Thursday, March 24, 2011

Congress and the Age of Reason

by Madeleine Kando

Last week I read an article in the Wall Street Journal called ‘Fight Against Government Flab is Personal for these Politicians’, which made me slightly nauseous. It describes how a group of mostly younger Republican Congressmen have become enamored with an exercise program called P90X . Its success is based on an approach called 'muscle confusion', meaning that it includes a hodgepodge of work-out techniques like yoga, pilates, kick-boxing etc. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan is the most ardent follower and promoter of this P90X fad. He is just as ardently leading the charge in pulling the social support net from under our feet.

While he is working on confusing his muscles with his Republican buddies Kevin MacCarthy and Jeff Flake, the rest of us can look forward to loosing our unemployment benefits, our food stamps, health care coverage and social security. All thanks to the energetic, super-healthy, super-sculpted Mr. Ryan.

Many of us don’t know if we'll be able put enough food on the table or pay our rent. It is downright infuriating to realize that the very same lawmakers that so enthusiastically work on sculpting their bodies are the ones that are most energetic about taking away our ability to stay afloat. Has it ever occurred to Mr. Ryan that obesity is the poor man's way to survive? Sculpting bodies is a rich man’s pass-time. Is it beyond his comprehension that the only type of food a poor family can afford is cheap high-calorie junk food?

Or should we follow the example of these anointed, young, vigorous Republicans. Yes, let's all head for the gym doors. Let's build those muscles while our teeth are rotting away because we cannot afford a dentist.

We are at the mercy of a group of 'Generation X' Republicans, obviously more concerned with their looks than how a civilized democracy should be run. A group that is lacking any sense of social equality.

What they are good at is not only trimming their own fat but ours as well. Ryan and his gym-buddies are prancing around in their gym shorts and have the audacity to vote to lower the top tax rate to 25%. They are bent on muscling out income tax on capital gains, kick box the corporate income tax into oblivion, rip Social Security, crunch the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance, and power walk all over traditional Medicare and most of Medicaid, all in the name of budget deficit reduction.

The article inspired me to look at some age statistics for our current Congress. Of 429 Representatives, 57 are from the 'silent generation' (people born between 1925 and 1945.)** There are 253 'boomers' (those born between 1943 and 1960) and 119 ‘Generation X’ Congressmen (those born between 1961 and 1981.)

Twice as many 'silent' generation Congressmen are Democrats, about an equal number are 'boomers', but there are three times as many Republican ‘Gen-Xers’ as Democrats. Does that mean we are seeing an age imbalance in our government?

I don't blame our ‘Gen-X’ Congressmen for wanting to stay in shape. They still have to worry about their looks. But I don’t want to know about it. It’s in bad taste. Leave the job of public exhibitionism to Jerry Springer. For the rest of us who are trying to make ends meet, who cannot afford a health club membership and who rely on cheap, high-calorie food for subsistence, it would be a lot less painful if right-wing conservative politicians would keep their private lives out of the media and their gym-shorts out of sight.

** Why they are called the 'silent' generation is a mystery to me because most rock stars of the 60s were of the Silent Generation, including the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and James Dean are also members of the silent generation.
leave comment here
Read more...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The curse of the 'R'

by Madeleine Kando

If you want my opinion, the most difficult letter to pronounce in any language is the letter ‘R’. You can spend a life-time perfecting a language which is not your own, but the ‘R’ will always give you away.

Take me, for example. I had to learn French, Dutch, German, English and Spanish and it would have been a cynch for me to masquerade as a native had it not been for the cursed ‘R’.

That evil-doer always gave me away. It doesn’t help that we are all deaf to our own voice. Yes, deaf. If you want to hear your own voice the way others hear it, you have to record it first. Either that or travel to the Grand Canyon and shout something, to hear it echoed back. Even then, you might think: 'Wow, that person sounds weird. I am glad I don't sound like that.' Yes, if non-native English speakers knew what they really sounded like, they would stop talking altogether.

But to get back to my eternal enemy, the notorious ‘R’. I have to admit that things could have been worse. Had I been born in China or Japan my battle with the ‘R’ would have been lost the day I was born. I would have been doomed to order 'flied lice' for dinner for the rest of my life.

