“The Overstory” and The Gift of Hope

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“What does life want from us,” asks one of the characters in Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a fictionalized ode to trees, which celebrates their value to the planet and all its life forms.

A writer friend once told me novels are either “character-driven” or “plot-driven.”  The Overstory is neither.  It is “message-driven.”  It suggests that humankind, which has been so destructive to the planet, can become a healing force through individual and group respect for all its life forms, most specifically its trees and forests.  This is Powers’ twelfth novel, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.   Powers claims The Overstory represents the culmination of his career.

The book’s nine main human characters come together, either physically, or through reputation, following unique experiences with trees, or a tree, and subsequent dedication to saving them.  Nicholas Hoel grows up in on a farm in Iowa, where one of the last surviving American chestnuts has been on the family farm over a hundred years.  Douglas, a Vietnam vet, was saved by a banyan tree when his parachute landed in it.  Patricia Westerford, a PhD botanist, began learning the secrets of nature from her father, who was a county extension agent.  Westerford translates the language of the forest into imagery mere human beings can understand.  Olivia is the awakened tree spirit after a near-death experience from accidental electrocution.

A key feature, for me, is the loose organizations of individuals formed for a shared purpose and one larger than themselves and larger than humanity.  The sense of cooperation with nature transcends today’s prevalent, commercialized attitude of dominating and subduing it.

The human characters of the book are mostly damaged, either physically or emotionally, and in search of a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.  Each has a piece of the puzzle, that put together, reveals the Tree of Life and some of its many budding branches. That the main characters have or develop serious disabilities suggests human limitations do not prevent individuals from accomplishing great and enduring things.

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Hickory                                           kco2016

The book also reveals an expanded sense of time, based on the long view of trees over millennia and generations.  It’s appropriate that the characters age, with some dying, during the course of the novel.  It’s appropriate that long-term—from human but not tree perspective—consequences ensue from the actions of youth.  The book emphasizes that life is long, if you’re a tree or a forest, and if humanity doesn’t raze you or incinerate you to create junk mail and GMO row crops for export.

While the book’s style is not dogmatic, the characters exhibit an aura of spirituality, animism, or tribal devotion for the delicately interwoven life forms that contribute to the forests’ integrity.

The enormity of the research Powers must have put into the book humbles me, yet he does it all so gracefully that it never comes across as sanctimonious or condescending.  It’s as though he has adopted the quiet wisdom of his ancient sylvan subjects.

On the surface, the ending is anticlimactic, but on a deeper level it plants seeds of consciousness, which I suspect will grow in the “long time” span of trees.  The individual characters grow old, and they disperse.  Only Neelay, the paraplegic, continues to create idyllic forest-loving computer games that seek to build communication between man and nature.  The implication is that artificial intelligence will save mankind from itself, through amassed data and algorithms that sort through it to consolidate understanding.  But Neelay’s solution is only one bud on the ever-branching tree of life.

The Overstory has changed my attitude in a profound way.  I found the book inspiring because the author demonstrates a cooperative way to generate enthusiasm beyond the gloom and doom that characterizes today.  He does it by showing the government for the self-serving corporate enabler it is, and by showing how individual and small group initiative has the power to shift consciousness individually but also collectively over time.

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Looking up:  Pecan with Spanish moss                                   kco2006

One of the book’s most powerful draws is its brutal recognition of its characters’ flaws, even as they perform acts that bring on their own downfall.  Ultimately, the book is growth-directed but in unpredictable ways.  Just as trees branch and bud, The Overstory grows in imagination even after its end.  Maybe that’s the message:  it plants a seed in human consciousness, that un-imagined answers are within reach, but we need to open our senses to them.  You don’t learn about life by destroying it and putting it under a microscope.

Somewhere between religion and science, there may be a path toward self-and-planetary sustainment.  Maybe that’s my take-home message:  it doesn’t come from above, an external authority, or any experts.  It comes from the heart and from an appreciation of life for its own sake.

