Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lucy

I have a note in my computer desk drawer to title my next post Sacrifice and Selfishness.  In addition to the thoughts I had percolating in my head, I was going to comment on the George Will piece I read from this past Sundays Opinion page in the Inquirer.  But after seeing the movie Lucy on Sunday night, I thought I might be able to connect my last post about the future with the movie, and Will's essay, and my original topic.  Here goes.


If you have not seen the now released movie, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, and if you like movies that make you think a bit, then I recommend seeing this flick.  Without giving too much away, the movie is about a young woman who is accidently exposed to a nasty drug which causes her brain activity to increase from the normal 10% to, eventually, 100%.  During that time, her enhanced brain allows her to control her body, the bodies of those around her, the electrical impulses that permeate (invisibly) our daily lives, and ultimately, time.  (For those of you that are cognizant of the history of the ape to man theory of evolution, her name Lucy in the story is no coincidence.)


For me, the key scene in the movie is when Lucy contacts a famous professor who has been active in the theory of the brain's capabilities and what those capabilities may morph to as our ability to utilize more of our brain's capacity improves/evolves.  The professor, played by Morgan Freeman, when asked by Lucy what she should do with her increased knowledge, answers that she should do what all evolving life has done for millennia; pass it on.  As Lucy knows she is dying and has less than a day in which to accumulate her knowledge in order to pass it on, it may seem surprising that she would choose such a selfless act, as opposed to the oh so many more selfish ways she could have spent her last day.


Which brings me to George Will's Sunday editorial.  Obviously, Mr Will is extremely intelligent.  On more than one occasion, I have tried to read his opinions in the Sunday Inquirer, only to give up part way through as I found them beyond my grasp.  But I made it through this particular one.  To paraphrase Will, liberals in particular and President Obama in specific, are hypocritical to blame corporations for moving their jobs and money overseas when the labor and tax rates of those countries are more friendly to their profits.  Hypocritical because, in Will's opinion, it is liberals and democrats who support labor unions and create the tax laws.  Will points out that since corporations only concern is shareholders, and shareholders only concern is profit and dividends, then, of course those companies will more their businesses and their money to more favorable environments.  Of course, Will does not choose to explain why, given the sad state of the corporate world,profits, CEO pay and the stock market are at all time highs.  Are they not indicators of a favorable environment?  He also avoids discussion of why he assumes 0% corporate tax would do anything more than improve corporate bottom lines just as the reduction of corporate taxes over the past 30 years have done.  It seems clear that as long as the only yardstick of corporate success is profit, then labor rates (and for that matter, consumer safety), will always trail far behind.  I give him credit for sticking with his love of trickle down economics, despite the facts that show that very little trickles down.  I can only conclude that should a corporate CEO had gained Lucy's powers, only the corporation would have benefitted from them, not the United States, or the human race.


There in lies the problem.  The future, should it continue to be driven by a Supreme Court that believes corporations are people, should it continue to be controlled by the belief that money and wealth are the only goals that matter, should its leaders and citizens continue to believe that the haves earned what they have and the have nots are lazy, or worse, not loved by god, then the idea that in one's last days, we should consider what we can contribute will be permanently replaced by the idea of what we can take before we go.


Sacrifice and Selfishness.


Fortunately, I don't believe that the majority of people are selfish.  Daily, we read about and can witness the lives of parents who work a 2nd job to send their kids to college, neighbors who check on the elderly on their block when the weather turns nasty, teachers who supply books and pencils to their students when the school district is unable, and all the millions of volunteers who build houses, plant gardens, serve lunches, and donate goods and services and time to those in need.  Acts of sacrifice are all around us, just as prevalent as the horrible acts, just not as news worthy.  (I could inject here that since so much of our media is controlled by large corporations, perhaps that is why bad news rules the day, but I will resist the thought).


In the movie, as her brain's capacity moves closer to 100%, Lucy teams up with a police officer, not because she needs the backup, but so she is reminded of her connection to humanity.  One might say that at the end, despite her astonishing mental abilities, she was also far more humane, even spiritual, in that she sacrificed her life to provide knowledge to those that remained.  She chose a path which she believed would improve the human race, not one in which she could take advantage of those with less brain capacity.   Let's hope that there will come a day when George Will and those that defend the corporate philosophy that is so well summed up in the phrase, "it is business, not personal", will gain the brain capacity to realize that being human is always personal.  Anything less is not worth defending. 



Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Future

When I first became aware of the Lapham's Quarterly, I ordered a past edition called The Future for my college aged son, as well as the next year's 4 editions for my wife.  The Future stayed in my son's hands since then until our family vacation in late July when The Future returned to me. 


A few days ago, I began reading it.  Already, I have encountered a number of thought provoking essays and quotes.


One very interesting quote written by John Kenneth Galbraith from The Affluent Society is


"Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding"


Another, attributed to Jean de la Bruyere is


"We must confess that at present the rich predominate, but the future will be for the virtuous and ingenious".


Interestingly, the second quote by Bruvere was written in 1688.  Makes you wonder, both, how extreme income disparity must have been in the 17th century, and how much progress has been made in the past 325 years since.  I like to think that the 17th century's haves were all winners of the birth lottery; good names with established pedigrees, while the have nots were virtually everyone else not born into such lucky fortune.  Assuming that is true, and that the concept of a middle class had not yet been conceived, or existed, society has made vast progress.  While place of birth, economic level of one's parents, and mixture of genes and environment still influence greatly the eventual outcome of a person's success in life, there are many more homes in which one can be born which will provide moderate opportunity as compared to the all or nothing status of 1688.  And, there is certainly a greater chance that a person can break through the barriers of the negative details of where one is born, due to the tremendous opportunities that capitalism and the free market provide. 


Still, it is certainly not the vision of Galbraith who helped influence the programs of the 1960's and 1970's, the so called Great Society programs.  His quote, to me, seems to be saying that once one becomes rich, the ability to understand the situation of all that are not, is limited.  Is this not reflected in our current Congress, where most of the Senators are millionaires as are a large percentage of the House members?  When it becomes so easy for them to continue tax advantages for the wealthy individuals and corporations while cutting SNAP money for those in the direst of needs, is that not their wealth impinging on their ability to understand the poorest of their constituents?  (Let alone, is that not the most glaring example of how American politics and governance is certainly not as Christian as we would like to believe).


What is so mind boggling to me, is that daily, we read of rich and famous people who have serious problems, financial, marital, mental.  All their money has done little to make them happy.  While I certainly don't know the details of Robin Williams' recent suicide, it is common knowledge that he was drug dependent.  Despite his obvious genius, despite his ability to make me laugh until I peed my pants, despite his remarkable acting skills which ranged from the most hilarious to the most dramatic, he chose to end his life.  Yet, despite the obvious, despite the fact that study after study demonstrates that after a certain point, more money does not lead to more happiness, we continue to fight each other as we grasp for the gold ring.  And, in opting for quick rich schemes and lottery tickets, or worse, engaging in businesses that take advantage of others to make money, whether it be senior scams or selling sub prime mortgages, we continue to build walls to the understanding that Galbraith described.


In his introduction to The Future, Lewis Lapham uses a number of points to distinguish how the future has changed in America since the 1960's.  Ending racial inequality, eliminating poverty, reaching the moon were but a few of the goals of America in the days of JFK and LBJ.  And these national goals were shared by many citizens.  We were inspired to think that we could accomplish such feats, each doing our part individually, the goals prioritized collectively by our government.


Fear of the future now seems more prevalent than hope in its coming.  The news is filled with doom, whether it be terrorists in the Middle East or climate change, the corporate mentality of profit over people or our belief that only by polluting Earth can we provide the energy we need to prosper.  Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, Religious or Agnostic, no one is free from the guilt of using the fear of the future, the fear of what if we do or don't do this or that, to control the populace and increase the voting rolls or church pews.


The Future.


It was just a few seconds away as I began this post, became the present when I began this paragraph, will be the past when you read this essay.


The Future is what we make of it.  Sounds elementary, I know, but if we continue to fear the future then it will be a fearful place.  Worse, the future is just the present, over and over again.  So, if we continue to despise our present, hate our job, tolerate our kids or our spouses, believe in the worst of our neighbors and our leaders, then we condemn the future to be a reflection of today. 


Can the future be a place where food insecurity does not exist in America?  Can the future be a place where the faithful respect the religions of others, and glorify their god through good works and deeds?  Can the future be a place where one's gender, race, age, heritage, and sexual orientation, are as innocuous as one's handedness or shoe size? 


Or will wealth, individual as well as national, keep us blind to understanding? 





