Thursday, November 19, 2009

How Quickly We Forget or We're Forever Blowing Bubbles

Someone, Napoleon, George Santayana, who really said it doesn't matter, observed that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Of course, the originator of that quote was himself speaking in an age before mass electronic media and definitiely before those mass electronic media were completely made subservient to corporate con men and pirates.

Just over one year ago the worldwide economy collapsed because a bunch of con men and pirates convinced people who were supposed to know better that securities based on dodgy mortgages were a good thing because everyone, just everyone knew for an absolute fact that home prices would never ever fall and that every person conned into signing a mortgage contract built on incomes just as falsified and inflated as those home prices would make every single payment. Mortgage backed derivitives were a scam just as surely as Bernard Madoff's investment firm was a scam.

As I write this the spot price of gold has reached $1,145.90 and has risen as high as $1,500.00 per ounce of 24kt gold bullion. Just a decade ago the price of gold was at $284.00 per ounce.

Ask yourself a few questions, please.

In the last decade have we stopped mining gold?

In the last decade has three-quarters of  the world's gold supply disappeared?

Is there anything to indicate that there is less gold today than there was a decade ago?

The answer to all these questions is a definitive and resounding, NO!

So why is gold over 400% more valuable in late November, 2009 than it was in late November, 1999?

The answer to that question is, gold is not more valuable now than a decade ago. But what it does signial is that the con is on again. Or as the late Fred Rogers would have said, "That's a big word but can you say it with me? Bubble."

I know that this will be painful for those who have trouble remembering that they were conned just a year ago or those who see the world through the not so Funhouse mirrors of Fox News but we have actually been here before. Let me whisk you back some thirty years and more to the last gold bubble. It was a bubble blown by a silver pipe.

Back in the early 1970s as our fourth truly criminal president*, Richard Nixon, was finally being driven from the office he never deserved to hold in the first place, the Hunt Brothers of Texas, Nelson Bunker and William Herbert, commenced a scheme to corner the world silver market. With the support of some similarly criminal Arab plutocrats, the Hunts drove the price of silver from $1.95 per ounce up to a high of $54.00. Their scheme was virtually identical to that carried out by Jay Gould and Jim Fiske in cornering the gold market a little more than century before. The Nixon Administration's removal of the cap on the price of gold was the immediate spur for the Hunt's actions.

The scheme foundered in March, 1980 when the price of silver dropped by more than 50% in one day and caused a 16% drop in the Dow Jones Stock Market average. The Hunts and their Middle Eastern cronies made a pile of money to add to the piles they already had and, in the meantime, lengthened the economic recession that began under Nixon.

As a corollary to the silver fever that developed and even persisted after the collapse of the Hunts' silver bubble, gold skyrocketed. In mid 1980 it hit about $600.00 per ounce before falling back to less than a third of that high. A lot of con men and pirates profited while a lot of other folks were left hiding $600.00 Krugerrands that were subsequently worth only about $200.00 in safe deposit boxes. The economy continued in the doldrums through 1983.

We hear the same drumbeat today that we heard back in 1980. The world economy is in the crapper. The only safe hedge against inflation is something of intrinsic value like gold. Gold can only go higher. Fear spread by the con men and pirates pulls money out of the economy and into the pockets of the same con men and pirates who were selling you mortgage backed derivitives just over a year ago. The con men and pirates profit from the fear they spread and in a few months someone holding a fist full of $1,200.00 American Gold Eagles, Canadian Maple Leafs or Krugerrands will be out between $600 to $800.00 per coin and the con men will be that much richer.

Can you say, "Bubble?"

We are not simply condemned to repeat the history from which we don't learn. Rather we are condemned to repeat the history that the con men and pirates convince us to unlearn. They appeal to our fear, our greed, our ignorance and our bigotry for their own profit then distract us with tabloid crap until they can run the next scam. Caveat emptor is their battle cry and excuse. Those stupid people whose incomes mortgage brokers inflated outrageously should have known better. Blame the victim of the scam, not the criminal who perpetrated it.

Just remember to sell those Krugerrands bought in 1980 now and stay away from the gold scammers of 2009.

*(Note: I count Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Cooledge as first through 3rd of our 7 truly criminal presidents. Herbert Hoover was an ideologue who founded an institution that has become a criminal enterprise. Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, Poppy and Dubya round out the 7.)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Speaking Volumes

During the summer of 2009 we were beset by a collection of charlatans, dupes and dunces shouting, "Read the bill," at town hall meetings held to discuss health care reform. The charlatans knew, the dupes didn't know and the dunces were to stupid to care that there was no one bill to read.