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Astrology and the Cycles of Time

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Sample natal horoscopes, from “The Circle Book of Charts,” compiled by Stephen Erlewine, 1972

On Monday, November 11, the planet Mercury will pass in front of the sun, beginning at 7:35 AM EST and lasting five-and-a-half hours.  It will be visible during daylight hours throughout the Americas and seen as a small dot on the sun’s surface, with viewing through solar-filtered telescopes and binoculars recommended.*

Meanwhile, the October 28, 2019 issue of The New Yorker magazine includes an article about the resurgence of interest in astrology.  Titled “Starstruck:  Why we’re crazy for astrology,” by Christine Smallwood, the article claims that interest in this ancient discipline petered out after the 1970s but has made a comeback in recent years, especially among millennials. The current trend employs all the panache of modern technology, from pod-casts to computer apps and on-line chat rooms.  There are on-line classes.  There are zodiac-themed products like clothes and lingerie.  It has become a booming business, complete with all the glitz of modern commercialization.

The astrologers interviewed in the article highlight astrology’s ability to describe character in non-judgmental terms.  They downplay predictions, and emphasize timing.  In short, it appears that this new appreciation reaches a deeper level than I remember from the 1970s and 1980s.

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Ephemeris tables of planetary positions for November and December, 2019, “The American Ephemeris for the 21st Century,” Neil F. Michelsen, 1992

I have studied astrology for over 35 years, and still keep an ephemeris (a table of planetary movements) beside my reading chair.  I still have the tape recording from my introductory horoscope reading.  I was so impressed with the astrologer’s ability to “see my soul,” that I bought the classic beginner’s guide, Isabel Hickey’s Astrology: a Cosmic Science, that day.  For several years, I was possibly obsessed and collected two full notebooks of horoscopes on everyone I met.  I joined the American Federation of Astrologers, attended conferences, hobnobbed with other astrologers, and shared the language, which sounds like a secret code to the uninitiated.

I soon learned to downplay my interest, and finally, not to mention it, because people were simply not interested, scornful, or even threatened.  But I found the astrological approach consistently provides a comprehensive framework for understanding human character.  My natal chart highlighted potentials that soon prompted me to take the science pre-requisites to enter, then attend, medical school.  I followed up with a psychiatry residency but was astonished to learn that astrology far surpassed psychiatry in its grasp of the totality of the human psyche.

Fundamentally, psychiatry—and possibly all Western medicine—focuses only on the negative, on abnormalities, disorders, or illnesses.  Astrology offers balance.

There are many ideas about whether, why, or how astrology works.  After all these years, I’m still skeptical, even though it has greatly contributed to my philosophy of life.  In the early days, I felt in touch with the ages, knowing I was studying a system that in one form or another has evolved over 6000 years (at least), in every known culture.  It corresponds to the “archetypes” that Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described.  Jung himself was a student of astrology and alchemy, for their spiritual aspects.

Fundamentally, it is based on geometry and is the parent of astronomy.  Long before we had religions or governments, we had the sun, moon, and stars.  Early man looked to the heavenly bodies for guidance and learned to predict the coming of the seasons by the gradual lengthening and shortening of days.  The moon’s cycles, too, became associated with certain kinds of earthly events.  Over time, and over cultures, the visible planets (“planet” means “wanderer”) were noted to move against a background of stars that formed patterns of constellations in a ring around the earth.  In Western astrology, some of these patterns became the twelve constellations of the zodiac.

It’s important to note that a horoscope is completely impersonal in that it is a symbolic map of of the skies as seen at a specific moment in a specific place.  That’s why an astrologer can cast a horoscope for anything, such as the time a question is asked (horary astrology), the signing of a contract, or the birth of a nation.  The natal horoscope, then, pinpoints a time and place, and an individual’s birth is an event that occurs then and there.  The individual then embodies all the potential of the moment.  As the child grows, the moment becomes personified through the individual’s experiences, choices, and reactions.

Given that we are, so far, earthbound beings, it’s understandable that astrology would take a geocentric perspective.  At birth, the individual is stamped with the cosmic pattern of that time and place.  I like to think in terms of electromagnetic frequencies, with each planet (as well as the sun and moon) having its own electromagnetic character.  As they move through time in their various cycles, and with respect to each other, the patterns change, as with a kaleidoscope, and either influence or reflect the meaning behind happenings in an individual’s life.

To understand the concept behind astrology, it’s convenient to think of a natal horoscope as a coded depiction of that person’s life drama.  The individual is the star of her own play.  In Western astrology, the planets–with the personalities of the Roman gods for which they are named–are the supporting actors; the signs are the filters or lights that they operate through; and the houses the props and stage.

As the sun, moon, and planets continue their cycles through a person’s life, they make angles (called “aspects”) to their natal positions, with each moving at its own pace.

