Sunday, August 6, 2017


eclipse totality, Sassendalen, Spitzbergen (island off northern Norway)


Against the mountains the clouds go
slowly, but without hesitation:
cirrus like manes of heaven’s horses,
cumulus with its anvil of ice crystals.

In the dark lake, the mournful weeds
wave their long green arms.
He shot himself last July.
No, that was years ago.

Why should we think of the dead
as shadows moving through shadow,
rather than light through light?
In the wild places of my mind

he burns, transparent flame.
I stand between the shimmering trees
and call him back. I want him
to live again so he can die

only of life. I hated him
with unforgiving love.

~ Oriana

Mary McCarthy comments:

The question of why we think of the dead as shadows moving through shadows rather than light moving through light gave me pause, because it is true. And I wonder if that is not rooted in the physicality of the body and our experience of that. Admittedly in our culture death happens not at home, and people do not prepare their own dead — it's all distanced and surrounded by the rituals of the funeral home etc.

But the body is utterly changed when death occurs, immediately an inert, uninhabited object, an " it", not a “who”— and then the processes of dissolution begin almost immediately, lividity in the dependent parts, changes in the tension of the flesh — it is really quite a shock to experience/observe these changes. And they are all negative — dark, frightening, this is no beautiful transformation, no butterfly arising from it's dull and uninspiring shell. Belief in positive transformation after death is supported by nothing in experience, it is a construction built on refusal to accept the evidence of our senses, a desperate leap of faith and desire.

The other striking thing in the poem is the honesty of those last lines, the anger and hate of someone after the suicide of a loved one. Suicide is often talked about as weak and cowardly, but can also be an assault and accusation, and punishment of those left behind, an act of revenge and anger. My brother in law's nephew parked in front of his mother's house and shot himself in the head. Quite a statement, I would say!!


Yesterday after our work was done we went down to the river dock, and as we got there a group of turkey vultures were swooping around, all after one who was carrying what looked like a string of entrails in his claws. They all wanted a taste of his prize!!  And there were also lovely manatees and plunging ospreys to watch, and some truly spectacular clouds.


I told my partner that if I die first, he’ll be asked if he wants to see the body. “I want you to say No,” I said firmly. I have seen dead bodies, and I totally agree with Mary: it’s no longer the person we knew. It’s an ugly “it.” And yes, the rapidity of the changes as soon as circulation stops.

Suicide as an act of revenge: some might question that, and yet this supremely “individualist” act is in fact a social act. It profoundly affects those connected with the person: first by causing a profound emotional shock, and secondly by keeping you obsessed for months — or longer — trying to find impossible answers. It creates irrational guilt: “If only I said X”; “If only I’d done Y.” No: a person who commits suicide has so much pathology going that most likely nothing would have made any difference.

Finally, by committing suicide a person becomes more of a presence in your memory than might otherwise be the case. It’s not a good presence — a “lifelong scar” is one expression that comes to mind. Having witnessed that kind of rejection of life is the opposite of inspiring.

But based on recent experience I can say this: chronic pain can lead to suicidal depression. The answer is not to provide counseling and/or anti-depressants. The answer is to provide pain relief. Medicine has developed means to relieve pain, but lack of understanding and compassion make it very difficult to obtain this relief — unless you are officially in hospice. Then suddenly the policy is “unlimited pain relief.” The “good death.” What a shame that one has to be certified as dying, and that “good life” is not an honored goal.

Chronic emotional pain also gets little understanding and compassion. Most people still see addiction as reckless thrill-seeking. But I suspect that chronic emotional pain is closer to the truth.


I have enough beautiful poems about this unbeautiful relationship to make a whole book. But contrary to the idea that truth is beauty, truth is often uncomfortable, so poets often wrap themselves in beautiful lies instead — or simply in whatever beauty they can find: clouds, birds. A vulture in flight is spectacular, and one carrying a string of entrails might as well be carrying a banner that proclaims the triumph of life.

