The Piece of God in All of Us: Mary Oliver and Franz Marc

Franz Marc: Blue Horses

I’ve always had this curiosity about art, but feel I’m an outsider. I simply lack the wherewithal needed to unlock its portals. On the several occasions I’ve visited art galleys, whether in LA, Santa Fe, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Madrid, I tried vainly to stare paintings down, hoping a mindfulness approach might unleash an avalanche of revelation. A good many of the contemporary paintings could be hung upside down and I wouldn’t know the difference.

Scroll back to summer, 1978, and a graduate course in Southern California. A classmate invites me to go with him to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a treasure trove of art, in fact, the largest in the U.S. west of the Mississippi.

An hour in, I grow bored, regretting my hasty acceptance, hoping my friend will share my mood.

Another hour idles by when he tells me he’s exhausted. He’s looked at three paintings. Really, just three! “There’s just too much to take-in,” he says. What does he see that I can’t? Fetch me my sunglasses and tin cup!

Over the years, I’ve tried to close the gap, taking students to Aix-en Provence and its Cézanne vestiges, picnicking on a sun drenched afternoon with Mont Sainte Victoire, beloved haunt of many of his paintings, looming in the background.

We visited Arles, where moody van Gogh and tempestuous Gauguin put up with each other in the Yellow House in 1888, now gone, and take-in the local museum housing many of van Gogh’s renowned paintings.

As a literature student in grad school, I was familiar with the art poems of Keats, Browning, Rossetti and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Among modernists poets, Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Art, for all its brevity, haunts me almost daily in its depiction from Breugal’s “The Fall of Icarus” (1560) of human indifference in a context of suffering.

In the early 1980s, I invested in a Time Magazine multi-volume edition of art books, each volume with its illustrated slip case cover. Replete with photos, biography, and salient details of art masterpieces, it was the closest you come to the paint by numbers art kits I delighted in as a child.

When we moved to New Mexico in 2018, I grieved to have to donate these exquisite volumes to the performing arts school library where my wife previously taught. The moving cost was already mind-boggling and we had to jettison items replete with memory, especially my many books.

Why am I telling you this? Simply because art still engages me. Today, I came upon a poem by beloved poet Mary Oliver, commemorating German artist Franz Marc’s “Blue Horses” (1911) painting. I had never heard of him.

Franz Marc was a dedicated painter who pursued his craft assiduously, living several years in Paris and studying the great masters. Post impressionist Vincent van Gogh influenced him greatly in his broad brush strokes and vivid colors. Marc’s paintings often feature animals, especially horses, in combination with landscape to achieve an organic whole.

He shunned their objectification, contending for their mystical import: “I never, for instance, have the urge to paint animals ‘the way I see them,’ but rather the way they are. The way they themselves look at the world and feel their being.”

Marc was a color symbolist, colors having individual nuance: “Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

This helps elucidate his latent purpose in “Blue Horses” (1911). He told his wife it dealt with his foreboding of an imminent war, though this was three years before Sarajevo, leading to the Great War that would result in a combined twenty million military and civilian dead.

In the painting, horses symbolize freedom and vitality: blue is the color of calm and peace and the male principle at the spiritual level; yellow, the female principle, gentle and sensuous; red, the inharmonious and conflictive.

Marc adored animals, seeing them as harmonious with nature and representing the good in the world.

In contrast, mankind has adulterated that natural tranquility through deceit and corruption. Only by reconciling with nature and art can Man find restoration to his better self.

Marc was right in his premonition of war and was called up. He would die of a shrapnel head wound at Verdun in 1916. He was 36.

Oliver’s poetry, like Marc’s art, is nearly always centered in nature, so scarce wonder Marc’s painting would lead to her moving poem tribute:                                        

“FRANZ MARC’S BLUE HORSES”

I step into the painting of the four blue horses. I am not even surprised that I can do this. One of the horses walks toward me. His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm over his blue mane, not holding on, just commingling.
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.   I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses
what war is. They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.  Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.  Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.          
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me as if they have secrets to tell. I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what  could they possibly say?                                        

I may sometimes feel locked out when it comes to art, but as Oliver says so well, “Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” It explains why art engages me still.

–rj

 

Continue reading “The Piece of God in All of Us: Mary Oliver and Franz Marc”

Salman Rushdie’s Home-Brewed Adversaries

Once again, fundamentalist Islam has shown its ugly side in the attempted slaying of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. After two decades in hiding, he thought he was safe from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa (1989). He was wrong.