Common questions about astrology have to do with whether it is presumed to “control” people’s lives.  My answer is a different question.  “Does the clock control your life?”  No, but it makes sense to go to the grocery store when it is open, if you want to buy food.

“Shouldn’t a life be timed from the moment of conception?” is another common question.  I respond that until birth, by whatever means, an infant is shielded from external cosmic influences by its mother’s protective vibrational field.

I once asked a fellow astrologer what she valued most about the study of astrology.  “Tolerance,” she said.  I had reached the same understanding on my own, and I still find that to be the case.  There are no “good” or “bad” moments, and each moment is unique in its opportunities and challenges.  Considering the infinite possibilities inherent under the cosmic clock that astrology reveals, the potential to deepen and bring that moment to fruition in a “meaningful” life becomes a horoscope’s greatest gift and challenge.

*For the astrologically literate, on November 11, Mercury will be retrograde and conjunct the sun at 18-19 degrees of Scorpio.  This conjunction will square my natal Mercury in Leo from 2nd to 9th houses, perhaps inspiring this blog post.**

**Added November 13, 2019:  Haha.  The joke’s on me.  I was doing something else when I suddenly realized the conjunction noted above occurred in Scorpio, not Sagittarius, thus squaring my natal Mercury in Leo and triggering my grand square in fixed signs.  The full moon in Taurus on the next day (November 12) was involved, too, with the moon conjunct my natal Jupiter at 19 degrees Taurus that day.   This is an embarrassing error, but is consistent with other features of my horoscope that indicate public embarrassment.  It challenges me to admit error, and apologize to anyone I might have led astray.

 

Adventures in Living: Purchasing Under the Tamarined Tree

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I went to Barnes & Noble to order Rosaliene Bacchus’ novel, Under the Tamarind Tree, (rosalienebacchus.blog) but it was a humiliating and infuriating experience.  I made a special trip to B&N to order that book.  On walking in, I congratulated myself on my “pull through economics” philosophy.  As opposed to “trickle down economics,” “pull through” means using brick-and-mortar stores to assist awareness and distribution of desirable products.

I had $23 in cash plus change and wanted coffee so figured I could just barely afford the book at $16.95.  I was shocked to see a $4.99 shipping charge on the bill.  The clerk who processed the order said Barnes & Noble has recently instituted a shipping charge even on books that come to the store.  I began to wonder what is the advantage of a brick-and-mortar store if I have to pay shipping anyway?  So I went to the café to pay for the book and to get coffee.  But sales tax—which hadn’t been listed on the receipt—put me over the top.  There was a long line before and behind me.  I was ready to defer the book purchase until I had more money, but up speaks a curly-headed young guy from two people back in the line to ask how much I was short.  “Three dollars,” says the cashier.  He hands her the money, thereby rescuing B&N’s sale.  I knew he thought he was doing me a favor, and I appreciated it, but I felt trapped in a situation I would have handled quite differently on my own.  I gave the guy my $1.25 in quarters, and he got the $0.54 change, so his total investment came to about $1.25.  I thanked him and learned he is beginning to write a novel himself, a futuristic fantasy novel dealing with monotheism vs. polytheism.

Later, I realized I could have written a check, but I was too flummoxed to think of that.  There was no urgency to buy the book.  I could have held on to the receipt and paid next week.  I was actually thinking of by-passing B&N entirely and looking on Amazon for it, so annoyed I was with the shipping charge.  But there’s more to it than this, because I resent buying anything these days.  Books are falling off my bookshelves.  I’ve also virtually stopped reading novels and want to read this only because Rosaliene wrote it and Sha’Tara (ixiocali.com) raved over it

I stewed about this, and about this home delivery trend, off and on, all day.  I noted how stressful the hidden costs were.  A $16.95 book should not cost $23.48 at the cash register.  As I sat the next morning finishing the B&N coffee (in my reusable cup), I contemplated the emotional valence of this superficially insignificant experience.

Philosophically, I support brick-and-mortar.   The trend in commerce is to promote home delivery, ultimately isolating people even more.  At Kroger the other day, I spoke with an employee who was gathering groceries for home-delivery shoppers.  I asked if he tried to find the best vegetables and he said yes.  He is not allowed to choose items on sale, though.

