Saturday, February 9, 2019


An early Picasso: Brick Factory at Tortosa, 1909. At the Hermitage


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
`The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it,
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

 And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

~ William Butler Yeats

(composed around 1938; published in Last Poems, 1939)

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

~ instantly we have a strong rhythm here, as is often the case with great poets — they have rhythm. The magic of music starts working on the reader’s brain. But there is such a thing as a specifically Yeatsian rhythm — it would take a linguist to analyze it. I agree with the critic who said that Yeats had a “gift for enchanting the ear.”

And that applies especially to the dreamy, melodious early Yeats, going back to the late nineteenth century:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

~ this is lovely, even if we don’t believe a word of this wanna-be Walden Pond.

Later Yeats became preoccupied with Celtic mythology (the “Celtic twilight,” ruthlessly mocked by Joyce as “cultic twalette”). The middle of this poem will probably lose those who aren’t that interested in those figures. Then Yeats experienced a relatively rare phenomenon: a burst of creativity toward the end of his life (he died at seventy-three). That’s the most modern Yeats, unfraid to use off-putting words and images — as in the last stanza of this poem.

~ “Months before his death in 1939, W. B. Yeats found himself at a crisis point. He was writing many poems; at the same time, he was afraid that he had become a kind of fraud, an impostor, lifelessly trotting out his old themes because he had nothing new to say. “I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,” he wrote in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the penultimate poem in his great 1939 collection, Last Poems. “What can I but enumerate old themes?” he mused. The title suggested that his inspiration had fled him, like the departure of a carnival’s acts; his circus animals, if he could find them at all, refused to perform anything satisfactory or fresh, and the circus itself had dimmed, like the eyes of someone who has forgotten how to dream.

Yeats had come to an impasse as a writer. In simpler terms, he was having writer’s block and doubting his abilities, though it was magnified by his being in his seventies and his awareness that his health was failing, that he, like those circus animals, did not have long left on the stage. In the famous, stark final stanza of the poem, he suggested that he needed to find that fey spark, that spool of dream, he once knew so well, even if it meant going back to the beginning—whatever and wherever that might be. “Now that my ladder’s gone,” he said, “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

I have always been struck by “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Not because it’s unusual for Yeats—it contains a bit of the mythic dreaminess many of his poems do, and its darkness is less apocalyptically tinted than some of his earlier pieces, like “The Second Coming”—but because it feels like such a twilight poem, a poem written when you feel a peculiar kind of lowness: frustrated in your writing but not so much that you cannot write at all, for you are, counterintuitively, inspired by your lack of inspiration, even if you think the work you produce is nothing. It’s a poem for those of us who feel we are no longer doing anything new, no longer accomplishing anything; we wear the thick coats of impostors and hate ourselves. We feel like, whether or not we’ve been published, we aren’t really writers. We’re failures.

I know the feeling well, the way the waves rock—or don’t—when your boat has drifted deep into the sargassum of self-doubt. I feel it often. When I tell friends this, sometimes they react with surprise, as I’ve had the fortune of my work being published in places I once never imagined I could see my name in. But being published doesn’t remove the feeling of failure. It’s an almost universal symptom of being a writer who isn’t ruled solely by their own arrogance that we will feel, at some point, like impostors, like one-trick ponies, like authors who will never amount to anything, or whose time has passed without us realizing how sacred and finite those clock-ticks were. I don’t pretend to feel quite what Yeats did, our ages and careers and lives so different, but I understand it, all the same.

In my worst hours, when I was younger, I sometimes imagined all I could do that had any value was write; if I lost that, I lost whatever worth I had. I no longer believe that, that death-song I used to hear on the gray wind of depression. But when you value your art, losing it hurts. It really does feel, to use Yeats’ mot juste, like a desertion.

Yet, ironically, I also read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” as a kind of hopeful paean. It does not, after all, tell us to give up when we feel like we’ve lost the bit of dream our work comes from. Instead, it directs us, simply and powerfully, to go forth and find it again. Write, Yeats seems to suggest, even against death—the death of our inspiration, or the one who measures us, when our time is nearly up, without us knowing. It is a poem of death, yes—but not one of ending, but, instead, of new beginnings, painful and poignant as they may be.


In some way, Yeats’ poem was a farewell. It was not his last, nor was it the final poem in Last Poems­—it was the penultimate piece, with the shorter envoi poem, “Politics,” ending the collection—but it had the distinct feeling of being an epitaph. (Lines from another of his late-in-life poems, “Under Ben Bulben,” would in fact appear on his gravestone; the poem, strikingly, ends with a description of Yeats’ own body being laid to rest and with a suggestion for his epitaph, inspired by a book of Rilke’s poems that upset him.)

Once, he had carried around the dream-cloth of his art easily enough; as he wrote in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” five decades earlier, he could simply “arise and go” in his imagination and writing to a place he was not,

for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

He felt buoyed, lifted, by the Celtic mythology he initially drew from, and it was as if, even in a modern space utterly unlike the more marvelous worlds of myth, he could still be transported there by using his imagination, and could transport readers there, too. We could go to Lake Innisfree with him, even if we were stuck on the side of a road nowhere near a body of water. “I, being poor, have only my dreams,” he said in “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” but that seemed to be enough.

