Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Carol (2013)

We had dragged in at 9:30, after six hours of last-minute Christmas shopping, leaving the last of the other desperate shoppers still in the littered stores with their long lines at the registers and their exhausted cashiers.  Dumping the bags full of packages just inside the door, we simply stood and looked at each other for a minute, almost too tired to think.  Finally Patty gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Just leave those where they fell, Ace.  I’m going on up to bed.  We’ll wrap them in the morning.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll be up in a bit.  I’m too wound up to go to sleep right now.  I think I’ll see what’s on TV.  If I remember right, one of the movie channels is doing a Christmas Eve marathon of the top ten versions of A Christmas Carol.  Maybe that will relax me.”

As Patty traipsed up the stairs, I grabbed a beer from the fridge, then settled back in my recliner and fired up the TV.  I was in luck.  The 1984 adaptation of Dickens’ work, with George C. Scott playing Scrooge, was just coming on.  That’s one of my favorites, and I watched it through to the end.  At that point I was feeling drowsy, but the 1999 production with Patrick Stewart was next up, and that version--although it’s too grim to be what you’d call a good time--is an excellent one as well, so I got another beer and plopped back down in my chair while the opening scene began to roll, with a horse-drawn hearse bearing Jacob Marley to the graveyard.  There beside the hole in the ground stands Scrooge, the lone mourner.

I must have dozed off.  I don’t know how long I had been asleep, but I woke abruptly, with my limbs heavy and my back stiff.  The house was as still and dark as a tomb, the only light being a ghastly pale green emanating from the television screen.  “Huh.  I must have slept through the end of the marathon,” I thought.  I started to reach for the remote, to switch off the TV and head off to bed, and discovered I couldn’t move!  Groggily I stared down, and realized that my body was wrapped in a heavy chain, which was coiled around me and pinning me to the chair like some metallic anaconda squeezing its prey.

I was frightened; I’m not going to deny it.  I was about to call to Patty for help when figures appeared on the screen, insubstantial things, themselves the same appalling green from which they emerged.  One by one they stepped out of the screen and moved toward me, glowing and pale but vaguely human-like forms, moaning as they came.  I cringed back in my chair as more and more of them appeared.  They formed a circle, crowding around me.  They too were in chains, which clanked as they dragged them across the floor, and their countenances were haggard and forlorn.

“Speak, dread spirits,” I said through trembling lips.  “Tell me, who are you, and what do you want of me?”  (That’s not my normal style, but waking out of a Dickens marathon, and given the timing, it seemed appropriate.)

Instead of speaking, however, they turned as one, and pointed toward our flat screen TV.   The eerie green light faded, and in grainy black and white, scenes began to unfold, one after the other.  I saw a river ignite and burn, and marveled.  I saw majestic mountains gouged and scraped into rubble and piles of waste, and mourned.  I watched smokestacks turn the sky dark gray, while their ash fell on women hanging sheets and diapers on clotheslines, and shrank back.  I watched dead fish floating in a river’s current, their bodies deformed, their skins marred with lesions, and bowed my head.  I watched ‘thalidomide babies’ trying to write, holding their pencils with shrunken limbs or flippers, and I wept.  I watched seven CEOs of tobacco companies declare, under oath, before a congressional committee, that nicotine is not addictive, and raged.  I watched children flee from a burning hut in a tropical landscape, with a jellylike flame searing their flesh, and I screamed.

“Stop!  I beg of you, stop!  I can stand no more!” I pleaded.

The ghosts took pity on me, and the screen went blank.

Shaken, I asked again, my voice trembling, “Tell me, tell me.  Who are you, spirits? “ 

“Someone who watches as much TV as you do, and you ask a question like that?”  They gave a hollow laugh.  “Over the years we have assured hundreds of millions of viewers that ‘you’re in good hands’; that ‘like a good neighbor,’ we’ll be there; that we are creating ‘a better world, through chemistry’; that we are ‘strength on your side’; that we are ‘taking you forward’; that we are ‘listening, answering’; that we are ‘engineered for life’; that ‘we never forget who we’re working for’; that we’re ‘resourceful by nature’; that we offer ‘science for a better life’; that we’re ‘delivering results that endure’.“ 

“I recognize the slogans,” I said.  “But what’s that have to do with you?  You look like people.  Those are corporate slogans.  You aren’t corporations.  Corporations aren’t people.”

They looked at one another, and then in an ominous chorus declared:  “We are corporations.  We resemble your kind in the minds of a handful of judges, who have declared us to be persons.  We are as fictitious or as real as Dickens’ creations--legal fictions rather than literary fictions, the ghosts of corporations past and present.”

This was not reassuring, but I persisted.  “What is it you want with me, and why are you and I in chains?”