I appreciate being able to see and touch what I’m buying, to squeeze my own tomatoes, and to have the social experience of meeting people on casual terms in public or commercial places.  Barnes & Noble is one of the very few places with easy parking that I can go to sit with coffee, air-conditioning, good light, and a plethora of interesting and stimulating reading material, and frankly, people like the guy who helped pay for my book and coffee.

The next day, I went to B&N and apologized to one of the café employees for the commotion I caused, but I also presented my case for resuming free shipping to the store.  I said that nice guy behind me in line saved B&N a sale.  I had a large audience, yet again, not intentionally.  I said she should tell her bosses the shipping charge is bad for business, that enhanced traffic into the store offsets the cost of shipping to the store.  When people come in to pick up their orders, they might buy other things, like coffee, at least, whereas home delivery prevents the browser from finding other things to buy.  In fact, I said, I might just write corporate B&N myself.

Jenique told me she believed they were sending the book to my house.  I went into a long (sort of, being aware of customers waiting) tirade about how I hate home delivery because FedEx and UPS drive all over my lawn, and why do we have stores if they don’t store things?

As an advocate of print media, I want books to flourish.  This trend to electronics may be here to stay, but I doubt it will fully supplant hard copy publishing, just as digital currency cannot replace tangible means of exchange, except in the ethereal realms of macroeconomic imagination.

Anyway, I decided I do feel some loyalty to B&N, because the staff is friendly, and coffee prices haven’t yet gone up.  I’d checked Amazon for Under the Tamarind Tree and found no advantage in buying it on-line, so the book is becoming famous locally for its contribution to my latest “pull through economics” soapbox.

Apparently Walmart is initiating drone delivery in Virginia, fueling my fears regarding the implications of commercial drones.  Must my birds now compete with drones for airspace?  How much noise will drones make in delivering pizza to neighbors?  They reputedly can go up to 70 mph.  Worse, will the USPS start using drones to deliver junk mail to my front lawn?

I hope I die before that future arrives.  I may need to get a a gun.  I can go on a shooting spree, with drones and excessive traffic turn signals for targets.

It became part of my rant to Barbara and Ed as we walked back through the mall after the coffee klatch.  Ed said Walmart is not only delivering groceries, but it will send robots into your house and put the food in your refrigerator.  Barbara expressed doubt that I will be able to avoid the drone trend but did agree there are fewer and fewer places where people can meet and interact informally.  Brick-and-mortar stores like B&N do serve a valuable but unappreciated social function.

So said I to Ned, a B&N customer service employee. I spoke with on the way out.  I wanted to make sure the book was coming to the store, even though Jenique said she would take care of it.  Yes, he said.  He explained that the book is being published on demand by a self-publishing operation that requires pre-payment of book and delivery charges, and that B&N makes no money on the deal.  I explained my “pull through economics” philosophy, how important it is to sustain brick-and-mortar stores, how loyal I am to B&N–even though it is a corporate monster– largely because of the friendly and helpful employees.  I left him all smiles.

Footnote:  The book was well worth the trouble.  It was so gripping that I read it in two sittings:  a heart-warming story about life and culture in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s, as it was undergoing the transition to become Guyana, independent of British rule.

Adventures in Living: Mr. Trumplikin

Thursday, October 3, 2019—At Starbucks yesterday, I sat next to a 60ish age white blowhard, a “Trumplikin” who exuded anger through all his pores.  He started by telling me how the Dems had fixated on yet another bogus issue with which to crucify Trump.  In an hour-plus rant, he regurgitated TV issues, but with the Trump camp’s slant.  He raged over the wall, Kavanaugh, China’s “theft” of intellectual property, the Confederate statues, Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and probably other things that I’ve forgotten.  Oh.  Capital punishment:  kill them fast and make it hurt a little.

He is in manufacturing, has been to China twelve times.  His company makes hydrophilic sponges, I think he said, such as for applying make-up.  I guess the Chinese government restrains waste of chemicals, for instance, by making companies account for everything they use and taxing heavily their excesses.  It was hard to get a clear picture of what he meant, but it sounded like that system works differently (and perhaps better) than the EPA.  He thinks it’s fine that Chinese workers live in dormitories, work 18 hours/day, six days a week for $1/hour.  It saves so much money that it’s worth it to ship the product across the world for sale.  He could not understand that US employers in the US might want to hire illegals here, since that way they can also pay low wages without responsibility.  The only difference is that the Chinese government allows these manufacturers to do it legally.