The thing is, the ‘R’ is a mischievous little bugger. It knows that it is a consonant, but the sneaky bastard enjoys getting a free ride on the back of the poor vowel that precedes it.

Take the word ‘part’, for example. In many languages the ‘R’ has the decency of standing on its own, so that a Frenchman will correctly say: ‘parrr’, pronouncing the ‘R’ as a third, distinct, sound in that word. The ‘R’ in English, (especially British English) however, often will ride piggyback on the vowel in front of it.

If you live in Boston, the 'R' becomes particularly lazy and the word is pronounced ‘paht’. But it isn't satisfied by just riding piggyback; it also changes the sound of the 'a' in front of it, and the way the word is pronounced by native Bostonians brings shivers down the spine of any 'normal-English' speaking person. It is pronounced: 'paaaht'. See what I mean?

So what’s a foreigner to do? Well, it depends on which language you speak originally. The expression ‘you cannot teach an old dog new tricks’ surely applies here. If you are from Spain or France, there is no way you will loose the habit of pronouncing ‘R’s like rolling marbles in your mouth. That's what 'R's are meant to do, or they wouldn't be called 'R', don't you agree?

You are supposed to say: 'Bears are usually barred from bringing beer to bars before breakfast.' You don't say: 'beahs are usually bahed from bringing beeh to bahs befoh breakfast.' (Unless you have the misfortune of being Bostonian or a New Yawker.)

So, if Americans cannot agree on how to pronounce their own 'R', how do they expect foreigners to learn the correct pronunciation?

My advice to you is to not even try. Just lay it on thick with your foreign accent. Usually it will charm at least a certain percentage of the people around you and the rest? Well, you can please some people some of the time but you cannot please all the people all the time. So there!  leave comment here
Read more...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Should We all Move to Where the Billionaires Live?

By Tom Kando

On March 10, the Sacramento Bee came out with the latest list of billionaires: According to the article, there are now 1,210 billionaires in the world, up by 199 from last year. Their combined wealth is $4.5 trillion, up from $3.6 trillion, i.e. 25% from last year.

The US still has by far the largest number of billionaires , but their number is growing the fastest in Brazil, Russia, India and China. For more details, see: List of countries by the number of US dollar billionaires  

According to the Bee article, the richest man in the world is a Mexican (owns Telecom). He is worth $74 billion. Number Two is Bill Gates (Microsoft), with $56 billion. Number Three is Warren Buffett (assorted businesses), with $50 billion. Christy Walton, owner of Wal-Mart, is only Number Ten, and Mark Zuckerberg (Face book) is Number 52, with $13.5 billion.

So here is what a moron could think: Since Mexico has the richest man in the world, and since Brazil, Russia, India and China have the fastest growing number of billionaires, those are therefore the countries we should all emulate - or move to. They must be the greatest countries.

In contrast, Europe has a declining proportion of the world’s billionaires. Therefore Europe must really suck. It must be awful over there, and surely nobody should want to move there or to live there.

Don’t you love my reasoning?

In fact, the most impressionistic knowledge of the countries mentioned as “blessed” with a rapid increase in billionaires, or with the world’s richest billionaire - Mexico, Brazil, Russia, India and China - reveals that those are precisely the countries where hundreds of millions of people live under conditions most similar to those in hell: Mexico is approaching the status of a failed state. Brazil’s Favelas are poorer and more homicidal than Bagdad was at the height of the Iraq war. India has more poor people than any other country on earth. Russia is a murderous and corrupt plutocracy.

Social scientists since W.W. Rostow and Peter Berger have shown that societies often experience the worst inequalities during stages of capitalist take-off. So I suppose that what you see in these still poor but fast-growing mega-countries are the temporary inequalities which accompany rapid capitalist growth. Like the Dickensian conditions in the US and in the UK during the Industrial Revolution.

As to the US today, it also has enormous inequalities, even though it is far beyond capitalist take-off. So I am not sure what its excuse is.