Now we have the Congressional Republicans introducing a 200 page health care reform bill and touting it as a work of exceptional brilliance when contrasted with the majority Democrats' bill that is some 1900 and more pages long. This is the same mentality that equates reading the Cliff's Notes of War and Peace with reading the entire novel. It is great for the dunces whose attention spans are shorter than the life of most subatomic particles. But there's an adage that, I think, applies here: you get what you pay for.

So why would a bill hovering in the range of 2000 pages be so large and another bill purporting to do the same thing be one-tenth that size?

First, let's consider that health care and related industries represents somewhere between 30 and 35 per cent of the American economy. The Republicans will tell you that in ominous tones as if that much of the nation's economy were about to be murdered. So, let me ask you, would you like about a third of the nation's economy considered carefully and in detail or would something that is, by contrast, scribbled on the back of an envelope be equally good?

Second, there is the long, arduous effort that Democrats have made to consider and include Republican ideas where they have been offered in a cooperative spirit. Not just this year but over the last thirty years Democrats have made sincere efforts to overcome objections by Republicans even when, as now, the objections are simply hysterical and obstructionist. Currying favor with senators like Olympia Snow of Maine has added bulk to a health care overhaul.

Third, the stated goals of health care reform are to extend coverage to all Americans, improve health in the population as a whole and control the run-away inflation of health care costs while not reducing the coverage enjoyed by anyone who currently has health insurance. Achieving those goals requires some careful consideration of the effects of reform on private insurance plans, on Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans and Indian Health Services, military medical care, private for profit and non-profit medical facilities, health care cooperatives, HMOs, the Federal prison system and 50 states and additional territories and their state and state licensed health care systems and providers. The dunces, dupes and charlatans may clamour for something that their tiny minds and blinkered visions can encompass, but I for one think it's a very good idea that there be a great volume of paper in a bill that has attempted to consider all the implications of reform on these systems.

The point is that a 200 page bill is not a serious consideration of health care reform. It cannot possibly be such. Yet to the dunces, that segment of the population that the great H. L. Mencken aptly called the "booboisie", are ready to surrender themselves to something that is a sham simple version of health care reform in the same way that they surrendered themselves to a sham common man and genuine simpleton in George W. Bush. They take the absurd position that something one-tenth the size must be better than the larger version.

Even these booboisie could figure out that a box containing 20 ounces of corn flakes is a better deal than one containing 2 ounces if both are priced the same but when it comes to a bill in Congress they clamour for the short weight that short changes them.

But that's not the only issue with volumes currently in the news.

Sarah Palin has uh...written Her biography is a hot item on Amazon despite its being weeks from actual release. There may actually be some fun in reading whatever the ghostwriter recruited by Palin's handlers has put together but for it to be a best seller even before publication raises my eyebrows and probably ought to raise yours.

Let me pull out an incident from my long memory to contrast a little here.

Back in 1988 and 1989 there was a scandal involving House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. It seems that Speaker Wright had actually written a slim book. Not many people were clamouring for copies for some friends of Wright's bought some copies in bulk. Those friends freely admitted that they were attempting to help Wright finance his campaigns for his seat in the House of Representatives. They were using the book purchases as a subterfuge meant to evade campaign finance limits. This scandal caused Wright to resign his seat in May, 1989.

Given the paucity of ideas rattling around in the space between Sarah Palin's ears, perhaps someone ought to look into the sales of her book. Perhaps some of the neo-fascist plutocrats that regularly hire amiable dunces as political fronts for their rapacity are buying cases of the Palin book for kindling in their ski lodges or hunting camps. Their bulk purchases could be seen as political contributions except for one thing. Governor Palin isn't governor any longer, is she?

Everyone was puzzled by the dramatic resignation of Palin as Alaska governor last summer. Puzzled, that is, unless they were just a little bit cynical and were thinking like trailer trash. You see, Sarah Palin is not now running for anything. She can rake in all the cash she wants without violating anything but reason and decency before she declares herself a candidate for something like president of these here United States of America. Had she remained governor of Alaska to the end of her term she would have been that much poorer and have had about a year and a half less to suck at the teat of embarassingly large private neo-fascist fortunes.

In the one case we have the dumbing down of complex issues seen as a positive thing by the boboisie that the forms the Republicans base and in the other we have the very personification of that dumbed down booboisie pretending to be a bestselling author...with a little help from her neo-fascist friends. It's an apotheosis of ignorance that speaks volumes about the Republicans and their base, you betcha.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Defining Terms - Religion vs. Religiosity

I have been wont to contrast the terms "religion" and "religiosity" in these entries. It's more than time that I define their meaning.

A number of factors make this a timely discussion but the most immediate causes are the attempt by Pope Hitler Jugend the First to poach Anglican bigots and the decision by a French Court to cut through the religiosity, the veneer of religion, and define the Church of Scientology for what it is, the cult of a bunch of con artists purveying a lot of idiotic nonsense for personal profit.