No one but me sees a middle ground.  I wouldn’t want to be an employer in the US or China, because both exploit their citizens, but in different ways.  I’m surprised at all the costs government imposes—both regulatory and actual—on employers here.  The GM strike, which involves 45,000 workers, is for faster wage increases for new hires, better health care benefits, and to keep some plants open that are slated for closure.  This in the face of declining sales worldwide.

Never mind that I think the industry itself is too big.  “That’s capitalism,” the saying goes.  In the current definition of “capitalism” the do-nothings profit from others’ toil, so I don’t blame the toilers for resenting it.

Mr. Trumplikin can rant at Starbucks, but I rant in my journal.  The system itself creates people like him, so there is no reasoning with him about justice and fair play.  When he claimed he has nothing against immigrants, just go through the proper channels, and I suggested even US citizens are living under bridges and in the streets, so there’s no intrinsic advantage to being a citizen, his response was something to the effect of “create jobs.”  This from a man whose company moved to China to exploit labor, because they can’t do it here and churn stock on Wall Street at the same time.  Oh . . . and we don’t approve of athletes who beat their wives and other women.  Nor do we approve of actresses who bribe college officials to admit their children on athletic scholarships.

I contributed nothing to this monologue, except an occasional “Er . . .” or “But . . .” and allowed Mr. Trumplikin to exorcise his demons, as I monitored my internal blood pressure gauge and tried to deflect the negativity.  He doesn’t like the federal government but didn’t go into specifics.  He agreed with me that (other) Americans are too intolerant.  He thinks video games and social media are responsible for mass shootings.  He conceded the media focus encourages would-be shooters with the fantasy of instant fame.  He conceded that the controversy over Trump is stimulating conversation about politics like never before, even though he thinks Trump should desist from overuse of Twitter.  But Trump says what he thinks, by golly.  You know where he stands.

I left wondering how to reason with people like that.  He has no insight into how heavily he is influenced by the mind control exerted through television, yet he also ranted about “fake news.”

Mr. Trumplikin’s intolerance stands at the opposite pole from my brother-in-law’s intolerance, yet they together personify the “polarization” the media exacerbates by emphasizing and lamenting it.  Last night, S. said he watched three hours or so of the House of Representative’s “discussion” about impeachment.  S. watches Trump’s long speeches (two hours) and I should  too.  That way, I can pick the best candidate in elections.  I said I prefer a two-minute summary, that my opinion doesn’t matter to them.  They are going to do what they are going to do.  My perpetual “None of the above” is never on the ballot, so it translates into my not wasting time at the voting booth.  S. gives the standard response that if I don’t vote, I have no right to complain.  I said I no longer complain, and I don’t.  Complaining does no more good than voting.

Best to do “Process Commentary,” as my blog claims and as I was trained to do as a group therapist.  The process behind the intolerance intrigues me.  I relate intolerance to insecurity, the self-doubt that comes with ambivalence over beliefs.

Both Mr. Trumplikin and my brother-in-law believe in government over the people, just as many people believe in organized religion.  They need that structure to feel safe, the reassurance that someone or something more powerful than the individual cares and is acting in their best interests.  They presume the focus is on the “higher good,” but they are willing to overlook the fact that a different set of rules apply to the “out group,” as Joseph Campbell might claim.  Exploiting Chinese workers is okay, but it’s not okay to exploit illegals in the US.  They should go back to Guatemala to be exploited.  It’s harder to exploit US citizens, so we leave them under bridges and take our jobs to China.

Mr. Trumplikin insisted everything comes down to money.  It’s so trite, yet if everyone believes it, and the system itself is predicated on commerce, money becomes its heart and soul.  This leads to my single biggest contention with the system’s claim to legitimacy.

Vitality and Human Capital

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“Evening in Karl Johan Street,” Edvard Munch, 1892

It is sometimes said that money is a form of energy, but it may be more appropriate to suggest that money is a symbol of vitality, or life energy.  In theory, this is the “means of production” that Karl Marx said defines capitalism.

“Capitalism” has become a sinister term in some circles, but I wonder if the term has been commandeered not by the individuals who provide the vital force that keeps “the economy” functional, but by the aggregators of human capital under institutional umbrellas.