But aging unnerved him, so he frequently crafted images nodding to the beauty of youth, or outright depicted oldness as grotesque in his less nuanced moments. “An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick,” he wrote dismissively in “Sailing to Byzantium” in 1928, though the poem also implied that a young soul could reside in an older body, if “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.” But as he grew older, his health seesawed, and though he would experience a spurt of new creativity some years prior to his death, he began to yen, darkly, for his youth.


Yeats died at two in the afternoon on the 28th of January, at 73 years of age. Just two days earlier, he had still been revising his work; he gave his spouse “corrections” for “Under Ben Bulben,” one of the poems—appositely about death—he had been constructing months before. For all his fears that he was at the end—of life, of inspired composition—Yeats produced prolifically in those final months. Somewhat creepily, he had likened the last few years of his life to a “second puberty,” in part because he was having relations with a bevy of much younger women and because he was writing a lot. In truth, his circus animals never deserted him; they weren’t there to begin with, at least not in the way the image might suggest, as he was able to weave the threads of his dreams into beautiful things that went far beyond some routine carnival attraction. He was selling himself short—but that was good. A writer, I always remember being told in a workshop, should hold arrogance in one hand and humility in the other; with only one or the other, we’re doomed to fail, but with a balance of both, we can survive, even prosper.

“In the middle of life it happens that death comes / and takes your measurements,” the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer wrote in “Black Postcards.” “This visit / is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is / sewn in the silence.” Yeats, who had made his songs into a grand garment already, as he wrote in “A Coat,” knew Death was taking down his measurements, and though he had not given up on life when she came for him, finally, he perhaps knew, too, that it was okay to put one arm, then another, through that final, funereal suit, for he had left this world his songs, for any and all to hear and wear, and for the wisest to acknowledge but ignore wearing, for they are working on their own cloths of song. He may have felt like a failure in moments before he walked off into that placeless place. It’s impossible to know, barring any postcards from the dead. But even as he began to feel Death’s finger entwined in his own, even as he listened to all the clocks of the world ticking that reminded him of his own failing health, he still wrote and wrote, failing at being the failure “Circus Animals,” his own poem of the twilight, suggested.

If anything, the poem seems almost ironically optimistic by virtue of how meaningful it is, telling us not to give in to failure, even when we feel our art and dreams have deserted us. Write, Yeats seems to say from his journey to that rag and bone shop, even when Death has brought your suit.” ~


Yeats has always been a favorite, for his music, for those splendid, haunting dreams, and for the truths you only find rooted in that “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” This poem seems to be a reflection on his life's work,  one inspired by myths and tales of wonder, full of magic from old dreams that enchant, strong enough to steal the soul away to a world other than the mundane one of everyday life, that feels somehow more real, more true and more important than the one we know. He realizes

It was the dream itself enchanted me,

Players and painted stage took all my love
and not those things that they were
emblems of

Maybe now, when those dreams and devices, once so enthralling, are no longer at one's command, maybe they are also no longer good enough . . . strong enough, real enough, compelling enough, to find and carry the truths of this old, ladderless man, who is up against that cold and final door. What to do?? Go back down to the bottom, the cellar, that shabby junkyard of used and broken things, find again what is there, naked and unadorned, and sing that, even with your last few breaths . Not a defeat here, but the chance of resurrection.

That essential "rag and bone shop" brings to mind his "Crazy Jane" poems, that address some of the same oppositions and the dialectic (!!??) between them.


Very perceptive — and the similarity between the “foul” shop of the heart and the Crazy Jane poems has never, to my knowledge, been pointed out before. I was wondering at that — at the refinement of language elsewhere in the poem, and that last line . . . Yes, that’s the unflinching realism of Crazy Jane.

And yes, the hope of resurrection is certainly there — but this time a more life-based resurrection, one prefiguring that horseman that who can cast a “cold eye” on both life and death. 


~ “Somewhere in the great, unsteady archive where our souls will be held, there is a special section that records the quality of our gaze. The stacks in this branch of the archive will preserve for posterity the history of those moments when a look or a glance intensified, when watchfulness opened out or narrowed in, due to curiosity or desire or suspicion or fear. Maybe that is what we remember most of each other — the face of the other glancing up, the second when we are held in someone else’s gaze.” ~ Colm Toibin

~ “The elder Yeats was remembered by the critic Edward Dowden as having a ‘fluid and attaching’ gaze: “every glance at one’s face seems to give him a shock, and through a series of such shocks he professes. He said of himself that he could paint only “friendship portraits” and that each portrait survived, if it survived at all and however hard he worked on it, as a sketch, “something struck off at a first heat.” The idea surely prefigures W.B. Yeats in “Adam’s Curse”: unless a poem seems “a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

Much of [Toibin’s] essay seems to focus on the last fifteen years of his life, when he lived in a boardinghouse on West 29th Street in Manhattan, endlessly tinkering with his self-portrait and endlessly deferring his return to Ireland. His son William diagnosed “infirmity of will” as the ailment that prevented him from finishing his pictures.