Despite the appearance that I deride all religion, I have a certain respect for actual religion sincerely held. True, I do not believe in any god of the sort that George Carlin called "a big, imaginary friend in the sky." However, I do believe that religion - and here I specifically mean "religion" - can be a good thing. There is clear evidence for that positive benefit. The current Dalai Lama is unquestionably a person of deep religion and a force for good in our world. Dorothy Day and her Catholic Workers' Movement have been a force for good. The great Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by the neo-fascists of El Salvador for his religion. I have known a number of people of deeply held religious belief from nuns and ministers to captains in the Salvation Army to decent lay people who manifest their religion in positive ways. I have also known good people who find comfort in their religion during trials physical, moral and circumstantial as they progress toward that universal vanishing point of death. What is common to all of those people is a depth of knowledge and understanding that comes from examination of their faiths. They have posed questions and found an answer in something far larger and more mysterious than themselves. They have decided that the grand mystery is god while I have decided that it is chance. Their decisions and mine come from confronting our questions and finding our own satisfactory answers.

Religiosity is the opposite. Religiosity derides understanding, thought, questioning and genuine confrontation with problems. Religiosity can be very comforting but at a cost. It matters not at all whether we are discussing Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Islamic, Hindu or any other form of fundamentalist religiosity, the basic message to adherents can be summed up as, "Don't think. Don't question. The answers are already laid out for you." Religiosity is religion for dummies, real dummies. Those dummies may be relatively smart people in other areas but they have such a need for certainty in something that they are willing and even eager to put aside rational thought to achieve that certainty.

Why that eagerness? I cannot look into the minds of those eager to empty those same minds and know for certain the motives - reasons would be granting them far too much - of those who surrender to the ignorance of religiosity. Clearly those motives are closely related if not identical to those of cultists. Essentially those motives seem to stem from blind egotism, selfishness and an utter lack of empathy. Yet also included seems to be a species of infantilism, a yearning for an authority figure who will tell the follower what to do and think and feel in all aspects of his or her life. The religiose seem to find comfort in a top-down structure in which a guru, Duce, Fuhrer, Pope or preacher pander to their weaknesses and bigotries.

While religion - many of whose sects started out in bursts of religiosity's fervor - tends to say that there are many things which we do not understand raising many questions. Religion suggests that in considering those questions and attempting to reach understanding it has concluded that the resolution to their uncertainty a god of some name or other.

Religiosity, on the other hand suggests that there are no questions and that a lack of understanding is simply a species of "over-thinking" the problem. All answers have been laid out in the past. All answers are in some book. Any confusion results from an imperfect understanding of that book, an understanding which the local imam, guru, rabbi or pastor is more than willing to supply for you from his special, revelatory insight. You need only surrender to the book, the leader, the cult. And, by the way, how do you take your coffee and would you like a piece of the cake that Mildred made?

Yes, the cultists are nothing if not welcoming and homey. It's only when you find that you like these people and you get some clues that they share your biases, fears and anger that the dogma of religiosity comes out. It may sound a bit odd at first but how can it be bad if it comes from the nice grandmother handing you a brownie and how can it be wrong if these people fear what you fear and hate what you hate?

A few years ago a person whom I'd met over the Internet through a common hobby interest insisted to me that her Baptist sect was not Protestant. She was a committed follower of Bob Jones, Sr. It seems that Bob Jones, Jr. had strayed into error in her view when he allowed some room for some contact amongst the races. She insisted that her faith had been transmitted directly from the original disciples of Jesus through the Cathars and Albigensians and that her faith as preached by Bob Jones, Sr. survived uncorrupted and undiluted until 1927. Apart from the fact that even a rudimentary knowledge of the beliefs of the Cathars and Albigensians quickly turns that claim into utter nonsense, the very premise that one set of ideas could be passed down for over 1900 years without the least divergence creeping in is simply insane. Yet what she claimed had its own logic. Like all cults, in order to isolate its adherents from all others there must be an ideology that the cultists are different from everyone else. They must be an elect with entitlement to special knowledge and privileges not available to those without excluded from or not yet privy to special grace conferred on the cultists. She had "drunk the Kool-Aid" in a way that is the metaphorical equivalent of the Jonestown horror from which we get the phrase.

This woman did not need to think. She was part of the Bob Jones-town Cult and enfolded in the unadulterated teachings of the Jesus who said, as Scripture tells us, "Suffer the little children to come unto me...but not the niggers." Her Jesus says, "For as much as you have done it unto these, my brethren, - only the white ones who are of the Bob Jones approved faith - you have done it unto me. And the rest can go suck wind." She holds these beliefs because they are part of her own visceral bigotry into which no thought, no question can penetrate and of which no deeper understanding is necessary or even allowed.

