What Camus’ “The Plague” Teaches Us

There are times when we’re not ready for a book, especially when young. So it was when I first read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, lacking the maturation to comprehend its resonance that only experience can fully render. Since those early years, better equipped from life’s lessons, I’ve gone on to other Camus works such as The Myth of Sisyphus, which critics seem to have omitted as a fitting introduction to his sequel, The Plague.

I’ve been wanting to catch-up on classics I’ve missed over the years, despite being an omnivorous reader of humanity’s most accomplished writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction. The Plague is one of them.

I had especially wanted to read it because of its topical relevance to COVID-19. I was curious. Readers will discover, however, that the book isn’t confined to detailing a deadly pandemic. The Plague, in short, is metaphor for what ails us beyond disease. As with his The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus posits an absurd universe of randomness, annulling meaning. How then are we to live our lives? The Plague is Camus’ answer.

Plagues, or pandemics, have been intrinsic to the human experience and, despite modern medicine’s vast repertoire of advanced treatment, remain with us. Ironically, The Plague surprised me, nonetheless, with its plethora of protocol that has varied little: vaccines, boosters, masks, quarantine and, in extreme cases, geographical isolation as in China’s Wuhan City and Shanghai.

More striking to me still is The Plague’s ominous depiction of a virus’ ability to mutate and thus pose continuing menace, even when apparently subsiding, lying dormant and ready to strike again.

America’s last great bout with a pandemic came with the 1918-19 epidemic that infected a third of the human population and killed an estimated 50 million; in the U.S., 675,000 (CDC). It killed a woman my father loved. As I write, the worldwide death toll of our current pandemic is a staggering 6,309,976 (worldmeters/info.com). In the U.S., we just recently recorded 1 million deaths. With new, more resistant variants and lessened protocols, the numbers are surging again.

Camus presumably employed the Oran (Algeria) cholera outbreak of 1849 shortly after French colonization as its backdrop. (Camus was Algerian born and had lived in Oran for eighteen months, subsequently revisiting it several times.) The novel, however, is set in the 1940s, suggesting he may have had the Nazi tyranny in mind as the ultimate scourge historically confronting humanity: “Calmly they denied, in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies…. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.”

It takes courage, if not resolve, to continue reading its 226 pages of grinding suffering and loss. And yet not to read it is to miss out on one of the supreme narratives of the human condition in a cosmos where mortality hovers over everything, even what we love most.

There are no saviors to deliver us, no gods descending to the earth with quixotic formulae of a compensatory afterlife of eternal bliss. Ours is an irrational, or absurd, cosmos. We have only each other and, as such, we must create our own meaning, regardless of our temporality, if we are to achieve rapport with the dissonance that confronts us.

On another level, Camus, an atheist, decries the irrelevance of traditional Christianity through the ineffectual priest, Father Paneloux, with his platitudes of resignation to divine providence, reiterating a central complaint in his The Myth of Sisyphus.

This theme of revealed religion’s impotency and irrelevance in the context of pandemic isn’t new; for example, there is Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous The Decameron where religion is mocked. Subsequently, there is Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in which Fermina Daza, lover of the story’s protagonist, comes to loathe her religion.

Despite The Plague’s seeming morbidity, the book’s ultimate affirmation is that crisis bequeaths solidarity. Empathy is suffering’s gift in a world depicted in Auden’s memorable “Musee des Beaux Arts” indifferently pursuing its mundane interests. Camus’ “The Rebel” makes clear his resistance to nihilism amidst absurdity, setting him apart from his contemporary, Sartre. Empathy inspires collective resistance to abate a sea of troubles; namely, the myriad horrors of unleashed human tyranny not confined to temporal-spatial parameters.

An unknown editor assembles the plague’s details, gathered largely from the notebook diaries of Jean Tarrou and other documents. The principal character is Dr. Rieux, saintly in depiction, compassionately persevering in treating victims, keen in observation.