From 1907 until his death in 1922 [the elder Yeats] conducted a passionate epistolary love affair with Rosa Butt. His letters show wan extraordinary desire for intimacy and an unabashed celebration of physical love. He insists on their marriage of true minds: “I would as it were tell you things that I would not tell to myself. Can you understand this? — so that you are more to me than I am to myself.”

Toibin is strangely sentimental when it comes to assessing Yeats’s decision to stay in New York and write letters rather than to love the flesh-and-blood Rosa. He wants to think of the writing as a form of self-creation, and there is truth in the statement that “the foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate, fantastical imagination, did not write about the life he had missed, but the life he imagined, and he gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only almost possible but somehow present.”

He suggests that marriage to Rosa would have “contained” Yeats, and that “he did not wish to be contained”; rather than a conventional relationship Yeats “chose freedom.”

But this is surely the opposite of the case. Yeats’s letters to Rosa are moving because they reveal his need for containment rather than his desire for freedom. The letters did not sketch “the dream of a life he did not have” (another version of making yourself up in writing), but protected him from living, as “again and again” he tried to persuade himself that he was right not to return home, that he had no option but to be parted from Rosa. He couldn’t afford to endanger his self-portrait by moving back to Dublin before it was finished; he couldn’t afford the fare; he couldn’t face Dublin and its ghosts; he couldn’t be sure of Rosa. The letters protest too much. They manifest his fear of his own desire.

The elder Yeats chose not freedom, but a boardinghouse prison from which he could write long letters imagining freedom. Arguably this makes him a spiritual father not only to James Joyce but also to Oscar Wilde. But the spiritual father presiding over the book of essays as a whole is Henry James. Like all good fathers James is enablingly absent, but he makes his presence felt. He appears in one of John B. Yeats’s letters to William: “I have just finished a long novel by Henry James. Much of it made me think of the priest condemned for a long space to confess nuns. James has watched life from a distance.”

John B. Yeats chose to live the last fifteen years of his life communicating from beyond the everyday if not the grave. He chose not to live in order to create (letters in which a relationship that hadn’t begun could not end, and the always unfinished self-portrait). That’s one way of putting it, and Tóibín does put it this way, because he wants to tell a mostly upbeat story about creativity being passed from father to son, and augmented in the process. But surely the truth is far more sobering. It is impossible, when reading the letters to Rosa, not to think of the wasting of life.” ~


It's a very striking portrayal. But was the life of Yeats's father truly “wasted”? His marriage was unhappy, but after his wife died and he moved to New York, he lived as he wished, painting and writing. And to live doing what you love doing strikes me as one kind of success, perhaps the most meaningful kind.

True, he wasn’t a proverbial “man of action.” He was a man of the imagination. And an intense imagination, which he appears to have passed on to his famous son, is worth a lot in itself. Would a more active, less artistic father have given us William Butler Yeats, a poet of reverie?

John Butler Yeats: Self-Portrait, 1911-1922. He looks like a sweet, quiet man. An introvert — he preferred solitude.


~ “That’s the conclusion Canadian journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker come to in their newest book, Empty Planet, due out February 5th. After painstakingly breaking down the numbers for themselves, the pair arrived at a drastically different prediction for the future of the human species. “In roughly three decades, the global population will begin to decline,” they write. “Once that decline begins, it will never end.”

But Empty Planet is not a book about statistics so much as it is about what’s driving the choices people are making during the fastest period of change in human history. Ibbitson and Bricker take their readers inside the Indian slums of Delhi and the operating rooms of Sao Paulo, Brazil, to eavesdrop on the conversations young professionals have at dinner parties in Brussels and over drinks at a young professionals’ club in Nairobi. The end result is a compelling challenge to long-entrenched demography dogma, Trojan Horse-d inside an accessible, vivid portrait of modern families from every walk of life. The authors sat for an interview about how they arrived at a radical new outlook on the human race and its implications for future societies.

~ WIRED: The UN is a well-regarded authority on everything from public health to food security and global economics. What made you think that they were getting population growth wrong?

JI: The UN population data is something we call vertical knowledge, or “everybody knows” knowledge. Whether it’s the prime minister of a country, a university academic, a business leader, a student, just a guy on the street, you ask any of them, “What is happening with population?” and they go, “Oh it’s terrible, there’s a huge population explosion. I was just watching a movie last night where Earth got so crowded everyone had to relocate to the moons of Jupiter.” It’s just deeply embedded.

DB: And whenever that happens you should really go and look hard at the assumptions, and test them yourself, because most of the time reality has already moved past where that vertical knowledge resides.

JI: So that’s what we did. And it didn’t take long before we realized that there was a whole body of demographers who have been questioning the UN’s numbers for years. They’ve just been talking to each other at conferences and through scholarly articles, but they’ve never gotten this information before the general public. That was kind of our starting point. And then when we went out and talked to real people in the world about the choices they’re making, that’s when the statistics we were seeing came to life.

