is a growing perception that this inequality

is not the byproduct of fair and reasonable and well-deserved accomplishments but the byproduct of cheating, of a tilted playing field, that the winners exempt themselves from the rules to which the rest of us are bound. Typically, it is the law that constrains the most powerful from abusing their power. When law ceases to apply to them, as it has, the only solution that citizens have is to go outside of the system of law and begin to demand that change. That is why so many citizens are taking to the streets and protesting and realizing that working within the system is no longer a viable course of action.

How can this energy be harnessed, for instance through the Occupy movement?

The status quo–the failure to accommodate or to adhere to rules for anyone outside of this 99% is itself extremely volatile and itself extremely dangerous and destructive in that a course of action where citizens do go out on the streets in the United States has become a more attractive and really the only alternative for effectuating the kind of change that people thought that the 2008 campaign would bring.

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LEAP once again points out the insanity of the “war on drugs”

October 30, 2011 | By | 15 Replies More
LEAP once again points out the insanity of the “war on drugs”

The following information is from a mass emailing I was recently sent by LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition):

Late Friday night the White House issued a typical evasive rejection of the several marijuana legalization petitions that collected more signatures than any other issue on its “We the People” website. Even though recent polls show that more voters support marijuana legalization than approve of President Obama’s job performance, the White House categorically dismissed the notion of reforming any laws, focusing its response on the possible harms of marijuana use instead of addressing the many harms of prohibition detailed in the petitions.

One of the popular petitions, submitted by retired Baltimore narcotics cop Neill Franklin, called on the Obama administration to simply stop interfering with states’ efforts to set their own marijuana laws.

It’s maddening that the administration wants to continue failed prohibition polices that do nothing to reduce drug use and succeed only in funneling billions of dollars into the pockets of the cartels and gangs that control the illegal market,” said Franklin, who serves as executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of cops, judges and prosecutors who support legalizing and regulating drugs. “If the president and his advisers think they’re being politically savvy by shying away from much-needed change to our drug policies, they’re wrong. The recent Gallup poll shows that more Americans support legalizing marijuana than support continuing prohibition, so the administration is clearly out of step with the people it claims to represent. President Obama needs to remember his campaign pledge not to waste scarce resources interfering with state marijuana laws and his earlier statement about the ‘utter failure’ of the drug war.

United States spends $52 Billion every year attempting to enforce prohibition, a demonstrably futile endeavor. From a recent article in Esquire Magazine, we get to know the “War on Drugs” by the numbers: “15,223 dead and $52.3 billion spent each year.”  Don’t believe the White House numbers that claim we’re spending more on treatment than law enforcement–those are cooked numbers, and they are shot down by the numbers in the Esquire article. Therefore, the “war on drugs” is, indeed a matter of good versus evil, but not in the way the federal government preaches.  Ken Burns’ recent documentary, “Prohibition,” shines a bright light on every mistake we are now making regarding street drugs. I’ll conclude with a quote by Albert Einstein:  “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

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Why does Santa Claus let so many African children starve to death?

October 29, 2011 | By | Reply More
Why does Santa Claus let so many African children starve to death?

Tomorrow is Halloween, the day when Americans agree that it’s OK to talk about death, evil spirits and depravity while eating lots of unhealthy food. These traditions seem normal to those of us who have done this October drill more than a few times, but Halloween must seem completely bonkers to outsiders.

I suspect that Halloween serves as a psychological safety valve, allowing us to air out our anxieties about our deepest fears. On Halloween, we talk about these horrible things (dismemberment and other forms of horror) together while laughing—there’s seemingly safety in numbers. And then we make sure that we avoid talking about these things for the remainder of the year. On days other than Halloween, we don’t like to be reminded of the fact that there are skeletons inside of our bodies and that we’re all on a treadmill leading to inevitable death, and that there is no evidence of any afterlife. These things freak us out because there is no cure, no fix, other than working hard to fabricate that everything is OK.  For most of the year, we follow the pattern predicted by Terror management Theory: we cover up the fact that we are mortal animals through the use of elaborate diversions and baubles, pretending that we are Gods with anuses.  I often attempt to do otherwise, and to share my thoughts freely, but I admit that my fear of inevitable death occasionally gets the better of me too. Thus, I do think I understand the need for something like Halloween in a society that heavily discourages free-thinking about disturbing topics. These topics are heavy to me too, though regularly delve into these topics rather than dousing myself in Halloween tradition or seeking comfort by joining a traditional religion. For most people, though, Halloween rituals seem to offer a bit of relief from this admittedly heavy existential anxiety.

Thanksgiving is coming around the corner, and we have ready-made myths to take care of our anxieties related to that holiday too.  Thanksgiving is the time for many Americans to unquestionably repeat the myth that benevolent Europeans were welcomed to American by the Native Americans: “Hello, white people. Make yourselves at home. Take our possessions and our land. Send us to reservations.” One little story about Europeans sharing a meal with Native Americans takes care of thousands of pages of inconvenient history. One little myth kicks in the confirmation bias and invites Americans to believe that they live on a moral oasis, and that it’s OK to strictly filter our history in order to think happy thoughts about how many of us came to be here. Pass the turkey, please.