Monday, August 11, 2014

42, and (hopefully) counting

It's been a bit since my last post.  Sorry.  On vacation for a week in late July, then no time since then to catch up.  My run of over 100 hits a day ended about 3 weeks after it started.  No explanation for either its inception or ending.  Happy for the attention though.


On vacation I was reminded of how opinion of the topics of the day can be so varied.  There wasn't as much politics or social issue talk on vacation this year as some other years but what did occur among my family and the other people we encountered demonstrate the difficulty that our elected officials face in determining the course of America.  Whether it was overseas conflicts, the state of our health care industry, Supreme Court rulings, income disparity, immigration, or whatever the topic, opinion just among those in attendance varied widely, split 50-50 in many cases.  If an extended family with similar genes and environmental influences can have such disparity in their opinions, imagine the range when one considers the depth of differences between Americans across regions, incomes, race, intelligence, political awareness, education, etc.  If nothing, we are a nation with perspectives that run the gamut, probably more so than any other country in the world.  Many, including myself, frequently lament the state of partisanship and lack of cooperation and compromise, but considering how different Americans are from Maine to New Mexico, Wall Street to Main Street, perhaps we should be pleased with just how much we do accomplish when we put our minds (and wills) to task.


Which brings me to 42.  For those non-baseball fans, 42 was the number worn by Jackie Robinson when he played baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He, along with the GM of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, broke the race barrier in the 1940's.  Up until then, black baseball players were restricted to playing the game with the all-black teams that dotted America at the time.  Currently, there is a movie running on HBO called 42 which details the first year of Robinson's entrance into major league baseball.  Of course, it is a Hollywood version of the events, but is apparently reasonably true to the real story.


For me, the pivotal scene is when Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, asks Jackie (played by Chadwick Boseman) what he will do when he is spit upon, called a nigger, and exposed to the incredible racism that he will inevitably face during the upcoming year.  "Will you fight back?"  Rickey asks. 


"Do you want someone who doesn't have the guts to fight back?", questions Robinson in a not too pleasant response.  "No," says Rickey, "I want someone who has the guts not to fight back".


Think about what an incredible request this was.  And, assuming Robinson complied in a manner anywhere near how it is depicted in the movie, think about how incredible this behavior was, especially during those early days in cities where, not only were there social restrictions to blacks and whites mingling, but in the South where there were actual laws against such intermixing.


And now extrapolate that incredible strength of character to the world stage.  Instead of justifying "proportional retaliation" what if the offended nation chose the more difficult path of no response.  Instead of revenge after attack, there was no revenge.  Instead of the Old Testament "eye-for-an-eye", there was the New Testament teaching of turning the other cheek.


I know, your first response is what about Hitler?  Didn't his atrocities require an immediate and physical response?  I would, of course, answer yes, Hitler's clear intention of ethnic cleansing required war.  But Hitler and his beliefs, his ability to motivate a nation of rational people to commit irrational acts, did not develop in a vacuum.  Perhaps, after WW1 had the victors not punished the losers with economic devastation to go along with the already diminished capacity to recover via the loss of life and resources, perhaps if the Treaty of Versailles emphasized less the so called War Guilt Clause and was more like the Marshall Plan that was executed after WW2, perhaps the perceived punishments of the German people would have been short circuited and not led, in part, to the nationalism that was used by Hitler to build his Third Reich. 


Perhaps it is still too much a part of the human genome to hurt after being hurt.  Revenge, whether person vs person, faith vs faith, or country vs country, seems to be the first instinct, the first response.  But it is not the only response, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated in 1945. 


A young co-worker recently said to me that everyday he felt that the world was getting worse and worse in terms of people hurting others.  I tried to explain to him that perhaps it is only because, with our advanced communication technologies, it seems that way because we hear about the atrocities more quickly and more often.  Thirty years ago, would we even know about the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East where thousands of people have been driven into the desert due to religious persecution?  Perhaps the fact that we know about it and are horrified by it indicates that we are evolving spiritually, towards a more compassionate viewpoint of relations with others.


War is not the answer sounds like a nice sound bite, good for a bumper sticker or a t-shirt, but not as the basis for the policies of an America that seems to have enemies throughout the globe.  But what if it is the drone bombings, the nation occupations, the forced change of leadership, the perception that America will get her way, no matter the cost to the people on the ground, what if our response, our refusal to learn from Jackie Robinson, that plays a role in this environment of hatred.


Restraint in the face of aggression is not an easy path to follow.  But if we are serious about our belief in American exceptionalism, it can only be proved by following the more difficult paths.