We expect secular regimes to impose imprisonment and death on those who quarrel with their governance. Think Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and, currently center stage, Kim Yong- un, the Myanmar military regime, Xi Jinping, Putin, Maduro, and Ortega.

But religion sponsoring terrorism? For the most part, no; but not when it comes to much of the Islamic world.

Ironically, Islam has remained a largely medieval faith, inimical to change. A PEW Center Analysis (2019) surveyed 198 countries and territories and found that 40% had laws prohibiting blasphemy, defined as irreverence against God and sacred objects. 11% had laws against apostasy. Most of these countries are Muslim.

In 2019, Pakistan sentenced seventeen individuals to death for blasphemy, though the sentences haven’t been carried out as I write.

Iran executes “blasphemers” regularly as public policy, often as means to quell dissent, i.e., to oppose the regime is to oppose Allah.

Iranian execution doesn’t exclude stoning, usually for adultery. Human rights groups report that between 1980 and 2009, 150 people have been stoned to death. Currently, leaked prison documents reveal 51 individuals slated for execution by stoning, 23 of them women, 28 of them, men (thesunco.uk).

We are, indeed, back to ancient ways.

The publisher, Penguin, kept a stiff upper lip in pursuing publication of The Satanic Verses, despite death threats to its executives. An anomaly in a film-dominated time, books still had power to move the needle!

In 1989, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa and $3m award for killing Rushdie for blasphemy in writing The Satanic Verses (1988).

This is the same holy man who sanctioned the execution of up to 5,000 Iranians accused of conspiracy in 1988. He would die a natural death four months after his fatwa.

What followed the fatwa was a bloodbath, forcing Rushdie into hiding under protection of British intelligence. Though he would apologize, the current Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, rejected his apology. (Rushdie has long since recanted his apology: “The worst thing I ever did.”)

Subsequent to the fatwa, thousands of Muslims assaulted bookstores, threatening to bomb those selling his book.

In 1991, the book’s Italian translator was knifed, but survived.

A few days later, Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death.

In 1993, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot, fortunately surviving his wounds.

In Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, two clerics protesting the fatwa, were fatally shot.

Riots broke out in Iran, India, and Pakistan. An estmated sixty people died.

Then, as now, many of Rushdie’s writing cohorts came to his defense, among them, Martin Amis, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Hitchens.

I like how Steven King took on J. B. Dalton, one of three book chains refusing to sell Rushdie’s novel: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” It reversed course immediately (vanityfair.com).

There were holdouts, arguing we should refrain from offending the sensitivities of others, much like what we hear in today’s cancel culture.

Among the holdouts was John le Carré, who wrote in The Guardian that “nobody has a God-given right to insult a great world religion and be published with impunity.”

In similar vein was former American president, Jimmy Carter, who wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”

Rather strange, I think, for someone who permitted the detested shah to enter America, commencing the seizure of embassy hostages and the bringing to power a theocracy of repression and terror that remains with us still.

They were not isolated cases. Children’s author Roald Dahl depicted Rushdie in a letter to the London Times as a “dangerous opportunist” who “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims.”

In a tear-down New York Review of Books piece, “The Salman Rushdie Case,” author Zoë Heller wrote that “a man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast” (NYRB, Dec. 12, 2012).

It seems a strange twist of fate that there should erupt a groundswell of sympathy for perpetrators of violence rather than for a fierce defender of freedom of speech. But such are the times in which we live, trolls abundant and thought police, both Left and Right, ready to pounce and, not infrequently, message death threats to those it deems adversaries.

The climax in sympathy for rampaging Muslims seen as victims occurred in the aftermath of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being awarded a freedom of expression courage award by PEN America. You may remember that eight of its staff and four other people, including two policemen, were murdered in Paris by Islamic terrorists (January 2015). Some 200 prominent writers wrote to PEN, criticising it for “valorising selectively offensive material” (“Observer Opinion”: The Guardian, 14 August, 2022).

Fatwas need not emanate from distant ayatollahs. They can be home-brewed.

Rushdie got it right in his 1990 essay “In Good Faith,” that “individuals shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.”

Let us hope that our wounded freedom warrior mends well and soon. Early medical reports say he will likely lose an eye, that nerves in his arm have been slashed, and his liver stabbed.

Freedom of speech defines a vital tenet of civilization as essential as the air we breathe, yet many of us take it for granted. We need voices like Rushdie’s to remind us that it can slip away and one day be gone if we forfeit being its sentries.