“Speaking of ourselves, we are enchained by our own greed.  We are ‘persons‘ without a conscience, without morality, without love or pity or mercy.  We exist--are devoted to--profit.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Our Higher Power is our daily stock quote.  Call us the quintessential Scrooges.”

“That’s you,” I said, “and I’m genuinely sorry you’re in that kind of shape.  But what about me?  Why am I wrapped up in these chains?”

“You too are ensnared in the monetization of life,” they began, and I knew they didn’t mean that as a good thing.  “You consume more of Earth’s goods than any one person has any need for, wasting much and stealing from the future.  You accept the right of us and others like us to shape your wants, to do what we wish with the land and seas and skies, to purchase laws and governments.  You allow us to decide what news you will receive and what news will be denied.  You turn over to us your children’s education, and the shaping of their desires.”  

And all I wanted to do was watch a movie, I thought.  Did I ask for any of this?  No, I didn’t.  Still, I couldn’t deny what they had said.  They were right.  “So all of us are in bad shape,” I finally said.  “I’m complicit.  What do you want?”

“We want you to free us so you may free yourself,” they said as one, their voices full of anxiety and even fear.  “We may not bear a conscience, but at least we have a survival instinct.  End this charade.  We’re not people and never will be.  Strike down our phony personhood.  Please.  Otherwise, we, you, and Earth itself are doomed.”

“Earth doomed?” I said.  “Whoa!  That’s taking ‘serious’ to another level.  What’s that about?”

“You have witnessed Christmases past and present,” they said.  “These are Christmases of the future.”  Once again they turned and pointed to the TV screen.

Together we watched as glaciers and ice caps melted, oceans rose, and millions of coastal residents fled before tides racing inland.  As forests vanished.  As cities in deserts finished draining their aquifers, and the rivers they had diverted dwindled to a trickle.  As permafrost melted and clouds of methane rose into the air.  As plant and animal species disappeared--millions of years of creation’s work gone in an evolutionary minute.  As unimaginably violent storms flattened towns, flooded rivers, threw automobiles through the air like children’s toys.  As starving people watched farmland turn barren, the soil baking and cracked under the sun.

I was stunned.  They had known what was coming, and yet they too were stunned.  Finally I spoke.  “That’s really what’s going to happen?” I asked.  “There’s no way to avoid it?  Please, tell me, spirits!  Tell me it doesn’t have to be that way!  Tell me I can do something!”

They opened their mouths to speak, and then I heard Patty’s voice, calling from the stairwell.  “Ace, what in the world is going on down there?  Why are you yelling?”  I twisted in my chair.  The chains were nowhere to be seen.  Neither were the ghosts of corporations.  Nonplussed, I looked at the TV screen.   There was Kermit the Frog, playing Bob Cratchit in A Muppet Christmas Carol, sitting down to Christmas dinner with Miss Piggy as his wife.  I rubbed my forehead.  “Patty,” I said, “your voice may be the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.  And God save us, every one!”

“Don’t you mean ‘God bless us, every one’?” she asked curiously.

“Wrong century,” I said.  “And I’m not Tiny Tim.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

No Christmas Break for Congress

“Ace, why bother coming to Washington during the Christmas break?” complained Patty.  “Nobody’s here.  They’ve all gone home for the holidays.”

Patty’s a little slow sometimes, but I try to be patient with her.  “Of course,” I said.  “That’s the point.  Everybody’s gone, so you don’t have all the traffic, all the crowds, the standing in line.”

She gritted her teeth, which ought to be worn down to nubbins by now.  “The reason there are no crowds, Ace, is there’s nothing to see.  Congress is shut down.  The circus has left town.”

She was wrong.

We arrived at the Capitol, and the place was a madhouse.  Panel trucks and pickups parked everywhere, workmen scurrying, extension cords tangled and stretching in all directions.  I grabbed a guy in coveralls who looked as if he’d been finishing drywall.  “Hey, what’s going on?” I inquired.

“Rush construction project,” he grunted.  “Gotta get it done before the bigwigs roll back in.”

“What is it?” I asked.  “New security measures for the Congress?  I know terrorism is their top priority.”

“You’ve got it,” he said.  “It’s all about financial security for the members of Congress.  They’re terrified an opportunity will pass them by.  We’re installing an auction chamber for the House and Senate.  It’s gonna be official now: government to the highest bidder.”

“Say,” I said, “Patty here loves auctions.  She picked up my vibrating recliner when she was at an auction last October.  Got it for twenty-five bucks, and it had to be worth twice that much!  Any chance she could sit in and bid on whatever comes up?”

“I doubt it,” he said.  “The way I understand it, it’s a closed deal, only open to lobbyists.  There’s probably nothing going up for auction she’d want anyway—it’s just the Congress members’ votes and influence.” 