Camus hated despotism in all its myriad guises, joining the French Resistance, ultimately rejecting Soviet communism, opposing the Russian repression of the East German uprising (1953) and of Hungary (1956). As a pacifist working for human rights, he fervently sought abolition of capital punishment. The Plague’s Raymond Rambert is spokesperson for his view. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his anti-capital punishment essay, “Réflexions sur la Guillotine.” Camus died in January, 1960, in a car accident. He was 46.

The characters in The Plague are few, but memorable. They include:

Dr. Bernard Rieux, dedicated healer and inveterate observer.
Jean Tarrou, Rieux’ close friend, whose notebooks detail much of the pandemic’s course.
Joseph Grand, the underpaid, dutiful city prefect, who takes the pandemic seriously in the context of ineffectual government.
Raymond Rambert, who foregoes escape for commitment and joins Rieux and Tarrou in their efforts to stem the disease.
M. Cottard, self-centered opportunist alienated from his fellows.
Othon, police magistrate.
Father Paneloux, Jesuit priest, representative of ineffectual Christian response.
The Plague’s unidentified editor.

The plot is readily available from many sources. I do want to comment on one scene, archetypal, that critics miss. Toward the book’s end, Rieux and his close friend, Tarrou, decide on a night swim: “Rieux turned and swam level with his friend, timing his stroke to Tarrou’s. But Tarrou was the stronger swimmer and Rieux had to put on speed to keep up with him. For some minutes they swam side by side, with the same zest, in the same rhythm, isolated from the world, at last free of the town and of the plague.”

As in baptism, they have been immersed into rebirth, and, for all the town’s woes, informed by experience, they discover mutuality and the contentment human fellowship confers. Isolation is one of the supreme agonies of the pestilence. In connection, we find meaning.

The Plague isn’t really a message of doom. Even in an irrational cosmos, humanity can find purpose. As such, the book offers respite in a collective citizenry awakened from apathy, resistant to the sources of suffering. It ends in the plague’s demise, the opening of the city’s gates, Oran’s streets filled with crowds jubilant in their reclaimed freedom, made possible, of course, through the daily, concerted efforts of organized health squads, quiet, uncelebrated stalwarts, transcending self-interest for the welfare of others. As Dr. Rieux exclaims, “…there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.”

The Plague also offers two admonitions: firstly, the forfeiture of freedom in resuming previous habits of material solicitude. In this sense, even before the plague’s intrusion, Oran’s populace wasn’t really free: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.”

Secondly, we must always be awake to the lurking dangers of tyranny to mankind’s freedom. Were Camus still with us, he would decry Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and China’s growing aggression in the Pacific; and perhaps as a committed socialist, corporate hegemony and nativism as seedbeds of inequity and discrimination, marginalizing access to human fulfillment:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Along with Orwell’s 1984, The Plague ranks among the most essential reads of modern times.

–rj

Books That Stay With Us: Amy Bloom’s In Love

Amy Bloom

There are some books that stay with you after you’ve read them. Amy Bloom’s In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, is one of them.

“‘Please write about this,’ my husband said.” He thought it might help others. Bloom, an accomplished writer (eight novels) did so, keeping a meticulous notebook of her husband’s Alzheimer’s journey and its ending. The right choice, Bloom is renowned for her inveterate focus in her writings on the human need to connect and capacity to meet life’s vicissitudes with honesty and acceptance.

A happy couple who met each other in their early fifties, they had walked away from existing marriages, finding affinity in the maturity time often yields. She brought three children into the marriage. Brian, who didn’t have any, became the children’s beloved Babu:

“Brian and I fell in love the way some middle-aged people in unhappy partnerships and in small towns do…. ‘I know who you should be with. You should be with a guy who doesn’t mind that you’re smarter than he is, who doesn’t mind that most of the time, you’ll be the main event. You need to be with a guy who supports how hard you work and who’ll bring you a cup of coffee late at night. I don’t know if I can be that guy,’ he said, tears in his eyes, ‘but I’d like a shot.’ We married.”