~ You traveled all over the globe to interview people for this book. What’s one image or conversation that really made the statistics jump off the page?

DB: There was a moment when we were sitting in this little school in Srinivaspuri, listening to a focus group of 13 or 14 women who lived there. And I kept seeing this faint glow light up under their saris. I didn’t know what it was. And then I saw one woman reach in and pull out a smartphone, look at it, and put it back. And I realized, here we are in a slum in Delhi, and all these women have smartphones. Who can read. Who have data packages. And I was thinking, they have all of human knowledge in their hands now. What’s the impact of that going to be?

~ Well, what is it?

DB: So, the UN forecasting model inputs three things: fertility rates, migration rates, and death rates. It doesn’t take into account the expansion of education for females or the speed of urbanization (which are in some ways linked). The UN says they’re already baked into the numbers. But when I went and interviewed [the demographer] Wolfgang Lutz in Vienna, which was one of the first things we did, he walked me through his projections, and I walked out of the room gobsmacked. All he was doing was adding one new variable to the forecast: the level of improvement in female education. And he comes up with a much lower number for global population in 2100, somewhere between 8 billion and 9 billion.

JI: Lutz has this saying that the most important reproductive organ for human beings is your mind. That if you change how someone thinks about reproduction, you change everything. Based on his analysis, the single biggest effect on fertility is the education of women. The UN has a grim view of Africa. It doesn’t predict much change in terms of fertility over the first quarter of the century. But large parts of African are urbanizing at two times the rate of the global average. If you go to Kenya today, women have the same elementary education levels as men. As many girls as boys are sitting for graduation exams. So we’re not prepared to predict that Africa will stagnate in rural poverty for the rest of the century.

DB: And that’s just one cultural variable. So you can say that the old models always worked in the past, but what if the past is not prologue? What if we’re moving into a different cultural moment? What if it’s accelerating? And what if that cultural moment really is about the personal decisions women make about their lives?

JI: We polled 26 countries asking women how many kids they want, and no matter where you go the answer tends to be around two. The external forces that used to dictate people having bigger families are disappearing everywhere. And that's happening fastest in developing countries. In the Philippines, for example, fertility rates dropped from 3.7 percent to 2.7 percent from 2003 to 2018. That's a whole kid in 15 years. In the US, that change happened much more slowly, from about 1800 to the end of the Baby Boom. So that’s the scenario we’re asking people to contemplate.

~ WIRED: OK, but so what though? Why does it matter who’s right or wrong?

DB: A lot of people who are thinking about the future of the world, the future economy, the future of city planning, they’re basing their projections on that future size of the human population. And people are actually making decisions based on this. If you dig in and see that there isn’t going to be a lot of growth of young people coming into the population, a lot of growth is actually going to come from older people hanging around longer because we’re getting better every day at keeping them alive. How does that affect transit decisions in New York City? Or how governments support rural communities that are collapsing at an enormous rate right now. All those decisions are based on having a correct understanding of what our societies will look like in the future.” ~


On the decline in world population — it's almost funny that the agency afforded an educated woman was the 'elephant in the room" the experts couldn't see. It's long been known that the more educated women are, the fewer children they have. They wait longer to marry and later to have children. And of course the economic model that needed large families (to maintain the family farm for instance) has been gone or disappearing for a long time. And even on a short time scale, think of the building of schools to accommodate the baby boom, then continued in supposition of continued growth, but gradually outpacing the needs of smaller numbers of students.

And might not a less densely populated planet allow for a less destructive and better human stewardship? Continuous growth is probably as unwise for population as it is malignant in capitalist enterprise. Continuous growth is after all the essential principle of every cancerous cell.


A planet with fewer people on it would automatically be a healthier planet — with cleaner air and water, more wildlife, and practically everything improved compared to now. I agree that the single most important factor is women’s education. The fact that the authors acknowledge this — based on solid statistics — makes me trust their predictions more than those who simply extrapolate from current figures as if no cultural changes were happening.

On the other hand, I do wonder about that provocative statement that fewer and fewer children will eventually lead to no children at all. There is a certain level of human population that would be in harmony with the planet, once we switch to a sustainable lifestyle. But for educated women with fulfilling professional work to have an incentive to have children — which involves a certain level of sacrifice — I think we’d have to provide quality, totally affordable childcare. We’d have to take seriously the idea that “it takes a village.” And men will have to discover that they enjoy being fathers — which seems to be happening already, be it on a limited scale.

So humanity need not disappear — but it needs to undergo some deep changes. Motherhood should be mainly a joy — though it will never be easy. But when difficulties arise, there will be people to help, places to go. And children given excellent care by the whole community, rather than a single overburdened parent, will be less prone to throw temper tantrums and go off like sirens, screaming for attention — a whimper will be enough to bring an adult’s attention.