Some claim Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, is the “father of modern capitalism,” but Smith never mentions the word “capitalism” in his book.  He refers a lot to “capital” and to “stocks,” without defining either term.  For a lay reader, The Wealth of Nations is tedious reading, and it comes across as a tax collector’s bible.  Smith states up front that “the late war,” which he never pinpoints, but is probably the Seven-Years War (the French and Indian War in North America) was exceedingly expensive, and the UK went into a lot of debt to pay for it.  The Wealth of Nations, which supposedly supported “free trade” also supported military protection of UK commercial interests in foreign ports and foreign trade, because it was easier to tax.  “The colonies” were great sources of raw materials, and because Britain had a monopoly on trade with its colonies, it and British investors could buy tobacco and lumber, for instance, and sell at a huge profit.  Smith tells us that growing tobacco in France was illegal, because it was too hard to tax domestic products.

Another striking feature of Smith’s book was that it was so cold-blooded regarding the value of labor.  Labor should be paid enough to raise four children, because statistically, two die before reaching majority, and the parents need to replace themselves. Rents should be as high as the tenant can afford.  Farmers are lazy because they do a variety of different things, whereas factory workers do the same thing all day and are more efficient.  He refers to the “idle” without defining them, but when he says the “idle” will spend gold to buy exotic birds and fish from remote lands, where bank-issued currency is not accepted, it becomes clear that the “idle” are rich rather than poor, and possibly associated with the court and the aristocracy.   He also noted government jobs are greatly coveted, because of the security and “perks” they provide.

It is therefore not surprising that Smith’s book was so popular that its author was appointed Customs Commissioner of Edinburgh after it was published.

When Karl Marx defined “capitalism,” as the “ownership” of the “means of production,” he didn’t specify what the “means of production” was.  It was assumed to be the machines or the land from which salable items were produced.  But nothing is produced without human effort, which leads to the idea that the “means” is the human labor itself.   “Ownership” thereof is either explicit, as in slavery, or implied, as in employment by the aggregator of human capital under a larger umbrella.

The intrinsic value of human capital has never been fully appreciated.  Both Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman mentioned human capital, but neither took the idea far enough to assert that only individuals can be “capitalists” in the purest sense of the word.  Human beings, by their individual efforts provide the means, through the application of their vitality, to produce commercial goods.  This is what translates into money, the tangible result of the applied effort.

This may sound like a petty point, but it has far-reaching ramifications.  In the United States, it is said that all taxes ultimately fall on the individual.  This means that the individual in this country is supporting taxes imposed by federal, state, county, and sometimes city governments, and is expected to obey laws enacted by all four levels of government.

The system is a hierarchical, patriarchal one of “government over the people” that was set up intentionally by an elite group of landowners, lawyers, businessmen, bankers, and other conspirators who met in secret, locked in a room in Philadelphia for three months, drafted the US Constitution, and by-passed state legislatures to have it ratified by special assemblies.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who are considered among the “founding fathers,” were both out of the country at the time.  Thomas Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State and approved by the Senate without his knowledge or consent.

Alexander Hamilton, who was an ideological protégé of Adam Smith and a British subject, was New York’s only standing delegate to what became known as the Constitutional Convention.  Suffice to say that he had a heavy hand in the drafting, forming strong alliances with George Washington and James Madison, and was probably instrumental in insuring certain provisions, including federal control of all “economic narrows,” such as roads, waterways, the postal service, coastlines, money, patents and copyrights.  Ultimately, the Constitution is an economic document that assumes all taxpayers are federal government property.  Undoubtedly, Hamilton made sure the federal government could assume debt, because as Treasury Secretary later, he pushed through the first tariff, the Hamilton Tariff Act of 1789, and the whiskey tax in 1791.  The whiskey tax was in advance of his creating the first US central bank.  Stock shares in this bank and the Bank of New York, which Hamilton had previously started, were among the first stocks traded in what would become the New York Stock Exchange.

So all the hype US citizens and taxpayers have been sold all these years about “freedom” and “democracy,” and “capitalism” and all the noble values people assume the “founders” intended, are the result of masterful marketing, a talent now well developed by New York’s Madison Avenue.  The bottom line is the US is and always has been an economic machine in the tradition of British imperialism.

So this “government-over-the-people” mentality has been carefully cultivated over the US’ 245 year history, based on this implicit notion that everyone must work to support “the economy,” which is an amalgamation of the federal bureaucracy in Washington DC, Wall Street, the bankers—and of course the military– but it is a perverse, upside down system that is now collapsing from its own weight.