A good life presumably includes good relationships, including that “special person.” I once read about a simple experiment that found a quick and reliable way to distinguish good marriages from bad ones. The only equipment it took is the standard cuff and bulb for measuring blood pressure. If the subject’s blood pressure went up when the spouse entered the room, it was a bad marriage, the spouse being a stressor. If the blood pressure went down, it showed the partner acted as a de-stressor; the relationship was healthy in more ways than one.

Pets are also de-stressors. All that unconditional affection! No wonder they’ve been found to lower the owners’ blood pressure. And that’s the wisdom that comes with age: you want the kind of partner who lowers your blood pressure. You want someone who makes you feel stronger and better able to cope with whatever life may throw at you. You learn to recognize pathology and refuse to be around pathology.

Alas, we learn the hard way. Those proverbial lifelong scars remain — but they need not define us. And one answer is that there is no answer, or at least no single answer: just many unsatisfying partial answers.


A minor point, perhaps, but it relates to the way the question of “waiting for The One” has lately been recurring in my thoughts. The young man in this poem was never quite The One — he wasn’t brilliant enough, educated enough, or artistically talented enough (though talent develops) to come close (but at the time no one else was either; so much of our lives is due to circumstances). But still, the emotions were intense, before and after I discovered his tragic flaw (I'm used to being evasive here; still the habit of choosing beauty, not wanting the “ugly truth” to stain everything). There was an interesting moment when he said, “I sense that you don’t think I'm the right person for you; that you’d prefer a different man in your life.” Of course!

And yet the suicide was a total shock that had me zombified and derailed for months — I could hardly think of anything else. It seemed that part of my brain was always working on the unsolvable problem of why, why, why. I suppose that’s in the nature of suicide and its power to shake us to the core. 

Yet pondering how I beautified it all in my poems, I also remember the moment when he closed his eyes as if to shield himself from seeing too much, and said to me in half-whisper: Remember only the beauty.

an abandoned mansion, St. Petersburg
DID ZEUS EXIST? WHY THE GREEKS BELIEVED IN THEIR GODS (the argument from personal experience, e.g. miracles, sense of the divine presence)

~ “Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges? What evidence seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks? Robert Parker, in his “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. “The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,” with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods.

There were also rituals, associated with the many cults of specific gods, that for some worshipers “created a sense of contact with the divine. One knows that the gods exist because one feels their presence during the drama of the mysteries or the elation of the choral dance.” More broadly, there were “epiphanies” that could “indicate not merely a visible or audible epiphany (whether in the light of day or through a dream . . .) but also any clear expression of a god’s favor such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure; it may also be used of the continuing disposition of a god or goddess to offer manifest assistance.

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations. But the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies.” ~

The New York Times, Opinionator, August 3, 2013

From a comment: (this article elicited 744 comments)

“Dionysos — the Zeus of Turkey's Mount Nysa — died each fall, was buried in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, which he would abandon until Dionysos’ rebirth in the spring. “He is risen,” his believers cried out on the appropriate Sunday sunrise, and Apollo had returned.

The great advances of Greek civilization in the fifth and fourth centuries began quite suddenly when the sophists, whom Plato and Socrates despised, stripped the gods out of the myths. That left them with only the natural phenomena the gods were thought to personify and control. So much for the supernatural. The pagan Greeks made no sharp distinction between nature and any hyper-nature, though it is easy for us to see them edging towards it. Christianity defined the boundary.

And another comment:

Does God cease to exist when there are no humans that believe in him? if so, how many does it take to sustain his reality? A million? A thousand? One?

And the inevitable one:

Amazing intellectual acrobatics to avoid the obvious conclusion that there is no more reason to believe in a Judeo-Christian god than there is to believe in Zeus.


Interesting that the arguments the Greeks used to “prove” the existence of the gods are the same are those used today: prayer (and, in the case of the Greeks, animal sacrifice) works, while lack of prayer brings on disaster; believers experience the god’s presence and signs and miracles . . . same stuff, pointing to human psychology rather than external reality. So much for the “argument from personal experience.”