What I see now is pets getting lavish affection and the best of diet and care — while the “pet mother” may think nothing of giving her child some junk food just to keep him quiet. To be sure, a kitten can be more cuddly and more fun than a demanding baby with a diaper rash, but ultimately we’ll have to address that too. First, though, preventing a climate disaster, or else all such speculation becomes as ridiculous as Victorian predictions of the wonders of the year 2000. Ridiculous, but most of all tragic.

The human bias is to extrapolate from the known, i.e. from the present. I'm reminded here of an article from 1938 that a student in my high school class brought to school — it somehow got preserved in his family. The subject was “the are of the future.” I remember only one paragraph — it carried on about the importance of cavalry.   

“Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.” ~ Naguib Mahfouz

This really speaks to me. In a way, I was escaping Poland, even though my homesickness later was absolutely genuine — and intense. And speaking of wanting to escape, Milwaukee was the very opposite of home. Los Angeles instantly felt like home, and after a while San Diego “grew on me.” I used to dream of living in Central or Northern California, but — no longer. I'm not attempting to escape anymore.

Funny, you can be “homesick” for somewhere where you used to live (usually where you grew up, but not always), but deep down you know you wouldn't want to stay there. Well, you miss the good parts. That's really the essence of nostalgia. At the same time a little voice in your head warns you that you belong somewhere else, that you “can't go home again.”

One of the places that felt like home: the trails of the Eastern Sierra

– masquerading as Communism, Libertarianism, Socialism, Capitalism, religion, spirituality, whatever – tyrants in one costume insisting they're just trying to protect us from tyrants in another costume.

If there's any lesson of history that we're forced to repeat it's that. And we're forced to repeat it because our fellow citizens won't learn it.

Socialism in Venezuela? No. Tyranny dressed up as socialism.

It's not that all ideologies are oversimplifications though there is that. It's fine to enjoy oversimplified fantasies but when you pretend they're real and justify tyranny, you're stupid at the expense of everyone including yourself and your family.

No ideology has really ever been tried. You have to loosen a system in order to try one and when you do, the tyrants take over.

It's the tyranny, stupid.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


This reminds me of what M. Iossel said: “The Soviet Union was never a Communist country. It was a fascist country.” Here some might argue about the exact meaning of
fascist. But this statement cannot be argued against: “It was a tyranny.”


William Wilberforce was the leading figure in the British abolition of the Slave Trade. He did not succeed in doing it by arguing that it was an humanitarian issue. That failed. The Parliament argued that the slave trade was necessary for the training of sailors who would later be able to serve the British navy. Wilberforce was able to demonstrate that an extraordinary number of sailors died in the slave trade compared to those who served in other shipping activities and that this was a detriment to having able seamen for the Navy. The Slave Trade in Britain did not end until 1808. Some American States abolished Slavery before Britain. (New England, New York, Pennsylvania, the Northwest Territory and the Indiana Territory (these included most of what we call the mid-West.) While Britain banned the slave trade, British merchants continued supplying slaves to France and Spain, by flying the American flag on Slave ships.” ~ E. Margerum


“The Parliament argued that the slave trade was necessary for the training of sailors who would later be able to serve the British navy.” That speaks volumes.


~ “In most histories of how Americans became so polarized, the Great Inflation of the 1970s is given short shrift — sometimes no shrift at all. This is wrong. Inflation was as pivotal a factor in our national crackup as Vietnam and Watergate.

Inflation changed how Americans thought about their economic relationships to their fellow citizens — which is to say, inflation and its associated economic traumas changed who we were as a people. It also called into question the economic assumptions that had guided the country since World War II, opening the door for new assumptions that have governed us ever since. Here is the story:

The United States of the 1960s experienced many social upheavals. But in one realm, all was copacetic. The economy roared. The gross domestic product was increasing between 2 percent and 6 percent, wages grew, jobs were stable. The year 1968 was an annus horribilis — assassinations, riots, a bitter presidential race. But the Economic Report of the President for that year reflected at length on — imagine this — “the problem of prosperity.”

Slowly, though, inflation entered the picture. It hit 5.7 percent in 1970, then 11 percent in 1974. Such sustained inflation was something that had never happened in stable postwar America. And it was punishing. For a family of modest means, a trip to the supermarket was now a walk over hot coals.

How different this was from previous economic crises! The Great Depression, the 20th century’s first economic emergency, made most Americans feel a degree of neighborly solidarity. The government wasn’t measuring median household income in the 1930s, but a 2006 Department of Labor study pegged the average household income of 1934-36 at $1,524. Adjust for inflation to 2018, that’s about $28,000, while the official poverty level for a family of four was $25,100. In other words, the average family of 1936 was near poor. Everyone was in it together, and if Bill couldn’t find work, his neighbor would give him a head of cabbage, a slab of pork belly.

But the Great Inflation, as the author Joe Nocera has noted, made most people feel they had to look out for themselves. Americans had spent decades just getting more and more ahead. Now, suddenly, they were falling behind.