All I am saying, for now, is that unless you are a billionaire, you better stay out of most parts of Moscow, Rio, Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Mumbai or Calcutta, unless you want to find out what hell is like. leave comment here
Read more...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Revenge

by Madeleine Kando

I have to tell you a secret. My favorite movies are the ones that have some kind of revenge as their theme. Like 'Rob Roy' or 'The Brave One'. They tap into a very deep seated emotion: a feeling of deep satisfaction when a wrong has been put right by the vengeful act of the victim turned hero. In 'Rob Roy' the wronged hero is played by Liam Neeson, a giant of a man. In 'The Brave One' the hero is played by Jodie Foster, one of the smallest actresses I know. They both get even with the bad guy(s) and live happily ever after.

Revenge and the act of vengeance are a very old practice in the history of mankind. Every primitive society practices the art of revenge, and the older the society, the better it is at it. From the Scottish clans to the Japanese Samurai class, revenge was the way people doled out justice.

Vengeance is sweet. 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' says Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Waiting to take revenge until the one that harmed you least expects it, is the best way to take revenge.

Another proverb, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius, states that "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." The implication here is that a desire for revenge may ultimately hurt the seeker as much as the victim.

To me, the most efficient type of vengeance is the one that, by eliminating the bad guy, stops the cycle. And eye for an eye. End of story. The worst kind of revenge is the one that creates a vicious cycle like the vendettas in Sicily. You killed my brother, so I kill your sister, so you kill my uncle, so I kill your father. etc. etc. You get to enjoy the satisfaction of getting even, but your revenge has a price tag: you expose yourself to a never ending series of retaliations, until no one is left to take revenge on.

That's probably why vengeance is now considered too primitive and too inefficient a way of making things ‘right’. It has been replaced by our legal system. We are now ‘civilized’ and sue each other to take revenge. We are so civilized that we lock up people by the millions, and we occasionally execute a few. Now THAT’s the real American way of revenge!

But what is the origin of vengeance? The oldest text that talks about vengeance is written by the 6th century philosopher Anaximander, who uses a metaphor of the seasons to explain 'justice'. He describes 'encroachment' of winter upon summer as 'pleonexia' (the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others), also known as 'greed'. For justice (diké) to be restored, retribution (tisis) must take place. The elements that encroached must 'pay justice and retribution'. Summer is the due retribution for the imbalance of winter.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book 'Sex and Social Justice', explains why, in the case of human justice, retribution is necessary to achieve balance:

'A human life is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another's act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counter invasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment. It differs from the original act only in the sequence of time and in the fact that it is response rather than original act - a fact frequently obscured if there is a long sequence of acts and counteracts.'**

In the analogy of the seasons, it might be important to realize that it is the same snow and rain that the summer evaporated that, in turn, will seek retribution when winter comes. In other words, the retribution that someone seeks in taking revenge will eventually return upon themselves in the endless cycle of the vendettas.

Everyone has a sense of 'justice' because our disposition is to seek 'balance'. We have two sides to our bodies, we have day and night, life and death, youth and old age, summer and winter, etc. Without vengeance there is always going to be a desire to recreate balance, like an itch that you want to scratch until it's gone.

Unfortunately, balance is only attainable when there is imbalance. Without imbalance there wouldn't be any life, any movement, any change, nothing ever would happen.

The opposite of vengeance is forgiveness. The problem with forgiveness is that it is easier to forgive when the person that caused you harm feels sorry. Why would I forgive someone who is not sorry? They don't need my forgiveness. So, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Yes, justice and vengeance, though sweet in the moment, are cruel and hard in the long run.

Maybe that's why revenge movies are so popular and so abundant. In fact, movies without a vengeance motive are more the exception than the rule. I could start an endless list right here: Moby Dick, Payback, The Count of Monte Cristo, Unforgiven, Irreversible, Hang em High, Memento, Man on Fire, Munich… But there must be countless other movies that could vicariously satisy my need for revenge. Any suggestions?

** From:Judging and Understanding: Essays on Free Will… Edited by Pedro Alexis Tabensky

leave comment here
Read more...

Friday, March 4, 2011

Originalism, or the Living Constitution?