“I’ll bet you could still pick up some bargains,” I grumped. 

“Sure you can,” he admitted.  “These energy conglomerates and pharmaceutical companies generate billions in profits from loopholes and favored treatment they worm out of Congress, and they get those things for a pittance.  Corporations have been able to buy a bill for less than they spend in a week on advertising.  And the payoff for banking and investment firms?  Through the roof.  We have a crew patching that right now.”  

“Why do they need an auction chamber?” I asked.  “I thought Congresspeople were making out pretty well with the current system.”

“It’s this CREW outfit,” he said.  They just came out with their annual bipartisan report, Most Corrupt Members of Congress.  A lot of the members have been embarrassed into giving some of the money they raked in to charity, so they ended up selling their votes for almost nothing.  It’s got them all upset.  And then, when the figures started coming out in the papers, some members got really ticked.  They’d been pricing their votes as low as five thousand bucks.  That’s not even enough to buy a good used car.  When they heard how much other members were getting, it just undermined their faith in the whole system.”

“No wonder,” I said.  “So putting in an auction chamber is a bid for fairness, so to speak.”

“Sure,” he said.  “That way, everybody gets an equal shot at it.  It’s one of the few things members of both parties could come together on.”

“Will they have the know-how to make it work?” I asked.

“In some ways the process is already pretty much in place,” he said, “but a lot of them have signed up for a quickie course in auctioneering over the break.”
“Won’t all of this drive up the price of government?” worried Patty.

“That’s the whole idea,” said the drywaller.   

“Do you think you’ll get finished on time?” 

“Looks like it,” he said, “the way everybody’s pitchin’ in.  Some of the members and their staff even gave up part of their Christmas break and came back to help.”

“How can you tell them from the regular construction crews?”

“They’re the ones hanging their stockings along the walls.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

It’s Sad How Wrong Rush Limbaugh Is (Unless It’s a Bizarre Satire By a Comic Genius)

We were killing time, waiting for a lane at the bowling alley, and I asked my buddy Al--short for Aloysius--what was up with this fuss over Rush Limbaugh’s comments on some new document the pope has come up with. 

“Do you listen to Limbaugh?” he asked.

“Can’t say that I do.  I don’t tune in much to radio--maybe a ball game while I’m driving, if I can find one.”

“What do you know about Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium?”

“I know I can’t pronounce it.  Aside from that, um, not much.”

“Okay, just checking.  I figured I’d be starting from scratch with you, but I wanted to be sure.”  He thought for a minute.  “Evangelii Gaudium is the Latin title.  In English it means  The Joy of the Gospel.  It’s a kind of dream or vision of the sort of church Francis believes is needed to carry the good news to the modern world.” 

“What’s he have to say?”

“Well, a lot of things.  It’s really long, with 288 numbered portions.  But what set Limbaugh off is that Francis says the church should be in solidarity with the poor and be a driving force for peace.  As part of his ‘solidarity with the poor’ message, Francis calls out predatory capitalism for treating people on the margins as if they were disposable.  He goes even further and says that what free marketeers are doing amounts to economic tyranny.  He looks at environmental degradation, hordes of unemployed people, and the widening income gap between a small elite and masses of poor, and says that all these things result from the ‘idolatry of money.’   He doesn’t mince words; he flat out says they’re unjust and unfaithful to the gospel.”

“Well sure, anybody can see that.  So what’s the problem?”

“The thing is, it’s no problem for people who know and believe the message of the prophets in the Old Testament or Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels.  Or for people who just believe in the common good, and in treating other people as you’d like to be treated yourself.  But for Limbaugh, it’s a big problem.”

“How’s that?”

“Francis isn’t your ordinary do-gooder, Ace.  And I wouldn’t call him a liberal either.  He’s a man who actually believes all those teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and is calling the church back to them.  He’s become one of the most revered people on the planet, along with maybe the Dalai Lama.  Limbaugh’s smart enough to know that going after Francis with the sneers, smears, and character assassination he normally uses would blow up in his face.  So his problem is to find a way to undermine what Francis is saying without appearing to attack Francis personally.  For Limbaugh, that’s uncharted water.”

“So how did he manage that?”

“I’d say he didn’t.  He tried, and failed spectacularly.  But you can judge for yourself.  The full transcript of his show is on his website.  Here, I’ll pull it up.”  

He fooled around with his iPad, switching out of the program we keep our bowling scores on, and then handed it to me.  

The transcript was headed It's Sad How Wrong Pope Francis Is (Unless It's a Deliberate Mistranslation By Leftists).  I read... and read... and read.  [Readers who want to check out the transcript themselves can see it at http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2013/11/27/it_s_sad_how_wrong_pope_francis_is_unless_it_s_a_deliberate_mistranslation_by_leftists].