At first glance, you might wager odds it wouldn’t last, a man from a devout Catholic family wedded to a divorced Jew with three children. But for fourteen fulfilling years, it did.

They had their quarrels, but being opposites gave balance. What they shared—politics, a love for the arts, traveling, good dining, and the children—was compensation overflowing. Both were keen on helping others: Amy, also a licensed social worker; Brian, an architect with sensitivity to the needs of others, active in Planned Parenthood and with a football frame, providing escort for women past jeering protestors. They shared a commitment to humanity, not religion.

Brian was 67 in 2019 when Alzheimer’s dropped like the sword of Damocles upon their happiness. Less than a week after the neurological findings, he decided “that the ‘long goodbye’ of Alzheimer’s was not for him and less than a week for me to find Dignitas, at the end of several long Google paths.” Dignitas, a private Swiss right-to-die entity, doesn’t impose a six month terminal illness mandate or residency requirement as in right-to-die states in America. It does, however, charge a $10,000 fee, with personal responsibility for travel and accommodation expenses.

Some might think Bloom a willing accomplice. Not so, as the memoir makes abundantly clear: “Brian knew what to expect. I talked to him about living with the illness until the end—that, of course, I would love and take care of him. He was very kind and very clear. He just said, ‘That’s not for me.'”

In often alternating chapters contrasting past and present, Amy faithfully narrates the perambulations of Brian’s final journey. While an individual’s story, it’s also a genre, the stories of this dread disease’s malice retold numerous times, replayed orally in YouTube and the film Still Alice (2014), for example.

What distinguishes Bloom’s memoir from other renditions is the mastery of an astute writer and eye witness. We are present with every detail right up to the final holding of hands and last words in the austere Dignitas apartment in the Zurich suburb of Pfaffikon. It is told with blows landed, fools not suffered gladly, yet punctuated with cathartic humor.

Why read a book like this? Because in doing so, as Brian intended, it may help others know their options:

“‘Please write about this.’ He wanted people to know that they have far less choice in America about their end of life than they may think. Some of us can’t bear to think about it at all, but Brian felt strongly that people should have conversations and do more planning,” Bloom shared with a People interviewer.

Though not explicitly said, In Love implies our need to implement a new strategy of pervasive compassion over religion’s bias and even medical opposition against assisted suicide. It’s highly informative as well for Alzheimer’s co-victims who live with their afflicted loved ones, suffering daily anguish and disruption of routines and options once taken for granted.

The struggle for the right to die has been a slow, arduous one, but not unhopeful. Just a few decades ago, passive suicide, i.e., removing a terminal patient from life support, wasn’t allowed under any circumstance.

Ten U.S. states now allow for physician administered suicide, but this is a misnomer. It’s for state residents only. The patient must have a maximum life expectancy of six months. Two physicians must give approval some time apart. While a physician can prescribe the sodium pentobarbital drink, neither the physician nor anyone else, can hand it to the client. In short, the recipient is fully in charge and must be aware.

This means an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis entails racing against the clock. Bloom quips, “Right to die in America is about as meaningful as the right to eat or the right to decent housing; you’ve got the right, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the goods.”

Should early diagnosis indicate any semblance of depression, you are excluded. This is true of Dignitas as well, although it does allow for advanced age or interminable, unbearable pain, as long as you are fully aware and make your decision without coercion. In such circumstances, no terminal diagnosis is needed.

At present, nearly six million Americans struggle with the illness, its occurrence doubling among those over 65 every five years. Although you can acquire the illness at younger ages, when finally diagnosed, its onset may have begun a decade earlier, or even more. By the 2060s, it’s projected the number will triple. Two-thirds of victims are female, perhaps because of their longevity. With Alzheimer’s, one loses not only memory, but control over body functions. One may even forget how to swallow.

Bloom had noticed changes in Brian’s behavior. Normally laid back, he had become quarrelsome and withdrawn, forgetful of appointments, unable to remember names and faces, spatially disoriented, and inability to focus, culminating in his dismissal from his employer for being too slow.