 “I sacrificed a bullock to Zeus, and my son came back from the war alive” — who could fail to be persuaded by that?

Here is an interesting exercise: replace the word “god” with “Zeus”:

Zeus works in mysterious ways.

Zeus sends suffering to those he loves.

Zeus never sends you more suffering than you can bear.

Man was created to serve Zeus.

Let’s see how it works with Wotan: “Man was created to serve Wotan.”

Now, a sophisticated apologist might say that the name of the deity doesn’t matter. What matters is precisely the experience of the divine. Rilke, for instance, held the view that we create god every time we pray, and it’s the psychological experience that counts. I like that argument. At the same time, imagine telling a priest or minister that it’s the experience that matters, not the name of the deity — so you’ve decided to worship Zeus. 

Whether it’s Yahweh or Zeus, as long as an imaginary invisible Superman is put ahead of human beings and the principle of kindness, evil is inevitable. And the same goes for ideologies and institutions, whether it’s the Catholic church or the communist party.

There is an Australian poet, Les Murray, who said that the beauty part, the poetics — that's the only true religion, the true part of any religion. Too bad about the other parts.

“No amount of belief makes something a fact.” ~ James Randi, magician and skeptic


True, but the existence of a particular belief is in itself a fact — perhaps we could call it a cultural fact, or an “fact of the collective psyche.” And it’s simply amazing to ponder that a belief in fictitious beings could inspire the building of magnificent temples and cathedrals. Some of them are now magnificent ruins, but still, but still . . . 

Tintern Abbey, 2015. I think the cows belong. Cows were probably there when Wordsworth visited, but he failed to include them in the poem.


Yakov Dzhugashvili

~ “[Stalin’s first wife, Kato Svanidze, was his great love. She died of typhus after only 18 months of marriage, plunging Stalin into deep grief. He reportedly said, “with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.”

The widowed Stalin [showed little affection] for his son by her, Yakov Dzhugashvili or Yasha as his father called him. The son was raised by Kato’s mother; Stalin rarely visited. (Dzhugashvili was Stalin’s real name; ‘Stalin’ was his revolutionary non de plume, meaning ‘Man of Steel’).

Deprived of his father’s love and upset by a failed romance, Yakov once tried to shoot himself. As he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.

Yakov joined the Red Army at the outbreak of war in the East in June 1941, serving as a lieutenant in the artillery. On the first day of the war, his father told him to ‘Go and fight’. On 16 July, within a month of the Nazi invasion, Yakov was captured and taken prisoner. Stalin considered all prisoners as traitors to the motherland and those that surrendered he demonized as ‘malicious deserters’. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’.

Certainly Yakov, by all accounts, felt that he had failed his father. Under interrogation, he admitted that he had tried to shoot himself. His father probably would have preferred it if he had.

Families of PoWs, or deserters, faced the harshest consequences for the failings of their sons or husbands – arrested and exiled. Yakov may have been Stalin’s son but his family were not to be spared. He was married to a Jewish girl, Julia. Stalin had managed to overcome his innate anti-Semitism and grew to be quite fond of his daughter-in-law. Nonetheless, following Yakov’s capture, Julia was arrested, separated from her three-year-old daughter and sent to the gulag. After two years, Stalin sanctioned her release but she remained forever traumatized by the experience.

The Germans made propaganda capital of Yakov’s capture, dropping leaflets in the Soviet Union that claimed that the Great Leader’s son had surrendered and was feeling ‘alive and well’. ‘Follow the example of Stalin’s son’, the Germans urged Soviet soldiers, ‘stick your bayonets in the earth’.

In 1943, Stalin was offered the chance to have his son back. The Germans had been defeated at Stalingrad and their Field Marshal, Friedrich Paulus, was taken prisoner by the Soviets, their highest-ranking capture of the war. The Germans offered a swap – von Paulus for Yakov. Stalin refused, saying, ‘I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant’. As harsh it may seem, Stalin’s reasoning did have logic – why should his son be freed when the sons of other Soviet families suffered – ‘what would other fathers say?’