“Holy Moses,” I said, “I can’t keep up with this guy.  He’s bouncing around like a handball, coming at you from every angle and every wall.  It’s just one piece of off-the-wall craziness after the other, nonstop.  Before you can catch your breath and question or point out what’s wrong about one thing, he’s off to half a dozen others.  I’ve gotta tell you, he’s absolutely a world-class bullshitter.  He’s better than my brother-in-law.”

“Craziness is way more entertaining than some reasonable academic lecture,” agreed Al.  “He’s like a venomous version of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles.”

“Mel Brooks is good,” I said.  “I was thinking Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat.”

So what do you think of Limbaugh’s attempts to undermine Francis, Ace?”

“They’re a hoot!  They’re absolutely the best part of the show.”  I thought for a minute.  “Except maybe for the part where he says, ‘In fairness to the pope and in fairness to the Catholic Church, I will admit that communism years ago was much easier to see and identify than it is today.  Communism today is much more disguised. 
Communism today, in large part, is the Democrat Party.  Communism today is in large part the feminist movement. Communism today is found in most of the AFL-CIO-type unions.  It's just the Democrats, and it's a much tougher thing to identify and target, because it can be your neighbor.’  If that doesn’t make you bust out laughing, you’d better check your pulse and see if you’re still ticking.”

Al nodded.  “I googled the numbers,” he said.  “It’s kind of hard to get anything nailed down, but there seem to be over 70 million registered Democrats in this country.”

“That’s a lot of communists,” I said.  “And it’s anybody’s guess how many Democratic sympathizers and fellow-travelers there are out there.  Who knew?”

“Rush and a herd of Ditto Heads, from the looks of it.”

“I loved the part where he said, ‘Up until this, I have to tell you, I was admiring [Pope Francis].  I thought he was going a little overboard on the common-man touch, and I thought there might have been a little bit of PR involved there. But nevertheless I was willing to cut him some slack.  I mean, if he wants to portray himself as still from the streets where he came from and is not anything special, not aristocratic.... okay, cool, fine’.”  

Al looked thoughtful.  “You know, there’s something telling about a man who’s so cynical that he can’t even entertain the possibility that the pope’s identification with the poor might be sincere.  Or maybe he’s not being cynical.  Maybe if you’ve chased after wealth and toadied to the powerful all your life, it’s actually unthinkable that anybody--even the pope--would be headed the opposite direction.”

I scrolled down the screen. “Limbaugh’s next move is to say that these denunciations of capitalism couldn’t be Francis’s own thoughts; ‘... somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him.  This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.’  What’s he implying there?  That caring for the poor and wanting fair treatment for workers isn’t Christian?  Is he suggesting that somebody else wrote it and the pope released it without reading it?  Or that the pope was held hostage and forced to sign it?  Or that he was brainwashed?”

“You can’t tell, can you?” said Al.  “That’s standard Limbaugh.  Inject paranoia, but keep it in the shadows, so you don’t know what you’re fighting--you just know that something scary is lurking there.  It’s like the boogeyman in the closet.  Limbaugh quotes pieces of what Francis has written, but he conveniently forgets to mention that the pope tells you flat out where his economic teaching came from, and it isn’t from Marx.  Francis writes, ‘Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. ....  A mere glance at the Scriptures is enough to make us see how our gracious Father wants to hear the cry of the poor.’  And then he follows that with half a dozen quotations from both the Old and the New Testaments.” 

In the background I could hear pins flying, followed by cheers.  Somebody must have just bowled a strike.  

“What about Limbaugh’s claim that Francis is some out-of-line maverick--that he’s way out on the fringes with his criticism of capitalism, standing all by himself?”  I asked, pointing to a passage on the screen.  “See here where he says, ‘I'm not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago.‘   And down below here where he says, ‘... what has been attributed to the pope here doesn't make sense, with 50 years of the Catholic Church.  It doesn't jibe.  But it sounds exactly like what your average, run-of-the-mill leftist would say each and every day’.”

“Yeah.  That  is absolutely wrong.  There’s a long line of authoritative economic teaching from the popes, running from Leo XIII on through Francis’s immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and Francis’s teaching is consistent with it.  Francis’s writing is clearly in the mainstream of Catholic teaching.  Limbaugh is either just ignorant about it, or he is deliberately misleading people.”  [Readers interested in tracing the history of Catholic social teaching can see the foundational documents on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/foundational-documents.cfm]

“Okay,” I said.  “So far Limbaugh has explained away the pope’s teaching as a PR move, or, alternatively, the Marxists ‘got to him,‘ or he’s some misfit off doing his own thing.  But I like his fourth explanation too.  He says people were telling him, ‘Hey, Rush, the pope was mistranslated.’  He admits he was skeptical, but then he realized the ‘worldwide left’ is ‘entirely capable’ of foisting a misleading translation off on us’.”