As for the repressive theocracy that prioritizes hate over love and its apologists, my sentiments lie with writer Jill Filopic’s eloquent summation:

Religion is a belief system. If yours cannot stand up to criticism, interrogation, and even mockery or insult – if you need to threaten or punish, up to the point of death, those who insult an idea you hold dear – it is perhaps worth asking if your beliefs are as strong as you believe they are. And this is the lesson of Salman Rushdie: it is courageous and necessary to stand up against tyrants and those who would use violence to suppress words and art – even when those tyrants claim to have God on their side” (The Guardian, 14 August, 2014).

RJ’s Morning Musings

Mornings are best for me, sun filling every recess, my thoughts teeming into overflow. I am one with the universe and find peace in the stillness it confers. And so let me share with you my morning musings:


Good writing doesn’t come easily, but not daring it stifles who we are and wish to be, for it’s with words we share ourselves, inspire others, find ourselves, and discover we’re not alone.

Ancestral, marauding voices of nurturing hover like ghosts in the thoroughfares of the present, haunting our happiness. Only when we rebel and cease our clinging can we be free, and discovering freedom, make friends with ourselves.

Good poetry observes Dickinson’s dictum to “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” for artifice sows the sensory and when we show and do not tell, we plough the soul.

Think of good poetry as a bouquet and you’ll not go wrong, a unity of balance, imagery and shape, coalescing into what pleases and is, therefore, beautiful.

Good poetry mines deeply, unafraid to tap crevices in obdurate darkness, cutting away the unessential, with right tools pursuing every line, digging earnestly, buoyed by passion and not a little of intelligence.

I am in love with the stillness of every sunrise, elbowing the darkness and wakening the earth; its gift of new beginning, putting away yesterday’s might-have beens; the grace of another day to forgive and to love and be thankful.

A good poem likes to think, but avoiding prose, sings its truth with beauty dressed in feeling.

—+

Why is it I must pass things by without seeing a thing once? This sky, for instance, pageantry of mercurial mood, of cloud, wind, storm and calm, pink dawns and flaming sunsets, pitch fork lightning and rolling thunder, starry nights and lunar mystery—the majesty of it—our imperial dome, to which we owe the breath of life.



If that lunar beacon we call the moon borrows its silvery brilliance from reflected light, so on earth we’d do well to debit blessings often owed to others.

Poetry has an uncanny way of happening, reviving the sensory, meant for survival, not truth dulled by habit, thriving on vagary. Through metaphor, our exile ends, we find connection, and receive benediction.

In every dawn I am like a newly lit candle, my thoughts spilling everywhere. I rejoice in the cardinal’s song, emissary of a new day redolent with promise, the chance to meet up with blessings I had overlooked yesterday.

I admit to being passionate, sometimes to excess, sensitive to the disenfranchised, the voiceless, whether human or animal, strident in contesting a world that often plays unfairly and mutilates the Earth. I do not repent!

May I cherish each day’s renewed grace and seek virtue only, knowing I cannot own what was never mine to keep, and that what matters lies in the present, for the past I can remember, but not retrieve and tomorrow I may not wake to see.

Nothing wise hasn’t been said before, but the doing is hard, making it necessary to repeat.

Good writers, like all artists, celebrate their audience, and not themselves, recreating the human stream that succeeds when readers exclaim, “I’ve been there!“ All else is but an unlit candle.

Every quest begins with desire, but when desire lusts for possession, it commences our journey into sorrow.

I knew age had caught up with me when, yesterday, my doctor said, “Now if you were my father, I’d advise….”

As humans, we often filter what we perceive, influenced by our wishes and fears, born of past experience and, yes, the weight of culture and even our friends, fostering expectations as false as they are limiting. May I learn not always to believe what I sometimes think.

It’s how I draw the bow and not the target. It’s the journey, not the goal.

We are all story makers, each day our thoughts composing new chapters in life’s journey; but as in reading books, discerning between fantasy and truth, fiction and non-fiction, is essential to getting the story right and space for choosing action over inertia.

Yes, I admit to following a daily regimen that some may call being in a rut; but I much prefer its discipline, the empowerment it confers over my many infirmities, and the peace it affords in keeping chaos at bay and getting things done. I believe the passions must be made obedient to the mind. Or as Epictetus put it, “One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement.” Virtue doesn’t fall upon us out of the blue. We must toil at it.

I stumble in the darkness, the stars invisible, the earth’s silence my companion, but I do not tremble, for I know all things pass and the sun will surely rise and morning’s birds sing earth’s song.