The undervalued human capital that has been conscripted and seduced into this arrangement is catching on, resentful and angry at the betrayal of those whose version of “protection” translates into higher and more painful costs and increasing restriction of individual freedom.  The hoi polloi are not “rising up,” as the revolutionaries might wish.  Instead, they are “beaten down,” giving up, flunking out, doing drugs, both legal and illegal, going bankrupt, committing suicide in shockingly increasing rates, getting sick and tired of the stresses and strains in living in such a “wealthy” society.

While the nation and world are increasingly “de-vitalized” by the expectations and hoops that the “ruling class” have set for them, the human capital that churns the wheel is getting crushed under it.

The idea of  “capitalism” has been twisted and perverted into its opposite by those who would enslave the “human capital,” the vital life forces that provide not only the “means” of production but are also the purchasers of the goods produced.

The healthiest and most vital people may or may not have money, but they excel at self-determination because they only answer to the wealth between their ears.   These are the “capitalists” we can respect and emulate.

 

 

Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger”: Commentary

bkstwainmyst1916 I recently read Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger.  This 90-page novella was Twain’s last fictional work (with the presumed final chapter found in his papers after his death in 1910).  The book was first published in 1916.  For its insight into human foibles, it could have been written today.

The introduction and afterword say Twain (Samuel Clemens) achieved early and enduring fame, married well, and was accepted by the social elite in the Northeast.  However, toward the end of his life, he suffered repeated hardship, with the successive deaths a number of people close to him, including a favorite daughter and his wife.  He was a victim of embezzlement and had to go back on the lecture circuit to pay debts.  His writing became increasingly bitter and cynical.

I did not see The Mysterious Stranger as bitter and cynical, unless I am.  It seemed realistic, and while I don’t believe in pre-destination, I can relate to much of Twain’s philosophy about the Moral Sense, war, and the value of humor, as well as the illusory nature of time and the dream-like quality of life.  The final message, to “dream better!” offered hope.

The story is set in an idyllic hamlet in Eseldorf [Jackassville], Austria in 1590.  Three boys, best friends from the cradle, meet a stranger on a woody hilltop, where they have gone to have a smoke.  They’ve discovered they don’t have the flint and steel needed to light their tobacco, but the stranger blows on their pipes and lights them.

He tells the boys–Theodur, the narrator, Nikolaus, and Seppi–that his name is Satan, not “the” Satan, but a favored nephew.  He has superhuman powers but is incapable of sin, because he has not been cursed with a Moral Sense.  He is vivacious and charming, can perform wonderful tricks, and demonstrates by creating a tiny village with living miniature people, then crushes them all without a sign of remorse.  He says they are nothing to him, that he can make anything out of thin air.  Human beings are paltry, pitiful creatures.  Animals, which have no Moral Sense, are far superior.

As the story unfolds, the boys witness the marvelous but disturbing breadth and depth of Satan’s talents, including reading minds, predicting the future, changing destinies by changing simple acts, like having Nikolaus get up to close a window during a storm, thus changing his entire future.  Instead of the long, miserable life he would have lived, that act would lead to his drowning in twelve days.  Satan claimed this was merciful.

He bestows seeming gifts that bring ultimate despair to those so favored, like placing over 1,100 gold ducats in Father Peter’s lost wallet.  Father Peter was then jailed as a thief when the town astrologer claimed the priest stole the money from him.  Satan said Father Peter would be acquitted, but he would never know his name was cleared.  Still, he would be happy the rest of his life

Throughout, Satan is contemptuous of the human race.  He claims wars are never started for any clean purpose.  “’You perceive,’ he said, ‘that you have made continual progress.  Cain did his murder with a club; the Hebrews did their murders with javelins and swords; the Greeks and Romans added protective armor and the fine arts of military organization and generalship; the Christian has added guns and gunpowder; a few centuries from now he will have so greatly improved the deadly effectiveness of his weapons of slaughter that all men will confess that without Christian civilization war must have remained a poor and trifling thing to the end of time’

“Then he began to laugh in the most unfeeling way, and made fun of the human race, although he knew that what he had been saying shamed us and wounded us.  No one but an angel could have acted so; but suffering is nothing to them; they do not know what it is, except by hearsay.”

And “It was wonderful, the mastery Satan had over time and distance.  For him they did not exist.  He called them human inventions, and said they were artificialities.”