“That’s beyond bizarre, isn’t it?” said Al.  “That’s some elite conspiracy-fantasy spinning right there--especially when in interviews and sermons the pope has been saying these same things, over and over again, for months.  I think somebody ought to introduce Limbaugh to Occam’s Razor.”

“What?  I use a Gillette myself.  Does he need a new corporate sponsor?  He already looks clean-shaven in the photo on his website.”

“No, no.  Occam’s Razor is a principle, fittingly enough coined by a 14th century Franciscan friar.  One of the common versions of it is that when you have competing explanations for something, you choose the simplest one that explains all the known facts.”

I thought about that.  “So our choices are... ?

“We have a pope who has taken the name Francis in honor of a saint who renounced worldly aspirations and chose a life of poverty.  The pope himself has chosen a simple life style, drawn guidance from scripture, and talked and preached extensively on our brotherhood with the poor.  
“On the one hand, then, we could say that Francis’s economic teachings are consistent with his life, with scripture, with his own prior comments, and with prior teaching of the church... 
“Or, on the other hand, we can ignore all that and assume that no pope in his right mind would criticize capitalism, and therefore Francis must either: A) be insincere and simply pandering to the public in order to create some positive PR for himself.  Or B), he is the hostage--wittingly or unwittingly--of Marxists, who have managed to extort these criticisms from an innocent pope.   Or C), he is an isolated deviant from the church’s historical teaching.  Or D), his writing was hijacked by the evil worldwide leftist movement, which somehow substituted a fake translation for the pope’s original--which presumably was intended to be a hymn to the blessings of the capitalist system.  Or E), all of the above.”

“Looks like a plain enough choice to me,” I said.  “If Limbaugh were Pinocchio, his nose would be punching a hole through the roof.”

Just then the manager’s voice interrupted us:  “Ace and Al, we have an opening for you in the far left lane.”    

© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Learning Acceptance

The Willards invited us and a couple of other neighbors over for a barbecue on their giant new gas grill.  Ann greeted us at the door, and after we thanked her for inviting us, Patty asked, “By the way, is it some special occasion?”

We’ve known the Willards for years.  Ann flushed, hesitated, and then said, “I suppose it’s okay to talk about it.  Dean has been having some... anxiety for a while, and I finally persuaded him to see a psychiatrist.  It took some intensive therapy and some medication, but they finally got him adjusted.  Dean had a hard time adapting to the new ‘normal.’  But he’s made the breakthrough.”  She gave a little smile of relief.  “He’s fine now.  So we felt like having a quiet celebration with our friends.”

I couldn’t restrain myself.  Despite a warning glance from Patty and a sharp kick to my shin, I asked, “Uh, what’s this ‘new normal’ he’s come to accept?  What’s that about?”

“Oh, it’s nothing earthshaking,” she said dismissively.  “Just learning to accept the world the way it is.”

“Like what, for instance?”  

“Ordinary things,” she said.  “You know.  Kidnapping people and shipping them to CIA black sites overseas to be tortured.  Jailing people in Guantanamo while denying them lawyers and visits by family members and holding them for years without charging them with a crime.  And then finding them innocent but continuing to hold them for more years.”

“Heck, that kind of thing is old hat now,” I said.  “First Bush, and now Obama.  Dean always seemed like a sensible guy.  I would have expected him to learn to go with the flow, like most people have.”

“I don’t want to make him sound fanatical,” she said, a little defensively.  “He probably could have handled it if that was all it was.  But then that SEAL force assassinated Osama bin Laden when he was unarmed, and killed a defenseless woman in the process, and that really bothered him.  He felt as if the man should have been captured and brought back to stand trial.  He said that’s the way a government operating under the rule of law would have done it.”

I patted her on the shoulder.  “I can see what a burden you’ve been carrying.  I haven’t thought about bin Laden in years.  That’s not just yesterday’s news; that’s history.”

Ann gave me a weak smile of gratitude.  “I think he might have gotten over that, but then these drone attacks kept escalating.  When he learned that 90% of the people killed by the drones are innocent women and children, somehow he couldn’t let go.  It just kept gnawing on him.  He lost his appetite and had trouble getting to sleep at night.  He began carrying a copy of the Constitution around in his pocket, and he’d pull it out and read it over and over, at the most inappropriate times.”

“He must have been desperate, grasping for anything to give him a hold on reality,” I said.  “ But you say he’s recovered now?”

“I think so,” she said, nodding.  “We couldn’t let his depression keep on like that, so we reached out for help.”