Letting go yesterday to indulge today and sow tomorrow.

A good poem is its own immensity, tributaries of nuance coalescing into unity. It is neither more nor less. It is itself.

—rj





Space as Identity: The Plight of Bedouins in Israel

Gretel Ehrlich, in her splendid The Solace of Open Spaces, writes that “a person’s life is not a series of dramatic events for which he or she is applauded or exiled but a slow accumulation of days, seasons, years, fleshed out by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place.”

This brings to mind Israel’s Bedouins, a traditionally nomadic people once populating a vast desert terrain, whom T. E. Lawrence understood and celebrated. And they reciprocated.

In his own time, Lawrence lamented the increasing fate of urbanized Bedouins, their loss of place and a way of life: “The perfectly hopeless vulgarity of the half-Europeanised Arab is appalling. Better a thousand times the Arab untouched.”

Much of that traditional way of life is but memory, especially in Israel, where Jewish settlers in the Negev have frequently seized Bedouin lands and driven out their people.

A vivid example is Twayil Abu Jarwal, one of forty unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Lying north of Beersheba and off the beaten track, you’ll not find it on any map.

It has no permanent structures for its 450 inhabitants, housed in tents, and clinging stubbornly to place and a way of life.

The village and its fields have been bulldozed so many times that no definitive account exists, perhaps between 25-50 times.

Still they cling to what’s long been theirs for two millennia or more.

After each razing, they re-assess, restore their sheltering tents, and plant anew.

Ilan Yeshurun, who directs the local Israel Land Authority, interviewed in the Jerusalem Report, defends these demolitions: “This is not a village. It doesn’t exist on any map or in any legal registration. It’s only a village in the eyes of the Bedouin.”

Critics call it “urbicide,” an Israeli attempt to destroy perceived communities of potential Palestinian resistance. I think it more than that—a quest for expanding settler homesteads, akin to America’s violent history of seizure of Native American lands.

Meanwhile, some fifty illegal settler farms have sprung up and, politics as usual, nothing is done.

There are now just six Israeli authorized Bedouin villages. Presently, an extended Highway 6 thrusts its way into their traditional landscape, with Israeli plans to continue their policy of demolition and resettlement.

Understandably, Trayil Abu Jarwal villagers fear not only a loss of their land, but a way of life.

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that “you can’t go home again,” meaning that time brings evolution and experience changes us, uprooting past constituents of our nurturing tied to place.

On the other hand, his dictum locates the modern tragedy of living in a mobile society. Home is an extension of ourselves, evoking sanctuary and fostering identity..

T. E. Lawrence had promised the Bedouins emancipation from the Ottomans Turks. But with takeover of Ottoman land by a modern Israel, they languish still, their cries unheard.

–rj

Is Musk Libertarian?

My post on Elon Musk yesterday elicited one of the largest Brimmings audiences in its twelve year history. I endeavored to be fair to all sides in assessing this polarizing man.

But I need to do a postscript that may help clarify what lies behind his thinking and purchase of one of the world’s leading media platforms and, notably, his resistance to censorship, whether of Left or Right. As he’s told us, he’ll not please either.

You see, I view him as essentially a libertarian, not conservative. Unfortunately, many conflate the terms. Libertarians agree with conservatives in opposing government interference with free enterprise, curtailing deficit spending, mandated protocols and alleged incursions on free speech.

They also agree with conservatives on a strong miliitary, capable of responding to threats to the nation’s security, gun ownership rights, etc.

On the other hand, libertarians believe abortion is a free choice option, a huge difference indeed. They support same sex marriage, judicial reform, and ending capital punishment. While they support a capable military, they eschew bloated spending and policies of overseas intervention that have led to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They describe the Bush administration’s incursion in Iraq as “an obscene, depraved act of naked aggression”(libertarian.org).

Libertarians believe we need to follow George Washington’s counsel in his Farewell Address to avoid foreign intervention and alliances. We are not the world’s police or its savior.

Libertarians, unlike many conservatives, are hugely supportive of the environment: “We support a clean and healthy environment and sensible use of our natural resources. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Pollution and misuse of resources cause damage to our ecosystem. Governments, unlike private businesses, are unaccountable for such damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection…..We realize that our planet’s climate is constantly changing, but environmental advocates and social pressure are the most effective means of changing public behavior” (ontheissues.org).