Brian would tell Dignitas, “I don’t want to end my life, but I’d rather end it while I am still myself, rather than become less and less of a person.”

As is, it took five months of liaison with Dignitas before they gave him the coveted green light. Seventy percent opt out. There followed the flight to Zurich and a physician’s repeated interview to affirm that he hadn’t changed his mind and was consciously able to make the decision for himself.

In Love isn’t simply a memoir of dying, but a testimony that lends joy to life and transcends mortality:

“I take both of his hands and he lets me. IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou, I say. I love you so much. I love you, too, he says, and he drinks the sodium pentobarbital. I kiss him, all over his handsome, weary face, and he lets me.

“Middle-aged women are supposed to look for the safe harbor, for the port in the storm of life. We are supposed to look for the calm and the comfortable. You are the port in the storm. And you are the storm. And you are the sea. You are the rocks and the beach and the waves. You are the sunrise and the sunset and all of the light in between.

“I whisper to him, Every day of my life, and he whispers to me, Every day of my life.”

–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

Roe vs. Wade: The How of its Pending Overturn

We will not bear more!

As the late Christopher Hitchens said, “Religion poisons everything.”

We see it firsthand with SCOTUS about to overturn Roe vs. Wade, a devastating turnaround that will impact people of color and marginal financial resources the most.

We see religion’s trespass behind the daily atrocities of fundamentalists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq, India and Pakistan.

We have the witness of history in the Crusader wars waged against Muslims, the bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, the Inquisition, Bartholomew massacre, witchcraft trials in my birthplace, Salem, MA, Al-Quaeda’s 911 attack, ISIS and Boko Haram.

Not on the same scale, religious despotism exists right now in America, its constituency supporters of Trump. They’ve become the virus that’s brought shame to the party of Lincoln and division to our nation.

SCOTUS needs a new look, not simply by adding people of color. Six of its nine members are Roman Catholics, four of them conservative: Alito, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Thomas.

The two liberal Catholics are Roberts and Sotomeyer. Another, Gorsuch, a former Catholic and conservative, now attends Episcopal services. Three justices, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Gorsuch, were appointed by Trump.

Catholicism isn’t really the issue. It’s when faith embraces an intolerant conservatism. Evangelicals, Hindu nationalists, Muslim fundamentalists and, yes, Israeli settlers, all bear responsibility for attempting to impose their agendas on others.

My family, French Canadian and Irish, was devoutly Catholic. When my maternal grandmother deserted the Catholic church, my other grandmother, the Irish one, cut off all communication. My father was buried with the rites of the Church.

I think we’ve made progress since the election of John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, and a good one. I remember the bigotry existing at the time, compelling Kennedy to pledge his independence of the Vatican. Religion thankfully didn’t raise its ugly head in the election of Joe Biden, a church-going Catholic, and just second Catholic in our nation’s history.

Unfortunately, he’s been pursued not by Protestants, but by conservative Catholic bishops, who want to deny him communion. Sadly, the Catholic church, despite liberal reform efforts, remains a medieval institution in need of reform. Hierarchical and dominated by elderly white males, it allows no female priests, opposes homosexuality, gay marriage and, of course, not only abortion, but contraception.

Thankfully, the vast majority of American Catholics, like Biden and Pelosi, don’t subscribe to its parochialism. They are not the enemy.

On the other hand, that four of our justices embrace Catholic conservative values troubles me. One in particular, Amy Coney Barrett, has long ties with People of Praise, a charismatic group in South Bend. It holds traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality and its officers are males. Meetings are gender segregated. She served as “handmaid.”

Barrett sent three of her children to its Trinity School campus in South Bend and sat on its board for nearly three years. It also has campuses in Falls Church, Virginia, and in Eagan, Minnesota.

In 2006, along with hundreds, she signed an anti-abortion letter that accompanied a January 2006 ad in the South Bend Tribune calling for “an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade” (southbendtribune.com).