By Tom Kando

There is an interesting article by Jill Lepore in the January 17 issue of the New Yorker, titled The Commandments. It discusses our growing tendency to worship the Constitution as a sacred scroll, and to insist that it be adhered to in its original form, rather than to see it as an evolving document which must continue to adapt to a changing world. I call this the cult of originalism.

For example, Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell stressed that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the constitution or in any amendment (true). Neither does the constitution, as segregationists used to remind us, mention “busing” anywhere. Last spring, Sarah Palin said “we’ll keep clinging to our Constitution, our guns and our religion.”

In other words, if something ain’t in the Constitution, we oppose it, say originalists such as Michelle Bachmann, house majority leader John Boehner, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and many others. Originalism means: stick to the strictest, most literal, possible interpretation of the Constitution.

On the other side are what these people call “judicial activists.” These are judges and other liberals who are accused of inventing new twists to the Constitution, adding new rights - rights which the founding fathers did not mean to be, and which - according to originalists - are therefore unconstitutional. Case in point, they say: where on earth does the constitution say that women have a right to abortion?

The constitution is only about 4400 hundred words long. Even so, most Americans are pretty ignorant about it.

A survey revealed that 8 out of 10 Americans (including house majority leader John Boehner!) believe that the phrase “all men are created equal” is in the Constitution. But the words appear in the Declaration of Independence. An even larger proportion believed that “Of the people, by the people and for the people” is in the Constitution. It is part of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Nearly half believed that the words “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” are part of the Constitution. They were written by Karl Marx.

I have utmost respect for the Constitution. I remember vividly the day when I became a US citizen. It was a sunny September afternoon many years ago. I went to the Sacramento Court House. The judge asked me:

“Tell me, young fellow(I was 27), what is the Constitution?’

“Well...” I began, mumbling and fumbling, “It’s the legal document which stipulates...”

“Son,” he cut me off: “It’s the law of the land.”

With that, the judge stood up grinning, shook my hand, congratulated me, and sent me home with a small US flag. Next to the births of my children, this was perhaps the greatest day in my life.

BUT: I don’t believe that the Constitution should be treated as sacred and infallible, as something to worship. The Constitution is not what people like Glenn Beck claim it to be. For example:

! The Word “God” does not appear in it once.

! On the other hand, it contains the embarrassing three-fifth compromise:
According to Article I. Section 3, the founding fathers felt that one slave (read: black) should count for 3/5 of a free man (read white). Of course, this was invalidated by the 13th (1865) and 14th (1868) amendments. But it is still there, in all its ugliness!

! ...Besides, even the 14th amendment still excluded women from voting.

! ...And even the 13th amendment allows involuntary servitude (euphemism for slavery) as punishment for crime.

! Article 1, Section 9.1: stipulates that the “importation of people” ( read: slaves) must not be forbidden, and that it shall be accompanied by a $10 tax per “imported person.”

! Article IV, section 2.3 states that persons escaping service or labor in one state (read: run-away slaves) must be returned to their states and their owners.

! The Constitution often specifies sums for certain purposes. For example, the 7th amendment guarantees jury trials for controversies over $20. Obviously, fixed monetary amounts make no sense, as the years go by.

Consider also the following amendments:

The 16th amendment, 1909: Introduces the income tax.
The 18th amendment, 1917: Prohibition.
The 19th amendment 1919, Women get to vote.
The21st amendment, 1933: Repeal of prohibition.
The 22nd amendment, 1949: Limits the presidency of the US to two 4-year terms.
The 26th amendment, 1965: 18-year olds get to vote.

Isn’t it obvious that as a society, we experiment, we change, we make mistakes, we correct them? Prohibition was a mistake. So we corrected it with the 21st amendment. Maybe the 22nd amendment was also a mistake. In my view, failure to ratify the ERA amendment was another mistake.
Do women have a constitutional right to abortion? If the courts - reflecting the general will - decide that they do, then they do. Is capital punishment constitutional or not? Same thing.

Originalism is as nonsensical as the literal interpretation of the bible. The US Constitution must be a living, evolving document. Otherwise, it becomes absurd. leave comment here
Read more...