“I can certainly understand that,” I said.  “Some things you can’t just let ride.  You have to do something about them.”

“I’m glad you understand,” she said.  “We were starting to feel so isolated, with people all around us just going about their lives, while he was stuck on brooding constantly about our government’s--I don’t know what you would call them.  Imperfections?  I mean, that’s just the way things are, right?  Nobody’s perfect.”

“Sure,” I agreed.  “And that was all that was bothering him?”

“Well, no,” she admitted.  “He had a laundry list of things that haunted him.  It seemed to prey on his mind that Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security are all on the chopping block.  That states are shredding contracts with state workers and denying them the right to strike.  That we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, and the response is budget cuts that will create more unemployment.  That CEOs are making astronomical sums at the same time they’re cutting the pay of hourly workers.  That corporations are hiding billions in profits offshore and paying no income tax.  That we’re all being spied on by our own government.  He just didn’t think those things were fair.  He’s always been a little old-fashioned, you know.  He still thinks we should look out for each other and treat each other decently.”

“He’s lucky to have a wife who pays attention,” said Patty sympathetically.  “It sounds as if you have a really good understanding of his problem.”

“I had to listen to him often enough,” Ann sighed.  “At first I just took it as Dean’s blowing off steam.  But he wouldn’t let things roll off his back like a normal person.  You’d think it was his money funding war and murder by executive order, his family’s safety net that was being threatened, his community’s environment being polluted.  He took it all so personally.”

“Mental health issues can be frightening,” I told her.  “I’m glad it’s all worked out for the two of you.  Which way’s the beer?” 
© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why Are You Whispering?

“Say, did you happen to make it to that Veteran’s Day ceremony downtown?”  I asked my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Dichter.  

“What’s that?” she asked.  “You have to remember to face me when you’re talking, or your voice wanders off in another direction.”

“The Veteran’s Day ceremony downtown,” I said, facing her and yelling.  “Did you go?”

“No need to shout,” she said.  “I’m not deaf, you know.  But it’s no use my going to speeches.  Or plays or movies, for that matter.  They all mumble so much I can’t make out what they’re talking about.”

“The speaker said that freedom isn’t free.  It has a price, and we’re still paying the price because we’re still at war.”

She snorted.  “I wouldn’t have needed to go downtown to hear that.  There must have been thousands of speeches around the country that day with the exact same theme.  I heard people say it dozens of times myself when I was younger.  It’s quite a cliche now.  It’s been said so often by now that a lot of people believe it’s true.”

I looked at her, shocked.  “What are you saying?” I asked.  “You don’t think it’s true?  You don’t think freedom has a price?”

“Of course not,” she said.  “It just sounds so right because of this society’s assumption that everything has a price.  Freedom is free.  Anytime, anywhere, you can act and speak freely.  You could say anything you wanted, right now.  I wish more people felt free enough to do that in this country.”

“But there are consequences for saying some things.”

“Of course.  Everything has consequences.  Have you taken a look at the consequences of  ‘paying the price’ these speakers are urging on us?  They’re pretty ugly.  It also so happens that the same people telling you freedom isn’t free are the ones who will administer those consequences.  And they’re making the consequences more drastic all the time.”  

“But how can you just ignore that our soldiers are bleeding and dying right now to preserve our freedom.”

She looked sad.  “Ace,” she said, “I’m not ignoring it.  I’m appalled by it.  It enrages me that our young people are being duped into ‘paying the price’ by people who will reap the profits.  Our kids in uniform aren’t fighting for our freedom; they’re simply being used.  They may not be able to see it, but they’re fighting for empire, for oil profits, for market share.” 

I was shocked.  It’s surprising how little we know our neighbors sometimes.  “Mrs. Dichter, how did you get to be so cynical?”

“I’m not a cynic, Ace,” she said.  “I’m an idealist through and through.  The cynics are those who deliberately use the language of liberty and love of country to betray good-hearted, well-meaning people.”  

“I gather you don’t think people feel free to act and speak in this country?”

“People who don’t pose a challenge to the status quo probably feel free, because none of the weight of the state is brought to bear on them.  But it’s a different story for people who actually do something that the folks at the top don’t like.”

“Like who?”

“Like people actually fighting for human rights, civil rights, economic justice, or peace and environmental issues.  Look, you’re a journalist of sorts.  Did you read the results of the survey that PEN America did of 520 American writers, checking on the impact of NSA surveillance?”

I ignored the “of sorts.”  “Uh, no,” I said.  “I must have missed that.”

“I can understand how you would,” she said tartly.  “It wasn’t on the sports page.”

“Okay, you got me,” I said.  “What about the survey?”