On 14 April 1943, the 36-year-old Yakov died. The Germans maintained they shot him while he was trying to escape. But it is more likely that after two years of incarceration and deprivation, the news of the Katyn massacre was the final straw. Stalin had ordered the murder of 15,000 Polish officers in the woods of Katyn in May 1940.  The discovery of the mass grave in March 1943 was heavily publicised by the Germans. Yakov, who had befriended Polish inmates, was distraught by the news. ‘Look what you bastards did to these men. What kind of people are you?’ said a German officer to him. He died by throwing himself onto an electric fence.

Vasily Dzhugashvili

In March 1921, Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to Vasily. Their second child, Svetlana, was born five years later. But in November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself. Naturally, her death affected both children who, from then on, were brought up by a succession of nannies but it seemed to particularly disturb the 11-year-old Vasily.

At the age of 17, Vasily joined an aviation school, despite obtaining poor grades. His father’s aides had to ensure his entry. Stalin once described Vasily as a ‘spoilt boy of average abilities’ and advised his son’s teachers to be stricter with him.

Once enrolled in the school, Vasily used his name to obtain privileges usually reserved for the most senior members. Stalin, on hearing of his son’s abuses, ordered an immediate end to his special treatment.

As a young man, Vasily continually used his name to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women. It was a trait that his father deplored. Vasily drank to excess and, again exploiting the family name, denounced anyone he disliked or barred his way. Amazingly, he managed to graduate as a pilot. Continually drunk, he would commandeer planes and fly them while inebriated. Vasily was married twice but never managed to curtail his womanizing.

Promoted to the rank of colonel at the beginning of the war, Vasily was elevated numerous times, becoming a Major-General in 1946, a rank far beyond his ability. His drinking, loutish behavior and intolerable temper made him both unpopular and a liability. He had no sense of responsibility and Stalin once had to intervene by sacking his colonel son for ‘hard drinking, debauchery and corrupting the regiment’. Seven months later, however, he was re-instated.

Vasily was frightened of no one but his father, in front of whom he was often reduced to a stammering wreck. He lived in fear of what would become of him after his father’s death believing that Stalin’s successor, whoever it may be, would ‘tear me apart’.

Sure enough, following Stalin’s death he was dismissed from the air force and arrested for ‘misappropriation of state property’ – using air force funds to finance his lavish lifestyle. He served seven years and on appealing to Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was released in 1960. But, within a year, he was back in prison, this time for causing a traffic accident. Ill health secured his release within a year, but he was exiled to Kazan where he cut a lonely and rejected figure. His years of hard drinking caught up with him and he died on 19 March 1962, two days short of his 41st birthday.” ~


It’s no news that children of the rich and/or famous, children of the mighty, tend to lead sad, sometimes even tragic lives. It’s difficult to sympathize with the younger son, Vasily. But poor Yakov!

One factor in Stalin’s alienation from Yakov may have been Stalin guilt for having brought about Kato’s death by sending her to Baku, where she suffered from loneliness and the heat, while he was preoccupied with revolutionary activities. Looking at little Yakov would remind him of his guilt.

from Wiki: “At her church funeral, as Montefiore claims, Stalin said, "This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity." She was buried at the Kukia cemetery next to Saint Nino's Church in Tiflis. Stalin, distraught, threw himself into her open grave and had to be dragged out.

"I was so overcome with grief that my comrades took my gun away from me," he later recalled. Wrote Monaselidze, “Soso [Stalin’s nickname] sank into deep grief. He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him. All the time he blamed himself for not accepting our advice and for taking her to Baku in the heat.” 

Kato Svanidze, 1904 (she lived from 1880 until 1907)


“Two children of the same cruel parent look at one another and see in each other the image of the cruel parent.” ~ Amos Oz



What went wrong in the USSR wasn’t communism. No: what went wrong was fascism.There are spiritual New-Agers, Buddhists even whom I wouldn't trust to run things. I see many parallels between Buddhist and Tea party self-certainty. There are many roads that lead to asshole.