When former Arkansas governor, hale fellow well met and thoroughly frightening presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, insists that he opposes the idea of evolution, he is placing himself in this camp of the religiose and mindless. Despite all attempts to manufacture phony evidence to the contrary, there is an overwhelming body of empirical evidence that life on this planet evolved by random, natural selection over millions of years. There is no valid evidence to the contrary. Yet Christian fundamentalist dogma insists that every word of the Bible is true, accurate and the word of their "big, imaginary friend in the sky." The answer "for dummies" is that the Biblical account, quick, easy and confined to a couple of chapters is the only answer. The Biblical account must necessarily be the only permissible answer largely because if it is not literally true then other Biblical stories might not be literally true either. If one thread in the fabric unravels the whole system of belief comes into question and questions are exactly that from which the religiose flee.

Religiosity would simply be the stuff of satire - not that it isn't already - were it not deadly dangerous. The Hasidic gangs in some New York City neighborhoods that beat up Jews moving their cars to the opposite side of the street on a Saturday are different only in specifics from the Hindu fundamentalists who destroyed a mosque in Amritsar or the suicide bombers who flew planes into the World Trade Centre eight years ago. The details of the acts are different, not the fanatical motivation.

Another aspect of religiosity, peculiar to American Christianity but with analogs in other religions, manifests itself in a perverse dogma of wealth and material success. One would think that the religion whose founder insisted that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven might not be a congenial home for a doctrine that Jesus wants his followers to be rich yet from the late Rev. Ike to the salesmen preaching in contemporary mega-churches the doctrine of Jesus the bringer of wealth finds voice in sermon after sermon. Like the hot coffee and pastries after church, this is part and parcel of the con. Not only is the mega-church welcoming and friendly but it promises its adherents prosperity and wealth through it many personal networking opportunities. After all, the wealth and success of the parishioner means a heaping offering plate and hefty income for the pastor.

It is actually nothing new. One of the great examples of architecture in the city of Boston is Henry Hobson Richardson's Trinity Church in Copley Square. Trinity is the church built for the great 19th Century preacher Phillips Brooks. If we posit a pantheon of gods the great god of Old Boston Brahmin wealth and Robber Baron lucre resides within Trinity's Roman arches there in Copley Square. Yet Brooks preached to his well-off congregation of responsibility and the obligations which their wealth imposed. Today's gospel of wealth is blissfully devoid of guilt. Any number of preachers will tell you that you deserve every penny you can squeeze out of anyone in your path. There is always an appeal for the odd addition to the church, personal jet for the minister, etc. Still, as I've pointed out before what's good for the parishoners' wallets is equally good for the preachers' wallets as well. It is a very ancient problem which, in early Christianity, was known as Simony, a term too little used and far less understood today.

The wonderful Sarah Vowell published an insightful and quirky study of my ancestors entitled The Wordy Shipmates. She concludes that both the best and worst of America originate with the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plimouth Plantations. Though their self-righteousness is the bedrock of the worst bigotry, xenophobia and jingoism in the American character, their rejection of self-satisfaction and insistence that greater knowledge of their world led to greater knowledge of their god forms the bedrock of what is great and good in the American character too. Ms. Vowell's coming to that conclusion takes questioning and thought. It's why she is a writer and performer worthy of attention and on many levels. It is also why she and her book are anathema to religiosity.

Religiosity is, no offense to Soren Kierkergaard, always deals in eithers and ors. Everything must be true or false, black or white, in or out, right or wrong. There can be nothing between. Complexity leads to questions, uncertainty and confusion. Religiosity avoids complexity just as it does thought and questioning.

The great Rev. William Sloane Coffin said that we cannot blame god for the people who believe in him. I think he was correct though I think we can properly separate those who espouse religion from those infected with the disease of mere religiosity.

So when I use the term religion properly I am speaking of something of substance. Religion has depth, intelligence and complexity. One arrives at religion through understanding and questioning. Religion is open, permissive and alive. It can grow and change as ones understanding develops and evolves.

When defining religiosity the facile phrase "a mile wide and an inch deep" springs to mind but that phrase is far too generous. Religiosity is narrow, crabbed and without perceptible depth. It is an excuse for bigotry, hatred and exclusion. Religiosity is, quite literally, the apotheosis of ignorance.

So that is the distinction I regularly draw between religion and religiosity. It is what I mean by the terms. I will apologize for the times when I rage at fundamentalists and their claptrap and lump the religious with the religiose. What I will never apologize for is insulting religiosity because it is impossible to insult such crap too much. Religiosity is, at ground, the worst insult to religion there is.