Throw in wage stagnation, which began in the early ’70s, and deindustrialization of the great cities of the North. Pennsylvania’s Homestead Works, which had employed 20,000 men during the war, started shrinking, closing forever in 1986. Today that tract of land along the Monongahela River where the works once stood is home to the usual chain restaurants and big-box stores, those ubiquitous playpens of the low-wage economy.

Inflation also produced the manic search for “yield” — it was no longer enough to save money; your money had to make money, turning every wage earner into a player in market rapaciousness. The money market account was born in the 1970s. Personal investing took off (remember “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”?).

Even as Americans scrambled for return, they also sought to spend. Credit cards, which had barely existed in 1970, began to proliferate. The Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Marquette National Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corporation opened the floodgates for banks to issue credit cards with high interest rates. Total credit card balances began to explode.

Then along came Ronald Reagan. The great secret to his success was not his uncomplicated optimism or his instinct for seizing a moment. It was that he freed people of the responsibility of introspection, released them from the guilt in which liberalism seemed to want to make them wallow. And so came the 1980s, when the culture started to celebrate wealth and acquisition as never before. A television series called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” debuted in 1984.

So that was the first change flowing from the Great Inflation: Americans became a more acquisitive — bluntly, a more selfish — people. The second change was far more profound.

For decades after World War II, the economic assumptions that undergirded policymaking were basically those of John Maynard Keynes. His “demand side” theories — increase demand via public investment, even if it meant running a short-term deficit — guided the New Deal, the financing of the war and pretty much all policy thinking thereafter. And not just among Democrats: Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were Keynesians.

There had been a group of economists, mostly at the University of Chicago and led by Milton Friedman, who dissented from Keynes. They argued against government intervention and for lower taxes and less regulation. As Keynesian principles promoted demand side, their theories promoted the opposite: supply side.

They’d never won much of an audience, as long as things were working. But now things weren’t, in a big way. Inflation was Keynesianism’s Achilles’ heel, and the supply-siders aimed their arrow right at it. Reagan cut taxes significantly. Inflation ended (which was really the work of Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve). The economy boomed. Economic debate changed; even the way economics was taught changed.

And this, more or less, is where we’ve been ever since. Yes, we’ve had two Democratic presidents in that time, both of whom defied supply-side principles at key junctures. But walk down a street and ask 20 people a few questions about economic policy — I bet most will say that taxes must be kept low, even on rich people, and that we should let the market, not the government, decide on investments. Point to the hospital up the street and tell them that it wouldn’t even be there without the millions in federal dollars of various kinds it takes in every year, and they’ll mumble and shrug.

There are signs this mind-set is changing. The Trump tax cut of 2017 is consistently unpopular. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, speaks of a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent on income over $10 million, and instead of getting laughed out of town, she prompts a serious public debate.

Still, we have a long way to go. Dislodging 40-year-old assumptions is a huge job. The Democrats, for starters, have to develop and defend a plausible alternative theory of growth.

But others have a responsibility here too — notably, our captains of commerce. They have enormous power, and in a country this polarized, they can move moderate and maybe even conservative public opinion in a way that Democratic politicians, civic leaders and celebrities cannot.

They will always be rich. But they have to decide what kind of country they want to be rich in. A place of more and more tax cuts for them, where states keep slashing their higher-education spending and tuitions keep skyrocketing; where the best job opportunity in vast stretches of America is selling opioids; where many young people no longer believe in capitalism and record numbers of them would leave this country if they could? Or a country more like the one they and their parents grew up in, where we invested in ourselves and where work produced a fair and livable wage?
The Great Inflation was an inflection point that changed us for the worse. This moment can be another such point, but one that will change us for the better.” ~\


~ “In 1999, while contemplating a presidential bid on the Reform Party ticket, Trump proposed a one-time 14.25 percent tax on those with over $10 million in wealth in order to entirely wipe out the national debt.

"By my calculations, 1 percent of Americans, who control 90 percent of the wealth in this country, would be affected by my plan,” Trump said at the time, sounding very much like Warren does today.

Trump has long since abandoned that idea, focusing instead on wedge issues like immigration.” ~ 


Symbol of America: Statue of Liberty
Symbol of Trumpland: the Wall

~ M. Iossel


“A country’s  success isn’t measured in the wealth of a few, but in the fewness of those struggling to have a decent life.” ~ Edward Margerum

~ “We see this all the time. People seemingly voting against their own self-interests: poor people supporting a candidate who is owned by the rich or immigrants who support an anti-immigrant candidate, for example. What is some of the psychology behind supporting a leader who doesn’t represent an individual’s interests?

Ethicist and leadership scholar, Joanne Ciulla, in a recent address at the International Studying Leadership Conference, suggested that some groups, frustrated by a lack of jobs and financial resources, may feel a sense of resentment against those who are better off. This creates a “have-nots” versus “haves” mentality. If one candidate appears to represent the “haves” or the “establishment,” or even the status quo, people feeling resentment may automatically gravitate toward the candidate who offers change, or the candidate who claims to represent the “have-nots.”