Democracies [need] a managed tension between open- and closed-mindedness, both of which are essential to productivity.

In a word fallibilism. Basically, maturity, defined as getting over your terrible twos sometime before you get your hands on the reins or the voting booth lever. ~ Jeremy Sherman (slightly edited)


FALLIBILISM! The need to know: I am fallible. I might be wrong. Those who conceive utopian ideologies need fallibilism.  

Papal infallibility is an early model for all totalitarian regimes.
Susan Sontag said about the late Soviet government under Gorbachov: “It’s not ‘socialism with a human face’; it’s fascism with broken teeth.” And even when the teeth were already broken, there was plenty of suffering. Think of the earlier years, when the teeth were long and sharp.

For the sake of greater clarity, for “fascism” I’d substitute “totalitarianism” or simply “dictatorship.” That usually includes the willingness to make ideology more important than human beings, including killing your opponents, or killing for the sake of achieving your goals. There’s hardly anything so vicious as idealism pushed to the extreme.

THE POWER OF DETAIL: JUDITH WITH THE HEAD (AND FOOT!) OF HOLOFERNES  (Mantegna or one of his followers, circa 1500)

~ “Judith is portrayed as if she were a classical statue. The drapery folds of her costume, a clinging white gown, fall in sculptural forms, and her stance, the twisting contrapposto prevalent in Renaissance figures, derives from ancient models. The heroine is serene and calm, detached from the gruesome scene as her victim's head is dropped into a sack held by the servant.” ~ National Gallery of Art

~ “Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna painted this depiction of the Jewish heroine Judith beheading the Babylonian general Holofernes. Judith stands in the forefront of the painting contrapposto, arms and shoulders contrasting asymetrically with hips and legs, a common feature of Renaissance art. The brilliant colors of her flowing gown, the pinkness of the tent of Holofernes, the soft yellow of the maid’s robe, and the serene, almost distracted face of Judith seem to contrast with the brutality of the event portrayed. Judith still holds the severed head, putting it into the bag held by her maidservant. The foot of Holofernes leads the observer to imagine the brutalized body still in the tent.” ~ Bible Odyssey

I never thought that I’d find myself praising anything coming from a site called, in a somewhat odd mythological fusion, “Bible Odyssey.” Yet here it is, that brilliant last sentence that raises the description to a quantum level above that of the National Gallery: “The foot of Holofernes leads the observer to imagine the brutalized body still in the tent.”


It was only then that I truly noticed the foot. Just that foot, by itself, as if it too were a mutilated fragment. One brilliant, unexpected detail. And for me the painting was transformed forever.

Do you see what I mean about the foot? After you notice it, you can’t stop staring at it. It leaps to the forefront of your attention. The horror of the painting is not the head — it's that foot.


Here is the head of Holofernes, a detail of a painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi. I find the facial expression remarkable, to say the least. Holofernes seems like a bemused ironist, perhaps in the manner of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert . . .  yes, we must stay forever on guard to protect youth against corruption.


And Judith is simply serene in her unruffled hairdo . . .

Judith and Holofernes, Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

[On further thought, perhaps the Hebrew-Greek fusion of "Bible Odyssey" isn't all that odd: these are the two main mythologies that are foundational for the Western culture.]

WHY WWI WAS SO LONG AND BLOODY (delusions born of colonial wars)

This is a truly eye-opening article: the generals seemed not to notice that this time they were fighting an equal or superior military.

~ “ONE hundred and three years ago today, Austro-Hungarian artillery and gunboats on the Danube began shelling Serbia — the first shots of the great cataclysm that over the next four and a half years would remake our world for the worse, in every conceivable way. We think of the First World War as having its causes in Europe, where the greatest bloodshed and destruction would take place. But several of the illusions that propelled the major powers so swiftly into war had their roots in far corners of the world.