On immigration, there is much that even Progressives could like: “We welcome all refugees to our country. Furthermore, immigration must not be restricted for reasons of race, religion, political creed, age, or sexual preference. We therefore call for the elimination of all restrictions on immigration, the abolition of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol, and a declaration of full amnesty for all people who have entered the country illegally” (ontheissues.org).

Presently, Libertarians have grown to be the nation’s third largest party. In 2020, they took 20% of the vote in Virginia; surprisingly, 9.4% of the vote in my native Massachusetts.

As the libertarian label suggests, they advocate a live-and-let live approach with priority on personal liberty and limited government.

Musk is an enigma when it comes to his politics. He says he’s half Democrat, half-Republican; in short, a moderate. Despite his avowal, he exhibits a strong libertarian streak, emphasizing citizen polity over government imposition.

Revealingly, our space-minded mogul has hinted at what a Mars government might look like, or oriented along libertarian lines with people voting directly on issues: “I think that’s probably better, because the potential for corruption is substantially diminished in a direct versus a representative democracy” (metro.co.uk).

We know his friend and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is decidedly libertarian, as Musk admits: “I’m somewhat libertarian, but Peter’s extremely libertarian” (newyorker.com).

In January he tweeted “True national debt, including unfunded entitlements, is at least $60 trillion – roughly three times the size of the entire US economy. Something has got to give” (nationalinterest.com). Libertarians, ardent critics of social security, would hardly disagree.

A libertarian mindsets goes far in contextually explaining his vociferous resistance to censorship and government interference. As a visionary, he outdistances conservatives with his free-wielding views on needful social reforms ranging from judicial, military, environment, abortion and free trade.

Like libertarians, he exhibits affinity with Victorian Britain’s liberals, vociferous advocates of limited government, non-censorship and social reform (e.g., Bentham, Mill, Gladstone).

It may be limiting to label protean Elon a libertarian, but as American poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) famously put it, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”

–rj

The Enigma of Elon Musk: A Candid Assessment

Whatever your opinion may be about entrepreneur Elon Musk, who shocked the social media world with his purchase of Twitter, you can’t ignore him.

Voted Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in December 2021, he happens to be the world’s wealthiest man with an estimated net worth of $253 billion, far out-distancing Amazon’s Jeff Bezos at $162 billion (ceobuz.com, April 28, 2022).

He can buy just about anything and does. Coca Cola may be next.

Affluence brings influence, and Musk doesn’t shirk from peddling it. Last year his Space X’s PAC contributed a record-breaking $2.4 million to politicians of both parties; Tesla, 1.5 million (opensecrets.org).

He has donated money to the presidential campaigns of Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In California, he contributed to the campaigns of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, Meg Whitman, and former governor Jerry Brown.

Though he says he prefers to stay out of politics, it hasn’t stopped him from entering the political fray. He opposes Biden’s tax credit proposal to give a $4,500 discount to consumers buying vehicles made by union workings, affording an advantage over Tesla, Toyota, and others.

He supported Andrew Yang, who advocated for a universal basic income, in his 2020 primary run.

Since 2003, Space X has secured $1.5 billion in contracts, mostly NASA related.

He vehemently opposes Biden’s proposal to close the tax loophole for billionaires to help finance his safety net plan.

His battle with the FEC over regulation has been ongoing.

He abhors union organizing.

To brand him as an ultra conservative, however, is untrue in its simple-minded reductionism. Like others such as rival Bezos, he’s pragmatic, focused on his business interests.

Musk isn’t easy to like and there exist significant foreshadowings of trouble with his takeover of Twitter. Despite his advocacy of freedom of speech, he’s been known to fly off the handle with subordinates who have disagreed with him, or engage in “rage firing.” In his just published book, Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century, The Wall Street Journal writer Jim Higgins gives numerous, detailed instances of Musk’s firing of contractors and employees out of sheer rage.

Nonetheless, he deserves credit for being a climate change hawk, if not pioneer, founding Tesla, an EV concern. 75% of EV vehicles sold this year were Teslas. Tesla solar panels are on thousands of rooftops in the U.S. Climate change hasn’t been a priority issue for most conservatives. He was among the first in line to oppose Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Musk is one of your consummate engineers, a segment to whom we owe substantial, but unacknowledged, gratitude for its contribution to the public welfare and many of the amenities we enjoy.

He revitalized a non-viable EV industry, designing a new battery and reviving a waning space program as well. Courageously championing the new technology and investing heavily, he taught himself rocketry and invented an entirely new space craft.