The danger lurks when both religion and politics converge into concerted imposition of their views upon the public. As the NPR has pointed out, “Conservative catholics are the new evangelicals” (npr.org, Apr 20, 2020): “‘It was the Catholic vote that won those states for Donald Trump,’ according to Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican congressman from Kansas now serving as an adviser to the Catholics for Trump movement” (NPR).

In 2016, Trump prevailed in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, traditionally Democrat bastions, where Catholics significantly outnumber Evangelicals, securing Trump’s victory, despite losing the popular vote nationally. In 2020, half of Catholics voters opted for Trump over Biden.

Recent polls indicate a majority of Catholics now favor Biden over Trump in a hypothetical matchup. Still, an activist conservative faction exists, sharing with Evangelicals a vehement opposition to abortion and gay rights.

Conservative Catholic media include EWTN News, the National Catholic Register and Church Militant, and CatholicVote.org.

Unfortunately, four conservative Catholic justices are on the supreme court, two of them nominated by Trump; the third, Gorsuch, is now Episcopalian, as I mentioned.

If SCOTUS enacts its reputed decision, it will have widened America’s cavernous divide, with states pitted against each other, something not seen since the Civil War.

–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

You can be free: How fear holds you back

I’ve been reading Ryan Holiday’s inspiring Courage is Calling. Holliday practices Stoicism, a way of life that’s become my life credo, though I confess my frequent failure to live up to its tenets of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom.

Stoicism is a discipline requiring daily practice. It’s taught me how much fear lies behind our modern anxiety and behavior. As Holliday writes, “This is how it goes, whether you’re a billionaire or an ordinary person, no matter how physically tough or brilliant you are. Fear determines what is or isn’t possible. If you think something is too scary, it’s too scary for you. If you don’t think you have any power . . . you don’t. If you aren’t the captain of your fate . . . then fate is the captain of you.”

Anxiety with its burden of worries culminates in stress, and we know its harsh consequences for our mental and physical health.

Worry teaches you that the future is happening now.

It falsely tells you that worry will make it go away.

Worry makes you care more about what others think.

It inhibits your boldly attempting new things like falling in love again, having children, resuming your education, investing your money, traveling to new places, changing your residence, trying a new doctor. Maybe even quitting your job for something, even if for less money, but more fulfilling.

It says you can’t ever escape your past, whether a bad childhood or failed marriage, a hurtful friendship or demeaning rejection.

Fear anchors you to what’s familiar, seemingly safe. It forfeits possibility and, with it, the future.

The truth is life is inherent with risk. Loss, illness, grief, death embrace every nook and cranny of life. Its remedy is to step up and step out, doing what you can.

Paradoxically, mastering anxiety begins with acceptance of what you can’t change. Uncertainty is inherent with life. In his book, The Liberated Mind, psychologist Steven Hayes writes that “people like to think the world is ‘happy happy joy joy,’ but if you live long enough, you start running into pain and illness and loss and tragedies of all sorts. It’s just part of it. That’s part of life.”

But there are things you can change. Yes, you can master living in a temporal world of vicissitude, but you must be willing to sign the bottom line.

Take inventory of what inhibits your resolve.

It may cost you money, even estrangement, but how much better to walk away free. One of life’s caveats is knowing when and how to jettison habits and worries weighing you down.

You can be courageous in every day life in so many ways.

It takes bravery to ask for a pay raise, confront injustice, leave a demeaning relationship, find a new hobby.

Don’t let fear bully you.

Don’t let routine dictate your everyday doings.

Happiness doesn’t just happen. It requires flexibility, resilience and daily practice. Frequently, it’s a life of sips more than gulps to get there.

So much of life is living in the moment. You do what you can, attempt what you’ve wanted. You act to realize yourself, becoming agent of your own destiny.

Mastering your fears begins a new portal. Yes, you can find freedom in an unfree world.