The biggest illusion, of course, was that victory would be quick and easy. “You will be home,” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told his troops, “before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” The German campaign plan called for knocking France out of the war in 42 days. The Allies were not quite so arrogant, but were confident of triumph in months, not years.

A second illusion of those who marched proudly into battle in 1914 was that they would be shooting at the enemy, but that he would not be shooting back, or at least not effectively. How else to explain that most soldiers on both sides had no metal helmets? And that millions of French infantrymen, as well as the Austro-Hungarian cavalry, wore combat uniforms of brilliant red and blue?
As the war began, troops from both sides advanced over open ground en masse, as if they were not facing repeating rifles and machine guns: bayonet charges by the French, and ranks of young Germans walking, arms linked, toward astonished British soldiers. The British would make plenty of similar suicidal advances of their own in the years ahead.

The men who led Europe into the First World War found it more comforting to look at battles where victory was swift and the enemy had little firepower. In 1914 Europe had not had a major war in more than 40 years and, except for the Russians, almost all officers who had actually seen combat had done so in lopsided colonial wars in Africa and Asia.

Colonial wars seldom lasted long because the German, French and British A2rmies had modern rifles, machine guns and small mobile artillery pieces, as well as steamboats and railroads that could move men and weapons as needed. The Africans and Asians usually had none of these things.

Yet another illusion on both sides in 1914 was that a key force would be the cavalry. After all, hadn’t cavalry service been a path to military glory for more than 2,000 years? At the Cavalry Club on London’s Piccadilly Circus and its counterparts in Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Vienna, officers eagerly anticipated more of the same. The initial German invasions of France and Belgium, for example, included eight cavalry divisions with more than 40,000 horses — the largest such body ever sent into battle in Western Europe. Tens of thousands of the unfortunate animals were laboriously shipped to the front over great distances: to the Middle East from New Zealand, to Belgium from Canada, to France from India.

Although Haig obviously learned some lessons about industrialized warfare from the carnage in France and Belgium, he was, like so many generals, loath to let go of his colonial-era illusions. To the very end, he kept three British cavalry divisions ready, and even eight years after the war was still lobbying to maintain the cavalry, writing that “aeroplanes and tanks” were “only accessories to the man and the horse.”

None of the many military observers in the Boer War seemed to notice that one simple defensive measure could have stopped the great [cavalry] charge at Kimberley [South Africa] dead: barbed wire. On the Western Front in 1914, that, along with the machine gun, would spell doom for the cavalry and for the other illusions as well.
~ Adam Hochschild: Why World War I Was Such a Bloodbath, New York Times, July 29, 2014

German soldiers leaving for the Western Front


“You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told the German troops in the first week of August 1914.

Of course, it wasn’t over by the time the leaves fell, and what became known as the Great War really isn’t over even now. From the downing of the civilian Malaysian airliner by Moscow-supported insurgents over Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian combat in Gaza to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, the troubles of our time directly descend from the world of 1914–18, the era that inflamed ethnic and nationalistic impulses and led to the ultimate creation of new nation-states, especially in the Middle East.

The 19th century has been said to have ended in 1914, with a war that became, in the words of historian David Fromkin, “in many ways the largest conflict that the planet has ever known.” One could argue that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, ending under the Administration of George H.W. Bush, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the death of the Soviet Union (itself a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). We are now in a world much like that of 1914, without a truly controlling order.

Summing up August 1914, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope — the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid.” We know now that such hope was illusory. It did happen again, from 1939 to 1945, and now, a century on, we live in a world that remains vulnerable to chaos and mischance and misery. Such, though, is the nature of reality and of history, and we have no choice but to muddle through. There is, in the end, no other alternative, whether the leaves are on or off the trees.


~ “Repealing Obamacare would slash taxes on the richest and cut benefits to the middle class and working poor. Yet a majority of the white working class supports Trump, just as they supported Reagan and the Bushes, who did the same things. Why?