The pity would be that his new venture might distract him from the substantial contributions he’s made to mitigating climate change, Tesla bridging the gap on the issue between liberals and conservatives, a sentiment echoed by environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.

A registered independent, Musk has tweeted, “To be clear, I am not a conservative. Am registered independent & politically moderate. Doesn’t mean I’m moderate about all issues. Humanitarian issues are extremely important to me & I don’t understand why they are not important to everyone.”

He takes Russia’s Ukraine incursion seriously and has supplied the country with thousands of Starlink kits to maintain its Internet, essential to its survival. Zelensky has thanked him for this. Critics minimize the charity component, saying the U.S. government did the financing. The reality is Space X donated thousands of kits on its own.

The Left has, nonetheless, turned him into Lord Voldemort, infamously rich, tax-dodging and a taunting critic of its activism: “The far left hates everyone, themselves included! But I’m no fan of the right either,” Musk tweeted Friday morning. “Let’s have less hate and more love” (April 29, 2022).

If he’s paid little tax, it’s the fault of the system, not Musk. A good many Democrat and Republican members of Congress, many of them millionaires, maximize their own exemptions.

Musk views government regulation as hostile to innovation and laments huge deficit spending, contributing to inflation.

Conservatives are liking Musk and enthusiastic about his acquisition of Twitter. They applauded his moving Tesla headquarters from blue state California to red state Texas. They’ve long felt that Twitter has frequently discriminated against them. Last year, it banned Trump permanently. Enthusiasts advocate a presidential run in 2024, ruled out for the South African born Musk by the Constitution.

Conservatives point out the Taliban’s presence on Twitter, yet Trump is banned. On the other hand, the Southern Poverty Law Center has criticized Twitter’s allowing right wing extremists a platform for staging the January 6, 2020 Capitol attack.

Musk says he bought Twitter to promote free speech and has plans to make it better: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”’

The problem is we don’t really know what Musk means by this. Democrats, understandably, remain fearful. Will the likes of Donald Trump and misinformation saturate the new Twitter? Many leftist tweeters have already departed.

Not much talked about, Musk has considerable business ties with China, hardly your paragon of free speech. In fairness, he isn’t alone in the business community when it comes to prioritizing profit over human rights issues. Would it make Twitter more reluctant to remove China propaganda or misinformation posts? China is Tesla’s second largest market with half of its cars produced there. Musk has been the beneficiary of several billion in Chinese investment loans.

Several leading Congressional Democrats are advocating a review of the purchase.

Truth is, many Twitter aficionados, including Democrats, adore Musk, who has 81.2 million followers.

He’s admired by the public for his fierce independence. He’ll not be reigned in. He speaks to the issue, not the political mindset. He does what many can only dream.

On the other hand, most Democrats see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He may not be able to run for president, but were Trump reinstated and make a run to regain the office, Twitter could potentially impact the race in his favor. Twitter enjoys an estimated 300 million users worldwide, 38 million of them in the U.S.

Just the other day, Musk hinted at the possible scenario: “Time outs are better than permanent bans. A good sign of free speech is: Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? … Twitter has become a de facto town square. It’s important people have the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the wall.”

Reinstating Trump would likely trigger a Tsunami tidal wave, with many skilled staff and millions of Twitter users deserting its ranks and unleashing an aroused Congress. Meanwhile, Trump says he’ll never return to the platform, no matter what Musk does.

But no need for heart palpitations just yet. The deal doesn’t close for six months, allowing for a lot to happen. Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission, announced its seeking whether Musk observed an antitrust reporting requirement when he initially invested in Twitter (Reuters).

Then, too, the UK and EU, concerned that that a Musk owned Twitter may attract extremists, insists Twitter conform to new content rules or face sanctions that would include fines or even a total ban.

Given his mercurial temperament, it’s conceivable he could withdraw from the deal, triggering a billion dollar penalty, agreed to by Musk.

In its latest issue, Time Magazine states “the lesson of Musk’s career is to take his ambitions seriously. He’s rich not because he gamed the system but because he’s a genius who uses the incredible force of his will to mobilize resources to pursue his ideas. He’s devoted himself to tackling what he views as humanity’s biggest problems, and he has decided, as he put it recently, that ‘having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.’”

And for democracy as well.

–rj

Russia will go nuclear in Ukraine: the emerging scenario

Russia’s cruise missile attack on Kyiv yesterday just after UN Secretary António Guterres’ visit with Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy demonstrates the determined, relentless resolve of Putin to bring Ukraine to heel and punish its Western sympathizers.