According to Ciulla, drawing on Ruth Capriles book, Leadership by Resentment, poor, working-class whites have become deeply frustrated and resentful. They perceive that social programs don’t help them as much as they help (and are targeted toward), ethnic minorities. In addition, white males from this group may resent recent advancements by women and therefore turned against candidate Hillary Clinton. According to Capriles, resentment is a powerful force in those who feel disenfranchised, and fuels other acts against one’s own self-interests, including suicide bombings and shootings, and support for toxic dictators.

In the U.S. Presidential election, two other psychological processes come into play: (1) the limitations caused by a two-party system; and (2) the we-they feeling (or in-group, out-group bias).

The only real solution is good leadership: leadership that works to reduce resentment by providing for basic needs, treating all constituents fairly (being the leader of all of the people), and fighting against the pernicious in-group, out-group bias by focusing on our shared identity as Americans. I know this is not easy but it seems the only way forward.” ~


It's no use offering a way out of poverty to people who refuse to believe they are experiencing poverty, even if their poverty is a statistical fact.

I have no data on this, but I believe this is at least one driver of the phenomenon of lower-income voters appearing to support fiscally regressive policies, especially in America. They are engaging in a kind of aspirational politics, voting for the interests of the people they want to be rather than the people they actually are.

Another comment:

The resentment these people feel also makes them susceptible to negative propaganda. They like hearing that things are bad everywhere and someone is to blame more than they want to a knowledge a problem and work toward a solution. The party currently in power has mastered this technique and this is why they target mostly white people. White people feel resentment because they feel they should be doing better than they are. Enter the current administration and their obsession with how the other (mostly brown) people are hurting the country and there you have it. Their biases are officially played on.


All of this may be true — “aspirational politics” sounds especially convincing — but in my observation the best predictor is the level of education. Next is urban versus rural, and having traveled/lived abroad. But those things often go together: the more educated tend to live in cities and to travel abroad.

“We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” ~ Aesop (621 BC - 564 BC)

Aesop. Cast in Pushkin Museum from original in Art Collection of Villa Albani, Roma


~ “Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded.

Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product.
For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable:

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.

The presence of mythic tropes or legendary elements in the gospel stories has been broadly accepted and documented, while the imprint of any actual man who may have provided a historical kernel — how he may have lived, what he may have said, and how he died — is more hazy than most people dream.” ~

Fra Angelico, Madonna of the Humility, c. 1430. Baby J doesn't look like a baby, much less a newborn, but rather as an awkwardly shrunken miniature adult. Babies have different proportions. I wonder: up to a certain time, was it considered disrespectful to paint a baby Jesus who looked like a real baby? Or for Mary to hold her child, as any mother would, rather than cross her arms high on her chest (presumably a gesture of piety)?

Paul was fixated on the imminent second coming and the promise of immortality — in a perfect “spirit body” rather than as a resurrected corpse. When Paul wrote his epistles, the Nativity story didn’t yet exist. Likewise many teachings (or what we’ve come to accept as such) are not relevant to the second coming. Even if Paul was familiar with some of them, they simply didn’t especially interest him. He was obsessed with preparing for the imminent coming of the  “kingdom of heaven.”

Now, just because something is a fiction (or call it a myth, or a legend) doesn’t mean it has no value. The nativity story is heart-warming and easily understood: a child is born in a barn — “because there was no room for them at the inn” — presumably with animals looking on. Whether it’s “mythologized history” or “historicized mythology” is besides the point when it comes to the emotional appeal of the kind of love that’s universally understood: a new baby, the loving, protective parents, gifts for the baby, the angels singing, the shepherds kneeling, and even the animals appearing to be affectionately curious.

By the way, Mary and Joseph (Miriam and Yosef) were not likely the real names of the parents (assuming historicity). They were chosen for their special dignity in ancient Judaism — the sister of Moses and a major patriarch. A lot of the details in the gospels seem to have been chosen so as to fit in with established Judaism, e.g. you flee to Egypt (even though the Slaughter of the Innocents never took place), and then you come out of Egypt — just to repeat the sanctified pattern.

Caravaggio: Rest on the Flight from Egypt, 1597


1. Handgrip Strength

You know your grandpa with the vice grip for a handshake? Or that old lady who simply would not give up her hold on those plush towels last Black Friday at the Walmart despite you yanking her around like a rag doll? They’ll probably live a long time.

In middle-aged and elderly people, grip strength consistently predicts mortality risk from all causes. It’s even better than blood pressure. In older disabled women, grip strength predicts all-cause mortality, even when controlling for disease status, inflammatory load, depression, nutritional status, and inactivity. Poor grip strength is even an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes across all ethnicities.

2. Walking Speed

A few years ago, a study of over 7000 male and 31,000 female recreational walkers found that walking intensity predicted mortality risk. Those who walked the fastest tended to die the least. Now, don’t think you can consciously speed walk your way past a hundred. Researchers in the study were looking at the natural walking speed of frequent walkers. What the study tracked and linked to lifespan was the natural walking speed of the participants. They had no idea they’d be graded.

A more recent study found that rapid declines in walking speed also predicted death. Some clinicians find so much value in walking speed that they even use it as a “sixth vital sign.”