Three compelling, and interrelated, answers have been put forward in recent years: conservative values, American populism, and white resentment. All of these are true, but drawing on the work of political theorist Charles Reich, I’d like to propose a fourth: the confusion of corporate and individual liberty.

First, Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas? tracked how Republicans have used social and cultural issues to persuade working class voters to vote against their economic interests. This is a legacy of the civil rights era, when white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party, first turning to George Wallace in 1968, and then to the GOP following Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy” of opposing civil rights laws and scaremongering about African Americans.

But since the politicization of the Christian right in the 1970s—itself, as Randall Balmer has shown, a reaction to desegregation and the civil rights movement—Republicans have also appealed to conservative religious values on issues like abortion, LGBT, and women’s rights. Today, over half of Republican voters are conservative Christians—which is why Donald Trump, an inveterate sinner, has worked so hard to maintain that base, from choosing Mike Pence and Neil Gorsuch to his latest move against transgender soldiers. Indeed, in the last few decades, as Sarah Posner has shown, Republicans have even made laissez-faire economics a religious tenet.

Second, this cultural divide has widened in the era of global contemporary populism, as John B. Judis describes in The Populist Explosion, his new, compact book on populism. The rhetorics of Trump, Marine LePen, Brexit, Narendra Modi, and even Vladimir Putin echo waves of populism which have periodically shaken America ever since industrialization. Now, as then, populist demagogues depict politics as a struggle between a corrupt, powerful elite and a good, patriotic “people.”

At its extremes, the populist phenomenon leads to authoritarianism; other times, merely to patriotism, racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. It is an emotive politics of reptilian-brain appeals to group identity and belonging, the kind of patriotic appeals that Jonathan Haidt studied in The Righteous Mind.

As such, populism is unmoored from facts. Judis quotes Michael D’Antonio, one of Trump’s biographers, who points out that Trump Svengali Roger Stone’s messaging was “intended to persuade voters that the GOP, which was traditionally the party of big business and the country-club set, was actually the anti-elite party of the working class.”

That is right-wing populism in a nutshell. Scapegoating not just Mexicans and Muslims but also the supposed “cultural elite”, Trump purports to speak for “ordinary people” who are being screwed over by politicians, journalists, and the same wealthy elites who make up the Republican donor base. Like Reagan and Nixon before him, Trump has capitalized on resentment of the “effete corps of impudent snobs” (in Spiro Agnew’s words, written by Pat Buchanan) who drink lattes in San Francisco while the heartland languishes.

Third and finally, several writers, including sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in their own Land, have observed that while working class Republicans are in fact helped by government programs, they see themselves as being victimized by them. (One review of her bestselling book was titled “Why Do People Who Need Help From the Government Hate It So Much?”)

Data and the anecdotes collected in Hochschild’s book show that less affluent Republicans see “big government” as unfairly helping people poorer and lazier than themselves who game the system to avoid working. Often those people are black or brown, but they needn’t be—they are, rather, the undeserving poor who are unfairly favored over hard-working Americans by big government programs.

Of course, in actuality, those programs help the very people opposed to them, as the sudden support for Medicaid expansion suggests. But very few Americans want to admit that they themselves are the disadvantaged people in need of support, and Americans consistently place themselves in higher wealth brackets than they actually are in. Significant numbers of working class Americans believe that someone else is freeloading on the backs of hardworking taxpayers, and oppose the programs that enable them to do so.
That’s how Hochschild could interview Louisianans who opposed environmental and other regulations even though they, themselves, had been poisoned by pollution. It’s how farmers dependent on government assistance can resent poor people on food stamps. In Hochschild’s metaphor, these people believe that they’ve waited in line for the American Dream, but now others—immigrants, minorities, the undeserving poor—are cutting in line, collecting welfare checks, benefiting from affirmative action.

This last set of factors distinguishes right-wing populism like Trump’s from left-wing populism like Bernie Sanders’, Syriza’s in Greece, Podemos’ in Spain. Sanders (and Hochschild) rightly point to the lie at the heart of right-wing populism: In fact, the losses the white working class have experienced are not due to immigrants or African Americans, but to corporations polluting the environment, financial speculators crashing the housing market, and so on.