We know about Russia’s crimes against civilians, raped, tortured and executed; its killing of soldiers who have surrendered; bombings of train facilities providing civilian egress from war zones; attacks on schools and hospitals.

The truth is Russia blundered into this war, thinking a quick assault on Kyiv and regime change would yield victory within a few weeks.

Surprised by the vehemence of Western reprisals via sanctions and steadfast supply of weaponry, increasingly of an advanced nature, and fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia now faces prolonged, bloody entrenchment and even defeat.

British intelligence indicates a loss of 15,000 troops, with many more wounded.

American sources indicate the Russians have lost 25% of their military capability.

Now the war has expanded into Russia, with military infrastructure within Russia being hit, causing panic upon nearby civilians and calls for retaliation.

Meanwhile, despite Putin’s denials, the Russian economy has suffered enormously.

For several weeks, Putin has been menacing the West with apocalyptic warnings of nuclear consequences for nations threatening its security, notably the U.S. and Britain: “If anyone intervenes in Ukraine and creates unacceptable threats for us that are strategic in nature, our response will be lightning fast. We have all the tools for this that no one else can boast of having. We won’t boast about it, we’ll use them, if needed.”

Will Putin carry out his threat?

Yes, but not against NATO nations, for that would lead to an unimaginable horror fallout of nuclear exchange and Moscow’s decimation to rubble in minutes.

What’s more likely to happen is a low-yield employment of nuclear tactical weaponry delivered through aircraft and artillery.

Russia, probably correctly, thinks the West will pull back its support and Ukraine will surrender, with huge loss of its territory, in short order.

Putin cannot afford to lose this war he’s presumptuously waged.

Thus far, the West has not singled any probable response to nuclear weaponry in Ukraine, increasing the likelihood of Russia’s adopting such draconian measures similar to what the U.S. resorted to in Japan.

We should all be afraid.

–rj

Morning Thoughts

I begin my day daily, reading the news, the wrong way to commence a new day, heavy with humanity’s burdens I can do little about.

I would do better in rising with the sun, to set my day’s course like a compass pointing to true North on what matters, enriches, and contributes to well-being, not only for myself but, more importantly, for others.

I remember lines from one of Mary Oliver’s last poems: “Wherever I am, /the world comes after me. /It offers me its busyness. /It does not believe that I do not want it.”

We think of ourselves as separate from the main. Prisoners of self-interest, we’ve relinquished poet John Donne’s maxim, “No man is an island.“

As humans we crave togetherness.

We abhor loneliness.

We require bonding and the cohesion it brings.

I’ve traveled to many places, often alone, but the trips I remember most were those I’ve shared with others. To experience something awesome, but with no one to share it, somehow bottoms out its delight.

Like leaves on a tree, individual in their shape and shimmering on their branches, we feed into a trunk that flourishes when its leaves work collectively. We are citizenry of a greater Self.

We live in a time of electronic fellowship. Billions turn to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, ad infinitum, in a desire to connect, ample evidence we need one another to complete ourselves.

We find the relational in other, more meaningful ways. We love, we marry, we have children, we make friends, we frat with those sharing like interests, we bond with our pets. And yes, we write books—and even do blogs!

Unfortunately, since Descartes with his “I think, therefore I am,” we’ve weighed our lives down with ego indulgence, mindless of that greater entity of collective humanity and of Nature that grants us being and sustains.

In Victorian times, Bentham’s notion of utilitarianism was in vogue, its thesis that what promotes happiness is good; what promotes pain is bad. Essentially hedonistic, it was vehemently satirized by Dickens in Hard Times as serving the wealthy at the expense of the working class.

Modern psychology hasn’t helped mend our ways. Self-validation defines its focus. Witness the plethora of books on self-improvement. I was schooled in behaviorism at the grad level with its notion that humans are little more than pigeons, subject to stimulus response, driven by self-interest. Accordingly, prescribed behavior can be reenforced through operant conditioning that awards the positive; conversely, extinguishing the negative via the punitive. Anthony Burgess, whom I met briefly many years ago, deciphered it rightly in Clockwork Orange (1962), one of the 20th century’s most profound books.

In economics, capitalism is founded upon the same a priori of what’s in it for me, ushering in the Adam Smith credo of self-interest and competition as prerequisites to prosperity. Its consequences are with us daily, the one percent owning half the wealth, the exponential decline of the middle class, the continuous emphasis on growth despite diminishing natural resources.