Father Peter went mad in his jail cell before learning he had been exonerated.  He imagined he was an emperor.  Satan told Theodur that only mad people can be happy.  “I have taken from this man that trumpery thing which the race regards as Mind . . .”

Theodur comments Satan “didn’t seem to know any way to do a persona a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him.  I apologized, as well as I could; but privately I did not think much of his processes—at that time.”

Satan continues to denounce man’s failings, claiming man prides himself on fine qualities he does not possess.  His only saving grace is a sense of humor, which he doesn’t really have but only a mongrel notion of it.  The human race has only one effective weapon—laughter.  “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Eventually, Satan comes to bid Theodur goodbye.  He has been called to another corner of the universe.   “Life itself is only a vision, a dream,” he says.  ”And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, you are but a thought . . . you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature indistinguishable, indestructible.  But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free.  Dream other dreams, and better!”

“He vanished, and left me appalled, for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.”

I wondered why this book made such a strong impression on me.  Maybe, with all the dystopic visions clouding today’s events, The Mysterious Stranger offered some hope of a reprieve, by dreaming “other dreams, and better!”

 

 

“Us” vs. “Them”

The simple concerns of life are beneath the notice of the detached overlords of “the ruling class,” who look to stock market indicators to determine economic “health.”  In their marketing campaign for the “Rah Rah Money Talks” agenda, they aggressively promote money as the solution for all evils, including (presumably) rooster sinus infections.  There’s probably a patented pill for it.

Pardon my sarcasm, or is it the natural consequence of following this irrational chain of made-for-television reasoning to its obvious (but not logical) conclusions?

It’s popular lately to blame the “them”s like “oligarchs” and “white supremacists” for all society’s ills.  The “us,” meaning everybody except me—who exists in my own “them” dimension—still are willing to play by the oligarchs’ rules of government and the stock market, and look to the government to impose ever more rules to control everybody under the pretext of controlling the other “them”s like the “white supremacists.”

I wonder if the “white supremacists”–who are identified by their fondness for military assault weapons–are derived from the oligarchical, rule-bound, framework.  This human drama must contain counter-forces, to prop up the “us” vs. “them” mass mentality.

The above is a convoluted way of suggesting that the system itself makes the counter-system necessary.  It strikes me that historically, the world’s most despotic rulers had the backing of a loyal military.  The world’s richest people did not fight the wars themselves, but profited mightily from them.   Who benefits from US wars—or any war or military intervention—now?  Certainly the ravages of war are visited on those on whose turf the battles are waged, the civilians, their families and the fighters and families, too.  The spoilers may rest with their ill-gotten gains but live in fear of the “them”s who have not been eliminated or disempowered and are looking for revenge.

That’s why despots are deservedly paranoid and depend on the loyalty of a strong military and purchased friendship.  They need presumed adversaries like mass murderers and drug lords to justify their ever tighter grip on the society that will not be completely controlled by rules.

If I went into psychiatry to set people free, I have been disappointed, in the short term.  I have seen close up how frightened individuals are of the implications of freedom, which begins with freedom of thought.  To define “freedom” of thought possibly begins with saying what it is not.  It is not merely rebellion, reaction to the status quo, to conventional beliefs or rules.  It does start with conscious examination of those conventions and determining whether they serve the greater whole.

What’s the “greater whole”?  For me that includes the “us” and the “them,” as well as the hitherto unacknowledged non-human life forms on the planet.  To recognize we are all counterparts enmeshed in this drama we call life means having the mental flexibility to imagine oneself in the place of the “them”s and trying to understand what motivates their activity.  There’s obviously a place for the oligarchs and the mass shooters, or they wouldn’t exist.  If we don’t like it, we need to free our thought from conventional beliefs and search for new ways to reform.  Delegated power is fickle and must be recognized as such.  When you delegate power, you will always be disappointed.

Freedom of thought means claiming responsibility for it but also having tolerance for others’ thought, even encouraging it, because it provides a larger area of understanding and perspective.  The push for homogeneity, unity, conformity—what is considered “normal” and socially acceptable—is ultimately deadening, like the mechanization of robots, which act according to pre-set agendas.

Nature does not follow man’s dictates, as we are learning.  Rather than “conquer” nature, as Francis Bacon and subsequent mechanists desired, we have the ability—but so far not the inspiration—to submit to nature’s desire to teach us freedom within the context of our environment.