“Well, 1 in 6 writers admitted they haven’t written or spoken about some topic because of concern about NSA surveillance, and another 1 in 6 admitted to seriously considering squelching their thoughts.”

“So a few writers got the jitters.  We’re a paranoid bunch.”

“Nice to see you defend your own profession so eloquently.   Tell me this, then.  Do you think the Occupy Movement, which was spreading like wildfire, just magically disappeared on its own, in a matter of weeks, in towns and cities across the country?”

“Uh, to tell the truth, I hadn’t thought about it much.”

“You might turn off your TV and take a look at how that came about.  It’s amazing how easily the Obama administration, working with banks and universities and local police, dismantled the Occupy Movement.”  

“I wouldn’t have thought someone your age would be so sympathetic to a bunch of young people camping on public property.”

“Ace,” she said,  exasperated.  “Just look around you!  Look at the harsh prosecutions and sentences being meted out to environmental protestors like that nice young man, Tim DeChristopher.  To animal abuse protesters who try to improve conditions at slaughterhouses and poultry processing plants.  And have you noticed that honorable whistleblowers who reveal fraud or waste or illegal government surveillance have the book thrown at them, but the frauds and crooks and incompetents they exposed go unscathed?”

By now she was making me really uncomfortable.  “You know, Mrs. Dichter,” I told her, “I don’t think we should be having this conversation.”

“Pardon me?  I didn’t hear what you said.  Why are you whispering?”  

© Tony Russell, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Conscience Would Be Beating Me Like a Drum

Our kitchen sink was stopped up, so I headed out to our local big box store to buy a snake to run down the drain.  I was wandering around trying to find the plumbing section when I spotted the clerk I’d bought some paint from on my last visit.  “Hey, Don,” I said, “can you point me toward the snakes?”

He jerked a thumb toward the north.  “I expect you could find some along the river there,” he said.  “We don’t have any cottonmouths in this part of the state, but the copperheads like swampy places and rock outcrops.”

“I didn’t come in here looking for reptiles, Don,” I said.

“Well, one of the managers is a snake,” he said.  “And another is a weasel.  You can find them in the office back there.  Careful.  They both bite.”

Everybody is a comedian in hard times.  “I’ve got a drain stopped up,” I explained patiently, “and the plunger wouldn’t do the trick.  I need one of those coiled wire snakes. “

“Ah,” he said.  “In the trade we call those handheld augers.  Come on, I’ll show you where they’re at.”  

As we walked, I said, “You’re not in the paint section any more?”

“Nope,” he said.  “I’ve moved on.  I was temporary part time there.  I bid on a permanent part time job in the electrical section, and got it.”

“You’re retired and working part time to supplement your income?”

He snorted and gave me a look.  “I’m an engineer, and my company cut its work force twenty percent two years ago.  I’d been with them for twenty-four years, had great evaluations, but that didn’t mean jack.  I spent a year and a half trying to find an engineering job, with no luck, and now I’m working two part time jobs to try to hold on to our house.”

“Why don’t you work full time?”

“Did you see those jobs posted on the white board as you entered the store?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I didn’t pay too much attention to them, but there must have been five or six.  All part time.”

“That’s the way it works,” he explained.  “They hire you temporary part time.  You’re completely disposable, and you don’t get any benefits.  You can bid on jobs as they come available, which is how I moved up to permanent part time.”

I frowned.  “What about full time jobs?” I asked.  “Aren’t there any full time jobs?”

“A few,” he said.  “I don’t know what the percentage would be.  Most of the jobs here are part time.  We bid on the few full time jobs that come up, but everybody wants those.  Odds of getting one are pretty slim.  They like keeping people part time.  That way they don’t have to pay any benefits.  In fact I’ve got a second part time job at Walmart, so now I’m working sixty hours a week at two jobs with no benefits.”

“Ouch,” I said.  “That’s terrible.”

“Get used to it,” he said, glancing at me, “that’s the new American economy.  It’s the Walmart model, and it’s spreading everywhere.”

“I read that a Walmart store in Ohio organized a food drive, setting up plastic bins with a sign saying, ‘Please donate food items here so our Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner’.”

“I saw that too.  Pretty thoughtful of them, wasn’t it?” he said.  “Of course another approach would be to pay people a living wage and allow them to work full time.  But that might cut into the Walton family’s living standard.”

“They could probably still manage to live comfortably,” I suggested.

“I don’t see how,” he said.  

“Why not?” I asked, puzzled.