In his widely published The Selfish Gene (1976), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins tells us that genes act to preserve their self-interest, with altruism, when it does exist, functionally symbiotic as in bees and ants. In fairness, Dawkins does propose that humans have potential capacity with growth in moral intelligence to modify evolution’s predilection for self-interest. Harvard’s eminent psychologist Stephen Pinker, who sets out in The Angels of Our Better Nature (2011) to statistically validate the decline of violence, should be pleased.

On a human scale, I think of Japan, unique in its protocol of collective behavior in the interest of public welfare that critics might disdainfully dismiss as herd mentality or, essentially, a vestige of Hobbes’ “enlightened self-interest.” Nonetheless, Japan is one of our few stable nations, high in economic equality, rare homelessness, and little crime. When the tsunami struck in 2011, unlike in other nations, there were few reports of looting. No need to send in the National Guard. My own memories of Japan confirm a pervasive politeness and honesty I’ve found unequaled in my travels.

In contrast, I think of what took place with the COVID outbreak, nearly a third of Americans not getting vaccinated and, even more, refusing to mask. As one business man told me, “It’s a personal choice.” But then this isn’t confined to America. In France, Belgium, and Germany gargantuan anti COVID protocol demonstrations, some of them violent, have occurred. Theirs is the right to infect others and continue the pandemic. By the way, Japan’s COVID mortality rate was 14.52 versus 233.8 in the U.S. as of Nov. 21, 2021, according to Johns Hopkins University stats.

Reading the news reminds me of the human folly behind the headlines, whether of individuals or nations, in pursuing self-interest. Sowing greed, we have reaped social dissonance with high crime, economic disparity, and homelessness among its results.

Frost wrote a renowned poem, “Mending Wall” in which the persona tells us of his neighbor, who advocates “Good fences make good neighbors.” I’m for tearing down walls that separate us.

In mutuality we find our common denominator, making for a better world.
In discovering the Other, we find ourselves.

–rj

Not a Choice: Reflections on Political Folly

Across the country, even globally, the mad rush is on by politicians to indulge the public mood and eliminate COVID restrictions. I think it a mistake and that it comes too soon.

At home, nearly a million Americans have perished and our medical grid buckles as COVID patients, the vast majority unvaccinated, take up hospital beds. Meanwhile, many needing cancer screening, surgery or follow-up are turned aside. New research reveals its devastating consequences.

Long term COVID can be dehabilitating, even for those vaccinated. Recently, I had conversation with a man from Louisville, a home physical therapist. He shared he had come down with the virus six months ago, was placed on a ventilator, then developed pneumonia. He still doesn’t feel right. He’s married with four children and just 29. He told me—I didn’t need convincing—that he’d not be here at, all had he not been vaccinated.

Yes, omicron infections have been plummeting, but they still highly exceed the number of infections before the Delta impact, then averaging between 12,000 and 16,000 daily cases. In contrast, “the U. S. daily average of cases and hospitalizations on 16 February was about 124,000 and 81,000” (NYT).

As Vanderbilt University School of Medicine infectious disease expert William Schaffner cautions, “Some governors think we are almost there – they are dropping mask mandates – and my response is: good luck to you. My fingers are crossed on your behalf.”

I believe strongly in Biden’s mandates to ensure public safety, sadly thwarted by the courts under the auspices of the First Amendment and public non-compliance. Good government that seeks the welfare of its citizens fulfills government’s proper role without nullifying the tenets of our Constitution.

Observing COVID protocol is not a personal choice. It’s a necessity.

—rj

Theodore Roosevelt Statue Removed: Reflections

The press largely missed last week’s removal of the Teddy Roosevelt statue from the grounds of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which had been in place for eighty years. Progressives argued it was colonialist in nature, a white man on horseback accompanied by an African and Native American on foot.

Roosevelt is consistently rated as among America’s best ten presidents, an ardent naturalist and political liberal. The African and Native American reflect his renowned role as explorer, not colonialist bent on exploitation. Nonetheless, the efforts of the Left, ignoring cultural antecedents, persist in rewriting history, or what I call “purging” it to conform with ideology.

I’m reminded of Orwell’s still relevant observation that “the really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.” Similarly, progressives seek to assuage history’s realities by projecting their politics on to the past, while hypocritically ignoring the malignant realities of today’s Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

As always, we do well to avoid peripheries, whether of Left or Right. We properly amend history by learning from its failures and not repeating them.

—rj

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