What kind of myth would extend one’s belief in a moral oasis almost all the way to the new year? If you owned a magic sleigh and you were capable of creating and distributing toys and food all over the world, why would you ignore the children of Africa? The evidence suggests that Santa skips them year after year, even though many of them are dying of starvation and malaria.  Further, this tragedy is something that American children don’t discuss in the context of the Santa

myth. But if you’re magical then, damn it, what’s more important? More iPods for well-to-do American families (it seems like Santa gives well-to-do American families better gifts) or basic food, water and medicine to prevent African children from starving?  Maybe Santa doesn’t care about African children. Or maybe he doesn’t know about the existence of Africa because his Atlas is out of date.  Or maybe he avoids Africa there’s not much snow there. But, again, we don’t discuss the Africa problem with our children when we tell them about the magic and benevolence of Santa Claus, and we are silent because Africa is inconvenient to the Santa story.

The increasingly dominant prosperity Gospel churches preach that Jesus wants us to hit the stores hard on Black Friday because we deserve to have lots of stuff. Many Americans are attracted to churches that advise them that admission to heaven is through faith, and not good works. It’s OK with this Faith version of Jesus that we buy lots of consumer goods rather than saying no to ourselves and sending all of that gadget money to organizations that can truly feed starving African children and provide them with mosquito nets. Year after year, the Santa myth serves as a focus-mechanism of a precious human commodity—attention–that makes certain aspects of the world salient at the expense of downplaying others. That is the general mechanism of all myths. They are colored filters for reality.

In these modern times, our many comforting myths need some serious self-critical analysis, but that is unlikely, because their power is in their uncritical repetition. All of this immediately makes sense when we remind ourselves that we choose our myths—they don’t fall down from the sky.

[http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-santa-in-his-christmas-sled-or-sleigh-silhouette-image20920349 used with permission.  Map of Africa – creative commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_(orthographic_projection).svg]

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Ways to support the #Occupy movement

October 29, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Ways to support the #Occupy movement

If you would like to support the #occupy movement, but you don’t want to sleep overnight in a city park, here’s an article listing ways for you to help. Item number three on the list is that you shouldn’t hesitate to speak up.

I know people who absolutely support the ideology of OWS, but who remain silent as church mice on the topic. I also know people who kinda like the idea, but aren’t really sure they want to align themselves just yet.

Here’s a little tough love for you: If you’re not helping, you’re hindering. That’s the truth of it. We all have our lives, our work, the pressing needs of our unique realities to deal with. But out there are hundreds of people taking a break from their own demanding realities to sleep on the ground, in the rain, making themselves vulnerable to police aggression and whatever other intrusions come with sleeping night after night in a public place under scrutiny.

If you like the idea of OWS, and feel excited about the sorts of changes we might begin to see in our society, say so. Out loud. To friends, family and partners. On the internet. In line at the grocery store. Talk to people. Talk about the movement. Apathy’s not cool any more.

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High school pundits and candidates

October 28, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

A television was installed in my workplace cafeteria this year and it has been an immense source of irritation and revelation regarding the garbage that passes for TV news. Today, I heard a few minutes of discussion by these three women at CNN:

What did these CNN pundits discuss today?

1) Horserace politics–who is polling well at the moment, and how will the various candidates do in the various primaries, with barely a mention of how they stand on the issues;

2) An allegation that a candidate flip-flopped;

3) A claim that Candidate A dissed Candidate B, and

4) Did you see that strange  latest campaign ad by Candidate D?

This is what passes for serious political commentary today on a major television network.  It’s high school all over again. Not only are the pundits engaging in this stunning shallowness, but the candidates are responding in kind. These people remind me of those vapid adolescents who thought it was a life and death matter to win a seat on student council, even though they didn’t actually know why they were running other than to be cool. The pundits are like the high schoolers who endlessly swap gossip in the halls. The candidate students end up turning high school elections into personality cults, and that’s exactly how we are running our media and our country today. Everywhere we look we see lots of emotionally and intellectually stunted people awash in money and basking with their BFF’s in front of camera lenses.

Here’s what happens when we allow elections become tribal: The voters ease into candidates like they adopt a sports teams and they fight for their candidates out of loyalty and in-group cravings, blinded by the confirmation bias roaring full blast. They get all exercised by the pundits, who are acting as though they are conveying meaningful news, and the networks dress it all up with slick graphics, music and sets to make it look like the information is “news.” Many of those who watch this garbage assume that they are informed on the issues of the day.