3. Facial Appearance

Several studies indicate that the perceived “age of the face” is a better predictor of mortality risk than objective health markers, actual age, or cognitive function. More objective measurements of aesthetic age, like wrinkling in areas unexposed to the sun, also predict longevity.

4. Subjective Opinion Of One’s Quality Of Life

If you’re happy with your physical and psychological health, social relationships, and your immediate environment, you may live longer. Having a poor opinion of your current lot in life may have the opposite effect. Even when those subjective opinions are compared to objective measurements of your health, your relationships, and your environment, subjective outlook is a better predictor of lifespan.

5. Muscle

Lean muscle mass is a metabolic reservoir for healthy aging. Skeletal muscle produces important proteins and metabolites that regulate recovery from trauma and injury. The more you have, the better you’ll recover from surgeries, burns, falls, breaks, punctures, and damage. The more muscle you start with, the more you can spare to wasting and the better you’ll bounce back from bed rest and other forms of forced inactivity. Expression of klotho, the “longevity protein,” is even strongly dependent on the strength of one’s skeletal muscle.

6. Life Purpose

This was a little surprising. We often think of the hard-working entrepreneur burning the candle at both ends, falling apart at the seams, health suffering just to pursue and achieve the goals. But the actual evidence refutes this.

7. Intelligence

Intelligent people live longer. Across any and all causes of mortality, having a higher IQ confers protection.

Some point to the quicker reaction times that also accompany higher IQs. If you’re smarter, you’ll probably have an extra fraction of a second to swerve out of the big rig’s path and avoid a fatal collision. This is certainly part of it, but a faster reaction time can’t explain the protection intelligence confers against all-cause mortality.

Others attribute the all-encompassing protection to the intelligent decisions, healthy behaviors, and prudent practices smart people make and follow (PDF). The smarter you are, the less likely you are to smoke, not exercise, or think fast food is okay to eat for dinner every day of the week.

8. White Blood Cell Count

White blood cells, or leukocytes, are the primary agents of our immune system. They battle pathogens, infections, and foreign invaders. Many diseases are associated with white blood cell deficiencies, so it seems like healthier, longer-lived people would have high leukocyte counts. Right?

No. Actually, leukocyte counts on the lower end of normal predict longevity. That only seems to be true in healthy men and women. It’s unlikely to persist in unhealthy or immunocompromised populations who actually need the white blood cells to stave off causes of. In the healthy folks, a low-normal WBC count indicates a low disease burden.

9. Autophagy

Autophagy is cellular maintenance. It’s how our cells recycle waste material, eliminate inefficiencies, and repair themselves. It’s required to maintain muscle mass as we age, and inhibiting it induces age-related atrophy of adult skeletal muscle. It reduces the negative effects of aging and reduces the incidence and progression of aging-related diseases. In fact, researchers have determined that autophagy is the essential aspect of the anti-aging mechanism of fasting. “Aging” only occurs when cellular autophagy fails, or reduces. People who live past 100 have higher levels of the primary autophagy biomarker, meaning their cells are maintaining themselves longer and retarding the aging process.

This is something you can directly control. Fasting, ketosis, caloric restriction, exercise, and dietary polyphenols all trigger autophagy, and they’re all likely to improve longevity.

10. How Much Broccoli and Indian Food You Eat

I’m kind of kidding, but not really. Maybe the most important anti-aging pathway in the body is Nrf2. Activating Nrf2 unleashes many antioxidant pathways, increases glutathione, and has been shown to trigger the “anti-aging phenotype” in animal studies. Foods in the brassica family, which includes broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, all contain sulforaphane, a potent Nrf2 activator. Another Nrf2 activator is curcumin, found in turmeric, the primary spice in Indian curries.

If I’m being safe, these are merely descriptive. People who already have these attributes, biomarkers, and tendencies are more likely to live longer than those who do not. But if I’m engaging in educated speculation, many are also prescriptive. Lifting weights, going for walks, finding a life purpose, improving your day-to-day quality of life, eating more antioxidant-rich food (including broccoli and turmeric), triggering autophagy through fasting or occasional bouts of caloric restriction and ketosis—these are all good, healthy practices that should pay off.


Olive oil and MCT oil (medium-chain triglycerides from coconut oil) both enhance autophagy. Finding a purpose in life and consuming liberal amounts of the right oils (but don’t overdo it — oils tend to have a laxative effect) — yes, that’s the ticket. Or at least the start of one.

Forget excess protein — what Atkins didn’t realize was that it gets turned into glucose. Only fat cannot be turned into glucose. Note the growing popularity of the keto diet (Atkins did write about a fat-based diet, but his emphasis was on protein).

Fermented products are also highly recommended. Keep your microbes happy, and they will keep you happy and disease resistant.


ending on beauty:

some nights you are the lighthouse
some nights the sea
what this means is that I don’t know
desire other than the need
to be shattered and rebuilt

~ Ocean Vuong, My Father Writes from Prison

No comments:

Post a Comment