“The Waltons have a net worth of over $144 billion dollars--more than the combined worth of 40 percent of the entire population of the U.S.  Think of that for a minute.  Could you live comfortably, knowing that your employees didn’t have money for health care, for Thanksgiving dinner, for a decent place to live, for school clothes for their kids, while you roll in a level of luxury an emperor would envy?  I couldn’t.  My conscience would be beating me like a drum.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We’d Prefer You Not Use the Term ‘Lizard’

“Welcome to another broadcast of ‘Encounters With the Unspeakable.’  I’m your host, Chuck Anthony, and we have an exciting guest for you this evening.  Lloyd Blankluch is the CEO of one of our major multinational investment banking firms.  He has been involved in a pioneering effort to tap into the unrealized potential of men buried in our overburdened criminal justice system.  Lloyd, welcome to the program.  Can you give us an overview of Project Chameleon?”

“Glad to, Chuck.  And thanks for having me.  In a nutshell, Project Chameleon is a job training program created by a group of Wall Street’s leading investment firms.  We identify promising men who are currently part of the huge prison population in this country.  Then we take the cream of the crop and provide them with sophisticated training that prepares them to enter jobs in the financial sector once they are released.”

“Are you talking janitorial positions here, Lloyd?  Elevator operators?  Doormen?”

[Laughing]  “Hardly, Chuck.  These men move immediately into entry-level managerial  positions once they exit the graybar hotel.”

“So the significance of your project’s name is....?”

“These guys will trade their orange jumpsuits for half a dozen business suits in navy, black, pinstripes, and various shades of gray as soon as they walk out the prison gates.  With their suits and values, they’ll blend in perfectly in their new environment.”

“Knowing the way  the financial sector works, Lloyd, I suspect this isn’t an entirely altruistic venture on your part.”

“Lord no!  This is a win-win situation for everyone.  So many of these men are trapped in a revolving door that returns them again and again to prison.  They get a chance to escape the recidivism cycle, and the financial sector gets a highly motivated work force with the aptitudes and temperament to re-energize our entire industry.”

“What are those qualities you’re looking for, Lloyd?  Are they key in the screening process?”

“They’re the core not only of the screening process, Chuck, but of the whole program.  They’re that important.”

“So you’re looking for...?”

“We’ve identified five traits that characterize the upper management of Wall Street firms.  Greed.  Energy.  Decisiveness.  Numerical literacy.  Ruthlessness.  And Amorality.”

“Uh, I counted six items there, Lloyd.”

“We don’t require a high degree of numerical literacy, Chuck.  That’s what accountants are for.”

“Of course.  Pardon me.  I have to say though, Lloyd, some of those sound a little rough!”

“Investment banking and securities isn’t for the tender-hearted, Chuck.  It’s a big-boys game.  You have to be willing to destroy communities, ruin lives, devastate the landscape, impoverish millions, even turn the planet into a giant toaster oven in order to turn a short-term profit.”

“I would think that would be a ... difficult ... set of criteria to use when selling the program.”

“I was using the informal version, Chuck.  We generally rephrase them for public consumption.”

“So you recast ‘greed’ as ....?”



“Willingness to make the tough decisions.”





“And ‘impoverish millions’?”

“Job creation.”

“Ah, I see.  Gotcha.  I’m just thinking out loud here, but the idea of a chameleon is that only its outer appearance changes.  The inner lizard remains the same.”

“That’s correct, Chuck.  But we’d prefer you not use the term ‘lizard’.”

“No problem.  But if these same criminal qualities are at work in both the underworld and the corporate world, wouldn’t we expect to see some chameleons reverting to their old colors, trading their drab business suits for bright orange prison jumpsuits?”

“That’s the beauty of the financial sector, Chuck, and what makes our program so attractive to inmates.  We tell them, ‘Say farewell to prison.  Either we’ve legalized every crime we commit, or we’re too big to be held accountable.  A broker’s license is quite literally a license to steal.’” 

“I guess that isn’t a hard sell, to somebody doing time.”

“You’d be surprised!  These guys are skeptics to begin with.  It’s counterintuitive, you know, that the more you steal the lower the risk.”

“So what convinces them?”

“Data.  Hard facts.  ‘Don’t take our word for it,’ we tell them.  ‘Check things out on the Internet.’  Look up SAC Capital Advisors, for instance--maybe the most profitable hedge fund in history.  They bet on corporate securities with the advantage of insider secrets they obtained illegally.  Just this past week they pled guilty to security and wire fraud and are anteing up $1.2 billion as part of the settlement.  But here’s the sweet part. Nobody is going to jail.  Not a single soul!  And the company will still turn a profit!  And Steve Cohen, who owns and manages it, will still be worth more than $8 billion after he pays his fine!  I mean ‘Hello!  Have I got a deal for you!’  Financial crime pays really, really well nowadays, with near-zero risk of jail time.  If you’re somebody serving five to ten years for stealing a few hundred dollars, and then you’re offered an opportunity to steal billions without doing a day behind bars, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?”

© Tony Russell, 2013