We need to change our ways. We need to start choosing candidates like we shop for consumer goods that have no prestige. I”m not referring to our purchases of cars or clothes, but rather consider the way we shop for things like water heaters and dishwashers. In choosing political candidates, we need to get past all of the brand name loyalties and pettiness and we need to start insisting on well-informed answers to tough questions about how our candidates plan to run the country. We need to turn off the TV when high schoolish pundits try to manufacture conflict that distracts from serious issues. We need to leave all of these high schoolers, candidates and pundits, in the dust, because we have a big complex country to run, and none of them appear to be up to it.

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Trump Bashing

October 27, 2011 | By | Reply More
Trump Bashing

Lawrence O’Donnell has made some stunning claims about Donald Trump. While Trump was “running for president,” why weren’t these issues front and center for the media?   After all, there’s a long way to fall from successful billionaire to financial failure-liar.   I don’t know how accurate O’Donnell is, but he looks every bit as confident as Trump looked when Trump was allegedly running for president.    If there is truth to O’Donnell’s claim that Trump is a billionaire, why did the media so readily call him “billionaire” as opposed to “alleged billionaire”?   I’ll be watching to hear more about these allegations, but I suspect that they are true based upon a gut feeling and based on ample evidence that the modern American media excels at serving as the stenographer for (allegedly) powerful media-savvy people.

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Your great great grandparents were sponges, and their great grandparents were fungi

October 26, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
Your great great grandparents were sponges, and their great grandparents were fungi

About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to view a set of videos called “The Shape of Life.” It was an amazing journey because it suggested that the earliest animal ancestor of human beings was the sponge. I watched this video several times, because I had trouble wrapping my mind around this finding. It was an excellent set of videos that I still highly recommend.

The mind-boggling conclusion that we are descendants of sponges was reinforced in my mind back in November, 2004, when I read a fascinating article about our ancestors in discover magazine, pulling out the article: “This Is Your Ancestor.” It is a story of an evolutionary microbiologist named Mitchell Sogin, who wanted to know the animal from which all other animals came. He extrapolated backwards from today’s oldest known species: jellyfish, sea anemones, sponges, mollusks and starfish.  When he grouped each of these organisms according to their first appearance on Earth, the most likely candidate appeared to be the sponge. As the Discover article points out, sponges don’t look much like animals, though they are truly animals, not plants, and there are 9,000 species of sponges on the planet.

Sponges are multicellular, but the cells don’t add up to much: no tissues, muscles, organs, nerves, or brain. But this simplicity can be deceptive. Some sponges come armed with glasslike skeletal spikes, microscopic and as beautiful as snowflakes. . . . Sponges are the earliest, most primitive multicelled animal, Sogin says. Some scientists believe the ability to grow different cell types started animals on the evolutionary road to becoming humans. With just a few kinds of cells, only loosely connected, the sponge manages to produce a variety of as symmetrical shapes, from cups and fans to tubes and piecrust shapes. Sponges survive handsomely on their own and can even shelter other sea creatures… Sponges are also the earliest sexual re-producers; most are hermaphroditic, producing both eggs and sperm which they release into the water.… Sponges don’t just sit still-many actually move… One sponge moves 4 millimeters a day.


Sogin used an innovative ribosomal RNA analysis and he worked at it for more than 20 years. His conclusions are stunning:

The sponge was indeed at the base of animal lineage, and just above it were the cnidarians, such as jellyfish, anemones and corals. They, like the sponge, have a saclike body form. They developed tentacles and an opening like a mouth at one end. But there were other forms of life lower down the line of descent that scientists might not have expected. Suddenly, they made sense. One of the sponges cell types is the distinctively shaped choanocyte, a cell equipped with a tiny long filament, called a flagellum, surrounded by a collar studded with even tinier hairs called microvilli. Thousands of these flagella beat constantly at the water and move it past the sponges feeding cells. As it happens, Sogin found that the sponges’ immediate evolutionary predecessors are the choanoflagellates, which represent what life would have looked like just before animals in the form of sponges emerged. Scientists had long suspected that the choanoflagellates could have been the nearest things to animals without actually being animals.

The Discover article then points out that the only thing older than the choanoflagellates in the same line of organisms are the fungi.  Sogin has determined that “fungi and plants are very different from each other, and fungi are actually more closely related to animals. [W]e share a common, unique evolutionary history with fungi.” The same article points out that this common evolutionary heritage of fungi and animals explains “why fungal infections are so difficult to treat–they’re more like us than we thought. They are similar targets.” Therefore, the next time you see a sponge, show some respect, since sponges are the first multicellular animals, and “all the other animals emerged from this imple architecture and are built upon this platform.” What animal would be find a bit upstream from sponges? Worms, another of our ancestors. Worms are “the first creatures with bilateral symmetry.” The worm, along with fungi and sponges, organisms highly deserving of your respect because they are in your line of ancestry.

For more about sponges, see my 2006 post titled “My Life as a Sponge.” For a quick ride down the evolutionary highway, visit this post.

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