–rj

O if we but knew what we do: Our war on Nature

“O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her….”
--from “Binsey Poplars,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), five principal forces are contributing to our ruthless assault on Nature and its demise: unprecedented environmental changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; pollution; invasion of alien species; and climate change. Their consequences for species survival should alarm all of us, since we are ecologically linked in dependency upon one another. Since 1970, wildlife population has declined by two-thirds, or some 68% (LIving Planet Report-2020).

Sadly, we are at war with nature, mindlessly exploiting ecosystems in pursuit of profit. The problem is universal, with substantial losses in mammals (65%); fish, amphibians and reptiles (45%). According to The Living Planet Index (LPI), one million species face extinction. Deforestation and agricultural expansion have contributed substantially to this decline. Ominously, they continue.

Let me give you one egregious example of a recent human created disaster scenario in an attempt to augment agricultural production by altering nature’s contour.

There lies a once flourishing body of water known as the Azul Sea, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. First mapped in 1850, it was sometimes dubbed the Blue Sea. Until the last century, it was the world’s third largest inland lake, exceeded only by the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior, extending 426 kilometers (265 miles) long and 284 kilometers (176 miles) wide.

Replenished by the 1500 mile Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, it supported nineteen villages dependent on its abundant fish. Things began to change in the 1930s as Soviet engineers schemed they could expand cotton and wheat output by diverting its water for irrigation. Huge channels were dug to supply water for millions of acres of farmland.

By the 1980s, the Aral Sea experienced sharp declines in area and volume, or 80% and 90% respectively.

The environmental fallout has been enormous, so much so that the lake has become increasingly dubbed the Aralqum Desert. Qum is the Uzbek word for dust.

Seventy percent of the Aralqum is now salt residue.

The fish have disappeared, fish factories abandoned and villages become ghost towns. Wind-swept, its dust pesticides have spread throughout the world. They’ve even been found in the blood of Antartica penguin and Greenland glaciers.

With the lake’s demise has come a change in the weather, with harsh summer heat and frigid winters. Winds abound.

Now one of the unhealthiest places on earth, respiratory disease and child mortality have increased sharply.

In better times. the Azul Sea featured an island sanctuary, Barsa-Kelmes, teeming with deer, wolves, and eagles. It’s just memory now.

And what about those other fresh water behemoths, Lake Superior and the Caspian Sea. Have we learned our lesson?

Fortunately, Lake Superior has largely avoided the fate of Lake Erie, contaminated by industrial and agricultural runoff. Nonetheless, it faces several incipient stressors, contributing to environmental degradation: mining, home development along its shores, airborne chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change. In the last several years, Lake Superior is warming faster than many of the earth’s other water bodies, threatening its fish; wind speeds have increased 5% each decade since 1980; storm intensity and frequency have also increased.

The fate of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland waterbody, is more troubling: According to the UN Environment Programme, the Caspian “suffers from an enormous burden of pollution from oil extraction and refining, offshore oil fields, radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and huge volumes of untreated sewage and industrial waste introduced mainly by the Volga River” (Rpt. in The Nation. Thai Press). Climate change has led to increased evaporation, or by six centimeters annually.

The lake has seen the world’s largest sturgeon population decline by 90%.

Former home of one million seals which inhabited its shores and islands a century ago, fewer than 10% remain, the result of over-hunting and oil pollution. The species is now designated as endangered.

As Azer Garayev, the head of the Azerbaijan Society for the Protection of Animals, comments: “It would be so stupid to lose the Caspian like the Aral Sea. I don’t want to think about it. It would be a crime.”

Species population trends are important, for they are a measure of our ecological health. Unfortunately, we are living in a context of unprecedented change with a huge growth in the human footprint, spurred by global trade, population growth, urbanization, and consumption. We are losing our wilderness, our waterways are polluted, we lack clean air. We are raiding our resources faster than their ability to regenerate. As I write, 85% of our wetlands with their teeming diversity have been lost.

We are entities of a vast web of life. We belong not to ourselves, but to each other and to Nature, our great mother, on whom we depend for our health and prosperity.

–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

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