In other words, scapegoating “line cutters” is a ruse. The great right-wing populist lie is that line-cutters are responsible for the woes of the working class, when in fact the responsible parties are the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals—precisely those who gain the most from a Republican administration.

For [Charles] Reich, the dichotomy between “public sector” and “private sector” is misleading. Really, he wrote, there is the governmental sector, the corporate sector, and the individual sector. What conservatives decry as “big government taking away our freedom” is actually government preserving the freedom of the individual sector against the predation of the corporate sector.

Big government is mostly a response to big business, which didn’t exist when the country was founded. Remember, the original Tea Party was as much a rebellion against a corporation, the East India Tea Company, as against a government.

There’s no need to resort to caricatures. Corporations trample on individuals not because they or their leaders are evil, but because they are extremely powerful machines that will inevitably trample over less powerful individuals, if not held in check. Corporations are dangerous for the same reason they’re effective: they are powerful.

And Reich is right: Corporate freedom is not only different from individual freedom, but is often diametrically opposed to it. Trump’s success depends on hiding that fact. His defeat will hinge on communicating it.


It would be wonderful if the government protected us from price gouging by Big Pharma, but that's precisely one of the big failures of the US government — which appears to be far more responsive to corporate interests than the common good, and esp now is the government for the rich rather than for the people (pardon the repetition of these truisms).


The hypothalamus was known to regulate important processes including growth, development, reproduction and metabolism. In a 2013 Nature paper, Einstein researchers made the surprising finding that the hypothalamus also regulates aging throughout the body. Now, the scientists have pinpointed the cells in the hypothalamus that control aging: a tiny population of adult neural stem cells, which were known to be responsible for forming new brain neurons.

"Our research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging," says senior author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., (professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein. "But we also found that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it's possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body.”

In studying whether stem cells in the hypothalamus held the key to aging, the researchers first looked at the fate of those cells as healthy mice got older. The number of hypothalamic stem cells began to diminish when the animals reached about 10 months, which is several months before the usual signs of aging start appearing. "By old age -- about two years of age in mice -- most of those cells were gone," says Dr. Cai.

The researchers next wanted to learn whether this progressive loss of stem cells was actually causing aging and was not just associated with it. So they observed what happened when they selectively disrupted the hypothalamic stem cells in middle-aged mice. "This disruption greatly accelerated aging compared with control mice, and those animals with disrupted stem cells died earlier than normal," says Dr. Cai.

Could adding stem cells to the hypothalamus counteract aging? To answer that question, the researchers injected hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of middle-aged mice whose stem cells had been destroyed as well as into the brains of normal old mice. In both groups of animals, the treatment slowed or reversed various measures of aging.

Dr. Cai and his colleagues found that the hypothalamic stem cells appear to exert their anti-aging effects by releasing molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs). They are not involved in protein synthesis but instead play key roles in regulating gene expression. miRNAs are packaged inside tiny particles called exosomes, which hypothalamic stem cells release into the cerebrospinal fluid of mice.

The researchers extracted miRNA-containing exosomes from hypothalamic stem cells and injected them into the cerebrospinal fluid of two groups of mice: middle-aged mice whose hypothalamic stem cells had been destroyed and normal middle-aged mice. This treatment significantly slowed aging in both groups of animals as measured by tissue analysis and behavioral testing that involved assessing changes in the animals' muscle endurance, coordination, social behavior and cognitive ability.

The researchers are now trying to identify the particular populations of microRNAs and perhaps other factors secreted by these stem cells that are responsible for these anti-aging effects — a first step toward possibly slowing the aging process and treating age-related diseases.

ending on beauty: 
“Pass in, pass in,” the angels say,
“In to the upper doors,
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to paradise
By the stairway of surprise.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Merlin I

~ and I always thought that the phrase “the stairway of surprise” came from a poem by Dickinson! 

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